Haiti, online donations and social networking

Development Policy02 Feb 2010Janelle Ward

The recent tragedy in Haiti left citizens in other parts of the world eager to help. Most people, unskilled in disaster relief and not possessing emergency medical training, turned to donations of either money or goods.

Aid and development organizations have well-established methods of facilitating online donations, but they are also incorporating Web 2.0 applications into the process. For example, Oxfam America made it possible for online donators to publish a news update on their Facebook page, announcing the donation to friends and urging others to participate.

The American Red Cross praised the use of social media in spreading the word about Haiti. Geoff Livingston at Mashable quoted Wendy Harman, the social media manager at the American Red Cross: “The speed and quantity with which the American public retweeted and posted to Facebook the need for donations…was unprecedented…This was the first time I truly felt like people were using these tools to take action for good. I have no doubt it wouldn’t have spread so widely without social media.”

In such cases social media presents a fascinating evolution for fundraising. Individuals – already aided by the ease of online donations – are now able to share their decision to donate with their online networks, often numbering in the hundreds. Whereas donation was limited to a solitary act in the past or emailed to a select number of friends, this new tactic may in fact help bolster donations, particularly in highly publicized emergency situations.

However, such a claim is not yet warranted. I’d be very interested to know if this tactic does indeed result in increased donations – or, for that matter, increasing awareness of an issue. For example, if you see that a friend of yours has donated to a particular charity, are you more likely to consider donating yourself?

Nielson recently polled Facebook users in the US, the UK and Australia and found that 39 percent of Facebook users have donated money, food or clothing to help the disaster relief efforts in Haiti. But what this study doesn’t explore is how many of these users publicized their donation efforts on their profiles, and whether they think their online social network responded positively to their actions.

I hope to see more research in the future that specifically addresses these issues.