Friday, January 15, 2010

Aftershock: Will Your Gift Count?

In the wake of the Haiti devastation virtually everyone - from President Clinton on down - has urged viewers and readers to donate cash now. Distributing any hard goods in a country with bad roads and worse is a practical challenge as the military and NGO relief workers have quickly learned.I've been out on those roads in the past and I know.

Collecting clothes and canned food makes people feel good but money is of the moment. And nothing is more of the moment than the Internet. The first images out of the country were via Twitter and the few satellite phones that were working. By evening local time in New York on the afternoon of the earthquake web appeals were well under way from established organizations - and unfortunately there were also the money scams that came up like weeds.

Technology has of course advanced since the tsunami; the sense of immediacy was intensified and underscored by the ability to give via Twitter, Facebook and cell phone texting (which by the way is actually a slow way to give, slower than snail mail, because the money doesn't move to the charity for weeks after the text message goes through. It will likely be on your phone bill before the charity ever sees it!)

The apparent ability to do good and feel good via the Internet, the "now-ness," the instant gratification,cannot be understated. eRetailers have figured that out. At the same for charity giving there is no way of which I am aware to measure with even near accuracy how much has been contributed via the net, and just as important, how much will ever reach the intended recipients. There is no accountability anywhere along the line from giver to beneficiary. And one of the other differences between this event and the tsunami is that even small charities- who may or may not have a good work record - are online. PayPal, Convio and other pass-through agents have enabled anyone, including scammers, to raise money quickly and immediately.

The absence of control and centrality - to a left wing libertarian- is one of the Internet's great appeals (of course diminished by my awareness that the government has access to all of the information coming out of my computer). If you use the Internet to give - and I do and I have in this situation - it is really a matter of faith and trust. The Better Business Bureau's admonition to "give wisely" is good advice but a bit of an anachronism in the wired world. You can know the charity you're giving to but you are dependent on the middleman to get the money to them - net of commission.You may really never know.

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