technology: Charity Begins Online

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Nonprofit organizations are discovering scores of socially conscious surfers waiting for e-charity to catch up with e-commerce.

'Tis the season for sweet charity, whether that means digging deep into your pockets for the Salvation Army kettle or just picking up an extra Furby to drop in the Toys for Tots box. But charity can also begin at home, via your computer. Being able to make a donation to your favorite cause via the Web may soon be as easy as buying the latest Grisham novel from Amazon.com.

The potential for giving to charities online is huge, but still largely untapped, according to a recent study released by CMS Interactive, a division of Craver, Mathews, Smith & Co., a direct marketing and fundraising firm based in Arlington, Virginia. The study reports that 25 percent of American adults are both online and say they give time or money to social causes. That translates into some 50 million people. Of that group, two-thirds (66 percent) say that they've heard little or nothing from charities about opportunities to take action online; 56 percent have never visited the Web site of a charity; and only about 7 percent say they have given online.

It's not for lack of interest, though. Eight percent said they would be willing to make a donation to a charity or public-interest group over the Internet, according to the study, and twice as many would take an online action, such as sending an e-mail to a public official.

This universe of potential givers isn't your ordinary bunch of social activists, either. They are younger and more politically diverse than their direct-mail counterparts. The average age of the online user with donor potential is just 42, compared to 66 for the average direct-mail donor, according to Mellman Group and Hart surveys cited by the CMS study. Moreover, socially engaged Internet users are almost evenly divided between liberals (43 percent) and conservatives (44 percent), while snail-mail donors are overwhelmingly liberal (74 percent).

There are other differences among charitable Internet users. Senior Web surfers mirror direct-mail donors in that they tend to be more liberal, says Natasha van Bentum, director of planned giving for Greenpeace Canada. The estimated 22 million seniors aged 50 and older online in North America represent a vast, untapped market of highly educated, affluent households. Van Bentum runs a Web site called SeniorsInCyberspace.org, which serves as a guide for gift planners on seniors' use of the Internet. It is meant as a wake-up call to others in the planned-giving field, she says. "Web-based nonprofits should have an engaging Web site, but they should also be able to use it as a portal - a door to open up [the potential of] donors who are self-identifying as gift-planning prospects," she stresses.

Whether nonprofits are prospecting for bequests or just small donations to help victims of the latest natural disaster, few are maximizing the potential offered by the Internet to process donations online, most experts agree. Nationwide, only 1.2 percent of contributors to charities reported giving online, according to a recent survey by Washington, D.C.-based Independent Sector, a national philanthropic leadership forum.

Part of the problem for at least one charity, the United Way, stems from technology itself. The organization's strength in the past came from workplace-generated donations. But changes in the corporate environment, from the growth of telecommuting to companies' growing reliance on contract workers, have left the charity struggling adapt its past approaches to more direct-to-consumer strategies, notes John McNutt, assistant professor of social work at Boston College's Graduate School of Social Work, who has conducted an empirical study on the subject.

Even heavy-hitters like the Salvation Army have yet to make much use of the Web for fundraising. "We're seriously considering it as an important tool of the future," says Captain Ed Loomis, assistant national community relations and development secretary for the Salvation Army's national headquarters. "But we need to make sure that we take the right direction and do the right thing with the funds entrusted to us."

For now, interested donors call a toll-free number or send a donation via snail mail to their local territory. But such retro-marketing might actually be hard to beat, says Neal Denton, executive director of the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers. "The single, only best way to reach constituents is through direct mail," Denton claims. "You have to send a personalized appeal, and no one has found a way to do that that matches what you can do through direct mail."

That hasn't daunted the American Diabetes Association, however. Its Web site can be customized by visitors (and potential donors) - an approach that has increased users' interest in the site, as well as in the organization, according to Kathy Lowe, national director of online services for the ADA. Visitors register to receive customized content, such as information and research updates on Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, general information for those at risk for the disease, headlines and links to news articles, and recipes and nutritional columns. Health professionals may opt to receive the latest clinical practice recommendations and information on diabetes from medical journals. The site's content is further personalized according to each visitor's profile, she notes. A user who indicates an interest in nutrition, for example, might get recipes and an offer for a cookbook, while another visitor might get updates on the ADA's programs and upcoming events. Donations, though, are marketed to everyone, Lowe points out. The result? The organization has doubled its online donations and increased book sales since the customization option went into effect in November 1998.

Elsewhere on the Web, the immediacy and news value of major disasters gives some fundraisers a way to leapfrog over such relationship-building techniques. "We started taking online donations via credit card at the end of 1997," says Megan Meyer, Web site manager for CARE. "It started out pretty slow, but when Hurricane Mitch hit in November '98, we saw a real surge" amounting to about $100,000 in relief funds raised online. The following March, CARE raised three times that amount on its Web site for Kosovo crisis relief. In addition to taking online credit-card donations, users can see a toll-free number and mailing address, along with a form that can be printed out and mailed in. Meyer is unable to say how many donors opting to use such traditional methods actually originated from CARE's Web site. Visitors to the site can also register their e-mail addresses to receive information and updates on their choice of topics, from breaking relief emergencies and contribution opportu! nities to new site additions.

One virtual avenue that many nonprofits have explored in order to raise donations is through online charity auctions. Although the potential for such auctions to move merchandise and raise awareness of a cause is great, online benefit auctions are still in their infancy, says Jay Fiske, president of Maestrosoft.com, an online auction software provider and consultant. "There's a lot of room for improvement in the whole process," he says. The problem, he adds, is that Internet bidders come into an online auction - either for profit or charity - with a bargain-hunting mentality. "People tend to be more generous in person, because it's public and their friends can see them raise their card. In the online world, the attitude is not so much giving, as how little can I give to get away with this [item]," he points out.

In other words, the focus for online shoppers is the goods, rather than the cause. Since buyers aren't paying the top prices they'd shell out in the real world, charities holding auctions online are actually forced to procure more items to sell than they would for a real-life charity event in order to raise the same amount of money. In some cases, though, charities already have been able to collect more than they can sell. So online sales help pare down the offerings. But overall, notes Fiske, "Online auctions are where charity banquet auctions were 20 or 30 years ago, as far as extracting a philanthropic attitude."

So for now, until those 50 million socially engaged Internet users start putting their money where their mouse is, nonprofits will have to scrape up one more autographed Mark McGwire bat, and hope that the bidding heats up.

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