Technology altered charitable and volunteering industries in 2013

This year showed how volunteers and donors are ahead of the curve, and how charities need to innovate, experts say

Maikel Wise stands near destroyed carpet during a clean-up effort after the September Colorado floods.

It is day four and the rain hasn’t stopped. I am amazed at the moisture, since I have never seen rain like this in Colorado. Susan and I are getting apartment fever. From our windows, we see the puddles continue to grow into small ponds. There is a break in the weather, and we have to get out and walk. Crayfish are on the sidewalks. Streams are breaking their banks, reforming the land. Sirens are blaring in all directions. It is time to get back home. We don’t want to be a statistic or put someone else at risk.

The news says bridges and roads are gone. Emergency flashes across the bottom of the screen read, “There is a 5-foot wall of water moving towards Longmont. The latest count is that 12 dams have been breached.” My mind goes into survival mode.

And that was the easy part for Maikel Wise.

That excerpt is from a story Wise wrote for Yahoo News this month. He and his wife, Susan, live in Longmont, Colo., where mid-September floodwaters briefly turned parts of the northern Colorado town into a lake after days of torrential rains. Record-deep waters rushed through 17 counties along 200 miles of the state’s north-south corridor, caused $1 billion in damage and killed eight. Many roads connecting Colorado’s more remote towns won’t be repaired for months.

But as tough as withstanding the storm was, the aftermath posed more immense challenges. Enter the volunteers. About 450 residents, including the Wises, pitched in through the Wildlands Restoration Volunteers organization. Relief efforts began almost immediately. Wise remembers:

The clock is ticking. We have less than 72 hours before the mold moves in and possibly evicts the current tenants permanently. The flooded basement has swollen furniture that has to be cut up since it is too heavy to move. We don’t want to use electrical equipment because we may get electrocuted. The basement humidity is so high that I perpetually sweat. I get blisters on top of blisters and hope my now-ripped rubber gloves still provide some protection from the bacteria that certainly is everywhere. Nancy and her husband, Frank, are holding it together. I never see them cry when they pick up a picture on the floor, but they are not smiling too much either.

Over the next three days many of us show up. Thousands of pounds of wet carpet, electronics, wet wall (formally dry wall) and boxes of treasures are moved outside to be sorted. Most items are thrown away. The street is overflowing with decaying possessions and looks like a war zone.

Wise’s story is like many volunteers’ experiences in 2013: a dirty, visceral, roll-up-your-sleeves effort to help neighbors and others who suffered tremendous loss after tragedies and disasters. And this year saw plenty of need: continued Sandy cleanup, the Boston bombings, western U.S. wildfires, Midwestern tornadoes, the Texas fertilizer plant explosion, the typhoon in the Philippines and more.

Related: Healing the land, building community

Despite technological innovation in the philanthropic world and billions given annually, old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground campaigns are still necessary. Indeed, not all charity is accomplished by writing a check or texting a donation.

“In America, we have this unique opportunity and interest to serve,” says Wendy Spencer, the head of the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that works with 5 million volunteers, including AmeriCorps and Senior Corps. “It’s in our DNA. It’s what we wake up and do. We want to help others.”

About 27 percent of Americans age 16 and older — roughly 65 million of us — volunteer at least once a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Volunteers spend a median of 50 hours assisting others annually. Women help more than men, married couples more than singles, and, at 32 percent, 35- to 44-year-olds volunteer the most.

Volunteers help themselves, too. Spencer says 2013 data shows that the unemployed who volunteer increase the likelihood of landing work by 27 percent. In rural areas, it jumps to 55 percent.

“It levels the playing field,” she says.

How did you help in 2013?

Continue this conversation: If you volunteered or helped raise funds after a tragedy or natural disaster — even if it didn’t generate big headlines — we’re interested in your story. Join our conversation on Facebook and share your “how I helped” story and photos.

Related: Read more stories from Sandy volunteers in New York and New Jersey:

Helping our Jersey neighbors, long after Hurricane Sandy left

Hurricane Sandy disaster relief with Oxford College's alternative spring break

Building houses, rebuilding lives after Sandy

Georgia college students Amy Van Pelt and Sagar Vira volunteer after Hurricane Sandy.

Staying afloat in the digital age

Volunteerism’s partner in good is, of course, charitable donation. Experts reached for this story stress that we can’t provide relief without millions donating billions. Money, as it is most everywhere, is king.

Americans and companies donated an estimated $316 billion to charities in 2012, according to Giving USA Foundation. Two-thirds of all Americans donate, and the average donation for households that give is more than $1,500, says Dr. Una Osili, a philanthropy expert at Indiana University. (Partial 2013 data is not yet available because the studies use tax-return information.)

Organizations like Network for Good and Dunham+Company help charities of all sizes secure those funds, making it easier for charities to locate donors, understand their behavior, keep them active and scale efforts.

Technology is central to that strategy, and it’s significantly altering philanthropy. In the first half of 2013, for instance, online donations through Network for Good climbed 14 percent, while overall giving grew just 1.5 percent. That’s true across all demographics. An October survey commissioned by Dunham+Company says more seniors are donating through charities’ websites: Forty-seven percent of donors 60 and older give directly via a site, up from 37 percent in 2010.

But charities today still grapple with a cart-before-the-horse problem: Donors posses the tech tools to give, but charities, in aggregate, straggle behind. For sure, giants like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army boast resources to be cutting-edge, but many charities necessarily must focus on everyday fundamentals — “the blocking and the tackling,” says Rick Dunham, CEO of Dunham+Company.

“Unfortunately, most charities are way behind the curve,” he says. “For the most part, less than a third of charities have done any kind of significant online innovation. A lot of times that comes down to budget and lack of resources internally. They’re lucky just to have a website.”

Innovating is vital. Americans donate via the Web or mobile device during major disasters and tragedies, while nonemergency funds are generally given through traditional methods. But the overall trend is toward electronic methods, and pouncing on our desires to donate digitally should be charities’ priority, says Stacie Kronthal, Network for Good’s vice president of partnerships.

“Digital giving seems to follow trends of e-commerce with a slight lag,” Kronthal says, and charities should mimic donors’ online behavior — especially multidevice multitasking. Toward that, Network for Good developed Donate Now, a tool charities use to entice donors to give through websites, social media, smartphones, emails and more.

Simply, it’s shouldn’t be hard.

“It should be easy to give a little bit to charity in your regular, everyday life,” Kronthal says, especially for younger donors who want to give small amounts more often — rather than a big chunk at Christmas. Network for Good’s partnership with Google offers a tool called One Today that allows donors to give $1 a day to different needs.

There’s no reason to panic, though. Online donations in 2013 still represented less than 10 percent of overall giving. And the multifaceted approach of online strategy mixed with tried-and-true snail mail still works best. For instance, about 17 percent of donors give through an organization’s website when they’re asked by a mailed appeal letter, Dunham+Company’s survey said. Only 2.7 percent do so in response to emails.

Technology aside, Osili says economic trends will mold how Americans direct charitable dollars. In the recession, donors cut gifts to dispensable subsectors (for example, culture and the arts) and gave to more basic needs like homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

But in the recovery, Osili says, donors returned “to their pre-recession priorities” — the arts, environment, health and education.” In 2012, culture and humanities contributions rose 7.8 percent, and environment and animal charities saw 6.8 percent annual growth.

Left to right, front row: Brandye Taylor, Amy Greco, local news anchor Lance West, Ginger Musick, Laura Atterbury, …

Volunteer or donate? How about both?

Volunteers and charitable donors live symbiotically. Still, we’ve all heard the pleas from charities after disasters: Send money. We don’t need volunteers — at least not now.

But when you’re Tara Van Hauen and you’ve witnessed a howling, 210-mph monster twister churn through 17 miles of suburban Oklahoma City, tear apart your community and kill schoolchildren, it’s too hard to sit on your hands.

“Jump in with both feet,” she says.

So she did. Van Hauen and four Oklahoma residents witnessed how the town of Moore’s May 20 tornado, which killed 25, injured 377 and caused $2 billion in damage, devastated so many, including 80 teachers whose classrooms vanished in just minutes. In response, the five women — Laura Atterbury, Amy Greco, Brandye Taylor, Ginger Musick and Van Hauen — created Restore Moore: Project Teacher, a community drive to raise $500 for each teacher.

News spread quickly through social media and word of mouth, and within weeks, the group hauled in $118,272.71, or $1,478.40 for each teacher. Everyone donated — children’s groups, strangers, even tornado victims.

It’s a lesson that charitable donations and volunteerism coexist. The data prove it. Dunham says donors who volunteer give more than those who don’t: “What you will see is donors who are giving to you financially becoming great volunteers because they believe in the cause.”

Says Spencer: “What’s great about volunteers is when they become linked to a cause, they do a couple other things: They write checks, they bring family and friends, and they become advocates for the cause.”

Van Hauen wrote about her group’s efforts for Yahoo News:

We see the world differently now. We are incredibly thankful for the community we have, and we have been reminded that there is so much good still in this world and in the hearts of those around us. It has challenged us and caused us to look outside of ourselves and find ways to bless others. We are more aware of the needs of our own children’s teachers and school. We want to continue to “pay it forward,” and never forget that what started as a tiny plan to do something nice for the teachers turned into more than we could have ever imagined.

Here’s our advice: When tragedy affects your community, jump in with both feet. Think outside of yourself and look for ways to get out of your comfort zone. Be a part of your community, and always pay it forward! You never know what kind of impact you might have on the world around you.