Safety 'net

Facebook meets pocketbook on a Baltimore-based Web site that matches donors to stories of need

May 09, 2007|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,sun reporter

Montgomery Wallis of Sumter, S.C., hasn't spent a day out of the hospital since being born prematurely in March. He weighed 1 pound, 11 ounces at birth, and since then his feeble body has often been covered with crisscrossing wires and ridged tubing. You cannot look at his eyes without wondering if there's something you could do to help.

Which may be why people are donating hundreds of dollars for his medical care on a Web site called RealityCharity.com.

They're also giving to Christy Gervais, who requested $1,660 to cover back rent she owed after her family left the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Rita destroyed their home and she lost her job. She received all of it in one day from Teresa Mayer of Oakland, Calif., who wrote "keep going" on Gervais' donors page.

And also to Anne Campbell of Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada, whose entry on the Web site asks for $5,000 for dental repairs so she can take pictures at her June wedding "showing a beautiful, healthy smile."

Web sites like the Baltimore-based RealityCharity.com are infusing age-old philanthropy with the modern social-networking techniques that have made YouTube, My Space and Facebook so popular.

"This is 2007. There's a Web site for everything," said RealityCharity.com's founder, Alexander Blass, 32, of Fells Point. "This is the new way to give. It's gratifying. It's personal. It's community-oriented. It's a viral-giving platform, because it's contagious in a sense."

Some of the donors say they prefer giving this way because they can see their gift going directly to someone in need, even if they can't write the donation off on their taxes. (The RealityCharity.com site points out that donations made to individuals are not tax-deductible.) Even some established nonprofits, to which contributions are tax deductible, pay to host fundraisers on the site because it lowers administrative costs, they say.

"People respond to compelling stories, not necessarily cold data and facts but personal stories about people," said Anne Glauber, executive vice president for Ruder Finn, a global public-relations firm that has worked with philanthropic groups. "What that Web site is doing is offering a potpourri of stories that affect our heartstrings, and we emotionally respond. And you're able to establish relationships with someone, which is what so many people want to do on the Internet."

Many traditional charitable organizations raise money on the Internet, but RealityCharity.com is part of a wave of so-called e-philanthropy that has raised a few eyebrows.

"I would be extremely careful of this type of arrangement because it makes it easy for a donor to be defrauded," said H. Art Taylor, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance. "We're going to have to see how this new approach to philanthropy works out. We're going to have to monitor it and hear from people who have used this type of service before we're in a position to say that this is a better way of doing things than we have [done] in the past."

Since its April 2 launch, RealityCharity.com has received more than 1.3 million hits and more than 300,000 page views. Though registration for individuals is free and not required, the site has more than 1,000 registered users. Scores of donors have given anywhere from the minimum $10 to more than $1,000. The average donation is about $50.

Nonprofit organizations must pay a fee to hold fundraisers online: $995 for one year, $595 for six months. Already, more than 400 organizations and individuals have conducted fundraisers on the site.

"I feel fundraising on the site is one of the best investments I've made, running an organization on a shoestring budget," said John Sakacs of the Los Angeles-area-based Kids & Fishing Inc., which gets urban kids involved in caring for the environment.

The eBay model

The site conducts identification verification through the consumer-credit-reporting agency Equifax. Donations are made via credit card or PayPal account, the payment system used for many eBay transactions. In some ways, the mechanism resembles the eBay model: Users take a little leap of faith that the seller of something - or a personal story - is on the up and up.

Blass said he believes that the bulk of the giving on Reality Charity.com so far comes from the recipient's friends and family, who tell others in their circles, creating a viral effect of giving that stems mainly from those who can vouch for the recipient.

"Our most successful fund-raisers are not those reaching out to complete strangers first, then sitting back and expecting a large response. Though heartwarming when it occurs, that is not any more realistic en masse in the online world than the offline world," Blass wrote in an e-mail last week.

"When being referred by a mutual friend you have known for 10 years, or a friend of a friend, any questions of fund-raiser credibility are immediately eliminated and the results are very powerful."

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