SAFETY 'NET

The Baltimore Sun

Montgomery Wallis of Sumter, S.C., hasn't spent a day out of the hospital since being born prematurely in March. He weighed 1 pound, 11 ounces at birth, and since then his feeble body has often been covered with crisscrossing wires and ridged tubing. You cannot look at his eyes without wondering if there's something you could do to help.

Which may be why people are donating hundreds of dollars for his medical care on a Web site called RealityCharity.com.

They're also giving to Christy Gervais, who requested $1,660 to cover back rent she owed after her family left the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Rita destroyed their home and she lost her job. She received all of it in one day from Teresa Mayer of Oakland, Calif., who wrote "keep going" on Gervais' donors page.

And also to Anne Campbell of Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada, whose entry on the Web site asks for $5,000 for dental repairs so she can take pictures at her June wedding "showing a beautiful, healthy smile."

Web sites like the Baltimore-based RealityCharity.com are infusing age-old philanthropy with the modern social-networking techniques that have made YouTube, My Space and Facebook so popular.

"This is 2007. There's a Web site for everything," said RealityCharity.com's founder, Alexander Blass, 32, of Fells Point. "This is the new way to give. It's gratifying. It's personal. It's community-oriented. It's a viral-giving platform, because it's contagious in a sense."

Some of the donors say they prefer giving this way because they can see their gift going directly to someone in need, even if they can't write the donation off on their taxes. (The RealityCharity.com site points out that donations made to individuals are not tax-deductible.) Even some established nonprofits, to which contributions are tax deductible, pay to host fundraisers on the site because it lowers administrative costs, they say.

"People respond to compelling stories, not necessarily cold data and facts but personal stories about people," said Anne Glauber, executive vice president for Ruder Finn, a global public-relations firm that has worked with philanthropic groups. "What that Web site is doing is offering a potpourri of stories that affect our heartstrings, and we emotionally respond. And you're able to establish relationships with someone, which is what so many people want to do on the Internet."

Many traditional charitable organizations raise money on the Internet, but RealityCharity.com is part of a wave of so-called e-philanthropy that has raised a few eyebrows.

"I would be extremely careful of this type of arrangement because it makes it easy for a donor to be defrauded," said H. Art Taylor, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance. "We're going to have to see how this new approach to philanthropy works out. We're going to have to monitor it and hear from people who have used this type of service before we're in a position to say that this is a better way of doing things than we have [done] in the past."

Since its April 2 launch, RealityCharity.com has received more than 1.3 million hits and more than 300,000 page views. Though registration for individuals is free and not required, the site has more than 1,000 registered users. Scores of donors have given anywhere from the minimum $10 to more than $1,000. The average donation is about $50.

Nonprofit organizations must pay a fee to hold fundraisers online: $995 for one year, $595 for six months. Already, more than 400 organizations and individuals have conducted fundraisers on the site.

"I feel fundraising on the site is one of the best investments I've made, running an organization on a shoestring budget," said John Sakacs of the Los Angeles-area-based Kids & Fishing Inc., which gets urban kids involved in caring for the environment.

The eBay model

The site conducts identification verification through the consumer-credit-reporting agency Equifax. Donations are made via credit card or PayPal account, the payment system used for many eBay transactions. In some ways, the mechanism resembles the eBay model: Users take a little leap of faith that the seller of something - or a personal story - is on the up and up.

Blass said he believes that the bulk of the giving on Reality Charity.com so far comes from the recipient's friends and family, who tell others in their circles, creating a viral effect of giving that stems mainly from those who can vouch for the recipient.

"Our most successful fund-raisers are not those reaching out to complete strangers first, then sitting back and expecting a large response. Though heartwarming when it occurs, that is not any more realistic en masse in the online world than the offline world," Blass wrote in an e-mail last week.

"When being referred by a mutual friend you have known for 10 years, or a friend of a friend, any questions of fund-raiser credibility are immediately eliminated and the results are very powerful."

After the site's first month in business, the users seem to act as its filter, aiding some solicitors while refusing to respond to others whose requests might appear excessive. Some people on the site have asked for as much as $100,000 for everything from automobile repairs to student-loan debt to down payments on a house. Most of those requests have yielded a few page visits but no assistance.

"People are looking for legitimate cases with legitimate problems, and not someone who spent too much money needing money to get out of a hole, because we've all done that," said Peter Chasse, associate pastor at the Main Street Baptist Church in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. His church requested $7,000 to help fund an initiative to dig wells and construct rainwater collection and filtration systems in Kenya. A donor quickly pledged $7,000 on the condition that the church match that amount through its fundraising.

Blass said he was motivated to launch RealityCharity after hearing about how millions of dollars raised to help victims of the Southeast Asia tsunami and the Gulf Coast hurricanes never made it to the needy.

'A better way'

"Frankly, I was tired of sitting on my couch yelling at the TV saying, 'What's going on?'" he said. "I felt there has to be a better way of doing this."

After spending years in the corporate world at Legg Mason, Bearing Point and the Maryland Venture Fund, Blass quit his job 2 1/2 years ago and began planning a company that, he told his friends, would have a worldwide impact. He launched it with his own money as well as donations from family and friends. He is currently seeking corporate sponsorships for the site.

"He sat me down for two hours and explained the idea to me," said David Patrician, Blass' friend from undergraduate days at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"I told him not to leave his venture-capital job altogether, give yourself something on the side," Patrician said, "but he said, 'To do this right, I have to give it 100 percent.'"

Blass' father, Thomas Blass, is a Holocaust survivor and a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is known for his research on Stanley Milgram, the late social psychologist credited with the "six degrees of separation" theory.

As a teenager, Alex often was skeptical of solicitors who'd show up at his Pikesville home. Once, a man from Romania interrupted the dinner hour and conveyed a tale that Alex believed was bogus. Still, his father gave the man some money. Why fall for such a phony story? Alex wanted to know.

"I would much rather err on the side of caution and run the risk of giving money to someone who doesn't deserve it, rather than turning away someone who really needs my help," the father told the son.

That moment still resonates with Blass, who later visited the Auschwitz concentration camp where many of his relatives perished. "Just being born in this country I've had so many opportunities academically and professionally, and if I couldn't leverage all of that to do more than just get myself a job I would be very disappointed in myself," he said.

He has created a donating platform for those whose needs are all but overshadowed by harrowing tragedies that make headlines. No donation request, it appears, is out of bounds.

Dr. Tali Shokek of Baltimore, who was recently diagnosed with young onset Parkinson's disease, aimed to raise $1,000 for the New York-area Parkinson's Research Unity Walk, which she participated in on April 28. Shokek exceeded her fundraising goal on RealityCharity.com, raising $1,654.22 from 26 donors (including an anonymous gift of $100).

A fast response

"Last October, I ran in a 5K in Baltimore where I raised about $150," Shokek said. "On Reality Charity, my goal was originally $500, but I spoke with Alex, who I met through a friend, and he said, 'Why not put up $1,000? Give yourself a loftier goal.'

"I posted my Web page at about 3 in the morning, and within the first 15 hours, I had raised more than $500."

The RealityCharity.com site makes reference to a Wall Street Journal/Harris Interactive survey that said only 15 percent of people who contributed to charity last year were motivated by tax write-offs.

"We don't write off our contributions anyway, so it doesn't matter to us," said Mary Hovis of Cowder, Ill. She and her husband, Gary, have 12 children, including five who were adopted. Last month, they chose to give to John Caroleo, a 35-year-old from Loveland, Colo., who wrote that he hasn't seen his mother since he was 2 and wants money to hire a private investigator to find her.

Brandon and Roxanne Wallis, the parents of baby Montgomery, posted a personal page, complete with photos, for their son. They appealed for help with financial problems tied to Montgomery's premature birth and stay in a neonatal intensive-care unit more than an hour from their home.

Their page has received more than 750 visits and helped raise nearly $600. The Wallises also received encouragement from friends and family they hadn't heard from in years, as well as from strangers.

"May you both be lifted up and energized by knowing that there are hundreds of people across the United States checking your [page], sending messages of love, and saying prayers for the two of you and little Montgomery," wrote a woman who identified herself as Rose Rudisill of Fayetteville, Ark.

She sent $100.

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

Alexander Blass

Age:

32

Residence:

Fells Point

Founder:

RealityCharity.com, a Web site that matches donors to people or groups in need.

Education:

Bachelor of arts degree in Jewish studies from the University of Maryland, College Park, 1996; bachelor of arts degree in history from the University of Maryland, College Park, 1997; master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, 2000; master's degree in business administration from Oxford University, England, 2003.

Previous work:

Venture capitalist at the Maryland Venture Fund; member of the equities division at Legg Mason; systems analyst and software developer at Bearing Point.

Little-known fact:

As an undergraduate, Blass built free Web sites for nonprofit organizations on campus.

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