The Givealittle website is effective in connecting the needy with the generous but is it reducing charity to a popularity contest?
When brave mum-of-six Lucy Knight intervened in an apparent bag snatch at an Auckland shopping mall last month, her life changed forever.
She suffered serious head injuries after falling to the footpath as she went to help a woman, and is still recovering in hospital three weeks later.
Her plight touched thousands of people who dug deep to donate almost $270,000 via the Givealittle fundraising website to help her and her family.
It is the most money donated to one cause on the site since it was set up in 2008; exceeding the amounts donated to the Red Cross' Earthquake Appeal and the Samoa tsunami relief funds.
Givealittle is a charity site based on crowd funding principles, and people have contributed more than $13 million since its inception. Founded by social entrepreneur Nathalie Whitaker, it allows individuals and charities to raise money for whatever cause they choose - as long as it's not illegal or offensive. It was bought by Telecom (now Spark) in late 2012.
That takeover has fuelled massive growth. Donations sat at $50,000 a month when it relaunched last year; they are at $1.1m a month today.
Givealittle has been the platform for astonishing acts of generosity, with a raft of feel-good stories gaining wide media attention - the $200,000-plus raised for injured wakeboarder Brad Smeele is an example.
But it has also been controversial. Many were unhappy the platform was used this week to raise money for Dirty Politics author Nicky Hager after police raided his house.
Although it is undeniable that Givealittle has provided worthy recipients with much-needed cash, some question the way the website is changing the face of giving.
Do crowd funding style websites relegate charity to a popularity contest? Or are they simply a savvy way to engage a technologically literate generation with charitable work?
If the way we engage is driven by empathy, we're making a big mistake, warns Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom.
In fact, the world needs less empathy, writes Bloom in the Boston Review. He admits that sounds "like announcing that you hate kittens", but he argues empathy is a poor guide for those wanting to do good.
"Empathy is biased," he wrote in an article last month. "We are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background.
"And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data."
The idea is not new. Bloom quotes Mother Teresa: "If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."
He says laboratory studies find that "we really do care more about the one than about the mass, so long as we have personal information about the one".
Givealittle allows that information about "the one" to be rapidly spread to thousands of people in the blink of an eye.
Neal Curtis from the Media, Film and Television department at Auckland University says the rise of such websites, in which people can target their charity to particular individuals, reflects broader trends in society.
"With the undermining of the welfare state, the wealthier members of society give to charities that reflect their belief system and interests. As taxation decreases, welfare is replaced by the largesse of the wealthy and middle classes."
He says this can lead to disregard for people at the bottom and reinforce concepts of the deserving and undeserving when it comes to those worthy of our charity.
Curtis is not against websites such as Givealittle but feels it is important to question the changing way in which we engage with causes.
"We need to think critically about such things and analyse them within a wider context," he explains.
Guardian journalist and author Oliver Burkeman warns that good, charitable decisions are not made when empathy leads us.
"It's hard to accept that we might sometimes get a clearer picture of the world by resisting the urge to step into someone else's shoes. Yet depersonalising things is often the best way to make decisions."
Whitaker says her vision for Givealittle was motivated by the engagement of the tech generation. The 30-year-old politics and commerce graduate from Wellington was fascinated by the intersection between social development and marketing. She was also concerned that charities weren't engaging a younger demographic.
"There was a lot of rhetoric around Gen Y being selfish, being a demographic that wasn't philanthropic," she says. "But at the same time there was a real disconnect in the way charities communicated to this age group. And a lot of the fundraising ventures were old-fashioned."
Whitaker trialled fundraising through events targeted at this demographic in the mid-2000s through speed-dating events, underground bars and other outings in Wellington.
But she found the huge amount of effort involved yielded a small amount of cash for charities, even though people were keen to donate. So she started thinking about more effective solutions, and realised websites offered cheaper options.
She reached out to the angel investors who helped get TradeMe off the ground.
Many had made large amounts of money from the sale of the company to Fairfax Media, and were keen to help a venture that enabled them to flex some philanthropic muscle. This funding helped develop Givealittle.
At the same time Whitaker was meeting charities to gauge interest in what a web-based fundraising site could offer.
The fledgling site launched in 2008 but a few years later the money ran out. Key staff kept the site running. "We were kind of addicted to it by then," she said. Then their fortunes turned.
Whitaker was put in touch with the Telecom Foundation - the philanthropic arm of the telecommunications company - by the Tindall Foundation.
The website's social stance, combined with its innovative technology, proved a perfect fit for the company, which was looking for a philanthropic venture to lend its might to. It relaunched the site with zero fees (it had previously been 5 per cent of the money raised) and drew on its considerable marketing power to help spread the Givealittle gospel throughout the country.
And its proselytism has worked. Seventy per cent of the causes on the site are for individuals - many heartbreaking medical appeals appear - the rest of the money is given to charities.
The initial response to Givealittle by charities Whitaker visited was mixed. "A lot of people claim to have great ideas for fundraising but often there's a catch," she says. This "catch" is often monetary, as independent fundraisers take a chunk of what is raised.
Givealittle's zero fees policy has allowed it to earn its stripes, and many large charities have now set up pages on the website. Philip Hope, national manager of development for the Cancer Society, says fundraising platforms such as Givealittle can be of great value to a charity.
"They are a valuable marketing, fundraising and friend-raising tool. They enable us to place links to a fundraising site and engage large numbers of constituents and their networks more efficiently."
However, he says traditional fundraising - including street appeals such as Daffodil Day - will remain. "For large charities, street appeals will remain important. They don't just make money, but they also reinforce the brand."
Smaller charities can also benefit from sites such as Givealittle, says Amabel Hunting from the School of Marketing at Auckland University.
"Smaller organisations are often not as effective as established charities at getting their voice heard. Givealittle enables a broad spectrum to have access to a wide audience."
In Givealittle's rich history of fundraising for special causes there is no shortage of heart-warming projects for which the website has generated much-needed funds.
They include rhythmic gymnast Kelly MacDonald, who made her Commonwealth Games debut at the Games in Glasgow. In January, the 21-year-old Aucklander was diagnosed with epilepsy after a grand mal seizure in the United States, where she had been attending a competition. Then just a few months later in mid-April, her mother, Michelle, lost a long and painful battle with cancer.
And looming in the background, behind these harrowing events was the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. The event was to be the pinnacle of a lifetime of training, a journey that Kelly and her mum had taken together. Michelle had designed and made all Kelly's outfits, taken her to training, been her greatest cheerleader. But now Michelle was gone and Kelly's doctors advised her against competing. The dream Kelly had so long nurtured was slipping through her fingers.
But Kelly is a fighter and she told doctors she would compete, even against medical advice. And she started racking her brain for ways to raise the money needed for Scotland.
Rhythmic gymnastics is a minor sport in New Zealand and funding is scarce. If she was to go she'd have to find her own way.
"I also knew that I had to take the strain of fundraising off my dad. He was going through enough as it was," she says.
MacDonald had heard of Givealittle through a mate who'd had a kidney transplant and also needed money to compete.
She thought it worth a try, so decided to start a page - hoping for a couple of hundred dollars. She named the page "Help a gymnast get to the Commonwealth Games for her mum" - even though she hadn't yet been accepted to the squad.
Within three days she had raised more than $5000 - enough to pay her way. And shortly after, she was selected as one of only two New Zealand rhythmic gymnasts chosen to go to Glasgow. She competed and placed 17th.
"I just couldn't believe it. People were so generous. Being able to go to the Games was the most incredible experience in the world. It was a real tribute to my mum."
Questions around the wider sociopolitical context of websites such as Givealittle may be inevitable, but there's no doubting the impact that acts of online generosity have on many New Zealanders. For Whitaker, these positive outcomes coupled with the joy donors get from giving makes Givealittle unique.
"It enables people to form deeper connections with giving," she says. "If you donate to an individual, send them messages of encouragement and are kept informed about their progress, it's really rewarding.
"And once people realise the joy that comes from giving, they start to really celebrate generosity."
The fundraiser for Lucy Knight was formally closed on Monday after bringing in a staggering $269,934.
Husband Peter Thomas believes his wife's actions - that of an innocent good samaritan - spurred such a huge response. He asked for the account to be closed and wants anyone who would like to donate to instead give to the New Zealand Herald's appeal for Starship Children's Hospital. "We've been humbled by the huge response," he said. "We think that Lucy's actions struck a chord in the community that people were both shocked at what happened to her and at the same time proud of what she did."