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Internet Sparks Outpouring of Instant Donations

By Jerry Markon and Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page A01

Faced with searing images of suffering and grief in South Asia, Americans are finding an instantaneous way to reach out to tsunami victims: on their home computers.

As never before, people are turning to the Internet to donate money, the latest step in a revolution that has altered everything from shopping to presidential campaigns.

"This is like 1951, when television really took off,'' Paul Saffo, director of the Silicon Valley-based Institute for the Future, said yesterday. "We are in the middle of a fundamental shift from mass media to the personal media of computers and the Internet, and charitable giving is a logical progression.''

At Amazon.com alone, more than 53,000 people had donated more than $3 million by yesterday evening after the company made an urgent appeal on its home page. Catholic Relief Services was so overwhelmed with Web traffic that its site crashed. Online donations to the Red Cross outstripped traditional phone banks by more than 2 to 1.

The online generosity was a key part of a massive U.S. response to the crisis in South Asia. From neighborhood coffee shops to large corporations, hundreds of thousands of people donated millions of dollars and a variety of goods. The relief effort ran the gamut from a tavern in Georgetown promoting a New Year's Eve bash called "Celebrate and Donate" to a San Jose coffee shop giving away free beans to anyone who donated $10.

"Online, by phone, the mail," marveled Steven Gotfried, a spokesman for Washington-based B'nai B'rith International, which has been overwhelmed with offers of support. "Every two or three minutes, we get a donation. People are really giving from the heart."

Much of that giving came from people sitting at their computers. That has happened before, primarily after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But relief officials said the scale of online giving has grown dramatically since then.

As of Tuesday, for example, 25,000 people had visited RedCross.org to pledge money to aid the tsunami victims. During the same period, about 9,000 people called the donor line, officials said.

Donations after Sunday's calamity in South Asia are already outpacing those after other disasters. From Aug. 13 to 23, the Red Cross estimated that it received $19 million in pledges for victims of Hurricane Charley. As of noon yesterday, the Red Cross had received $18 million for tsunami victims.

"Technology has had a huge impact on our ability to disseminate information about what we're doing," said Red Cross spokeswoman Kara Bunte."The support has been overwhelming, amazing."

Relief officials say money, rather than clothing or food, is the fastest way to get help to affected countries.

"Sending supplies at this point is not going to make much difference," said Nadadur Vardhan, president of the Hindu Temple Society of Southern California. The temple is anticipating nearly 20,000 people at a New Year's prayer service that has been reorganized as a massive fundraiser for victims. Most of the temple's members have family or friends in India who were affected by the disaster.

The instant-response capabilities of the Internet, combined with a desire to reach out to bigger audiences, prompted a slew of companies to encourage donations on their own high-traffic Web sites.

The Internet search engine Google posted a link on its home page that offered "Ways to help with tsunami relief.'' Another click brought users to a screen with links to relief agencies ranging from Unicef and Oxfam to the Amazon.com home page.

On America Online's start page, subscribers yesterday found links to donate to disaster relief funds through Network for Good -- a Web-based nonprofit founded in 2001 by AOL, Cisco Systems and Yahoo.

"We're trying to put this in front of members in multiple ways to hopefully encourage donations," said Nicholas J. Graham, spokesman for AOL, which is donating $200,000 through the American Red Cross and will also match the first $50,000 that AOL employees give.

A recent survey conducted by Network for Good said online charitable giving grew last year to approximately $2 billion.

For small relief agencies, the Internet has become a vital component in the drive to solicit funds. It is especially critical in disasters such as Sunday's earthquake and tsunami, when money and help are needed immediately.

Unlike bigger groups, "we don't have a huge fundraising apparatus or staff. We don't have sophisticated appeals going out of phone banks,'' said Nancy Aossey, president and chief executive of International Medical Corps. The Los Angles-based humanitarian relief and development agency has been providing crisis care in Indonesia since 2000.

Aossey said much of the $160,000 the corps has raised has been through its Web site. One man donated $5,000 online after reading about the group in a newspaper.

In the world of fundraising, Aossey added, the Internet is "the great equalizer."

At Seattle-based Amazon.com, a group of employees decided to do something to help the tsunami victims. So dozens of workers, some of them originally from the affected areas in Asia, toiled through the night to rejigger Amazon.com's Web site. The large posting centered at the top of the site prominently features the American Red Cross symbol and a link for people to donate to the relief effort.

"It definitely came as a groundswell from our employees,'' said Amazon.com spokesman Craig Berman. "As soon as it went up, we started seeing donations kick in. It was virtually instantaneous."

The only other time Amazon.com made a similar posting was after Sept. 11, when it raised more than $6.8 million.

Staff writer Mike Musgrove and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report from Washington. Special correspondent Kimberly Edds contributed from Los Angeles.

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