Publishers Enlist E-commerce to Boost Charity Drives

By: Steve Outing It's nearing the holiday season, so many local news organizations will fire up their in some cases decades-old charity drives, where readers and viewers are asked to donate money, or contribute or purchase toys or clothing for the local needy. This year, however, an increasing number of news-sponsored charity drives are entering the information age, adding online transactions (e-commerce) as a new tool to drive more donations.

Some examples:

Boston Globe Electronic Publishing has created an online application to collect donations for the newspaper's annual holiday drive. The program, called Globe Santa, accepts credit card monetary donations via a secure Web form. Starting around Thanksgiving, Globe print readers will be directed to the Web address, and the Web site will begin promoting Globe Santa heavily.

Southam's Vancouver, Canada, newspapers are about to launch the Vancouver Sun Children's Fund and The Province Empty Stocking Fund, where money donations are sought. This year, readers will be able to donate money using their credit cards on the Web.

WRAL-TV Channel 5, in Raleigh, North Carolina, plans to seek credit card donations online during its Coats for the Children Campaign in December. The site already has an online store where it sells station merchandise, so adding e-commerce to the charity drive is simple.

Connect Oklahoma, the Web site of the Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, yesterday launched its Christmas Web site. One of the "ornament" advertisers is the local electric company, which is selling miniature trucks with the funds going to help those who can't afford to pay their electric bills. The power company is using Connect Oklahoma's e-commerce capabilities to collect orders. InfiNet, a Virginia-based newspaper company-owned Internet publishing services company and ISP, also saw some opportunities to encourage e-commerce being added to news organization charity drives. This year, it is offering its affiliate news companies (of which there are more than 170) free e-commerce packages to be used during this holiday season for charity drives. Some 16 newspapers and one TV station had signed up as of last week to take part in the offer, called the "We Care" program, according to InfiNet director of business development Ray Dunn.

The news organizations are taking a variety of approaches, though a common one is simply to collect money from credit card orders online. Another popular concept is demonstrated by the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina, which has partnered with a local toy store that will be packaging toys that can be bought online and then sent to the children's charity Toys For Tots. Web site visitors wishing to buy a toy select the item (discounted over regular prices) and buy it with a credit card; the newspaper collects the money on behalf of the store; and the store ships the toy to the charity.

OpenMarket contributes

InfiNet is making the e-commerce offer to its affiliates as part of a partnership with OpenMarket, an online transactions technology provider. News organizations can get a free one-time license to use OpenMarket ShopSite e-commerce software to run an online charity collection site this holiday season (through January 31). Infinet is offering hosting and support services through the promotion period.

Dunn says that the intent of the promotion is, of course, to help newspapers do a better job of serving their communities, and online charitable collection programs are likely to bring in additional money to community programs. A secondary motive is to expose more news Web sites to e-commerce, in hopes that they will begin using it for other purposes. Dunn says that InfiNet has sold about 50 ShopSite software licenses to about nine of its affiliate sites, leaving the majority of sites having not yet put a toe in the e-commerce waters. Papers purchasing the ShopSite licenses become resellers to local businesses which set up their own online stores.

Dunn won't make predictions about how Web site charity collections will do, but the hope is that the simplicity of donating money or purchasing a toy online will increase the charities' take from the news programs over traditional mail-in-money campaigns. He expects that this year those publishers experimenting with e-commerce-enabled charity drives will take a simplistic approach of asking for and collecting money, but there are other approaches to be tried down the road.

One possibility is to take the approach of public television and radio fund drives, which typically offer "premiums" to contributors. Barry Wadman, president of C-Systems, an e-commerce Internet development company that has developed several charity sites in conjunction with Microsoft, says a good approach is for a publisher to partner with a local retailer, and have the retailer contribute gift certificates or discount coupons to individuals who contribute to the charity. A department store might give $10-off coupons to anyone who contributes at least $25 to the charity by contributing via credit card on the Web; or a jewelry store might donate a gift certificate for a small bottle of a trendy perfume, which must be picked up at the store, for example.

Not only does this benefit the charity by raising additional money because of the incentives, but it's a win for the store in getting new customers to come in the door, says Wadman. For the participating retailer, it's a combination "do good" play with a marketing component built in.

Wadman is bullish on the concept of e-commerce-enabled charity drives. The money is collected immediately, versus many traditional non-profit funding drives (like public television) that collect pledges over the phone -- pledges that may or may not all be collected, he says. Also, on the charity sites he's done, the problem of bad credit card numbers is very small. Wadman, an e-commerce expert who's written books on the topic, is "surprised more people aren't doing this" because of the low cost and low risk of soliciting charitable donations online.

A final word

When it comes to online charity drives, it's worth remembering the etiquette of cyberspace. It's easy to be tempted as a publisher intent on raising money for a good cause to send e-mail to all your members alerting them to the online charity program. But that can backfire. No matter how well-intentioned a mass e-mailing to your user base might be, many recipients will consider the message to be spam. So find other ways to promote the cause.

Contacts: Ray Dunn,
Barry Wadman,

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This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at


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