Contributing and Engaging Online

Over the past month, the Red Cross has managed to raise over $35 million dollars for the Haitian earthquake relief through $10 text message donations. As the social media world's fervent excitement over this simple way to give has died down to a hum, it might be a good time to look at what this kind of fundraising means for the small-time philanthropist and digital activist.

For some, mobile giving may border on slacktivism: send a text message, pay your cell phone bill, don't think about the Red Cross until another major disaster strikes. Of course, many Americans are more engaged with both news about Haiti and social media than that, and, in fact, spent time reflecting on the tragedy in Haiti and debating the pros and cons of donating to a variety of relief organizations on Twitter. People are fully engaged with the issue they are contributing to. But we've seen plenty of examples of the opposite before: join a Facebook group promoting a cause and promptly forget about it; donate online to a charity and then delete their email alerts as soon as they hit your inbox. Let's face it - we've all done it. But how can you actually engage around the issues you try to support?

Ask questions

As people sought ways to contribute to the Haiti relief efforts, some got caught up in hoaxes on Twitter and Facebook. If you want to help, think critically about what you're being asked to contribute to or the information you're being asked to pass on. Is the receiving organization a reputable source? Has this rumor been confirmed? Citizens should ask and have a right to ask: Who's getting a cut? What exactly am I supporting? Are there better ways to contribute?

Of course, asking questions goes beyond vetting the organizations and causes you support. Simply gathering more information on an issue puts you in a position to engage more fully. Americans are now aware of Haiti's status as the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, but do we understand the social and political factors that contributed to that? If you are a fan of Greenpeace on Facebook, do you know what Greenpeace actually does to advance environmental justice? After you click that "Become a Fan" button or send in an online contribution, it should be easy to find out a little more about the cause you're supporting - there's plenty of information right there on your computer screen.

Share your knowledge

Don't be stingy with your new-found knowledge: tell people that you chose to donate to Oxfam because of reviews on Charitywatch.org, or that you've found some other creative way to contribute to the relief effort. Share the information you find with your online network - if you join a Facebook group or fan page to support a cause, take a minute to browse their website and invite your friends to support. Use your social networks to actively raise awareness and recruit more supporters. You can take this one step further by contributing information: do you have a compelling and relevant story to share? Say you join a Facebook group supporting a piece of legislation. Can you compile more research to share with the group?

Your awareness and participation puts you in a position to take action and connect with other people who care about the same things. These abilities - thinking critically, researching, and taking collective action - aren't new, but on they web they can mean the difference between falling for a hoax or contributing to a worthy cause, and shouting into a vacuum or adding your voice to a conversation.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey