Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

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Where Giving Is Easy

By Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell, special for MSN

When Peg Nichols logged on to her computer and read about the earthquake in Peru last month, she felt the urgent need to help the victims. With a couple of clicks of her mouse she was able to do so in minutes.

"Earthquakes really jar me; they're so sudden and unexpected," says Nichols, a semiretired mediation expert in Olathe, Kan. "I know they needed the supplies right away, and I knew I was helping immediately."

Nichols is a lifelong supporter of various nonprofit causes, but this was the first time she gave online.Nichols is not alone. In 2006, online donations increased between 36 percent and 51 percent, depending on the study. On the other hand, off-line donations increased only by single digits.

For people who give online, most of the reasons are obvious: It's quick and convenient, and donors have the feeling they're assisting with an immediate need, especially in the wake of disasters.

According to figures provided by the nonprofit Network for Good, reactions to large disasters in this decade have dramatically changed the way people give. "After 9/11, 1 in 5 people gave online; that increased to one-third after the [Indian Ocean] tsunami; and after Katrina, half of the donations for that disaster was given online," says Bill Strathmann, CEO of Network for Good, which is based in Bethesda, Md.

"The Internet really breaks down the barriers of time and geography," says Jon Carson, CEO of cMarket, an online charity auction site in Cambridge, Mass.

As more people want to give online, nonprofits have stepped up their Web presence. Most nonprofits send e-letters, or electronic newsletters, to past and potential donors, for example.

Tracy Belcher, a public relations specialist in Miami, has always wanted to give to charities, but it wasn't as easy as it is now. "I would get a letter and carry the paper around with me forever and lose it," says Belcher. "Now, if I find out one of my friends is doing something for charity, I can just click, pay here, and it's done in less than five minutes."

Belcher says nonprofits don't even have to send a direct solicitation for money. "If they just send me a note telling me what they're up to, I'll usually give even if they don't ask."

Charities are also realizing that the Web isn't just a vehicle for soliciting donations, but it's a great way to develop relationships with and among donors.

"The ability to speed money to the charity more quickly is one source of satisfaction for donors," says Randy Hecht, who writes about philanthropy for "Worth" magazine. "But even more important is the ability to know right away what the organization you choose to support is doing for the people you want to help."

Virtual Red Kettles

The Salvation Army realized the importance of community building when it developed the Online Red Kettle Campaign in 2004.

The campaign is modeled after the traditional Red Kettle Christmas campaigns. But instead of standing in the snow and cold outside a store, bell ringers can send e-mails to their friends asking for donations to an online Red Kettle page. Just like the traditional Red Kettle campaign, the money goes to the Salvation Army chapter where the donation originated.

The online campaign has been a huge success. In 2005, the first year it was rolled out nationally, the Online Red Kettle raised $130,812. A year later, that amount grew to $482,316.

"We hope it will continue to grow significantly," says Melissa Temme, public relations director for the Salvation Army National Headquarters in Alexandria, Va. "It is something people can definitely do together and adds interaction with our supporters."

Next up: The Salvation Army is in the process of creating a MySpace page for "Red Kettle," where donors can interact with other supporters and the hope is make friends with one another.

Charities in a virtual space

Keith Taylor, founder of the Modest Needs Foundation, always wanted to be a philanthropist. For a decade, he attended college, then graduate school, eventually earning his doctorate in English. Along the way, he learned to live frugally on a student's wages, but ran into difficulty a couple of times.

"Friends always gave me small sums of money to help me out," says Taylor. "When I started teaching college, I thought about how lucky I was." He told himself that when he was rich, he needed to give back, to help others as he had been helped.

Then he had an epiphany: "I realized that giving wasn't about being wealthy, it was about being compassionate," he says.

Taylor founded Modest Needs, an organization that donates small sums of money to people in temporary financial crisis people who Taylor says don't qualify for any other assistance but need a hand so that they don't fall into poverty.

"Without the technology of the Internet, this wouldn't have been possible," says Taylor. "We deal with thousands of applications per week. Can you imagine the cost if we had to open all those letters and make all those calls?"

Modest Needs operates solely on the Internet. Taylor manages a staff of five people in the basement of a building in New York City. Through his virtual nonprofit, Taylor not only found people who were in temporary need of assistance like he once was he found many people like himself who wanted to help out those in need.

As he puts it, "People were ready for this; thousands of people wanted to be a philanthropist."

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is an independent journalist and author based in the Ozark Mountains, where she lives with her husband and four dogs.

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