The Journey

By Stephanie Baker

2010 kicked off with a blemish on philanthropy's generally squeaky-clean record.

A viral movement swept across Facebook in January as women began to mysteriously change their statuses by posting the color of their bras to "raise awareness" for breast cancer. It took a while for the wider population to catch on. But as a viral phenomenon, it was a success. It had intrigue, elusiveness and a little bit of naughtiness. What it lacked, however, was any indication of a successful effort to end the suffering of others – the very intent of charity.

Throughout the day statuses where changed, heads were scratched, and women enjoyed their little secret. Result: No money donated, nobody saved, cancer not cured.

Using the Internet to raise awareness can be a cost-effective way to spread your message. Humanitarianism's move to online platforms has also made things simple, quick, and convenient for the user. Giving donors the option of donating online from home at any time of day makes it easier for fundraisers to increase their revenue. Online transactions mean no mail to lose, no paper to process, no checks, no phonathons. The bottom line is that online availability means less money can reach a larger audience.

This combination of philanthropy and the Internet is effective. However, there is danger in using a viral campaign or an online discussion group if it doesn't promote any further action. Many social commentators have called this new trend "slacktivism".

Would-be philanthropists are eager to get on board with campaigns that encourage re-Tweeting a message, or joining a group to pledge support. The problem is that many of these groups or movements don't offer a way to make a real contribution.

The recent "bra color" movement is an example of a dead-end attempt at philanthropy that creates "warm fuzzies" for the "donor" and nothing else. This self-absorbed aspect of online philanthropy can be a major stumbling block if we aren't careful. Allowing users of social networking sites to post their "support" publicly brings an aspect of egotism that is at odds with the spirit of giving.

John Palfey and Urs Gasser comment on this phenomenon in their book, "Born Digital": "join[ing] a 'cause' on Facebook … is nothing more than a convenient way to make a statement, the digital equivalent of a 'Save the Whales' bumper sticker."

Clearly, displays of this type ultimately do nothing for the whales, but make the whale-lovers and their friends feel good. Social-network users' posting support for various causes is a harmless effort to be perceived (both by others and by the "supporters" in question) as someone with sound morals, but in reality it is pointless.

Daniel Lambert, a 21-year-old Facebook user recently posted his protest at those who created and joined the group "We are against rape."

"Using Facebook to join groups like this is to wear your ethics like a badge," Lambert said. "It takes no time to accept a request box and I believe most of these people will never take productive action."

Palfey and Gasser agree: "Internet engagement sites are usually only facilitators, rather than places of action; the civic engagement activities that result from online interactions often happen in the offline space."

While the intentions of these groups and movements like the breast-cancer awareness are good, we need to look at the way our generation approaches humanitarianism. We're sitting alone staring at a computer, removed and far away from people who are suffering and need help.

Being charitable is about trying to lessen and share in the suffering of other human beings. Online campaigns have made it easy for people to donate or to declare support but have removed us from feeling any pain or experiences of others. Being charitable is not supposed to be easy or trendy.

Scott Rodin, who teaches a course on philanthropy at Whitworth University, warns organizations against using online giving as the only way for people to get involved: "There is a difference between transactional and transformational giving. In transactional giving, organizations are concerned about what it will take for the donor to make a charitable contribution. In a transformational organization they are more concerned about building long-term relationships with givers and seeing a worldview change in their donors."

Rodin explains that both kinds of goals lead to donations. An organization's website allows donors to read testimonials and see where their money is going even if they aren't getting their hands dirty. They may be moved by online content and then take the opportunity to give.

"Online giving should be a part of an organization but not the end-all way to get involved," he said.

For the most part, our online humanitarianism has made goodwill conveniently compatible with a sedentary lifestyle, but there have been some redeeming movements despite this unsettling trend. The January 2010 Haiti earthquake relief efforts produced a new kind of technology-powered fundraising, in which individuals could text "Haiti" to 90999 to donate $10 to the Red Cross. Simple, quick, no credit cards. This approach shared many traits with online fundraising but the impact was much greater: Within a week, the Red Cross received more than $4 million in donations.

The appeal of this particular fundraising campaign? It was culturally unobtrusive. It fit neatly into the lifestyle of a generation of people who have by and large rejected older, less sophisticated means. The Red Cross capitalized on the passivity of our society in a way that has allowed a degree of efficiency that only 10 years ago was unimaginable. The central issue with slacktivism is that too often, we focus on step one, awareness, and neglect all subsequent steps that lead to action.