Author:  Felicia Davis, Graduate Student in public relations at University of North Texas The Media’s Impact on the American Red Cross Fundraising and Volunteerism Efforts During Natural Disasters A Literature Review   Abstract: Mass Communication technology has changed the way of communication from public relations practitioners to media users. Generally, most people often feel compelled […]
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The Media’s Impact on the American Red Cross Fundraising and Volunteerism Efforts During Natural Disasters

Author:  Felicia Davis, Graduate Student in public relations at University of North Texas

The Media’s Impact on the American Red Cross Fundraising and Volunteerism Efforts During Natural Disasters

A Literature Review



Mass Communication technology has changed the way of communication from public relations practitioners to media users. Generally, most people often feel compelled to donate during a disastrous event or render aide even though they may have no connection to the event.In return they are contributing to the efforts of the American Red Cross mission.

The results provide a public relations model through media users among them social media becoming the largest. This study explores how different media methods are providing the American Red Cross with the availability to easily promote fundraising and volunteerism in particular during natural disasters.

The study will look further into the traditional and digital media thriving philanthropy efforts as well as answer three hypotheses, provide support through research methods, and connection to a theoretical basis of analysis.


The American Red Cross began on May 21, 1881 by Clara Barton. Her mission was “a humanitarian organization led by volunteers and guided by its congressional charter and the fundamental principles of the International Red Cross Movement. [It] provide[s] relief to victims of disasters and help[s] people prevent, prepare for, and respond to emergencies.” (Groscurth, 2011)

The American Red Cross is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable organization that is “organized, operated, and controlled by Americans’ in the United States.” (Groscurth, 2011)

The organization has seven fundamental principles including: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity, and universality.

Over the last 100 years the Red Cross has become a leader in natural disaster response and a partner with FEMA (Federal Emergences Management Agency). Given their active support the American Red Cross uses the media to reach out to the public for volunteers and funding.

“Almost 185 times a day the American Red Cross disaster workers help a family that has been touched by disaster” ( In 2010, they spent almost 270 million for the fiscal year “from July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2010 on disaster readiness and relief through the United States.”(

American Red Cross is built among local chapters that create and maintain a local disaster plan and resources for the needs of their region. In addition, chapters also participate in response training, preparedness meetings, and partner planning activities. One of the most important resources is corporate sponsorship which is thriving the Red Cross growth through the media.

The American Red Cross in 2010 developed the Annual Disaster Giving Program (ADGP) which gained 25 organizations including FedEx, John Deere, and Morgan Stanley. From partnerships to donations to the millions of American Red Cross members rending aid during a disaster and the media is providing a viral source in Barton’s mission.

Literature Review:

1.1 Fundraising:

Fundraising is essentially “the management of relationship between a charitable organization and its donor publics.” (Waters, 2008) The general population views fundraising as a primarily financial contribution, but in fact the principal is to build long-term relationships through trust and communication.

The efforts of the American Red Cross provide support to victims in natural disasters often leads to support by communities and country wide initiatives. Fundraising is the essential life line of the American Red Cross mainly foremer agencies. Media has definitely changed the way charitable nonprofits handle public relations and provide assistance to the public. Through research the use of media has changed the way the American Red Cross contributes to receiving monetary funds from donors.

Cindee Archer is the Online Media Manager for the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C.  says, “the Internet has definitely changed how the whole organization thinks.” (Sanborn, 2000) Archer continues to say during “ disaster time is crunch time for the Red Cross website, as it must not only handle monetary donations but also help visitors locate their local Red Cross shelter, find relatives in the disaster areas, get information on blood donations and volunteering, and keep up with breaking news all at the same time.” (Sanborn, 2000)

The use of media, in particular, social media is benefiting the American Red Cross through donations and donors by lending more access in a number of different methods in lending aid through monetary funds. The use of financial support in contributing to more volunteerism throughout the U.S is supporting to the American Red Cross efforts.

1.2 Volunteerism:

Along with fundraising volunteerism too is being reached more promptly with media. In 2010 the American Red Cross launched “a new learning management system that will host the many online training opportunities the Red Cross makes available.” (American Red Cross website)  The average American Red Cross volunteer is 50 to 59 but ages range from 10 to 80. Mainly, Caucasian females but a new study found the new strategic initiatives from the American Red Cross is receiving a more diverse set of volunteers.

The program is available to anyone regardless of location or age and the Red Cross is being able to identify the gaps in training though statistics. Before 9/11 people caught in a natural disaster would call the American Red Cross information hotline and request a disaster welfare information packet.

