Haiti Disaster Showcases the Humanitarian Power of “New Media”

The horrific earthquake in Haiti took hundreds of thousands of lives, disrupted millions more, and might prove to be the worst natural disaster of all time. Yet it’s heartwarming to see that, in spite of the ongoing economic malaise, people throughout the world unleashed their own power by opening their hearts and wallets through relief efforts on a scale never before seen.

Leading the way in expediting and facilitating these efforts, new media including email, mobile, and social platforms emerged to prove how much the worlds of technology and communication have grown in the few years since Hurricane Katrina. From everyday people to sophisticated players in the media scene to A-list celebrities, everyone was quick to embrace new and innovative opportunities for reaching out and giving, allowing both the relief efforts and ongoing news of the disaster to spread faster than wildfire.

Email Lays the Foundation

Email marketing, the granddaddy of new media, laid the foundation for much of the giving efforts, working as a direct channel for giving as well as in conjunction with other social and mobile campaigns. With the benefits of email marketing already well established, well known ESP Bronto partnered with the American Red Cross to launch the Free Emails for Haiti Relief campaign by offering Bronto customers an official Red Cross template and message they could send to their subscribers for free. Another ESP, Emma, provided a variety of complimentary “donation badges” for its customers to add to their next email campaign. Email marketers had the choice of linking the badges to Network for Good or pairing them with their own programs.

Meanwhile, retailers jumped on the giving wagon as well, from adding links or images asking for help to donating entire emails or product lines to support the relief efforts. J.Jill sent out emails to its database offering to match donations to the American Red Cross dollar for dollar up to $25,000. Rue La La, an online retailer that operates private sales, made an unprecedented offer and emailed its customer base to say it was suspending its site for a day and asking customers “to take the time – as we are – to make a donation to the American Red Cross Haiti Relief and Development Effort.”

Mobile Philanthropy Emerges

Mobile philanthropy also proved the key role it could play in cause-related fundraising as much of the financial support for earthquake-stricken Haiti came from text message donations handled by the major wireless carriers. From $10 donations to the Red Cross (text HAITI to 90999), to the Clinton Foundation’s Haiti Relief Fund (text HAITI to 20222), and to Doctors Without Borders (text DOB to 90999) among others, cell phone philanthropy pulled in tens of millions of dollars. By comparison, previous text message donations from U.S. wireless customers totaled only $400,000 after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to Jeffrey Nelson of Verizon Wireless.

And in a period of less than 48 hours, the American Red Cross received more than $35 million in donations, including $8 million directly from texts. “This is a great example of rapidly employing modern technology to support a vitally important foreign policy and humanitarian priority,” said P.J. Crowley, assistant secretary for public affairs at the U.S. State Department.

Tweeters Find a Purpose

While rumors have begun about throwing tweeting out with the bath water, Haitian-born rapper Wyclef Jean proved the power of his Twitter network by raising $1 million in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. After receiving tweets requesting donations to Wyclef’s Yele Haiti Foundation, Wyclef’s 1.3 million followers not only answered his call but also went on to re-tweet his appeal with the message: “Spread the word.”

And in a new twist to the “old-fashioned” telethon, Wyclef Jean in New York, George Clooney in Los Angeles, and CNN’s Anderson Cooper reporting from Haiti hosted a worldwide broadcast, Hope for Haiti Now: a Global Benefit for Earthquake Relief. Using another new technology to significantly raise the charity stakes, all of the musical performances from the event are available for $.99 per song through Apple’s iTunes store, with all proceeds benefiting Haiti through Hope for Haiti Now charities.

What About Me?

Finally, other organizations leveraged the power of social and business networks like Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn. MercyCorps was one of these and raised awareness and support by encouraging its donors to send social communications to their networks like “Joe Smith has raised $500 for earthquake relief. Can you do the same?” In addition Google’s Crisis Response page provides buttons for would-be donors to support UNICEF, CARE or over 20 other organizations involved in the relief efforts. They’ve also provided Creole translations through Google Translate, detailed maps and imagery, and a Person Finder to assist those trying to locate missing people in the country.

We Are the World

It’s an unfortunate certainty that natural disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Katrina, or the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting Sumatran tsunami will continue in our lifetimes. However, as new communications and other technologies continue to evolve, our world becomes a smaller place, making all of us next door neighbors with the ability to lend a helping hand, text, email, or tweet in times of need.

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