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Katrina spurs tripling in donations to World Vision

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By Todd Cohen

In the months following the South Asia tsunami late last December, World Vision in Federal Way, Wash., received $55 million from 70,000 new U.S. donors in addition to existing donors who typically give $70 million during the same period.

The Christian relief agency, which benefits more than 100 million people in nearly 100 countries, normally relies on eight processors to handle donations, which last year exceeded $800 million.

But to handle the surge in giving after the tsunami, World Vision activated four additional processors that are built into its server but that it pays for only when used.

In the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina, donations that World Vision is handling are running at three times normal, says Will Randolph, chief information officer.

“That extra available capacity is allowing us to support the demand,” he says. “It was not only the most cost-effective solution for our day-to-day needs, but it provided the solution that fit the needs of our business, which is the ability to support sudden spikes in our transaction needs.”

Formed in 1950, World Vision custom-built a computer system more than 20 years ago to track information about donors, donations and the distribution of those donations.

During that period, that system handled steady growth in donations, which totaled $500 million in 2002, Randolph says.

“As we grew, our cost of technology was exceeding that growth and we needed to make a change to support our focus on keeping our costs down,” he says.

In October 2003, World Vision activated an Oracle database running on Hewlett-Packard hardware that Randolph says “supports our current and future growth without a commensurate increase in the cost of technology support.”
Donations, for example, grew 18 percent from 2003 to 2004, while overhead costs fell to 13 percent of revenue in 2004 from 16 percent in 2001.

The new system, says Karen Kartes, communications manager, is part of a larger strategy to reduce costs instituted by World Vision’s president, Richard Stearns, a former president of Parker Brother Games and a former president and CEO of Lenox Inc., a gift and tableware company.

The system, which currently supports 3.6 million donors in the United States alone, also has enabled World Vision to better track and make more effective use of data on donors, donations and the distribution and beneficiaries of gifts, Randolph says.

Two years ago, for example, the charity created an online version of the Gift Catalog it had created nine years ago that lets donors support specific needs such as livestock or well-drilling for needy communities.

In the past, the charity had to sort through millions of paper forms that donors used to specify how they wanted their gifts used, Randolph says.

The new system makes that process much quicker and easier, he said, and helps World Vision better track donor preferences and seasonal giving patterns, and target appeals based on that information.

“We can use technology to track cyclical trends and plan in advance to be able to provide services where they’re needed,” Randolph says.

Kartes says the new technology has allowed World Vision to better serve donors.

“If you make a donation,” she says, “World Vision will strive to send you appeals that are targeted to your specific interests.”

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