Online Fundraising Resources Center


September 11 Reflections

by Adam Corson-Finnerty

Posted to CYBERGIFTS, October 1, 2001
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The charitable response to the September 11th disasters has been truly stunning. Almost any figure I use will be superseded, but the numbers are already so amazing that we know we are looking a seminal event in American charitable giving.

As of September 30, 2001, more than $675 million has been raised or committed. Large companies have pledged over $120 million. The Red Cross alone has raised over $200 million, and $60 million of that came from online gifts. These online gifts poured in so fast that several dot.coms stepped in to help balance the load (Yahoo, Amazon, and others). The movement to online giving was so massive that for the first time, online gifts to the Red Cross outnumbered 800-number gifts.

Mark that fact.

"Clearly, the power of the Internet is huge," commented a Red Cross spokesperson in the New York Times (9/26/01). Well, yes. We knew this was coming. Not the disaster, but the shift to the Internet as the preferred method for getting things done -- even, and especially, very important things -- like letting a loved one know that you are OK when the phones have all gone haywire.

I am writing this piece as an initial contribution to our discussion on Cybergifts. I don't want to give it the "article" treatment, complete with footnotes and pass-it-on requirements. Perhaps that will come later. For now, my figures come mainly from the New York Times and the Chronicle of Philanthropy online. (And, by the way, the Chron is doinga magnificent job of following this story: )There are a number of lessons to be learned from the charitable response to this event. I will suggest a few and I would be interested in hearing from others.

First of all, Internet giving has "arrived." The experimentation of the past five years-no single part of which had yet "paid off" in a compelling way-that gestational effort came together as a latticework of giving began to form. To see it in action, simply go to, an umbrella donation site put together in a flash by AOL, eBay and others. Or note that the Salvation Army "convinced more than 2,200 high-profile Web sites-including Excite, USA Today, and Yahoo-to run free banner advertisements that link to a fundraising site operated by Yahoo [on their behalf]" (Chron, Oct 4 issue).

To mention another example-the online charitable auction-eBay hasstarted an ambitious drive to raise $100 million, (and quickly got the major credit card companies to waive their processing fees.) I would be astonished if they managed to raise that figure through what is essentially a national charitable yard sale, but these are astonishing times.

So the Internet has arrived, and those of us who have been advocating the use of its tools may no longer have to endure the cynicism (and innovation-drag) of an older generation that kept repeating variations of "show me the money."

However, this does not mean that online giving will now be a snap for the majority of non-profits. Because what we have really seen is proof that during a big event, Big Charity can combine with Big Media to produce remarkable results. CNN and Amazon feed donors and donations to the Red Cross. Libertyunites feeds donors to the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other "name" charities. The major broadcast and cable TV networks team up and produce a telethon/webathon that raises $150 million. So what we are seeing is something that we have seen before: mass audiences delivered to "brand-name" charities.

For large charities, the message is clear. If you don't have a brand strategy, you need to get one. When disaster strikes, you want the public to hit the keyboard or pick up the phone and think "Red Cross."

One interesting sidelight on this is to note who was *not* at the table: the national United Way. This organization is still structured along feudal lines, with the regional United Ways holding the power. United Way of New York was able to step up to the plate with its "September 11th Fund," but there was no national effort that made its way to the homepages and hearts of Americans.

The second observation is that passion makes all the difference in online giving. We saw this occur when people donated online to help with the Balkan crisis, and when people rushed gifts to John McCain after his New Hampshire primary victory. But emotion-driven online giving is almost a species in itself. That is, it has its own rules, its own logic, its own lessons, and what happens in a crisis may not tell us much about other species of online giving. Thus it was wise of the Salvation Army to contact webmasters after the September 11 events, and ask for a donation button as a form of "taking action." It was also wise to borrow an email list of 6 million names and send out an urgent appeal. This was new behavior for the Salvation Army, but it shows that they have learned from watching what happened in earlier disasters.

There may not be many transferable lessons for regular day-to-day fundraising. One of the greatest mistakes that non-profits made when first developing websites was to assume that a "donate" button was all that was needed to start the money rolling in. That has not happened -- in fact, many sites have cost more to maintain than they have brought in through gifts. For most of us, motivation is still the issue.

The one big benefit of this latest surge in online giving is that more and more people are comfortable with making such gifts. It is no longer a "new" behavior, and people who have made their first gift will be much more likely to use this mechanism again.

The real lessons of the September 11th Internet response are not to be found in the success of emotional giving, or the mechanisms by which this was accomplished. The real lessons come from the *other ways* that the Internet was used during this crisis: to communicate, to reach out, to share, to mourn, to memorialize, to praise, to reflect. Tiny communities and huge communities were formed and reformed in kaleidoscopic fashion. Families reached out, alumni groups found out who was missing, old lovers and former spouses got in touch. Companies changed their webpage from a sales vehicle to a communal refuge. I am still gathering examples of this, and will share some thoughts at a future time.


Copyright 2001 by Adam Corson-Finnerty
Development Officer, Author
and Very Occasional Consultant
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