But, today traditional and digital media are changing the Red Cross system entirely. The American Red Cross basic training for volunteers is provided through five direct services including:  mass care, family services, health, mental health, and disaster welfare information also called (DWI).

The American Red Cross has provided traditional brochures for disaster victims and volunteers in several different languages and age groups. During times of emergences the mental health functions works with public affairs providing radio, television, and film interviews. Media has had an impact on the Red Cross as well as volunteers of the organization. During 9/11 American Red Cross dealt with a new type of disaster- man made destruction.

After a conducted survey provided by volunteers the Red Cross was able to identify key issues, successes, and failures in the planning and preparedness of the event. Through technology since 9/11 the American Red Cross has been able to develop stronger programs to support and train volunteers. With digital media the Internet and social networking are connecting volunteerism and Red Cross with longer-term relationships.

1.3 Traditional Media:

The traditional media used to be the primarily way of giving through mail or over the phone, especially during natural disaster. However, fundraising as a response to emergencies is generating to digital media for a larger, faster response to aid more conveniences. The use of publications through mail has went online to save on printing and paper, but the quality of information still provided in print is proving effectively for the American Red Cross.

In terms of reaching a variety of different generations, ethical groups, and incomes the use of traditional media has not faded completely but is becoming more transparent. The form of surveys, newsletters, mailers, and fliers are still a beneficial way of providing promotional event marketing to the various groups that may have limited access to the wave of new technology of the Internet.

While there was limited access to data on how effectively the traditional media is serving the American Red Cross it still proves to be available but less active than it was a few years ago.

1.4 Digital Media:

Social media is growing popularity and is effectively contributing to the American Red Cross philanthropy efforts. Through the Internet, social media networks, blogs, emails, and podcast the American Red Cross is benefiting thorough more valuable resources in reaching out to the public. The Red Cross is using the media to generate texting-to-donate, social networks, and the Internet to promote fundraising and volunteerism.

“Red Cross realized that social media played a big role in giving ordinary people the ability to communicate their perceptions of the relief organization.” (Cass, 2008) The American Red Cross’s ability to create a “social media program has enabled the organization to track sentiment about Red Cross-related issues, respond to misconceptions when they emerge, and support praise for the Red Cross where it exists.” (Cass, 2008)

Marcia Stepanek, New Media Adviser at New York University Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising said, “Non-profit organization are very interested (in mobile apps) and there’s a lot of experimentation- but it’s still in the baby steps mode.”(David, n.d.) American Red Cross and other nonprofits are finding it difficult to merge social media into their campaigns in fear of not reaching out to the older generations, which tends to be their main volunteer basis.

But, in all the American Red Cross received 30 million dollars from cell phones users. This is referred to as texting-to-donate program where people can send a text message that authorizes their wireless providers to pass along donations through their phone bills. It first reached success during the 2010 catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. Within two days 2.3 million people texted “Haiti” to the Red Cross phone number to give ten dollars.

The American Red Cross raised three million dollars, Wendy Harman, Social Media Director at the American Red Cross said, “People weren’t just tweeting, they were taking action-they were texting to donate.” (Manjoo, 2010)The opportunity of the Haiti campaign presented an easy way for the public to make a small contribution that went along way. Jonathon Aiken, Director of Media Relations at American National Red Cross said, “it didn’t require donors to mail a letter, call a toll-free number, wait on line or use their credit cards.” (Bush, 2010)

What the American Red Cross learned through Haiti and the text-to-donate campaign will be a continue effort for natural disaster response with these key principles: keep it going, follow the crowds, get comfortable, and choose wisely.

Along with mobile device giving, social networks Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and BlogSpot have made giving both donations and time to the American Red Cross valuable. “It’s a fundamental shift in how nonprofits do their work,” said Beth Kanter, the Co-Founder of the book The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change continued to say, “Until now we’ve mostly been in a transactional mode- ‘give us money.’ Butt social-networking audiences demand more than that. They want the nonprofits to ask for feedback, to listen to ideas and to keep providing new reasons to stay engaged.” (Manjoo, 2010)

Social networking is becoming beneficial to the American Red Cross through building existing relationships while creating new relationships. The organization is also collaborating ideas with the public, providing educational programs and services as well as addressing needs through management functions. But there are some principles to follow when using the Internet as a source for effective communications by including: useful information onsite, updating regularly, making the site easy to navigate and strive to keep publics active on the site.

