Breaking The Bottleneck

June 15, 2005       Craig Causer      

When the South Asia tsunami struck this past December, an unprecedented number of people turned to the Internet as their avenue to provide financial support. Nonprofits swiftly responded with online content and appeals. And while the rapid influx of cash was a welcome boon, some nonprofits were technologically ill- prepared for the relentless traffic that responded to the natural disaster.

World Vision was used to handling 8,000 hits per week on its Web site. Following the tsunami the number spiked to 15,000 hits per hour. That congestion caused its system to crash, according to Dean Owens, director of public relations for the Federal Way, Wash.-based relief organization. The nonprofit quickly enlisted the aid of an outside firm to bolster its bandwidth to accommodate the extraordinary traffic.

“We learned more about production and capacity issues more than marketing techniques from the tsunami,” Owens said. “We found that with the extraordinary volume of people coming to our Web site to give, we needed a larger bandwidth and a broader capacity and went outside the organization so that we could get back up and running quickly.”

Donor response exceeded the expectations of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) so much that the nonprofit has increased its commitment in tsunami-affected regions from $80 million to $150 million during the next five years. A significant part of its fundraising success also occurred online, where it raised $13.4 million dollars within five months. According to Peter Kaizer, Web site director at CRS, within the first 48 hours the organization collected nearly $500,000. The organization averaged between $800,000 and $900,000 annually prior to the tsunami emergency.

“The tsunami affected us in a really significant way with regard to our online efforts,” Kaizer said. “We shattered all records of our previous online fundraising, as I believe many nonprofits who were involved with the tsunami did. As someone who has worked six to eight years in the online space, it’s interesting to me that the Internet has become a much more mature platform for philanthropy.”

But with any maturation process comes growing pains, and CRS experienced those in the form of what Kaizer described as “some very intermittent performance” by its Web site during the first days of the emergency. CRS went live with its tsunami content and fundraising and people immediately began donating. The traffic caused a bottleneck that slowed the effectiveness of the site.

“It was that the influx of donations was causing the site to be intermittently available,” Kaizer explained. “Donations were coming in and the site was staying up, but it just wasn’t performing as consistently as it normally does. So we moved our fundraising efforts off to a third-party vendor, who handled the influx. Prior to that, it was being done in-house. It had been sort of a homegrown system on our servers.”

Once the fundraising elements were moved to the vendor, which Kaizer said took less than one day, the problems were alleviated and the performance of the Web site returned to normal. CRS continued to closely monitor the site, however, as it was receiving higher than usual general Web site traffic to go along with those punching up its donation pages.

Kaizer attributed the increased traffic to two things — the generosity people feel during the December-January holidays and the high profile of the emergency.

CRS plans to continue to outsource its Web donation elements to keep its capacity high. The tsunami helped the organization realize the benefit of working with a software platform that is set up to handle an extremely high volume of traffic.

“What it’s really shown us is the value of an integrated solution, an integrated software platform,” Kaizer said. “We made a slow and incremental progress. We have been doing online fundraising since our site was launched in 1999. We’ve been doing the beginnings of some online advocacy and online email marketing and messaging, but our systems were very decentralized. We were basically using different pieces. What we’re seeing now, with something like the tsunami situation where you have such an influx of people coming in, is that an integrated platform is something you can really benefit from.”

With a technologically sound fundraising infrastructure in place, CRS was able to move forward and build a relationship with its new online donors. The nonprofit specifically asked new donors that were coming online if they would like to continue to hear from it via email. Kaizer said that the response was “very good” and that CRS will work diligently to stay in touch with those people.

One of the methods used to keep people informed is a dedicated tsunami portal designed to communicate back to people who gave online. The plan is to launch the portal at the six-month anniversary of the tsunami this month. It’s a long-term, separate site where CRS can communicate what it is doing in the region and how it is spending donor dollars. Whether or not it continues to fundraise on the portal is yet to be determined, Kaizer added.