Web Proves Vital in Katrina Relief Effort
As federal and state officials faced criticism about response time in the days following Hurricane Katrina, donations streamed into nonprofits, and individuals fundraised for relief efforts in record amounts at an unprecedented pace.
Maj. George Hood, secretary of community relations and development for the Salvation Army, says that organization processed $28 million in 10 days over the Internet alone.
The immediate and organized response of many nonprofits is evidence of lessons learned after the devastating tsunami that struck Southeast Asia early last year, according to Harry Gruber, CEO of Kintera, a San Diego-based provider of software services to nonprofits such as UNICEF USA, AmeriCares and the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund.
“In this case we saw a much more sophisticated customer base that was really, I wouldn’t say self-sufficient, but much more engaged and proactive, and we found ourselves, for the most part, more in the supportive role,” Gruber says. “[It] was very exciting to us that [nonprofits] had learned from past fundraising and knew what they had to do.”
Week of Compassion, the relief and development fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada, is one of many faith-based organizations that have turned to the Internet to help in hurricane-relief efforts, and it chose Constant Contact e-mail alerts to keep congregants updated on how they could respond.
The organization saw e-mail click-through rates rise from 4.5 percent to 39 percent the week following the hurricane, says Doug Smith, who handles Week of Compassion’s Web site.
Nonprofits weren’t the only ones rallying for funds. Mark Sutton, CEO of Justgiving USA, an online service that helps individuals fundraise for charitable causes online by setting up personal fundraising pages, notes that even before the hurricane hit Louisiana, one person had set up a Web page calling for donations of food. Less than two weeks after the hurricane, the Web page had raised $9,600.
But not everything was glitch free. Hood says the Salvation Army saw heavy activity on the Internet within 48 hours of Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast and released an Internet campaign driving people to a donation page on its Web site shortly thereafter. Despite a server expansion after the donor rush following Sept. 11, the site wasn’t equipped to handle the amount of traffic it received, causing it to move slowly and forcing the organization to add five servers to its network — what Hood calls a “Band-Aid fix.”
“If you go on our Web site to make a donation, you’re now getting options for different servers in different parts of the country, which is not real smart business for Internet fundraising at all. But it’s getting us through, and people are being patient and using the system as it is,” Hood says. “But we know when this is all over, that we’ve got to re-examine our ability to respond quickly to massive disasters like this.”
Gruber says nonprofits are building their sites in advance of a hurricane hitting, and launching them once they confirm there’s a need.