Another successful campaign is the Causes app through Facebook that “cracks the code for how you get regular people, not the super wealthy, to give money” said Joe Green, the co-founder of Causes. (Manjoo, 2010) “Causes is just one method for nonprofits to press for more action from their audiences. When thinking about how to appeal to people online, nonprofits mention a ‘ladder of engagement’ – a path for users to climb toward ever-higher levels of participation.” (Manjoo, 2010)

Causes and other apps through various sites have transformed into peer-to-peer fundraising through social websites Green’s Facebook app has raised about 25 million from the 100 million people who have used it, he says “empowering individuals… to unlock the power of their social network can transform fundraising.” Green continues to say, “Technology is irrevocably changing philanthropy, and charities must find ways to participate.” (Judy, n.d.)

Social media is contributing to the availability of users when and how they want to give. It is also providing organizations like American Red Cross to build stronger relationships through two-way dialogues and feedback. It is changing the public relations functions of the Red Cross with measuring goals, communication, and the reputation of the organization.

It also has proven to be away for American Red Cross to receive tangible measurements through metrics and environmental scanning. Social media users are very well becoming an active participate in public relations activities. Ultimately, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs are connecting the American Red Cross with users through communication, trust, and relationship building.

The Internet has transformed since the 1990s. What used to be a big fat screen with a modem, keyboard, and mouse is now available in a small tablet and is easily portable. But, “the interactive features on the Internet and blogosphere have become a staple in society with two-thirds of the world’s Internet population having visited a social networking site.” (Briones, 2010) The way of the Internet is connecting nonprofits such as the American Red Cross with potential stakeholders, volunteers, donations, governmental funding, and much more.

Click-to-donate sites are increasing the availability of donations through the Internet and not leaving behind those who have yet to converge to the iPhone or Blackberry. This led to the American Red Cross “online gifts catalog” in 2009. Gail J. McGovern said, “In the past we haven’t made the ‘ask’ unless there was a national disaster” but “ this is our way of getting in front of the American public so they know that we do much more than simply respond to disasters like Katrina.” (Strom, 2009)

The catalog is a first for the American Red Cross and is hoping to revive the organizations 33 million deficit. The “charitable organization says the potential for online organizing and fundraising seems almost limitless, but they caution that using technology to give is new and represents only a modest slice of their donations. A survey of 203 non-profits organization by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that online giving accounted for less than one percent of donations in 2008 for 101 of the groups.”(Judy, n.d.)

Along with the Internet the use of satellite has also provided quick assistance with the iDirect system. The iDirect system is set up to deliver satellite access to support equipment, medical assistance, and online databases. The system went viral during Hurricane Katrina. David Craig from the American Red Cross said, “ iDirect’s quick response allowed us to immediately begin serving families in need across the Gulf region and its communications services continue to be a key component of our success today.” (iDirect)

1.5 Challenges:

While the American Red Cross is blooming through digital media it has also been presented with some challenges. The generation gap is among the largest concern for the Red Cross and others using social media as a connection tool. Green said, “It’s easier to type your credit card a into a computer than it is on a mobile device.”(David, n.d.) There is also an issue for Apple users since “Apple’s rules governing fundraising apps for its popular iPhone and iPad tablet computer. The company says it only allows fundraisers to offer apps that link to a website – not an automated donations.” (David, n.d.) The American Red also faces the generation gap due to the largest number of volunteers come from the elderly including ages 50 to 80 years-old.

But the generation gap is not the only concern but the issue among race, income, and education maybe a factor in including those who may not be connected through mobile devices. During Hurricane Katrina a majority of the victims did not have access to the high technological devices available to them leaving the Red Cross to contribute to resources in a different way.

The most frequent barrier with digital media and the American Red Cross is time and staff. Since Katrina, the Red Cross hired Wendy Harman to support the digital media aspects to grow the Red Cross. Since then they have now added an assistant to support Harman, Gloria Huang. Wendy Harman has been with the American Red Cross since 2006. Before joining the Red Cross she attended Law school and worked for the “musicians’ rights at the Future of Music Coalition and Lawyers for the Arts.” (PRNewswire, 2011)

1.6 Hypotheses:

  1. The American Red Cross gains effective fundraising and volunteerism through the media in particular during natural disasters?

-       Yes, research is providing evidence that the American Red Cross is receiving active roles from donors and volunteers through the participation of the media in particularly social media networks.

-       During past natural disasters, a crisis communications plan has proven to be actively supporting through fundraising tools such as click to donate or text to donate as well as finding missing people through Facebook pages. Beside from donations the use for volunteers and training through the media during a disaster is also increasing due to the support through the web.

-       Wendy Harman said, “Social media is becoming an integrated part of disaster response.” (

-       Please see the appendix section for the resource article More American Using Social Media and Technology in Emergencies.

  1. The more advanced technology we have today is providing a positive support system to the Red Cross through faster connections and free publicity?

