NEW YORK (Reuters) - In the days after last week's deadly earthquake in Iran, Mercy Corps says it received $100,000 of credit-card donations over the Internet, 10 times more than the humanitarian aid organization collected off line over the weekend.
With that money in hand, the group has already begun buying and delivering blankets, tents and water to the devastated survivors in the ancient city of Bam, where officials now estimate the death toll could rise as high as 50,000.
"Ten years ago, you were relying on the kindness of strangers to get your message out," said Matthew De Galan, chief development officer for the 24-year-old Mercy Corps, a Portland, Oregon-based group at http://www.mercycorps.org/.
Back then, he said the not-for-profit group probably would have raised only about a tenth of what it has so far without the use of the Internet, highlighting the rapid transformation of philanthropy since the Web's introduction to wide audiences.
Half the money Mercy Corps raised online over the first weekend came from Iranian-Americans who previously had never donated to the group, revealing the spontaneous ways people search for a way to give.
Before the advent of the Internet, local or worldwide crises prompted emotional responses from concerned citizens eager to help, but who lacked the means to find an outlet to give or to volunteer.
"In the past, you may have had to wait for the charity to find you," said Ted Hart, the president of ePhilanthropy Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that helps other groups use the Internet to raise funds.
"With Iran, if people see pictures on TV, are moved by that, and want to have an impact, they can," he said. "The ability to feel connected to your philanthropy has never been more real."
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Two umbrella sites on the Web provide information about U.S.-based charities, with access to their required disclosure forms. By typing "Iran" into the keyword search prompt on the home page of either http://www.networkforgood.org or http://www.justgive.org, information is available about dozens of organizations helping in the earthquake's aftermath.
The American Council for Voluntary Action, (http://www.interaction.org/Iran/index.html), an alliance of international humanitarian groups, also has posted more than 30 links to groups that have set up funds to collect for relief in Iran.
Among them is Save the Children at http://www.savethechildren.org, which works with unaccompanied children amid disasters, International Medical Corps at http://www.imcworldwide.org, which mobilizes volunteer doctors, and a number of religious philanthropic groups.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, one of the world's largest humanitarian groups, has a special page devoted to the Iran earthquake at http://www.ifrc.org/what/disasters/response/iran.asp.
While contributing over the Internet is the most rapidly growing form of philanthropy, it still represents just 1 percent of the $275 billion of total annual U.S. donations, according to Hart.
"From our perspective, it's not only the speed, but it's the ability to be a more informed donor," said Hart, whose group's site is http://www.ephilanthropy.org. It provides tips for donating to charities online.
"There's nothing wrong with giving to name-brand charities, but with the ability to search the Internet and receive information about 850,000 groups, you may find a charity that more closely resembles the cause you want to support," he added.
Action Without Borders runs an international site, http://www.idealist.org, that helps connect resources around the world. A search using "Iran" returned two dozen organizations and two volunteer opportunities.
The sites http://www.volunteermatch.org and http://www.servenet.org provide a wide range of volunteer opportunities, ranging from helping build schools and homes in countries around the world to more local U.S. needs, like coaching a youth sports team or serving food at a soup kitchen.
The National Iranian American Council, at http://www.niacouncil.org, is linking up with other groups to coordinate various volunteer efforts and clothing donations.
Copyright 2003, Reuters News Service
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