NetAid Catches Few On the Web
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 1999; Page C01
As benefit efforts go, it seemed to have everything: celebrity names, endorsements from world leaders, a series of all-star rock concerts beamed to a worldwide audience.
Yet last month's NetAid event--an ambitious United Nations-sponsored program to raise money and find volunteers to help eradicate Third World misery--has turned in some spectacularly meager results.
Despite appeals from performers such as Bono, Puff Daddy and David Bowie, NetAid's backers say they have netted only about $1 million from online contributions and revenues from three overlapping benefit shows.
Despite reaching over 1 billion people worldwide via radio and TV broadcasts and getting more than 2.3 million hits on the NetAid Web site during last month's concerts, organizers say that only about 6,000 people have registered online as volunteers in the weeks since then.
The effort received endorsements from President Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former South African president Nelson Mandela, as well as actors Michael Douglas and Meryl Streep. The participation of the world leaders, as well as the celebrities, was a publicity coup for Cisco Systems, the computer equipment company that initiated and underwrote much of the event.
NetAid had already received pledges before the concerts of $10 million from Cisco and $1 million from another sponsor, KPMG, a consulting firm. Those contributions are unaffected by the anemic response on the Web.
The public contribution stands in contrast to the results of other philanthropic events that enlisted rock musicians. "We Are the World," a 1985 single and video featuring more than 40 music stars, raised $64 million for hunger relief projects, according to promoter Ken Kragen. Another Kragen-promoted event, Live Aid, a 1985 concert starring Led Zeppelin, the Who and U2, raised $120 million for famine relief. Kragen organized the NetAid concerts with Quincy Jones.
U.N. official Robert Piper, who manages the NetAid Web site (www.netaid.org), said he was "more than satisfied" with the response to date, given that volunteerism, not raising money, was the primary objective. "We've been [complaining] for years about the need for people in the developed world to participate [in aid programs], but they never had the tools to participate. With the Internet, people can now get emotionally and intellectually involved."
Kragen also sought to characterize NetAid positively, calling it "a long-term, ongoing project." But he acknowledged, "Did it accomplish everything we set out to do? Would we have done things differently if we could do it over again? Absolutely."
Kragen said he should have taken a more active role in promoting the concert at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, which featured Sting, Puff Daddy, Jewel and Sheryl Crow. That show attracted less than half a full house, and will lose an unspecified amount of money.
A second concert in Geneva, Switzerland, also lost money because tickets were distributed free to U.N. workers and guests of Cisco Systems who were attending a telecommunications conference there at the same time. The only apparent money-maker was the sold-out concert at Wembley Stadium in London, which was headlined by British soul-pop star Robbie Williams, the Eurythmics and Bowie.
Kragen suggested one explanation for the underwhelming response to NetAid was compassion fatigue. "In '85, people were seeing pictures [of starving Africans] on the news for the first time," he said. "Now, we're seeing a disaster a week, whether it's the earthquake in Turkey, or East Timor or the plane crash in Mexico. People have gotten used to it, unfortunately."
It's still not clear how the money will be spent. The NetAid Foundation, which will administer the money, has not determined who will sit on its board.