-       Yes and No the advanced technology is providing support for the American Red Cross to get the word out faster and too more people especially those missing. But, it is also serving as a way of communication and monitoring heavy form of content from users and the American Red Cross communications team.

-       Free publicity while helpful may not also ways be the best tool to use for an organization and in the American Red Cross efforts the use of social media is viral when a disaster hits for both positive and negative publicity rather free or not.

-        Harman said, “I think the goal was to have someone stay on top of any bad news that was leaking out so that we could address it right away before it became a big news story.” (Cass, 2008)

  1. Lastly, people are more willing to help a larger non-profit with more connections than a smaller non-profit due to limited connections?

- No, research showed no evidence that smaller nonprofits are suffering due to connections and in fact most small organizations are keeping up with nonprofits like the Red Cross as a guide.

- While it may be true that the Red Cross is benefitting from the connections of the Internet it too has had some down times with the technology. For example, during Hurricane Katrina the use of text to donate was a failure not being able to get enough response out there in time to aid the victims of the series of hurricanes in the region. But, by the time the earthquake in Haiti hit the text to donate prove to be a viral success and has been ever since.

- Sometimes an organization can jump the gun and be too early on something most people have not caught onto yet. But, since the Haiti disaster the use of text to donate and other forms of technological devices supporting the American Red Cross and with more than likely is here to stay.



1.7 Methods:

With a nonprofit as large as the American Red Cross the opportunities for research methods seemunlimited. Had this study been fully evaluated the use of all research methods would have provided more in-depth basis of information in evaluating the literature review. The use of historical research provides background information, past disasters success and failures, and the direction of social media is offering a better look into the organizations’ public relations with the media.

The historical research contributes to the literature review by presenting digital media, in particular social media as being a key aspect of the American Red Cross. Media has allowed the Red Cross to use the historical mission and expand it to the general public, not just the wealthy. Further, research into the resources of the historical method for the Red Cross could continue to be of use for volunteerism and fundraising research building.

The quantitative research method would contribute by the surveys, content analysis, and statistics to enhance the information from its history to success today. Surveys have proven already been successful for the Red Cross in the past when looking to develop better support in preparing for disasters. The use of case analysis and statistics has been provided to the Red Cross before and could further research more on how the media is representing the Red Cross mission and business functions.

Lastly, using the qualitative research method would provide interview, observations, field experience, and case studies for to the best opportunity on how the media is playing an essential role in non-profit organizations’ business measures. The use of these types of research methods could allow the process of the Red Cross preparedness planning to be uncovered, reviled and revamped into a developing non-profit organization that is expanding.

1.8 Theory:

One study presented the examination of Festinger’s Cognitive-Dissonance theory during crisis fundraising, which focused on “individuals’ reactions to inconsistent mental states.” (Waters, 2008) After a disaster “specifically, the theory’s initial hypotheses opportunities that if an individual felt psychologically uncomfortable then he or she would be motivated to reduce the feelings of discomfort to restore the mental balance.” (Waters, 2008)

It found that while the actual disaster had an impact on the individual the media’s response also carried an impact. They tested 712 participates with a survey of 27 questions: 23 closed-ended questions and found 55 percent (394 people) donated during the recent 2010 tsunami relief efforts. In the end the study supported that “donors experience strong feeling of dissonance when learning of crisis situations and that making donation restores the mental balance.”

It continued by approving “Festinger’s original hypothesis that individuals would avoid situations that would increase their feelings of dissonance. By reducing news consumptions, individuals were able to avoid seeing the repeated footage of the devastating tsunami.” (Waters, 2008)The story behind Hurricane Katrina shaped a vivid image of the American government response as well as the aid supported by the American Red Cross. The thoughts of agenda-setting in this idea that the “media does not tell people what to think, but what to think about.” (Baran, 2009, p.293)

Maura Kennedy has worked as a speechwriter for the American Red Cross for two years she said, “We discovered that there was a lot of misinformation about the Red Cross being spread via social media, but we didn’t quite know what to do about it. We then figured out that social media allowed for two-way communication and that we didn’t just to sit back and see this misinformation spread, especially misinformation that might hurt people affected by Katrina… That’s very different from dealing with traditional media.” (Cass, 2008)

Walter Lippmann wrote in his book Public Opinion “that people do not deal directly with their environment as much as they respond to [the] pictures in their heads.” (Baran, 2009,p.293) This image held true for the American Red Cross during Katrina after a study proved the resistance of aid to New Orleans residents lead to conflicts between volunteers and actual victims who had lost everything.

