With click of a mouse, Haiti aid grows

Online, text giving fuels record fundraising — more than $380 million

January 25, 2010|By Matthew Hay Brown | matthew.brown@baltsun.com

Two weeks after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince, U.S. relief organizations in Baltimore and beyond have collected more than $380 million for Haiti, an outpouring of support unprecedented for a foreign disaster.

With the images from Haiti still dominating news coverage and advances in technology allowing more ways to give, fundraising for Haiti has more than doubled the record pace set in the days following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported Friday. Given economic conditions at home, relief officials say, the response has been remarkable.

"It's clear that people are rising to sacrifice," said Mark Melia, deputy vice president for charitable giving at Catholic Relief Services, which is headquartered in Baltimore. "People are making large gifts that are not easy to make."

And it appears to be just the beginning. The bulk of the early money is coming in through Web sites, text messages and other electronic transfers; Melia and his counterparts at other organizations expect the numbers to rise as donors respond to direct-mail appeals - still the most popular way to contribute.

"Most of our donors give through the mail," said Daniel Lee, director of marketing at Lutheran World Relief, also based in Baltimore. "We sent out an appeal immediately following the announcement of the earthquake, and we anticipate that those donations will start coming in the next few days."

The amount collected by 35 U.S. nonprofits through Friday, as tallied by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, is more than double the $163 million donated at a similar stage after the tsunami. It does not include the more than $57 million raised for the American Red Cross, UNICEF and other nonprofits during the celebrity-studded Hope for Haiti telethon Friday night - itself a record for a disaster relief fundraiser, organizers said.

Fundraising for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast hit $580 million eight days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a domestic calamity that unleashed what is still the greatest outpouring of private support in American history. Haiti is setting new standards for a foreign disaster.

Douglas Bright credits technology. Bright, vice president for institutional advancement at IMA World Health, which is shipping medical supplies to Haiti, said online fundraising at the New Windsor-based nonprofit is responsible for the difference between fundraising for the earthquake and for the tsunami.

"People were buying and selling on the Web five years ago, but nothing like you see today," he said. "It's just a whole different level of comfort."

Melia says there's also new ways of connecting.

"Social media is really in a different place," he said. "We've been communicating significantly via Facebook and Twitter, and we've seen our number of fans on Facebook and the number of followers on Twitter increase significantly - more than 50 percent for both. And we started doing cell phone text fundraising, and we've gotten approaching 5,000 gifts via cell texts. So it is really a more electronic fundraising world, and we expect those trends will continue."

The American Red Cross has drawn notice by raising more than $27 million on $10 donations from cell phone users texting "Haiti" to 90999. The organization led all U.S. nonprofits in total fundraising with $153 million as of Friday, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Locally, CRS, the relief and development agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has set the pace with $23.1 million as of Sunday. That total, which was ahead of the $21.6 million the agency raised at the same point after the tsunami, does not include receipts from a special collection taken at Catholic churches throughout the country on the weekend after the quake.

Melia sees ties between the United States and Haiti, which has strong expatriate communities in Miami, New York and Boston, as another factor boosting fundraising. Here, CRS enjoys an advantage: 80 percent of Haitians are Catholic, and the U.S. church has strong connections with the island - such as the sister relationship between the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Diocese of Gonaïves, where Maryland Catholics support the Cardinal William H. Keeler Trade School and two others, and feed 15,000 children a day.

CRS, which has worked in Haiti since the 1950s, had more than 300 employees there before the earthquake, staffing the organization's largest operation in Latin America. Joined since the quake by senior staff and technical experts flown in from Baltimore and around the world, they have helped to turn the golf course at the Petionville Club into a camp for the displaced and delivered medical supplies to the St. François de Sales hospital in Port-au-Prince.

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