New technology speeds donations for Haiti relief efforts

This gallery collects all of our photos of the crisis in Haiti, starting with the most recent images and going back to the first photos that emerged after an earthquake hit the impoverished nation Jan. 12.
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010

New and easier ways to contribute have helped propel donations for Haiti earthquake relief efforts despite a weak economy, according to officials at a number of aid organizations, some of whom marveled at the volume of donations tweeted and texted from cellphones.

On Thursday, the American Red Cross had received more than $35 million since Tuesday night's earthquake, a record for the organization in a 48-hour period, an official said. That included more than $5 million through text messages, an amount that eclipsed the previous total for a campaign using that technology.

"I think it's an incredible story," said Rachel Wolff of World Vision, which had raised several million dollars. "It's unprecedented giving in a recession."

Other aid agencies said that they were not expecting to match the outpouring of contributions that followed large-scale disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but that they were pleased with the volume so far. Some said that the number of gifts was higher but that the amounts were smaller, perhaps because of the economy or because charities have made it easy to give small donations of $5 or $10.

Although it's too early to do more than estimate the dollar amounts, aid officials agreed that for a variety of reasons -- including the extent of the devastation, the depth of poverty in Haiti before the earthquake, the proximity of the country to the United States and the large number of Haitians with family members who live here -- Americans have responded with swift generosity.

"You would not have any idea that we're in this economy," said Stephanie Kurzina, a vice president at Oxfam America.

The totals do not include the $100 million committed by the World Bank and another $100 million pledged by the United States.

In the first five days after Katrina and the tsunami, more than $200 million was donated to victims of each disaster, said Patrick Rooney, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Within a year, a total of nearly $2 billion was donated to tsunami victims, and $6.5 billion was given for Gulf Coast hurricane victims.

Gifts have come in a variety of forms -- huge checks, micro-donations, new ideas and old shoes. A 12-year-old Alexandria girl pooled the $19 that she, her younger brother and a neighbor had saved from raking leaves and donated it to earthquake relief. Ted Turner gave $1 million through his foundation. The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation is giving $500,000 to the Red Cross Haiti Relief and Development Fund.

In the past two days, 11,0000 people have joined Oxfam America, an organization that fights poverty and famine worldwide.

New technology has made giving easier than ever. Hundreds of thousands of people have donated by text-messaging. By texting a code word such as "Haiti" to a designated number, people can donate $5 or $10 that will be added to their phone bills.

A big chunk of GlobalGiving's donations came though Twitter. Oxfam America officials were surprised by the volume of money it received through Facebook.

Celebrities including Ashton Kutcher, Lenny Kravitz, Oprah Winfrey and Coldplay's lead singer, Chris Martin, urged people to give, with messages that spread through social networking sites.

The viral pace of donations via text showed no signs of slowing Thursday, said Jim Manis, chief executive of Mobile Giving Foundation, which announced that more than $4.5 million had been raised by that means alone as of Thursday evening.

Haitian American musician Wyclef Jean's Yele Haiti Foundation, for example, was receiving 10,000 texts an hour. Large organizations such as the William J. Clinton Foundation were launching text campaigns late in the day.

The more traditional ways of helping continued, too. People wrote checks, boxed up rations in basements and passed collection baskets at churches. American Eagle flew the first of several 30,000-pound shipments of supplies including water, food, soap and diapers, and its parent company, AMR Corp., encouraged customers to give to the American Red Cross by offering frequent-flier miles. A hip-hop event at a P Street lounge turned into a Haiti benefit.

The FBI and some watchdog groups warned donors to be careful of potential scams. Web sites popped up overnight, and false text-messaging codes proliferated. Web sites such as Charity Navigator offered lists of organizations with low overhead costs and a proven commitment to Haiti.

Officials at several relief agencies expressed concern that, despite the short-term blitz of texts and tweets, once the immediate crisis has passed, the state of the U.S. economy will prevent donors from continuing to give.

"Haiti, even in the best of times, is in really dire shape. The needs, both short-term and long-term, are huge," said Jeremy Barnicle of Mercy Corps. "Will there be the will, long term, to rebuild?"

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