'Tis the Season to Give Online

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Preliminary results from a Web-based giving campaign at Second Harvest, the largest charitable hunger-relief organization in the United States, may offer encouraging insights for top charities who haven't fully addressed their online strategies.


Launched in October as a partnership with Hewlett-Packard Co. during National Food Bank Week, the organization set out to boost its overall campaign effort with the simple motivating message of "Get Connected."


Second Harvest, Chicago, won't have a full accounting of the campaign's success until after the holidays, but the group said the hi-tech endeavor yielded more than $5,000 in direct Internet transactions in less than 60 days.


A similar campaign for about the same number of days netted $20,000 for CARE USA, Atlanta, before Hurricane Mitch. The week after the hurricane hit, the agency saw $71,000 in online donations in less than seven days. But that was an exception clearly created by the disaster.


A better comparison might be Habitat for Humanity, Atlanta, where sources uncomfortable with releasing exact dollar figures hinted that their experience with online donations for the same time period was not far from what was being reported by CARE USA and Second Harvest.


Still, it's clear that a long nonprofit learning curve has begun.


"One of our goals at Second Harvest was to find a comprehensive way to get the American public involved with us," said public affairs spokeswoman Stacey Reineking. "We wanted to make it easy for the consumer who wants to help. We're very encouraged by the initial results."


Those initial results, however, may say as much about Second Harvest's placement of its Internet point-and-click "Donate Online" button rather than its call-to-action line.


"We made a conscious decision to do that," said development director Kathy Super. "Donors in general have indicated that they have a hard time navigating through most charity Web sites, so we wanted to make it very obvious."


Super's remarks could easily be taken as a serious wake-up call for fundraisers already disillusioned by spotty online donations. Indeed, only about half of the nations largest nonprofits are set up to handle direct online contributions -- and of those that are, only Second Harvest and the American Red Cross make that fact easily known on their home pages. Nearly all the other big nonprofits make it impossible to find their online giving links.


"Setting up online giving is not that difficult to do, so you would think more fundraisers would do it," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, Bethesda, MD. "It could be that some are worried about cannibalizing their current giving efforts since they'll have to pay a percentage of the online donation to a credit card provider. For many, the Internet doesn't yet appear to them be a lucrative investment or one significant enough to justify taking time away from other activities."


However, surveys routinely show that the income of people who use the Internet is above average. And, according to Super, Second Harvest's own research indicates that its Internet users may ultimately be higher campaign contributors -- if they can be identified, targeted and tracked.


"We were seeing an increase in our manual Internet contributions where the consumer prints out the giving form and mails it in with a check or credit card number. As we learned more about these donors and secured server technology, our natural next step was to look beyond the manual method," she said.


But the age group of online givers enters into the picture as well. And fighting hunger is a favorite among younger generations, who also are more likely to be surfing the Net. Conversely, older Americans are in a better position to give more money, but they are less likely to be online.


"A lot of regular donors across the country are simply older," Borochoff said. "They are not compelled to be on the Internet, they have frustrations about how to use it and they are more suspicious about fraud in relation to charities. Perhaps the time is still not right. We still have a lot to address with the marketing of this technology. But at some point soon, they're all going to be on the Internet."
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