By Todd Cohen
helping.org, the AOL Time Warner Foundation Web site dedicated to giving, volunteering and nonprofit resources, posted steady traffic and growth in online giving during its two-year run, despite tough times for e-philanthropy, the foundation said.
The site, which in November 2001 was folded into a new site, networkforgood.org, also showed that e-philanthropy is here to stay and will be driven by causes, not simply by the impulse to give, says David Eisner, the foundation’s senior vice president.
“People aren’t motivated by the action of giving,” he says. “They’re motivated by the cause they care about.”
Network for Good, the San Francisco-based nonprofit that runs the new Web site, also has made some executive changes — naming a former Internet consultant to nonprofits to the new post of chief operating officer, and announcing its CEO has taken a leave of absence.
helping.org site, launched in October 1999, generated $20 million in donations and connected 185,000 volunteers with nonprofits.
Three-fourths of those donations were made after the Sept. 11 attacks, which also prompted a five-fold increase in volunteering.
helping.org attracted about 500,000 visitors a month before the attacks, says Eisner, a member of the board of Network for Good, created by AOL, Cisco Systems, Yahoo! and their foundations and partners to run the new site.
After Sept. 11, Eisner says, monthly traffic grew to about 10 million visitors.
Online giving grew steadily at helping.org, he said, from about $500,000 in its first year-end holiday season in 1999 to nearly $2 million for all of 2000, including more than $900,000 in December alone, and to about $3 million in 2001 until Sept. 11.
In December 2001, online giving totaled more than $2 million for both sites during the transition to the new site.
“At a time when the entire industry was in turmoil, when big players like Charitableway went out of business, the fact that we were the number-one driver of giving online and the number-one contributor to the number-one volunteer engine [VolunteerMatch.org] made us feel very positive about really what was a very nascent product,” Eisner says.
“We’re really trying to do something that’s very hard and hadn’t been done before,” he says. “The trick is to continue steady growth.”
AOL generated most of helping.org’s visitors, he says.
“Whenever AOL featured it was when we had the highest level of traffic,” he says.
AOL donated more than 1 billion “impressions” – pages, each viewed by a single person, containing links such as ads promoting helping.org or news stories referring readers to the site.
“What worked best was connecting into news stories,” Eisner says.
The foundation set no targets for use of helping.org, he says, although it designed the site to handle online giving and volunteering that “dramatically exceeded” – by about half – the actual results.
“That was fine because if we had hit them, then we would have been out of capacity,” he says.
Generally, he says, people initially responded to e-philanthropy and to helping.org much as they did to e-commerce three or four years ago – “window-shopping” at different sites, reluctantly using them because of fears about security and privacy, and visiting helping.org mainly to find information before following up by taking action offline.
Persuading other sites to point to helping.org was tough, he says, until the Sept. 11 attacks triggered a surge in links and referrals, and in online donations.
That increase, he says, signaled the arrival of online charity.
“Generally, the use of e-philanthropy broke through several levels of public adoption as a result of Sept. 11,” he says. “There’s a much broader awareness in the public about how the Internet can fulfill their desire to help out.”
While e-philanthropy ultimately may take many forms, he says, helping.org “showed that there is an opportunity for the Internet to play a role in democratizing philanthropy,” connecting people with smaller nonprofits that might not be able to afford to reach them using media such as direct-mail or TV.
Ken Weber, former senior director of nonprofit services in Arlington, Va., for CommerceOne in Pleasanton, Calif., has been named chief operating officer of Network for Good.
Chris Sinton, San Francisco-based senior director of the ePhilanthropy office for San Jose-based Cisco assigned to serve on a voluntary basis as fulltime president and CEO of Network for Good, has taken a 90-day leave-of-absence.
And Lisa Aramony, vice president of AOL Time Warner Foundation, has been named acting CEO of Network for Good.