Put your mouth where your money is

An emerging body of websites that can provide instant feedback on the use of aid money is sparking debate about whether such online tools could not only revolutionize non-profit fundraising, but also boost aid accountability.

The Kwale Subdistrict Hospital in Kenya announced earlier this week on German fundraising site betterplace.org that it needs US$855 to buy antibiotics to control a cholera outbreak. Three people have provided $88 so far. Two advocates have vouched for the project, while a visitor to the hospital has reiterated the  needs in a blog.

The “web of trust” that these different actors build will sway the member’s fundraising chances, said Joana Breidenbach, one of the co-founders of betterplace.org.

Breidenbach said these sites herald an era of more transparency whereby programme feedback is a click away and can be shared immediately with thousands – and with pictures as proof.

Nick Stockton, head of HAP-International, an organization that evaluates and certifies aid agencies, said the new tools have had a positive impact. “If these sites represent a growing trend in fundraising, the lesson we all must learn is there is a new generation of givers who want more evidence that their contributions are making a real difference.”

Jonathan Waddingham, charity champion for fundraising website JustGiving, confirmed this, citing supporters of a recent Twitter-inspired non-profit charity: water that was set up to raise money to build wells in Ethiopia. A few weeks after an online funding event – termed a “Twestival” – supporters could watch footage of the wells being built.

Whose voice

But Ben Ramalingam, head of research and development at ALNAP, an organization that aims to boost humanitarian performance through better learning and accountability, said while encouraging feedback is a positive development, people should not assume web-posted feedback is representative.

“New platforms for new voices on aid issues clearly have potential,” he said. “But will such mechanisms give a balanced range of information about a particular project? Or will they give prominence to the most controversial, visible viewpoints?…Blogs and social networking sites have a – perhaps undeserved – reputation for opinionated feedback with little attention to facts. More work is needed to strengthen the evidence-base of such tools.”

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Project evaluations should be impartial, independent and balanced and must meet six criteria as endorsed by ALNAP and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development donors, said Ramalingam. These include relevance; appropriateness; connectedness – whether short- and long-term goals match; and efficiency and effectiveness.

A number of studies have shown that many donors focus more on the act of giving rather than on its long-term impact in the above areas, Ramalingam noted. “Givers often lose interest as complex messages start to filter through. How do you better involve the donor in the process of giving and responding to feedback and adapting their giving practices accordingly? I am not sure these websites do that yet…instead you get a snapshot of what has worked and what hasn’t.”

But HAP-International’s Stockton said such feedback is nonetheless democratizing the aid business. “We’re not a long way away from the majority of beneficiaries having some kind of web access, so we need to become better at giving them [beneficiaries] some kind of quality-assurance.”

However, the World Bank says broad internet access is still a long way off for most developing countries.

For betterplace’s Breidenbach, projects become viable only through building trust among project implementers, beneficiaries and donors.

“The control comes from the [online] community,” she said. “If you have a critical mass of people involved, then you develop intelligent crowd-sourcing mechanisms…We don’t necessarily remove really silly projects – but they tend to get badly ranked.”

Though presenting projects on such forums opens well-established brand names to criticism, they are not shying away, said Breidenbach. Drawn by online fundraising’s low-cost and efficiency, Care International, the German Red Cross and World Vision have posted on fundraising sites in recent months.

Experts estimate offline or traditional fundraising methods, such as direct mail campaigns, use on average one-third of fundraising revenue.

“These sites do have the potential to add a missing element to the accountability and transparency puzzle,” Ramalingam told IRIN. “If the context is right, a well-articulated and timely bit of project feedback might well trigger an aid agency to change or improve something…but it won’t happen every time.”

aj/np