Though the Internet showed great promise for disaster relief fundraising as early as two years ago, reports in the wake of the Jan. 13 earthquake in El Salvador indicate that charities have made little headway in their outbound Internet marketing efforts.
In 1998, CARE USA, Atlanta, collected $71,000 in donations at its Web site, care.org, in one week after Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America.
At the same time, Mercy Corps, Portland, OR, collected $15,000 in online donations in response to the same disaster.
Then, during the much-publicized Kosovo crisis of 1999, the American Red Cross reported more than $1.2 million in online donations over a six-month period.
Now, two weeks after the El Salvador earthquake, the American Red Cross at redcross.org, Mercy Corps at mercycorps.org and CARE all set up Web pages accepting donations for El Salvador. All three also sent emergency e-mails asking for donations but to relatively small lists.
Mercy Corps sent 3,500 e-mails to its online newsletter subscribers, resulting in $3,013 in online contributions over a 24-hour period.
CARE sent e-mails to about 10,000 addresses culled from its database of 1.5 million. The 10,000 had donated online or indicated they were interested in CARE’s emergency relief work, said LMichael Green, CARE’s director of marketing. Green said he could not give numbers on the response to the e-mail.
Chris Paladino, spokesman for the American Red Cross, said he could not say how many e-mails the charity sent for the El Salvador crisis. However, as of Jan. 24, the American Red Cross had collected $227,758 online to aid the earthquake victims, he said.
The Red Cross debuted its first e-mail effort in November — a campaign consisting of 7,500 e-mails to donors culled from the Red Cross database of more than 12 million. “We’re being very careful before we sign up any new donors,” said Mary Kay Phelps, senior director of direct marketing.
Overall, the Red Cross saw online donations jump from $172,070 in 1998, the first year the charity accepted donations over the Internet, to $2.54 million in 1999. But donations fell slightly to $2.37 million in 2000.
In any case, online donations still represent a fraction of the overall picture.
Geoffrey Peters, president of Creative Direct Marketing International, contends that the nonprofits’ failure to develop proper Web sites has held back online donations. Early last year, Peters conducted a survey of 250 Web sites of national nonprofits and found that a whopping 80 percent were so-called brochureware, “like an annual report,” Peters said.
Also, just 5 percent of the sites surveyed had database marketing capabilities that allowed them to collect and evaluate demographic and personal information and interact with visitors based on that information. There have been no major changes since then, Peters said.
What’s more, nonprofits could make better use of viral marketing, or getting donors to recruit other donors through the Internet, Peters said. However, a recent study by The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University showed that in December, only 7 percent of fundraisers rated e-mail as successful, down from 15 percent six months previously.
CARE is conducting online donor surveys to get demographic information and e-mail addresses, offering screensavers in exchange for e-mail addresses and requesting e-mail addresses with traditional direct mail solicitations.
Indeed, Peters contends that charities need to behave more like direct marketers — driving people to their sites through bold headlines in direct mail.
But when Mercy Corps recently asked donors who responded to direct mail to subscribe to an e-mail newsletter, “we didn’t get a lot of interest,” said Mercy Corps Web designer Jacob Colie.
The answer for nonprofits’ lagging Internet efforts may lie in outsourcing.
In March, Mercy Corps hired @Once to make its online fundraising efforts more efficient. Since July, @Once has sent four newsletters and the El Salvador e-mail alert on Mercy Corps’ behalf. @Once has also hosted Mercy Corps’ opt-in Web form and designed banner ads for Mercy Corps that appeared on MTV.com.
“The @Once partnership helped us to increase our online list from 1,000 to 3,500,” Colie said. “One newsletter alone resulted in $10,000 in online donations. It’s a small part of our overall budget, but growing.”
Using outside agencies adds quality to the process, Colie said.
“They can send out HTML or a text form of the e-mail,” he said. “They can ensure that we don’t send out duplicates. And they offer their marketing expertise in the form of the design of the message — which types of design get a better response, for example HTML messages with tons of links or single-subject e-mails with a few, more specific links. In the long run people will use [outside] services to improve inhouse capacity.”
However nonprofits go about increasing their Internet efforts, Jillaine Smith, senior associate at the Benton Foundation — a nonprofit involved in communication for the public interest — believes it is whom nonprofits reach that really counts.
“It’s not how many people nonprofits reach; it’s how effective they are at reaching those people most likely to give,” she said. “Nonprofits are increasingly using the Internet, and they’re increasingly effective with it.
“A growing number of nonprofits are using technology to gain information about the people visiting their Web sites to establish relationships. They can get more money from fewer people if they build relationships.”