It’s a connected world with 24-hour news cycles and people craving instant access to world events. Several nonprofits providing tsunami relief in South Asia are leveraging technology know-how and Web sites to share stories from the frontline.
Nonprofit officials are posting Web logs, a.k.a blogs, sending donors email updates and relaying timely news via their Web sites. And more donors are using Internet and electronic communications to stay in the loop, several nonprofit officials said.
Most striking about electronic updates is the ability to immediately tell donors how donations are being used. It’s a lesson driven home by the public outcry over the handling of some September 11, 2001 donations.
Donors want to know how nonprofits are using the money.
The tsunami disaster and relief effort “is a watershed event in terms of the perception of online communications within the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and many other organizations because of the scale of the emergency and the intensive media coverage,” said Tim Ledwith, director of interactive donor communication at U.S. Fund for UNICEF in New York City. “It’s the first time we’ve seen the public really taking full advantage of the instantaneous nature of online communications. In the first two weeks after the disaster struck, it seemed as though it was the primary vehicle for people to learn about and respond to the emergency.”
UNICEF’s Web site, www.uni-cef.org, links to videos of aid workers assisting in the region and a “Frontline Diary” providing first-hand accounts.
The U.S. Fund operates a separate Web site (www.unicefusa.org) than UNICEF, but has similar features and often links to content on the international site, Ledwith said.
U.S. Fund for UNICEF’s e-newsletter subscriber list has come close to doubling since Dec. 27, Ledwith said. Before the tsunami disaster, the general e-newsletter list had roughly 80,000 subscribers, he said.
Greenpeace International, headquartered in Amsterdam, Netherlands, is operating a blog, weblog.greenpeace.org. Greenpeace International relief workers are sending updates from a ship,Rainbow Warrior. The relief workers are helping Medecins Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders distribute supplies to parts of Indonesia affected by the tsunami and earthquake, according to its Web site.
“(Blogging) is a wonderful opportunity,” said Gina Sanchez, a Greenpeace International spokeswoman. “It allows us to inform the public immediately, and the public to react to it and say how they feel about it.”
Brian Fitzgerald, of Greenpeace International’s new media department, wrote in an email that Web log readership is “devilishly hard to measure.”
During the past 60 days, Greenpeace International has had 3,900 direct visits to its Web log via a browser, but most readership will come from RSS feeds, he wrote. Greenpeace has 378 links from 108 sources pulling content into other blogs, which are read and don’t report hits back to Greenpeace, Fitzgerald wrote.
Articles on Greenpeace’s homepage have had a combined readership of 12,000, which isn’t extraordinary traffic, Fitzgerald wrote.
The increased interest in electronic communication is a result of people and nonprofits becoming more comfortable with technology.
“This outreach effort brought users and organizations together and has proven that there’s a level of technology comfort,” said Sarah Hawkins, associate editor of TechSoup.org in San Francisco.
When the tsunami hit, nonprofits had to motivate quickly in a huge call to action. They used technology in a “rapid-fire, all out” way and applied it to their own work, Hawkins said. Successes will allow them to raise funds and share information and be more “fearless in their use of technology,” she said. Smaller organizations can learn from this experience, too.
“The trick for smaller organizations to apply this technology to their work is messaging,” Hawkins said. “The tool won’t work on its own. Even with blogs, if you want an audience, you have to create a strong message to work with.”
Barriers for smaller organizations include researching appropriate applications and staff resources, she said. Nonprofits should determine whether there’s enough staff and financial resources to start a blog and keep it running, according to Hawkins.
“I’m still not sure if enough nonprofits ‘get it’ that the Internet is the Marine Corps of fundraising,” Rick Christ, a consultant and president of the
Warrenton, Va.-based npadvisors.com, said in an email. Marines are the “first on the beaches, and also able to handle some problems, especially small, tricky ones, without any other support. (They’re) not necessarily the most effective for a long campaign. But, like the Marines, a nonprofit’s Web strategy has to be prepared, drilled, and ready to use, night or day.”
Ledwith of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF said: “There’s a lot of opportunity for smaller or mid-size nonprofits to leverage what they’re doing off-line and use a Web site as a grassroots and advocacy tool.”
“We’ve just witnessed two events on a scale almost beyond imagining — first the tsunami itself, and then the outpouring of generosity that followed,” Jason A. Lefkowitz, manager, e-activism at Oceana, and a close follower of blogs, wrote in an email.
“When facing such events, people naturally hunger for the true authenticity of a human voice. Blogs can provide that human voice and help non-profits forge a stronger connection with the people who support them. They can reassure contributors that their money is being used wisely by real people for good work. That’s a unique opportunity, if the nonprofit sector is prepared to take hold of it.”