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Hope for Haiti shows telethons still work in the text era

Haiti, January 26, 2010

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James Poniewozik

TIME Magazine blog
January, 2010

Right after the Haiti earthquake, my wife and I, like lots of other people, decided we should donate some money to relief, as soon as possible. We decided on a figure, went online, and sent the money (to Mercy Corps, largely because it was the same organization we donated to after the Indian Ocean tsunami).

Last Friday, I sat down to watch George Clooney's Hope for Haiti Now telethon, mainly out of professional obligation, because I had already donated. Naturally, I made it maybe 20 minutes into the broadcast before I opened my browser and donated more.

In 2010, you might think that the big telethon has been superseded by technology. Clooney's Hope for Haiti Now telethon was an ambitious, noble undertaking, but by the time it aired, needed money had been pouring in through online and text donations. Would there be an audience? Would they open their wallets?

Apparently so. Reportedly, Hope for Haiti drew a viewership of 83 million, and has raised $61 million so far. In those numbers, somewhere, must be a lesson in how the psychology and technology of charity work.

After the 9/11 attacks, Clooney helped organize America: A Tribute to Heroes, another multinetwork telethon. It aired ten day later and raised some $30 million. Now that was still in the Internet and cell-phone era, but smartphones and commerce-by-text was not nearly as widespread as it was now. I had to wonder—with personal tech making it so effortless to contribute fast—whether it could have as much effect.

But as I proved in my own way, even with a fragmented media audience, there is, on rare occasions, an advantage to TV's ability to concentrate a big audience and deliver a single message. (In my case, it was a story about earthquake orphans during the telethon that opened my pocket again.)

It's not that people didn't already know about Haiti. It's not that they couldn't already have donated. But there are so many options and so much need that it could be difficult for people to pull the trigger. A telethon like Hope for Haiti can still do what big media does best: focus attention on a single narrative of need and provide a single course of action.

Now: did I end up donating more money than I otherwise would have had the telethon not existed? I'm not sure I can answer that question even when it comes to myself. It's possible that when I donated immediately I set a figure in mind, and only the emotional appeal of the telethon made me raise it. But it's also possible that, on some level, I decided to give some money to an organization, and mentally set aside more to give later; the telethon then gave me an arbitrary time and recipient for the gift.

What I'd be most curious to know, and can't begin to guess at, is whether there's a set amount that a populace is likely to give in a tragedy, or whether that amount can be increased by the right use of technology and media.

If it's the latter, I don't know whether the decentralized text-giving campaign raised more money than people otherwise would have given (by making a large amount of small gifts effortless and almost invisible) or if the centralized telethon upped the total more by giving the crisis a powerful focus.

I only know that so far there are 61 million reasons that telethons are worth something still. And counting. Those of you who watched: do you think the show moved you to give?