Several studies on agenda-setting seem to show the media does have an effect on its audience, especially during disasters. The McCombs and Shaw report “implie[d] a direction of influence from media to audience- that is, it implies causality.” (Baran, 2009, p.295) But was later announced with some limitations in the use of interaction between the media and the audience can have an effect on the actual “news” on an organization.

The American Red Cross during 9/11 and Katrina learned a valuable lesson through media exposure. Iyengar and Kinder found that people “view of their society and nation are powerfully shaped by the stones that appear on the evening news.” (Baran, 2009,p.295)  As in Katrina we saw people living on roofs waiting for aid, thief raising through the towns, and violence on the streets as people had no place to go. Their study also presented the media as exposing the use of bad publicity on the organization and state governmental regulations.

What the media portrayed as a disastrous event in American history and the question through most American minds was where the help of the government was? And why does it seem like we help other countries more than our own? The perception through the media made perceiving agenda-setting was at work in setting ‘stereotypes’ or ‘labels’ to the actual events taking place.

But, actually the Red Cross study on Katrina presented a different factor on what was really going on in New Orleans besides the media exposure. The study presented that the lack of training for volunteers put them exposure to being mistreated by victims and not knowing what information to provide to certain victims. The Red Cross was present on the ground right after the disaster passed, but no media portrayed the goodness of non-profits and individuals assistance due to the lack of wiliness to send aid from state officials.

The form of using agenda-setting has been widely debated about the comparison of framing theory in relation with agenda-setting. McCombs the pioneer for agenda-setting  expanded his theories with framing as the ‘second order’ to agenda-setting by attributing ‘frames’ as the agenda to the ‘framing process’ and the overall influence. Kevin Carragee and Wim Roefs gave their theory against McCombs through:

“reducing frames to story topics also characterizes framing research inspired by the agenda-setting perspective. McCombs, Llamas, Lopez-Escobar, and Rey (1997) claimed that framing is the second level of agenda-setting. They contend that ‘both the selection of objects for attention and the selection of attributes for thinking about these objects are powerful agenda-setting roles” (Baran, 2009, p.298).

Framing theory is broken into many different parts explaining the process of the audience’s expectations to the media’s influence on our reaction. “Most of [the] framing research has focused on journalism and on the way news influences our experience of the social world.” (Baran, 2009,p.336)

In context, framing plays an important role on the American Red Cross by building relationships for fundraising and volunteerism. Red Cross may have learned from 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina but the wave of media is now helping lend support to become closer to those relationships while perceiving a frame on the organization.

Every day the Red Cross is experiencing the downshift and upshift frames that take place from opinions being altered due to the media’s influence. Social media flaws could be to play on the reputation of the American Red Cross in times of disaster one negative comment could change the ‘frame’ for the public to lend support.

For example, when Harman responded positively during the text to donate campaign of Haiti the influence of the public played an important role in shaping the Red Cross social media initiatives.

The American Red Cross advertising campaign is a great example of hyperritualized representation of social actions for the public. Agenda-setting and framing has several perspectives that make great examples of how the media is influencing the public’s perspectives on the American Red Cross during disasters.

The communication process can be a complex process of rules and the nature of human behavior is to become so consumed with standards the organization’s mission can become blurred. The Red Cross methods for fundraising and volunteerism during a disaster will continually be examined for growth but the use of research on the framing theory, cognitive-dissonance, and agenda-setting provide explanation on the stages and processes on human behavior and the media’s role on the American Red Cross will be of benefit to the organizations management and communications roles.

1.9 Limitations and future research:


Findings during the literature review were conducted successfully and provided insights on the American Red Cross organization management functions in regards to media affairs. Further, exploration into the research methods and theatrical basis are needed in order to complete results and find a defined development into the organization.

Harman’s first goal starting the American Red Cross was a study on the ‘image of the American Red Cross’ which produced negative and positive communication she found “it just seems like its human nature to reach out and be in touch with the people who support you our donors, our supporters, our volunteers. We have to connect with these people in order to remain a viable organization.” (Cass, 2008)

Integrated communication is providing success at this time but needs stronger measurements to continue to be considered an organizational tool. While digital media is just beginning its long thrive of technology the presents of data, context, and timeframe should be evaluated to uncover the effects on the public relations models of opportunities with risk, relationship building, and interactivity. With the use of theoretical basis the American Red Cross has some addition goals that are being measured by the moment.



The American Red Cross developmental programs have built more than 56,000 shelters, carried more than 90,000 trained volunteers, and raised more than 50,00 in 2010. Compassion, dedication, and team building is providing the soul of the American Red Cross. But with the help of traditional and digital media the Red Cross is providing even more training, preparedness, and aid to citizens affected by disasters. The availability of technology for the American Red Cross seems endless in the 21st century.

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