When The Internet Opens Its Wallet

Mar 13 2013 @ 6:52pm

Max Sidorov’s campaign to give bullied bus-monitor Karen Klein a vacation, sparked by a distressing YouTube video, raised $700,000 last year. In response, Seth Stevenson worries that the Internet is misdirecting charitable donations:

Charities have always used poignant, individual stories to play on people’s emotions and open up their wallets. But the idea was that you should donate to the charity, not to the individual sad sack with the most heart-wrenching video or the most prominent link on Reddit. Likewise, political and social causes have long used the specter of bad behavior to lobby for new laws and policies—but rarely to round up an angry mob that tracks down specific offenders. It seems we’ve decided it’s more fun (and much easier) to collaborate in making one person happy or unhappy than it is to work together to change the underlying context.

Felix Salmon counters:

[Surely] the real reason why so much money flowed to Karen Klein [was that the] people who gave her money felt really good about doing so. They weren’t trying to change the world, they were just making themselves feel good, and helping out a victim of bullying at the same time. It’s the story of most successful Kickstarter campaigns, too: the feeling-good-about-giving part is much more important than the ostensible commercial transaction.

The internet is the greatest disintermediating force the world has ever known, and it’s going to have to change the way that charities campaign — at least with respect to the ones who like to use individual stories as a way of raising collective funds. That worked much better when you couldn’t help the individual directly. Nowadays, as a charity, you either need to give people the belief that they are helping the individual (as Kiva does, for example). Otherwise, you risk being disintermediated entirely by the likes of Max Sidorov.