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Adam Scott Taylor investigates the effect of the internet on charity work
Adam Scott Taylor on Thursday 7th April 2011
Photograph: Idea Go

It seems as if one cannot escape charity, or charitable people. Whether it be immediate as a bucket-wielding individual trying to disrupt your power-walk on Cornmarket, or rather the evening news' latest disaster report flashing up with a donation telephone number, it seems that the idea of charity is more prevalent in our lifestyles than we perhaps realise. For the majority of individuals that take little part in charitable activity, aside from the occasional donation, it is easy to overlook the quotidian presence that charitable organisations possess. This majority know when Red Nose Day is but are not prepared to stop for idealists on the street and may not think why FairTrade might be that few pence extra on the shelf. However, something that it is important to remember - whether we feel ourselves active in charity or not - is that more charity in our lifestyle is to be welcomed.

If this increased awareness of charity in the modern world is due to the efforts made on all levels from global organisations down to the most local and individual endeavours, then we must ask what same method does such a range of groups have access to that can effect this new presence? The answer is use of the internet. Even before a charity can think of using the internet for promoting awareness - which is the only real indicator of financial donations, for no-one will give without knowing to whom their money is going - the internet has become the primary method of setting up a charity.

The Charity Commission, a government body which registers and regulates charities in England and Wales, now has over 70% of charity registrations submitted online, and the trustees of existing charities can view and update their charity's information, complete annual returns and upload annual accounts. Last year there was a 24% increase in take-up of the Commission's online services, with over 75% of charities submitting their annual return or update via the website. As Christina Manicom of the Commission says, ‘Our online services make charities' interaction with us quicker, easier and more convenient and as a result, many charities are now using these'. Oxfam has taken this principle and transferred it to their customers by the opening of a new online shop which lists 100,000 items available in their high street shops so that the potential for purchase is increased when the item is not region-specific.

The internet's superiority in an administrative capacity has long been taken for granted by commercial business, and it seems that the charity sector is catching on fast. If the presence of charity has increased, it may well be that there is simply more charities; it is now easier for the inexperienced to found and sustain their organisation. Yet when 2.7m charities have viewed the Commission's Register in a six-month period, the internet's potential does not seem limited to administration. The internet provides the armchair donator with a greater involvement in the issues he wants to help with and hence he feels more vindicated in his action and more likely to donate in future; however, the donator 'on the fence', so to speak, is more likely to leap off onto the more generous side if online mediums are drawing him there. To visit the website of a large-scale organisation shows the extent of the influence that the internet possesses in being able to involve the public.

A section of the Save the Children website devoted to the Japan Earthquake Tsunami Relief immediately bombards the reader with interactive media: a ‘Crisis Report and Recovery Plan' is available for download, promoted as an ‘exclusive executive briefing document' in what first appears to be a bizarre secret agent-style approach, until one realises that this is all part of the charity's attempts to personally involve the individual in the context. There is also the option to read a survivor's story and a blog written by a member of the disaster and emergency relief team, to watch an interactive slideshow and video dispatches from affected areas, or listen in directly to conference calls from Save the Children staff who are responding to the emergency. At the bottom of the page, in the ‘Other Ways to Help' section, is the almost ubiquitous social media option: ‘Post the following message for your friends on Facebook or Twitter: I just gave to Save the Children to help survivors of the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan. You can too!' Finally, the subtly placed yet all-important hyperlink, framed in a red button, reading ‘Donate Now'.

Save the Children seem to have covered every sensory input available in their attempts to provide personal involvement, yet their is strong evidence that this approach works. Race Online 2012 is a campaign to extend internet use to every individual in the UK, and in their recent publication Survive and Thrive: A casebook of charity sustainability though technology the figures are emphatic. Race Online 2012 states that ‘Online fundraising raises around £10 for every £1 spent on direct costs. The average online donation is £30 compared to £15 for offline. When targeted, the average online donation is £54', and this is important when ‘only 33% of charity websites accept online donations'. It may be argued that online donating is lazy, but it's no more lazy than telephone donations and although financial sourcing will always be the obvious main goal of charity organisations, the term 'charity' is as much to do with appreciating the plight of another as it is about the steps taken to rectify. If it is 'lazy' to sit in a chair and give money, it is certainly not lazy to undergo this process of appreciation, and the internet is leading the way in helping the public understand why they are giving.

The old-fashioned will lament the new Oxfam online shop, labelling it a further destruction of face-to-face interaction in the same vein as social media. But small charities will always rely on physical presence, especially if there goal is not one reliant on growth. There will always be a village bake sale or sports teams bag-packing in supermarkets, even if they don't tweet about it. The online shop would not function without the physical shop receiving and cataloguing donations. For large-scale charities like Oxfam, the internet brings better financial rewards, while they still manage to involve the donator. This is why the ‘Survive and Thrive' report urges charities to ‘tell the powerful story of your work online to involve audiences - the deeper the relationships you build with them now, the stronger your networks for future fundraising or campaigning'.

Smaller charities use the internet to promote awareness, as well as receiving donations, so that the internet side of an organisation forms a parallel to their 'fieldwork': two environments to engage with, twice the potential for reward. In Oxford, Daniel Lowe believes that ‘the internet is incredibly helpful to RAG'. As OUSU Vice President (Charities and Community), Lowe understands that RAG's ‘most effective publicity is through emails and social networking', and in such an interconnected entity as a collegiate university any publicising of an event via social media gains more exposure than it otherwise would. This is the exponential benefit of friends of friends. ‘Nevertheless, the best thing we get out of the internet', says Lowe, ‘is online fundraising through sites like JustGiving and Bemycharity. Our big sponsorship events like LOST and Rag Bungee raise thousands of pounds online and I believe more people sponsor their friends and relatives because they can now do it with just a click rather than having to find their chequebook.'

Race Online 2012 would seem to agree with Lowe: ‘Justgiving.com has let more than 11 million people to raise £770 million for more than 8,000 UK registered charities since its launch in 2000'. Visiting RAG's brand new website, one immediately notices a box in the top right corner displaying the total raised so far this year, highlighting that a monetary total is an impressive indicator of success that can easily be described to others. Yet although charity work in Oxford achieves much unrelated to financial aid, RAG's identity as a fundraising organisation can sometimes divert attention from that more general sense of charity, of the help and appreciation which many people give without money being involved. It is not to say that RAG's work is not entirely admirable, but the Oxford example serves to illustrate that as the internet makes more and more money for charitable organisations, it is a welcome relief that it also provides a wider involvement with cause. Even if Save the Children are slightly zealous with their online interaction, they are still promoting a 21st century love of the neighbour.

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