Reading newspaper articles about tragedies and in Africa made Elizabeth Stein, editor in chief of the student newspaper at Hunter College in New York City, want to cry. With literally only $1 in her checking account, Ms. Stein felt helpless about addressing the issues of hunger on the continent.
But then she discovered The Hunger Site (www.thehungersite.com), one of several websites where people can make a donation to a charity without spending a dime. The "it's free" tab is a welcome sign for Americans like Stein, whose hearts happen to be bigger than their wallets. "I love that I can help someone for free," she says.
Launched in 1999 and operated with five other similar sites by CharityUSA based in Seattle, The Hunger Site raises money for charities through sponsors whose ads appear after visitors click on certain links. After The Hunger Site became hugely successful, CharityUSA opened other sites, including The Breast Cancer Site and The Animal Site. CharityUSA sites primarily do not advertise their sites, but President Tim Kunin says they sometimes use Google ads to promote products the site sells to raise additional money for charities.
"Almost all of our advertising is done by word of mouth," Mr. Kunin says.
Clicking campaigns have popped up everywhere from high schools and universities to online forums. Users can even sign up for a daily e-mail reminder to click.
Jim Pierce of Elkton, Va., uses phishook.com, a music forum, to issue a weekly challenge to readers to click on The Hunger Site. Each week, he rewards someone who clicked that week with music freebies, such as CDs.
Mr. Pierce began clicking on the site in 1999. Initially, he monitored his e-mail to make sure his information wasn't being sold. He saw no increase in spam. "I drew the conclusion that this was ... an opportunity to do something good every day without having to spend a dime – and by doing no more than clicking on a link, looking at a few ads, and letting the advertiser pay to do some real good," he says.
The Hunger Site distributes food through Mercy Corps and America's Second Harvest. Charities are chosen not only by the work that they do, Kunin says, but also by their understanding of the Internet. "We want them to be conversant with the Web," he says. "Our clickers are going to want to go to their site to learn more about them."
In 2005, visitor clicks funded more than 38 million pounds of food – an increase of 3 million from 2004, the site says. The Hunger Site's popularity is growing, but not nearly as quickly as its sister sites. The Breast Cancer Site and The Animal Site may be faring better because they're domestic issues, Kunin suggests. "Some people really only care about one issue, so they come and click for that one issue and then leave," he says.
Though The Animal Site received more than 8 million more clicks than The Hunger site last year, organizations supported by The Hunger Site aren't complaining. Since its inception, The Hunger Site has donated more than $1 million to Mercy Corps. That money is "critical," says Mercy Corps Chief Development Officer Matthew De Galan.
In fact, when the site shut down temporarily in 2001, Mr. De Galan took the first flight to Seattle and camped outside The Hunger Site's offices until he could find out what had happened. Though the capital generated from the clicking is substantial enough, De Galan adds that The Hunger Site also brings thousands of new donors to Mercy Corps.
The ease of online giving has spawned several websites that share similar goals, but employ various methods to raise funds. In addition to the click sites, users can make donations by changing their Web-based e-mail accounts, switching their preferred search engine, or even joining an online networking group.
The level of success among charitable click sites does vary. Freedonation.com, for example, targets several issues, including cancer and homelessness. For every click, sponsors pay a few cents to sponsored organizations. One charity listed on Freedonation.com, Mothers Supporting Daughters with Breast Cancer, received no money this year or last year, says president Charmayne Dierker. "Not enough people have been clicking," she says.
Years ago, however, Ms. Dierker used to receive annual checks from the site. "In the early days, when the first check came to us, I nearly fainted," she says. "It was something like $600. As the years have gone by, it has waned, though."
The ease of giving on the Web may seem too good to be true, but Stein says, "My skepticism doesn't matter too much if all I have to do is click. If I were donating actual funds, I would want more information."
Back when she was in high school, Laurel Fantauzzo says she clicked on The Hunger Site every day. She, too, was suspicious of the site, but kept doing it "out of the lingering hope that practically doing nothing did something."
She doesn't habitually click now. But last year, Ms. Fantauzzo, a 20-something editorial assistant for Dell Magazines, went back to one of the sites and went the extra mile. She sponsored a family's food supply in central Africa through a cash donation. "What I suspect is that maybe they have this click thing as a psychological effort to make people feel accomplished," she says. "Like, they may think, 'Giving was so easy, I can give some more, and it will still be easy.' "
1. Use a different search engine: Charitycafe.com donates money to the World Wildlife Fund, Oxfam, and Greenpeace each time a user searches through its website. The site uses Ask Jeeves and Lycos to search the Internet. The two search engines fund the donations as payment for the Web traffic sent to their sites.
The site, which calls itself the world's first "search and donate free site," launched in October 2000.
2. Switch Web-based e-mail accounts: PlanetSave offers 25 MB of free e-mail space. Every time a user logs on to his e-mail account, PlanetSave sponsors donate money to "Friends of the Calakmul," a group that conserves the Selva Maya rain forest in Mexico.
3. Join a social networking site: New York University student Marek Grodzicki created a Facebook group pledging, "For every 1,000 people who join this group, I will donate $1 for Darfur." Though Mr. Grodzicki says he is "no millionaire by any means," as this story went to press the group had already garnered more than 453,000 members. He will tally up the numbers in January 2007, then make his donation. Other students have promised to match his pledge. Grodzicki's group has also inspired other students to begin similar groups on Facebook, pledging money for issues like breast cancer or global warming.
4. Buy a product: All of the CharityUSA sites have on-site stores, the profits of which go directly to charities. Rocker Bono just launched Product Red, in coordination with partners like Gap and Converse, to support the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Buy a shirt, some shoes or shades, and you'll be donating money.