In the first days after the massive Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti, American charities were grappling with a happy aftershock: Unprecedented levels of donations were pouring in at record speed.
Despite a withering recession, near 10 percent unemployment, and a substantial loss of personal wealth, Americans demonstrated an outpouring of support. Within the first week, US charities had raised $275 million for Haitian relief, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Even more surprising was the speed of the generosity.
"We knew early on that donations were coming in quicker than for the tsunami and for Katrina," says Jonathan Aiken, spokesman for the Red Cross, which collected $112 million for Haiti in the first week. "It's astounding. The truth is, we ran out of adjectives a few days ago – it's been just remarkable."
In the first four days of the crisis, major US charities had raised $150 million for Haiti, far more than the $30 million raised in the three days following the Asian tsunamis or even the $108 million raised in the four days after hurricane Katrina, which hit much closer to home.
"It's coming in at a faster pace than [for] any other natural disaster so far," says Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
This rapid response may be the new face of disaster relief, a particularly welcome phenomenon for aid groups dealing with developing nations, which have few if any emergency stockpiles to help victims in the critical hours after a natural disaster. The question is whether this accelerated giving actually increases donations overall or merely compresses the time in which help is given.
Technology is a factor in the speedup.
"I think the most striking difference [in this disaster] is the volume of money raised by texting," says Claire Gaudiani, a philanthropy expert at New York University (NYU). "We have never had anything close to the volumes we've now raised through texting. We're seeing the power of individual acts of generosity – that is a stunning reaction to a disaster."
The Red Cross raised more than $24 million – more than a fifth of its total Haiti relief in the first week – through texting. All that would-be donors had to do was press five numbers on their cellphones and the Red Cross received $10, which was billed to the users' phone accounts. By contrast, the organization for all of last year raised only $190,000 through text-message donations.
With some 280 million cellphones in the United States, sending hundreds of billions of text messages a year, the appeal to charities is clear.
"Everyone's looking at mobile technology as the next big thing that will transform how charities operate," says Ms. Palmer. "It allows someone to see a problem and deal with it right away."
Charities are happy to ride the mobile-giving wave: More than 20 are collecting Haiti relief funds via texting through the Mobile Giving Foundation. Many more are doing so through other avenues.
Charities are also taking advantage of social media to broaden their reach.
Within a couple of hours of the earthquake, Oxfam e-mailed appeals to 400,000 people and leveraged its Twitter and Facebook accounts to spread the word. Within days, it had collected over $100,000 on its Facebook page alone.
"Facebook has been a fantastic tool for sharing information, but this is the first time we've seen it as a powerful tool for fundraising," says Oxfam spokeswoman Helen DaSilva.
And when momentum starts to slacken, charities pull out the big guns: Hollywood. Donors couldn't miss the star-studded support last week. George Clooney hosted an MTV telethon Friday. Meryl Streep plugged the relief effort during her acceptance speech at the Golden Globe Awards. Michelle Obama promoted the Red Cross on YouTube.
At its peak, the Red Cross says it collected $500,000 per hour when it advertised its text-donation feature during the Jan. 16-17 NFL playoffs. But when the tweets, texts, and celebrity endorsements decrescendo, charities are left with a daunting challenge – keeping people interested.
"At some point, people do get overwhelmed by the images and information," says Ms. DaSilva, of Oxfam. "It's natural for people to want to move on with their lives."
That point varies by disaster. As Katrina's devastation of New Orleans and the surrounding area became clear in the first six days after the hurricane, American giving surged to $457 million. The Haitian relief effort remains America's second-largest outpouring after one week, outpacing the $163 million raised in the first nine days after the Asian tsunamis. Will donations to Haiti keep coming?
"We all have to realize that when the immediate crisis is over, there will be a chronic crisis of establishing a better life for Haitians," says Ms. Gaudiani of NYU. "We'll need to do lots of reaching out with imagination and generosity. It'll be more complicated than texting $10."