Responding to disaster (fast) with an emergency campaign

(Non-authoritative) advice on setting up a community campaign

On Tuesday, decease Beg to Differ learned that friend and barista extraordinaire  Anthony Lewis and his roommate Mark Douglas, view lost their apartment in a fire that consumed their 19-unit building in Ottawa’s The Glebe. They were both uninsured. But what could we do to help? Here’s a blow-by-blow of what we came up with.

(NOTE: we’re not financial, legal, or Web experts. This is just opinion based on trial and error. Know a better way? Let us know in the Comments!)

Mike Carroccetto, The Ottawa Citizen
Powerful photo by Mike Carroccetto, The Ottawa Citizen

But first: please give!

Sorry to give away the ending, but this is the solution we came up with to help our friends. Click the ChipIn button below if you want to contribute.

If you find yourself in this situation:

1) Reach out fast through social networks (both kinds)

DenVan on Twitter I originally heard from my wife who heard from some mutual friends from the Bridgehead coffee-shop community – an off-line social network.

Then, after reaching out by phone, e-mail, and Facebook to our very small circle, we realized that the boys needed a lot of stuff to start their lives again – and while they’re not wealthy, just re-stocking two wardrobes and basic furniture is going to be thousands of dollars.  But we didn’t have any clue how to start setting up a fund for them.

Twitter and Facebook turned out to be a Godsend. Within 30 minutes of asking the question, we had 20 or so responses with some great info and offers to help. Blogger Vicky Smallman and her husband Pat were especially helpful, calling around to Community Associations and politicians to find out what was already going on (thanks to all who helped).

2) Set up a bank account

Turns out that the front line in responding to local disasters is the good-old-fashioned community bank branch. They are eager to set up special accounts, and to physically collect donations.

What they don’t do well is allow you to easily set up online donations. Frantic Google searches turned up very little information.

However, even if you go with PayPal or another online payment option, you’ll still need a bank account, so figure out who and how to manage it and call a local bank as soon as you can. In our case this turned out to be the thing that took the most time, so get started early.

3) Set up a PayPal account

Hampshire CountyYes, there are other payment options, and PayPal a) isn’t perfect, and b) will charge transaction fees. But for us, it was the familiar, trusted name, and it lets you accept donations by credit card, cheque, and gives you access to other options like ChipIn(see below).

What wasn’t easy was figuring out what kind of account we needed. If you aren’t a registered charity (and who is in these situations?), the “PayPal Website Payments Standard” product is the one that is free to sign up for, but allows you to set up a “Donate” button like the one on this site that citizens in  Hampshire County, Mass. set up to help arson victims in their community (Thanks @Verrilliance).

At this point, you can simply start e-mailing or Facebooking the PayPal address to friends. So the next steps we took are optional, but there are some advantages.

4) Optional: Set up a blog

BlogIt’s helpful to have a simple, intuitive Web address as a central “clearing house” for information – but also to give as much evidence as possible that you’re a legit cause. BE COMPLETELY TRANSPARENT: use real names, and let people know what their money is being used for.

We used to set up our blog. , but Blogger or TypePad work just as well. If you’ve never set up a blog, it’s easier than it looks, but it’s helpful to get somebody experienced to help – as long as they’re not too fussy (fussy equals time). All you really need is a page with “how to help” links.

But note that while is fairly easy and offers flexible design templates, a WordPress “hosted” site doesn’t let you use the widget or even the PayPal “Donate” button, so there’s a trade-off.

Optional: I also bought “” from for around $10, and re-directed traffic straight to the blog.

5) Optional: consider

The service is free, and lets you use these nifty little widgets in almost any blog (except – grr).

The nice thing is that you can set a campaign limit, and you get the “thermometer” to track progress. But because it uses PayPal, it creates an extra click, so it’s definitely not required. It also slowed us down a bit, so in retrospect, we could have gone without it.

6) Back to the social networks

Then, once you’re set up, work it, work it, work it with your broader networks. In our case, we are just getting on this a few days after the event, so we may have lost the advantage of time. But hopefully this information can help others get started faster.

Idea for Social Entrepreneurs:

Someone needs to set up a site that makes this process DIRT SIMPLE for non technical people. Anyone want to take up the challenge?

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