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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Reynolds

Airbnb Disrupts Charities, Too

With 4 million homeowner-hosts welcoming more than 1 billion short-term guests since 2008, Airbnb has handily disrupted the hotel industry.

Now, as the horrors of war unfold in Ukraine, Airbnb is inadvertently disrupting the charitable space.

Inspired by social media influencers, community minded Airbnb users started booking stays in Ukrainian cities, never intending to travel there. Instead, they encouraged their Ukrainian hosts to pocket the money, because nobody is voluntarily vacationing in Kyiv these days.

Airbnb quickly took notice and waived their service fees in the invaded country. In a March 11 tweet, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said 434,000 nights had been booked across Ukraine, delivering $15 million directly to the war-torn hosts.

That’s amazing.

But it begs this question: Why didn’t those humanitarians turn instead to UNICEF, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders or any of the other well-known and highly rated Ukraine relief charities recommended by Charity Navigator?

Islip resident Brooke Kalman, a psychiatric social worker who makes monthly contributions to animal-welfare and environmental charities, decided to pay for rentals in Kyiv and Irpin because “the Airbnb option felt so direct and immediate.”

“I was able to communicate with hosts by filtering out corporate rentals,” Kalman says. “And it was a heartfelt interaction.”

The Ukrainian hosts responded to Kalman’s well-wishes within minutes, she adds, thanking her profusely and sharing a little about their stories. It was an ideal transaction for an awful situation – though that’s not to say there haven’t been some hiccups.

Airbnb has had to pull down fake listings posted by scammers – some even believed to be Russian – looking to cash in on the world’s generosity. And annoyed donors haven’t gotten many specifics from the San Francisco-based company about their vetting process, leaving some bloggers skeptical.

Aside from potential fraud, there are other questions about whether some of those dollars are simply lining the pockets of wealthy landlords.

Disasters – whether manmade, like the Russian invasion, or natural, like Hurricane Sandy – always bring out both the best and worst in people. Charity scammers thrive on our innate desire to help.

As a result, crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe have been home to some legendary cons, including the 2017 story of Johnny Bobbitt, a homeless veteran who purportedly gave his last $20 to Kate McClure, who was purportedly stranded on a highway near Philadelphia. (Donors gave Bobbitt more than $400,000 to reward his selflessness, until he, McClure and her ex-boyfriend started bickering over the money and the plot unraveled.)

With $15 billion raised since 2010, GoFundMe has been a godsend to many. And since 2016 – when CEO Rob Solomon bragged that GoFundMe “would be the fourth-largest nonprofit in the world,” if it were a nonprofit, and put “disrupting giving” on his to-do list – various technology disruptors, like Airbnb and Uber, have started partnering with traditional charities.

That’s good, but cutting undercapitalized nonprofits out of the mix carries significant social implications. In many communities, nonprofits are lifelines for those who can’t start an online campaign.

These organizations know their local communities, travel their streets and understand their families. They deal with issues and maladies that don’t play well in Facebook posts, and they know how to leverage local resources to stretch a donated dollar.

Online fundraisers for desperate individuals don’t equitably or consistently address the systemic problems that tear at the social safety net, nor do they get to the core reasons why people must beg for donations to pay for medical bills or keep their homes.

Contributions are usually tax deductible and nonprofits are tightly regulated, but there are still lessons to be learned if local charities want to avoid going the way of the local hardware store.

Giving to a cause should be a simple and efficient process. The day of direct mail is over; invest in technology. Increased transparency is a must. Demonstrate to donors that contributions will be used precisely as intended (telling them isn’t enough – show them).

And a form letter with a digital signature on organizational letterhead sent two weeks after a donation is fine, but a quick, short, personal and heartfelt “thank-you” goes much further.

Most importantly, charities must close the gap between donors and beneficiaries, just like Airbnb did. Bring them closer and let them talk. Magic will happen.

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