Philippines disaster will test digital philanthropy

A survivor of Typhoon Haiyan cradles a child and watches as a helicopter carrying supplies lands in the town of Guiuan, on Samar Island. Aid has been slow to reach isolated victims. DAVID GUTTENFELDER / AP
A survivor of Typhoon Haiyan cradles a child and watches as a helicopter carrying supplies lands in the town of Guiuan, on Samar Island. Aid has been slow to reach isolated victims. DAVID GUTTENFELDER / AP
Posted: November 17, 2013

Typhoon Haiyan, one of the largest storms ever recorded, hit the Philippines Nov. 7, killing thousands and displacing more than 600,000. The full toll is not yet known, communications and access routes are far from restored, and aid has been slow to reach stranded, isolated victims.

Could this be an opportunity for what some call the "new philanthropy"? A moment in particular for the millennial generation (born after 1982) to take leadership?

Digital has changed the face of philanthropy - for both aid groups (which craft the call) and donors (who hear it and act). More and more, donation is digital: text messaging, Facebook, websites. The quickest way to send $10 is via text message. You can send the World Food Programme $10 by texting the word AID to 27722. The Salvation Army is TYPHOON to 80888. The International Medical Corps is MED, also at 80888. A click or two later, done.

The Web is primed. Google Philippines and aid,  and about a dozen aid organization websites, from the International Rescue Committee to Médecins Sans Frontières, orbit above and to the right of your search results.

If you've visited Facebook this week, you've seen a page-top banner that reads "Emergency Relief Donation" and "This donation to the American Red Cross will help those affected by the typhoon in the Philippines." Click. Facebook and the Red Cross continued the partnership through Friday.

Apple even has created a way to donate via the iTunes store.

That makes it quick and easy to give. "It's about the closest you can come," says Derrick Feldmann, CEO of Achieve Guidance, an Indianapolis-based consultant group for causes, "to one-click giving."

Which, you'd think, makes it ideal for mobile, smart-phoning, multiscreening millennials. Digital giving has steadily increased in popularity: A Pew Research Center survey found that as of 2011, people under 40 were just as likely to donate digitally as by other means.

Millennials surprised a lot of people during the Haiti earthquake of January 2010, and again during the Japanese tsunami disaster of March 2011. Large numbers responded to the call for aid, via social media and communications tools second nature to folks born since 1982. Thanks in part to high-profile appeals by celebs such as, Sean Penn, and Shakira, 73 percent of all donors to Haiti relief were under 50, according to a Pew survey.

Haiti, says Feldmann, "was an example of a successful appeal because the media helped bring the catastrophe alive. You had an ideal connection between a generation already cause-oriented and that media combo."

Can the suffering in the Philippines be brought alive like that?

Both emotional and sophisticated, millennials are what Feldmann calls "impulse philanthropists": "They see something on TV, the Web, their mobile device, and they decide to text some money. They're fueled by images and by emotions.

"On the sophisticated side, they know exactly what digital tools to use, to find out more about the cause and 'where my money is going,' and then make their donation."

The 2012 Millennial Impact Report, conducted by Achieve and by Johnson, Grossnickle & Associates, asked 6,522 people ages 20 to 35 about their giving patterns. Three-quarters said they had donated to a charitable cause in the last year, 63 percent said they had volunteered, and 70 percent said they'd encouraged friends to give. Not bad as a generation often portrayed as self-absorbed and out of touch. They tended to give less money at a shot (mostly $100 or less) than older groups, but they gave more quickly.

Although they tell pollsters they would prefer to give locally, actual data suggest millennials give to many international causes. Part of this is that YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are global. Human suffering is universal, and social media can bring it very close. The walls have fallen.

"The key for aid groups," says Aaron Smith, senior researcher for the Pew Research Center's Internet Project, "is to make the issue visible and make it easy to donate." Millennials, he says, use two main filters for their philanthropic decisions: "big, vivid images and calls to action on TV - and their network of friends."

To echo the title of yet another Pew study, mobile is the needle, social is the thread. "We now experience information within a network, either of people we listen to or of the Web," Smith says. "We expect it to be instant. We expect to see it, not just read about it." And most of the time, we can.

Sure, at PBS fund drives or the telethon for muscular dystrophy, those banks of operators are waiting for your call. But phones, even websites, seem - slow.

As of Thursday, the Red Cross had reported it had collected $11 million in donations and pledges in its Philippines relief fund. So far, says Smith, "anecdotally, we're not finding that Philippines relief is anywhere as ubiquitous as Haiti was, but it's early yet." Much depends on whether relief groups can bring the crisis alive - and whether millennials, and the rest of the mobile, social world, respond.

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

comments powered by Disqus