Standing along Pine Street in St. Louis, watching a pop-up bike lane in action, I struck up a conversation with a 64-year-old MetroBus...
As soon as he heard that a massive tornado ripped apart his hometown, Brent Beshore was ready to hop into his car that Sunday night and drive to Joplin.
Beshore’s father, a business executive and fifth-generation Joplin resident, persuaded him not to make the trip into the disaster area so soon.
Feeling desperate for information about family and friends and figuring that many others were in the same predicament, the entrepreneur and marketing whiz kid created a Facebook page and called it, “Joplin, MO Tornado Recovery.”
Late that night and into the early morning hours, Beshore watched the messages flow through the social network and the “likes” accumulate at an exponential pace — from dozens to hundreds to thousands to 40,000 after one day and more than 100,000 after a few days.
Donations to aid organizations kept pace and rose to more than $1 million in four days.
“In the past I’ve questioned the value of social media,” the 28-year-old CEO of AdVentures wrote on his blog at innovateandcurate.com. “Like any form of communication, it can be misused and abused. It can be a distraction. It can give one’s life the illusion of value. After this week, I will never challenge the power of social media.”
Most significantly, Beshore began seeing Joplin residents using the page as a community bulletin board — a headquarters of sorts — for posting updates and relaying valuable information faster than news media and support services on the ground.
“I watched the Facebook page as one person posted asking for someone to check in on her elderly grandfather,” Beshore wrote. “Someone responded, checked on him and reported back. He was OK. I couldn’t believe what I was watching as this scenario was replayed hundreds of times. People helping people.”
After setting up the Facebook page, Beshore emailed Tim Rich, a friend and the executive director Heart of Missouri United Way, where Beshore is also a board member. He sent the following message: “You should consider opening up a special fund for the Joplin, Mo., tornado disaster.”
Rich responded that night, pledged his support and agreed to set up a special fund into which 100 percent of the proceeds would go to Joplin’s tornado relief with zero overhead. That greased the wheels for what would become the first international relief fund for Joplin tornado victims.
By Monday morning, Rich had the text message campaign and the donation PayPal page already up and running.
The rest of the week was a blur for Rich and Beshore, who learned that at least four of his friends had died and many more lost their homes. The duo and Marty Siddall, general manager of KOMU TV 8, organized a primetime telethon that aired that Thursday night.
National news media outlets picked up the story of the Facebook page and the ensuing fundraising campaign. Oprah Winfrey told her Twitter followers about the campaign, and the Oakridge Boys promoted it. Other musical groups, some with national reach, pledged to dedicate songs, do benefit concerts and spread the word via social media.
Donations came in from around the world: Saudi Arabia, Sweden and South Africa, to name a few. The Sam’s Club Foundation pitched in $200,000 targeting long-term small-business recovery efforts.
Rich also credited KOMU’s quick response.
“The stunning thing was that KOMU pulled together that telethon in two days,” he said. “I’ve worked with them in the past, and they’re a great crew, but normally it takes us three or four days to put together a telethon.”
Rich said Matt Garrett, KOMU’s director of audience development, told him that in his 20 years of doing telethons, this was the first time he’d heard “a phone bank ring steady from beginning to the end.” The calls were still coming in when the telethon was scheduled to end, so they extended the show by an hour.
Combined with online and text pledges, the campaign raised, as of last Tuesday, $1.34 million. The “Joplin, MO Tornado Recovery” Facebook page had 172,234 “likes.”
Rich estimated that mid-Missouri residents contributed at least $100,000 to the campaign.
“No. 1, we were successful because we were up within six hours of the disaster, and it was being cited by all the news outlets as the place to go,” Rich said. “The other thing that really made this a go for us, and put us in the lead, was we said out of the gate — and I made the executive decision — that we were going to take 100 percent of all proceeds and direct that to Joplin. We weren’t going to charge any overhead or ‘admin’ fees.”
Typically the United Way charges 12 to 13 percent in overhead and administration fees.
“Most of the donations came from online,” Rich said. “This fundraiser was a phenomenon of online social networking and social media,”
In previous fundraising campaigns, the United Way has struggled to incorporate social media.
“We’ve been on Facebook for at least two years, and we’ve been trying to do Text to Give for the last year, but it hasn’t been very successful,” he said. “I think it was partly because we didn’t have staff that were properly trained to engage it. There’s been an ongoing conversation in the nonprofit world, especially among fundraisers, that social media is hyped as the way, and yet nobody’s figured out how to raise dollars with it.”
