Fundraising Lessons Learned From Haiti
The response from donors following January's earthquake in Haiti came in fast and furious — to the tune of tens of millions of dollars flooding in through every channel imaginable. From online donations to mobile text-to-give to traditional mail, the response was overwhelming.
But questions also arose about today's giving environment, especially in a crisis. How do you keep new donors engaged? Is this the sign of a mobile revolution? How can you mobilize funds quickly and efficiently? How do you prepare for emergencies?
Fundraising software provider Blackbaud did its best to answer these questions in a webinar series titled "Lessons Learned From Haiti." FundRaising Success spoke with Steve MacLaughlin, director of Internet solutions at Blackbaud, about the topics addressed in the series and what fundraisers can take away from the Haiti relief efforts.
FundRaising Success: What did fundraisers learn from the Haiti earthquake disaster?
Steve MacLaughlin: There are a couple of key things. One, it's really important to understand that after a disaster or major event happens, there's really a limited window of time to reach and engage supporters. So it's very important for nonprofits to be able to react quickly, respond quickly and then also follow up in a very short period of time.
If organizations wait for the emergency situation to happen, it's already too late. After the first few days following a major disaster, the amount of giving really begins to trail off. It's a very narrow window to reach people before other things take over.
It's also important for all nonprofits, no matter what they do, to be prepared in advance for an emergency. Certainly there are groups like the American Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders [where] a lot of their work is involved in disaster relief. But really, colleges, universities, museums, faith-based organizations, just about anybody, there could be an emergency situation that happens — so being prepared in advanced is really important.
FS: How can nonprofits be prepared for emergency situations?
SM: We recommend that every nonprofit has an emergency-response or rapid-response plan in place within the organization, no matter what that organization is engaged in. So that from a people, process or technology standpoint, they're prepared to deal with it. Is the staff aware of what that plan is? When it comes to online and social media, do they have an alternate version of their Web site ready to go that can be published in a moment's notice, with maybe a pared-down design, big focus on the emergency situation, news? Same thing with the use of e-mail communication out to supporters or volunteers? A lot of that stuff can be prepared in advance. Nonprofits that successfully reacted to the Haiti situation, a lot of their work was all done in advance. They weren't caught by surprise.
In addition to having a communication plan for supporters, donors, volunteers, staff members, we also see a growing need for nonprofits to have an established communications plan with the media and, now especially, online content sites. One of the things that we've seen happen over the past couple of major events that have taken place is how quickly the online media sites — CNN, MSNBC, even Google, Yahoo, those outlet sites — quickly publish places people can go to donate online or text to give online. Again, that's something organizations can have prepared in advance. They can establish those relationships in advance so that when this stuff happens, they're prepared. That should be part of any good plan as well.
And then I think the last point on the technology side is asking yourself and asking your vendor if you can handle the types of volume that we're now seeing. Traditionally, the last week of December of any calendar year is the largest online giving month of the entire year. And when we looked at the first three days following the Haiti earthquake and compared that to December giving, it was three to four times the size. Is that something you can handle with the technology you have in place? Do the tools allow you to take that magnitude of traffic? Over time that's only going to grow more and more and more as, unfortunately, these types of events happen.
FS: How can fundraisers keep new or first-time disaster-relief donors, who might not have donated normally, engaged?
SM: One of the things that we've looked at in the past — even prior to the Haiti earthquake — is what we term "episodic giving," where it's an emergency, a disaster and you bring in a tremendous amount of new donors because of the attention, people wanting to help out, but maybe they weren't a traditional donor to any of these organizations. What we've found with episodic donors is typically some of these organizations are able to retain them for two to three years following one of these major events, but a lot of nonprofits struggle with retaining that episodic donor long term for a variety of reasons.
One of the things we constantly stress is the importance of follow-up, especially to people who are new donors to an organization. To do that, after the Haiti earthquake some organizations have taken their traditional monthly e-newsletter, where it would have information and news about the organization, they've been leading with more, "Hey, here are things we're doing in Haiti post-earthquake," and follow-up information. Following up with those new donors and using some different communication strategies, different messages with those episodic donors as opposed to what you would send to traditional donors, is important. It kind of goes without saying that if you're sending the same message to every single donor whether they're an existing donor or new donor, that's bad; you're doing it wrong if that's your approach.
FS: What about mobile giving?
SM: There's a lot of benefits to mobile giving — probably bring in a whole lot of new donors, it's very easy to do. But there's also some potential downsides to mobile giving. The giving amounts in themselves are limited by the carriers, so you're talking about $5 and $10 donations versus in 2009 the average gift that we saw was a little over $140 — much lower giving amount. And then the other potential downside to mobile giving is unless I as a donor opt in to receive additional information, the charities never know who I am. The dollars end up being deposited back to them, but one concern we have and something that we remind nonprofits looking at mobile is how does that fit in with the other channels that you're using and does mobile giving encourage more anonymous giving? The more anonymous donors you have, where you don't really know anything about them other than the dollars transferring hands, you can't follow up with them, you don't know who they are, you can't contact them. That makes it very difficult down the road to build a relationship with them. So there are some pros and cons people need to think about. FS