The changing nature of charity: Plugging in to the digital age

Ice bucket challenge
The Ice bucket challenge has been credited with raising $220 million for ALS. (AP Photo/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Greg Lehman, File)

In July 2014 someone decided to pour a bucket of ice water over their head and called it charity. Just like that, a new social media phenomenon was born. Nine months and $115 million later, the previously little-known disease of ALS has been talked about around the world.

And this week, hosts of the Today show Kathie Lee Gifford and Matt Lauer took the “Twizzler challenge,” where two people bite a piece of licorice from opposite ends until they kiss, in order to raise money for autism. It’s being touted as the “next Ice Bucket Challenge.”

As it turns out, charity and social media make great bedfellows. Just like online banking, online classes and online shopping, philanthropy is now in the digital age.

The numbers

Everyone loves stories that pull at the heartstrings. Crowdfunding figured this out quickly. It’s a force to be reckoned with when it comes to online fundraising.

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Within the past few weeks alone, we’ve seen a successful crowdfunding campaign in Toronto to raise money for a toddler’s funeral after he died of hypothermia, and over $40,000 was raised for a woman who was not allowed to have her case heard in a Montreal court when she wouldn’t remove her hijab.

According to a 2013 study conducted by Hewitt and Johnston Consultants, crowdfunding and online fundraising are the two emerging trends in charity.

Forty-one per cent of Canadians donated online in 2013, a significant increase from 2010. The biggest gap comes from Gen X (born 1965-1980). Fifty-five per cent of them donated online in 2013, up from 37 per cent in 2010.

The good

Jenna Jacobson, a media researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, says the massive rise of crowdfunding brings people together online.

“Crowdfunding allows people to connect at a personal level. We can show our support with minimal amount of time or perhaps money,” she said. “I think that with crowdfunding you’re able to see a story evolve online, and you’re able to make that personal connection.”

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“Social media platforms and global crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter make for a much more interactive experience between the people making the donation and the charitable organization,” said Brett Caraway, professor of media studies with the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto.

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Michael Johnston, president and CEO of Hewitt and Johnston Consultants, believes that crowdfunding will become even more common as technology evolves. He cites the Apple watch as an example: “If we’re sleeping with our mobiles, if we’re taking them into the washrooms, if we’re fighting airlines to stay connected up high, then …  in two years you’re going to be talking to me about watch-giving,” he said.

He adds that people are impulsive when it comes to giving.

“The more there’s something that’s instantaneous, and in your hand or on your wrist, I think over time it means younger age subsets are just going to give more and more,” he said.

For Daryl Hatton, CEO of Vancouver-based crowdfunding company Fundrazr, the real benefit of crowdfunding is about friends helping friends, not the big media stories.

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“Think of it a little bit like a karma bank,” he said. Accumulating good deeds might mean the people you’ve helped will be there to support you should something happen.

Ego plays a big part in charity, and technology is amplifying the desire to show our good deeds on social networks, which might in turn inspire others to give.

This can be hugely beneficial for charities.

“[Donors] accrue what some would refer to as cultural capital by doing that. It makes them look good, it enhances their position in their own social networks, and I think some of these charitable organizations can use that quite effectively to raise large sums of money” said Caraway.

The bad

“Media circus” is the term Hatton used for the crowdfunding efforts to buy a car for a Detroit man who walked 21 miles to and from work every day.

“It’s not that he shouldn’t have gotten a bunch of money, that’s fantastic that people wanted to take care of him that way. But at some point it becomes a little crazy … hopefully society will help take care of a broader swath, rather than all focusing it on one individual,” he said.

The lack of control over who actually receives the money is another potential problem. When a person donates money to a crowdfunding initiative, they are taking a leap of faith that the organizers will actually get the money into the right hands.

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“The vast majority of the time, like 99.9 per cent of the time, the money goes where it’s supposed to. The harder time is when someone starts a campaign on someone else’s behalf, those are the ones that worry me,” said Hatton.

He said he’s seen it happen a number of times where someone claims to raise money for a stranger, but the funds never actually end up making it to the person it was intended for.

One such example involved Eric Garner’s family. Garner died at the hands of New York police in July. Since then, at least 19 separate crowdfunding campaigns have popped up claiming to raise money for his family. The Garners say some of the money raised in these campaigns never reached them, while the funds they did receive caused family disputes.

As our attention span gets shorter and shorter thanks to being constantly bombarded with new information, charities have the daunting task of not only capturing our interest, but retaining it for repeat donations.

“The great challenge is what I call ‘flash philanthropy’, when there’s something that has piqued public awareness, and gets everybody’s attention, and people just pour in with small gifts. Charities’ challenge is how they maintain the relationship,” said Johnston.

The future

Looking ahead, the digital push is only going to get bigger, and as competition grows fierce, not everyone is going to make it.

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“I see the best organizations leveraging technology and a more flexible culture to allow people to have more control over the fundraising for that charity, so less mass-marketing and more kind of empowerment for philanthropy. But there’s going to be a whole lot of organizations that have neither the resources nor the perspective to do that and they’re going to suffer … They’re going to go bankrupt in the charitable sense,” he said.

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