When I first heard about the tsunami, I was relaxing in Maine, playing with my niece and nephew, consciously avoiding the media. I quickly checked my email and was relieved to see that people were already working on the response. Out of mere curiosity, I checked the donation figures and was surprised to see that people had already given $25,000 to tsunami relief. “Hmm…That’s a bit higher than I expected,” I thought to myself. Then I turned on the TV.
I soon realized, of course, that this would not be a typical emergency. News channels were covering the tsunami non-stop. The death toll kept spiraling upward. Pundits were using phrases like ‘biblical proportions.’ And donations were soon arriving at our office at unprecedented levels. Moreover, these were almost all unsolicited donations. We hadn’t had time to reach out to our donor base, but people were still giving. Loyal followers of Oxfam, one-time $35 donors, people who’d never heard of Sri Lanka or Oxfam – they were all tracking us down – online, by phone, or through other means – and then they were giving. In very generous amounts. And they weren’t waiting for an appeal from us.
Oxfam America is a Boston-based international development and humanitarian relief agency and an affiliate of Oxfam International. Working with local partners, Oxfam delivers development programs and emergency relief services, and campaigns for change in global practices and policies that keep people in poverty.
Within hours of the disaster, Oxfam workers around the world, along side their colleagues at Oxfam’s Sri Lanka office, had begun assessing the damage and calculating the scope of the agency's response. Oxfam has sent four planeloads of supplies and equipment to the region, and relief operations are now under way in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and India—three of the countries worst-hit by the tsunami, which is estimated to have killed as many as 160,000 people.
Oxfam's response is two-fold: providing food, water, sanitation, and other short-term measures to meet urgent needs and prevent the spread of waterborne diseases, while also laying the groundwork for the longer-term rebuilding of communities, restoration of livelihoods, and preparedness measures to minimize death and destruction in future emergencies.
When a natural disaster strikes, we also send an email appeal – as soon as possible -- to our supporter base. A few years ago, Oxfam – as well as many other NGO’s – put a decent amount of time, money, and effort into creating such a network. And it truly shines during an emergency: we reach out to people quickly and inexpensively. They can, in return, donate to our relief efforts quickly and efficiently. We can then update these people on our relief efforts just as quickly and cheaply and effectively – no need for the printer, envelopes, or stamps. The first time we sent out a timely and successful online appeal, a co-worker walked by my desk and gave a bittersweet smile, so common around the office these days. “This is why put so much effort into email,” he commented. “I just wish we had this during [Hurricane] Mitch.”
A typical online appeal will bring in $50,000-$100,000. If other groups – such as MoveOn.org – drive traffic to us, we can perhaps double that number. Touchstone issues – e.g., Iraq – can multiply that number by a factor of 4 or 5. But for this emergency, we needed a whole new yardstick. For a few days between Christmas and New Year’s, we were taking in over two million dollars a day. And that’s just online. (Our phones – I should mention -- were constantly ringing for close to two weeks.) When things finally ‘calmed down,’ we still were taking in about $100,000 a day.
We beat the bushes to promote our campaigns – even our fundraising efforts for emergencies. This time, however, we had no such difficulties. Software CEO’s were calling us directly – and asking for logos, URLs, and suggested text. Yahoo wanted to place us on place us on their homepage. MoveOn wanted to spotlight us in their email about tsunami relief. (The former helped us raise well over $1 million; the former generated nearly $3 million in donations.) Just imagine. You come home after a 13-hour day and checked your email just one more time. You read through a flurry back-and-forth of emails. Yahoo want to link to us? When? Where? The link is already up? On their homepage? As in Yahoo.com? It’s every online marketer’s dream -- and every server monitor’s potential nightmare.
Given these unheard-of levels of unsolicited donations, we rightly focused on first making sure our online donation process was running as smoothly as possible. We use an outside vendor – Get Active software – and this was definitely one of those moments when we were glad that someone else was doing the heavy lifting. Get Active had been boasting about its recent server upgrades and now they were truly being tested. I am happy to report that the servers held. Moreover, Get Active moved and shortened a maintenance window that had originally been scheduled for the 28th of December. Normally, I wouldn’t care that much about scheduled downtime in the middle of the night. This time, I’m glad I did care: we ended up raising $70,000 during that window.
This is not to say that all went off without a hitch. Any online campaign generates a predictable handful of issues, complaints, and queries. People accidentally press ‘Submit’ twice. There are inevitable browser and OS issues. Donors want to know how much we spend on costs. (In emergencies, we spend 90% or more on relief efforts). But now, we were dealing with hundreds of handfuls of issues. Moreover, many online donors were choosing to call us with their questions. Our staff is fairly experienced in these matters, so we can dispose of most complaints rather quickly. But the sheer volume left little time for much else – adding online content, updating figures, reaching out to companies and civic groups, etc.
We did eventually send out an appeal to our donors, on the 30th of December, at about 6pm EST. This is abysmal timing, needless to say. If this were any other email, I’d have almost no expectations. Who’s reading their email on a holiday weekend? I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when the appeal broke all existing records. Even though many on our email list had already given – to tsunami relief; as part of our recent matching gift campaign; as a usual year-end donation – the appeal raised four to fives times what we had expected.
Early on in the crisis, a co-worker called this an ‘agency-changing emergency.’ I initially thought that was a bit of an overstatement, but after some reflection, I think he could be right. We’ve raised a tremendous amount of money – and, generally speaking, we’ve been able to cope. Our already sizeable email list has increased by 50%. We now have contacts at Google and Yahoo! and other ‘household-name’ companies. The last two weeks have been exhilarating at times, but also exhausting and sometimes simply numbing. Of course, when I think of the relief workers on the ground, I’m humbled. And when I think of the 150,000+ killed by the tsunami, the millions who’ve had their lives destroyed, I become quiet and truly numb. But when I think of the outpouring of generosity I’ve witnessed, I become a little hopeful.
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