What charities have to offer
Charities make often excellent use of the web to spread their message and reach deeper into donors' pockets. In doing so they are creating not only a new type of charity but are throwing out ideas that can give all organisations food for thought.
|Red Cross||Network for Good|
|MÃ©decins Sans FrontiÃ¨res||Comic Relief|
If you want to check on the realities of day-to-day life in Iraq, may I suggest you try the Red Cross website? It carries a daily Iraq bulletin, which at the beginning of April featured an audio interview with its man in besieged Basra. This is nitty-gritty stuff about water supplies, in far greater detail than could be provided by journalists and, critically, coming from a location they could not reach.
One of the unintended consequences of the web is that charities have become media organisations. The intended consequence of a website – understood by the sector several years ago – is that it allows them to spread their message and, as a result, their reach into our pockets. But it is the knock-on effects, including even the creation of a new type of charity, that are really intriguing.
A world-wide register
One of the more obvious of these effects is that the web lets us see how many charities are out there, and what they do. Go to Network for Good and you get a rather frightening clue: it has details of 850,000 charities in the US. It turns out that each branch gets a listing (there are 115 branches of Ducks Unlimited in Georgia alone), but even so the choice is daunting.
Network for Good does its best to guide us through the philanthropic fog by directing us to charities by subject – War in Iraq and Support Troops Overseas are the headline ones at the moment – and also by classifying charities by what we want to do: donate or volunteer. But it is still hard to filter organisations with any real finesse.
Serious about making a good impression
Instead, I wandered haphazardly between sites. A common feature is that they all take the web seriously – most are good-looking, well-populated and kept up to date, though some seem to stretch the definition of charity. Ducks Unlimited says it is a world leader in wetland conservation, but seems to be more of a lobby group for the duckhunters (“DU supports our troops” is a bit of a giveaway). Whatever, it is an impressive source of information on wetlands, with particularly good support material for teachers (“How long would it take a canvasback duck to fly from your school to your house at 70 mph?”).
Back in more conventional territory, I was continually impressed by the quality and quantity of content. Oxfam and MÃ©decins Sans FrontiÃ¨res join the Red Cross in providing fascinating on-the-spot reports and views. They also keep the spotlight on areas that are off the mainstream media’s radar – Oxfam highlights a briefing paper on education in Niger, for example – and give far greater detail on their activities than they could ever provide in a printed report.
Corporate concerns and the commerce of e-donations
There are parallels with corporate sites. The “volunteer” sections mirror company recruitment zones particularly closely. MSF has case studies (“a surgeon’s story”) and online application forms for each of the skills it is trying to attract. But, also like corporates, these organisations sometimes get confused when tying their international and national bits together. It is easy to get lost clicking around the MSF sites and, having landed in a country site, hard to find the international area again. MSF would also do well to audit the most valuable content on national sites and make it available on all the others: the French site (www.paris.msf.org) sells attractive cards, while the American one (www.doctorswithoutborders.org) has good teacher resources. Again this failure to spread best practice is a common weakness within corporate sites.
In one way, charity sites owe more to e-commerce operations. Most of them take donations online; but unlike retailers they do not have to haul punters in with unbeatable offers. They simple provide a secure donation page and ask for credit card numbers. This is so easy that Comic Relief, the UK charity that runs the annual Red Nose Day, offers a choice between “fast giving” and “leisurely giving” (where you get more detail about where your money is going).
Transparency and trackability
Comic Relief’s belief that people will want to know how their money is spent leads on to a new style of online charity, where the donor is linked directly to a particular project or person. MicroAid has a good-looking and well-organised site that allows you to search out a small scale project that appeals to you, and to fund it. Here, for example, is a scheme to train six families in an Indonesian village in basic business skills so they can make a better living selling peanut snacks. You can see the names and profiles of the people involved – Anah, female, literate – the cost of the training (£87.75) and click to pay with a credit card.
DevelopmentSpace is similar, though it supports larger-scale projects. Here a “funding thermometer” shows us that a child nutrition project in Ghana needs $20,000 and has $2,100 committed so far. Click to contribute – and also to challenge the established charity model. Where will it lead? I don’t know, but it is surely a sign that the charitable web is bursting with ideas and therefore worth watching. By all of us, not just the non-profit sector.
First published on 09 April, 2003