Charitable Aid on the Web

Posted by Bryan Collick on Wednesday, January 20th, 2010. Filed under: eHub Features

More than ever before, the world is connected; able to see and participate in the lives of people who are not within physical reach. The Web has brought us new ways to be involved, as well as confusion to what really can be considered aid.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll define aid as the offering of resources (money, materials, manpower, etc) from one to another, with the intent of assistance rather than profit. Aid can come in various forms and generally falls into two realms. When we respond to a natural disaster or a human crisis, we provide humanitarian aid. When we give to support economic, social or political growth, these are considered developmental aid.

Aid can range in scope and intent, but are primarily concerned with the greatest benefit going to the recipient, not the benefactor. As such, it is open to interpretation what is considered aid (large government loans are a good example).

Traditionally, aid has been handled by nations and non-governmental organizations, but, as the Web continues to erode the value of traditional organization to the individual, we have found it to be just as easy—if not easier—to provide support ourselves. Online payment options and microfinancing solutions make it possible for us to distribute resources at our discretion, and sites like Kiva.org and Charitywater.org have become immensely popular because they portray simple connections between the donor and recipient that cannot be seen in larger complex charities.

Not to be left behind, the large and established organizations have also provided ways to contribute online and greater transparency of fund distribution. It’s not just charities and NGOs—private organizations like Pepsi, in an effort to create a positive image of civic responsibility have also incorporated charitable aid into many of their marketing and PR campaigns.

Ironically, much of what is seen to be a personalization of giving really is a bifurcation of options that clouds outcomes and masks questionable tactics. In the light of last week’s disastrous earthquake in Haiti, many people have been made aware of the questionable financial workings of musician Wyclef Jean’s Yele Haiti foundation. Yet few seem aware that all SMS donation tools provide help to Haiti after people pay their phone bills a month or more beyond the immediate needs many are hoping to help resolve right now.

Even sites like Kiva have found themselves having to correct their story when it was revealed that microloans given by donors repay field partners rather than end up in the hands of the entrepreneurs. Often a connection is illustrated to encourage giving, even if that illustration is not completely accurate. Knowing this can create disappointment and mistrust in potential donors that is not unlike the problems larger charities face.

Finally, our connectivity to communities and issues around the world have lead people to champion causes, which doesn’t often equate to providing aid. Hashtagging political and social causes and changing avatar icons can raise awareness but fall short of our original definition—offering tangible, usable resources. In the case of pins, armbands and ribbons the cost of manufacturing can take a significant chunk out of the contribution you may have also provided. This brings us back to the cost of charity, which larger organizations are often questioned for.

As the Internet and the number of its users continues to increase, we must be mindful and thorough as we use the Web to provide aid. There are ways to avoid scams that negate your best intentions. Sites like charitynavigator.org and justgive.org provide listings of reputable organizations that manage aid to various causes; learning more about an organization before donating can establish a relationship of accountability and results.

And don’t forget that there are plenty of ways to provide aid beyond finances. In the United States, there is a government website dedicated to civic service, and there are other sites that provide ways to get to ground zero and provide support.

Feel free to share advice and resources to aid on the web in the comments.