A Case of Relief Renewed: Manatee County Chapter of the Red Cross

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Article ImageCompany: The American Red Cross
Governed by volunteers and supported by community donations, the American Red Cross provides relief to disaster victims and helps people prevent, prepare for, and respond to emergencies. The humanitarian organization's Manatee County Chapter serves residents of Manatee and Hardee Counties, a roughly 1,530-square-mile area that encompasses Bradenton, Wauchula, and other cities and towns near Florida's Gulf Coast. Officials say the chapter—one of nearly 880 Red Cross field units nationwide—trains 12,000 local citizens in first aid and CPR each year; its 1,200-plus volunteers stand ready to assist residents affected by hurricanes, fires, and other disasters. www.manateeredcross.org

Manatee County Chapter officials were well aware of their Web site's shortcomings long before 2005's record-breaking hurricane season. Besides being technically difficult and time-intensive to manage, the site was not equipped to accept online donations, which prevented the chapter from capturing a slice of the $166.2 million in online gifts nonprofits received in 2004, according to a Chronicle of Philanthropy survey.

"If you don't have a good site, you're missing out on a lot of opportunities," says Bobbi Larson, the chapter's public affairs and financial development associate. "In the past, our site was manned by volunteers with incredible technical expertise, but it was very difficult for lay people to manage. We wanted to make it easy for anyone to update our site so we could keep it fresh." Officials also wanted to "capture that audience that only operates online," she says, and to make online giving possible for site visitors eager to support local efforts.

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The Problem in Depth
Manatee County Chapter officials always are pressed for resources, but never more so than during hurricane season, from June 1 through November 30. In recent years, in times of emergency, residents of the areas the chapter serves increasingly had turned to the Web for real-time shelter status and emergency response information—a reality Larson says her office wasn't equipped to handle. Although she had a couple of Web-savvy volunteers who posted updates to the site, Larson says she still had to "do the research, write the text, tell them where to put it, find photos," and handle other content management-related tasks associated with site maintenance. "It takes the same amount of time to do the whole thing yourself," she adds, "and time is something I often don't have."

In retrospect, Larson says there wasn't a single "aha" moment that crystallized the need for an enhanced Web site. Instead, she points to a growing awareness of "just how critical the Internet had become to organizations like ours that need to be able to respond quickly in times of crisis and that rely on the community we serve to support us with volunteer and financial help." (Because the chapter's existing site could not accept online donations, visitors who wished to give had no choice but to do so either by phone or mail; those who preferred to give online could only do so via the national organization's site.)

Larson says feedback from both volunteers and constituents also convinced chapter officials that they needed a more intuitive site. Their audiences wanted to be able to access current information on their health and safety training programs, disaster preparedness planning, upcoming events, and volunteer opportunities at any time, rather than being limited to office hours. "They also wanted to be able to register for classes, purchase tickets for special events, and make donations," she says. "We soon realized that providing these services online would help us better serve our communities in times of crisis. When evacuations are under way, we need to be able to communicate to residents which shelters are open and which are full, rather than just provide a static list of locations. Once a crisis has passed, we need to be able to provide the most current information available to help coordinate relief efforts. Having all this online," she points out, could "essentially keep our doors open around the clock."

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