After witnessing the success of social media’s role in the Joplin fundraiser, Rich said he has a better grasp on what needs to happen.
“Our United Way system has been based pretty much on corporate employee campaigns and payroll deduction,” he said. “We have watched, across the country, those sort of campaigns slide down because the employee base is shrinking. You don’t have large employers with a captive audience and a chance to speak with them.
“This suggests to me — and this was the theme this year from the national conference of the United Way — that we have to get beyond just engaging the companies,” he said. “We’ve got to be engaging people on an individual level, and that’s what social media does. It gives everybody a chance to do something and feel a part of something bigger than themselves.”
Emily Eldridge, senior vice president of Pure (a media and marketing firm founded by Beshore), said social media directly buoyed the enormous response.
“You gather intel from social media; you get connected with people,” she said. “It’s been invaluable for us in this effort, especially because our Facebook page grew from six fans to 40,000 people overnight. So you had 40,000 people talking about, ‘where are my family members, how can I get involved.’ You know what your call to actions are.”
Social media — part of mix
But Eldridge said social media, in itself, is not enough.
“If you look at a lot of failed relief efforts via social media, it’s because they were only social-media-based,” she said. “So with this effort, we tried to get the right media mix in place, use every outlet available and just get organized.”
The windfall of donations bolstered by the social media campaign still pleasantly baffles Rich.
“I think the thing that was striking for me is that our annual campaign in the mid-Missouri community is about $3.5 million for ongoing programs and services in the community — health and human services,” he said. “We’ve raised more than $1.3 million now. To raise that in five to seven days is unbelievable.”
Social media also helped snag the $200,000 donation from the Sam’s Club Foundation to fund a targeted grant.
“They heard about us through social networking and online marketing,” Rich said. “We got a call from them on Tuesday requesting a conference call. They were looking for a way to make a contribution that would help small businesses recover long-term.”
So Rich spent two days down in Joplin and worked with its United Way, city manager and Chamber of Commerce along with organizers of rebuildjoplin.org. The website bills itself as “a collaborative local effort of community, education, government and business organizations to support the long-term recovery of Joplin.”
“We basically handed the torch off the them and said, ‘We want an investment review team of people who will make sure these dollars go where they’re most needed,’” Rich said. “We’re passing that money through, and we want it to get to work as soon as possible.”
The view from Joplin
Helping run rebuildjoplin.org is Mark Kinsley, a 29-year-old advertising executive in Joplin and lifelong resident.
Although Kinsley lives on the north side of town, which was unaffected by the tornado, he said the devastation spared no one.
“I’ve not met a single person that doesn’t know someone who was affected, completely lost their home or lost their life,” Kinsley said. “I lost a guy I went to high school with. He didn’t make it through the storm. And another nice young man who spent some time here at the advertising agency, his father’s business was next door. He had just graduated high school. He didn’t make it.”
Rebuildjoplin.org aggregated information from radio stations and other media sources along with social networks.
“Now it’s just a process for people to try and figure out what’s the next step,” he said. “That’s what we’re helping people with, connecting them with the agencies that can help with their FEMA paperwork or help them get their birth certificate back. These people’s identities were wiped away.”
Kinsley added: “We’re looking at the long term. When the cameras disappear and the news dies down, how do we get the resources for some of these unforeseen needs? And I think it’s going to be a process of raising money.”
Emily Eldridge of Pure said accountability is fundamental for a successful relief campaign.
“It’s very easy to give someone $10,000 and say, ‘Rebuild your business with this,’ and never check in with them again; the United Way here is all about responsible giving,” she said.
Rich toured Joplin with Beshore’s relatives and described the landscape as “reminiscent of the aftermath of Hiroshima.” The disaster, he added, “has really galvanized the community. That was clear to me.”
Now, “Joplin, MO Tornado Recovery” — the Facebook page that started it all — is joining forces and pooling resources with rebuildjoplin.org, which Rich expects to stay active for at least two years.
“Six months from now, that’s when the really important stuff will happen,” Rich said. “To put this in perspective, Joplin’s city manager said that on May 25 they started clearing debris. To get it all moved out, they will have to move one semi truck, every three minutes, around the clock, until the end of August. And that’s before anyone can do any rebuilding.”
Here are some of the relief efforts of local businesses and organizations for victims of the Joplin tornado: