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Everyone Chip In, Please: Crowdfunding Sandy

Dec 10, 2012
Originally published on December 10, 2012 7:40 pm

Big-hearted Americans always rush to give money after a disaster. Just how much and how fast is often determined by technology. After the earthquake in Haiti, texting small donations, for example, became a new standard practice.

This time around, Hurricane Sandy has shown crowdfunding websites are a simple tool for quick-response giving. Anyone can go on these sites and ask for money to rebuild or to help their neighbors rebuild. Friends, family and strangers chip in.

"You can literally sign up, share your campaign on Facebook, Twitter, email, and begin accepting credit or debit card donations online in under a minute," says Brad Damphousse, the founder of the crowdfunding website GoFundMe.

That's what 32-year-old writer Jenny Adams did. It was simple: she added a gripping picture of a flooded street to her page, and asked for money that she could give out to her neighbors affected by Sandy in the Alphabet City neighborhood of Manhattan.

"There were certainly people who gave me a fair amount of money that I have never met and don't know," Adams says.

People usually use sites like GoFundMe to tactfully ask loved ones for help with medical bills or expensive life events, like buying an engagement ring. Spending disaster donations, however, is trickier than cutting one big check. Adams has no formal training in relief work, so it quickly became a thoughtful scramble to spend the money.

"People are like 'What? You're just going to give me $500?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm just going to give you $500,' " she says.

Adams bought bundles of jackets, blankets and food at Kmart and Target, and offered them to neighbors in need.

She also handed out a lot of money. She gave $500 to a friend who owns a damaged bar. A $200 gift card went to the checkout lady at Kmart for her sister in N.J. And Adams recently offered a $1,000 check to the damaged Lower East Side Girls Club.

Adams relies on her judgment — she gives whatever seems like a good use of money. Ken Berger, on the other hand, prefers a more methodical and measured approach. He's the CEO of Charity Navigator, a giving watchdog group that recommends donating to known charities. He's a bit hard on crowdfunding.

"It's virtually impossible to measure these little efforts because they have no data, track record, filings of any kind," Berger says, "and so the ability to objectively assess them is near impossible."

He says you should donate only to people you know and trust. Jennifer Elwood, executive director of consumer marketing at the American Red Cross, agrees with that line of thought and says everyone should help, even if that means not giving to formal charities like the Red Cross.

"It's really up to everyone who wants to help in their own individual way," she says. "Whether that's through us, or through another organization, or an individual in their community, we're absolutely supportive of that."

The Red Cross is embracing crowdfunding with Sandy campaigns of its own on two different websites, IndieGoGo and CrowdRise. Each site is pulling in more than $1 million, which is a pittance compared to the $170 million in total donations to the charity. The organization says it will have more than half of it left for long-term Sandy rebuilding.

Elwood says the Red Cross has the resources to stick around and continue donating. Solo fundraisers like Jenny Adams, however, tend to run on shorter fuel.

"I think if we had a hurricane again tomorrow, though, I might take a break," Adams says with a laugh.

Copyright 2013 WNYC Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnyc.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One thing we see after a disaster is a lot of Americans rushing to give money to help, but how much and how fast are often determined by technology. After the earthquake in Haiti, texting small donations became standard practice. Now, Hurricane Sandy has shown crowdfunding websites are a tool for quick-response giving. These are sites where anyone can create an online fundraising webpage and share it on social media.

This is the subject of today's bottom line in business. Alex Goldmark has the story from New York.

ALEX GOLDMARK, BYLINE: More than a month after Hurricane Sandy flooded the Alphabet City neighborhood of Manhattan, Jenny Adams is still walking around, giving out help to her neighbors.

JENNY ADAMS: This is Jenny Adams. I was just going to tell her I'm on my way. Yeah, just tell her we're coming by to give them a check.

GOLDMARK: Today, she's giving $1,000 to the Lower Eastside Girls Club, which was damaged. Adams doesn't work for a charity or a foundation. She's a 32-year-old writer who started an online fundraising campaign on the crowdfunding website, GoFundMe. Brad Damphousse is the founder.

BRAD DAMPHOUSSE: You can literally sign up, go through the steps presented to you on GoFundMe, share your campaign on Facebook, Twitter, email, and begin accepting credit or debit card donations online in under a minute.

GOLDMARK: There's a 5 percent processing fee, and that was just fine by Jenny Adams. She added a dramatic picture of her flooded street to her page, and asked for money so she could give out to her neighbors. Six days later, she was trying to plan out how to spend $10,000, and had to shut the page down.

ADAMS: There were certainly people who gave me a fair amount of money that I have never met and don't know.

GOLDMARK: People usually use GoFundMe to tactfully ask loved ones for help with medical bills or expensive life events, like buying an engagement ring. Spending disaster donations, though, is trickier than cutting one big check, and Adams has no formal training in relief work. It quickly became a thoughtful scramble to spend the money.

ADAMS: People are like, what? You're just going to give me $500? And I'm like, yeah. I'm just going to give you $500.

GOLDMARK: She was buying bundles of jackets, blankets and food at Kmart and Target, then checking around with needy neighbors, offering them out. She gave $500 to a friend who owned a damaged bar. A $200 gift card went to the checkout lady at Kmart for her sister in New Jersey, whatever seemed like a good use of money. That could be okay. But Ken Berger prefers methodical and measured. He's CEO of Charity Navigator, a giving watchdog group that recommends donating to known charities. He's hard on crowdfunding.

KEN BERGER: It's virtually impossible to measure these little efforts, because they have no data, track record, filings of any kind, and so the ability to objectively assess them is near impossible.

GOLDMARK: He does say if you know the person and trust them, donate away. And that's also how Jennifer Elwood sees it. She handles marketing at the American Red Cross, but encourages everybody to help, even if it could mean not giving to a formal charity like hers.

JENNY ELWOOD: And it's really up to everyone who wants to help in their own individual way. And so whether that's through us, or through another organization or through an individual in their community, we're absolutely supportive of that.

GOLDMARK: The Red Cross is embracing crowdfunding with Sandy campaigns of its own on two different websites, IndieGoGo and Crowdrise, each pulling in more than a million dollars. That's a pittance compared to the $170 million in total donations to the charity, so much that the Red Cross says it'll have more than half of it left for long-term Sandy rebuilding.

But Elwood says the group has the resources to stick around. Jenny Adams, on the other hand, is tired.

ADAMS: I think if we had a hurricane again tomorrow, though, I might take a break.

GOLDMARK: She has about $2,500 left to spend. For NPR News, I'm Alex Goldmark, in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.