It sometimes seems as though the Internet impacts virtually every aspect of our lives. We bank, we shop, we socialize, and now we donate online. Over the past few years, the nonprofit community has embraced the Internet to reach more donors and has effectively used technology to make giving easier and more convenient.
But to use the Internet primarily for fundraising is to tap only a small part of this powerful technology's potential. The reality is, the Internet has the power to provide us with the tools we need to respond faster to the people we serve and facilitate the operational transparency that twenty-first century donors have come to expect from the nonprofit community as a whole.
No disaster in recent memory with the possible exception of the 9/11 attacks has more starkly highlighted the potential of the Internet to enable American nonprofits to help others than last year's Gulf Coast hurricanes. In fact, the appropriate use of such technology might have expedited our ability to reach those who most needed our help, while insulating nonprofits from the type of criticism that is always leveled against us in the wake of such catastrophes.
The central criticism of nonprofits in 2005 was that they were too slow to respond to people affected by Hurricane Katrina (and later, Rita). That is misleading. It is not that we were slow to respond; first responders were on the scene as quickly as they could reach the Gulf Coast. Rather, it was the manual intake methods sufficient in the past that hindered our ability to provide meaningful, expedient assistance.
Hand-writing almost a million applications for help takes time. Processing those applications especially when they come to us on paper takes even longer. To say nothing of the costs involved in performing this type of intake on such a massive scale.
These old-fashioned methods were the reason unscrupulous applicants were able to abuse the system. Indeed, the manual processing of applications seems almost to invite the unscrupulous to take advantage of the system. After all, when nonprofits have so few ways to communicate effectively with one another or to coordinate their responses to disasters of this magnitude, what is to stop a dishonest person from receiving the assistance simultaneously from several different agencies?
The same online systems we use to fundraise could be adapted to better serve our missions. Performing intake online rather than by hand could cut our response time and the labor force in half. In much the same way, a secure, shared online database might significantly limit the effect of unscrupulous individuals by providing nonprofits with real-time information about who has already received assistance, in what amounts, and from which agencies.
Hurricane Katrina taught the nonprofit community many lessons, and as we consider them, we must pay careful attention to the role that online technology currently plays in our operation and the role it might play for us in the future. By implementing technology designed to enhance the flow of information between nonprofits, donors, government agencies, and recipients of aid, the nonprofit community will be better prepared to reach the persons we serve on a larger scale, and much faster, than has ever before been possible.
Dr. Keith Taylor is the founder and executive director of the Modest Needs Foundation, a national nonprofit that relies on human kindness and small change donations from individuals to help those who face small yet potentially catastrophic emergency expenses they cannot afford on their own.