Lessons From the Front Lines of Disaster Fundraising
Feb. 21, 2006
By Abny Santicola
Presenting for a session on "Disaster Fundraising" at last week's DMA Nonprofit Federation 2006 Annual Washington Nonprofit Conference, Julie
Hambuchen, marketing director for Portland, Ore.-based international relief and development agency Mercy Corps, outlined the four key lessons her organization learned from the disasters of 2005. Disaster fundraising is part of Mercy Corps' mission, but it also stresses long-term solutions for affected areas. As long-term providers of relief, Mercy Corps knows it must capitalize on the intense initial media coverage given to disasters. In her session, Hambuchen said coverage typically peaks and fades and therefore it is important for fundraisers to capture donations during that time of interest. Luckily, in the case of the 2004 tsunami and 2005's Hurricane Katrina especially, the window of awareness stayed open longer than the usual few days or week.
Hambuchen outlined her organization's emergency fundraising plan, which starts with direct mail and Web marketing to current donors, and if the situation warrants, the organization solicits non-donors. Emergency fundraising for Mercy Corps also involves telemarketing, print ads, radio ads, and outreach to foundations and corporations. Hambuchen says that Lesson One for the organization was that it's important to have a plan for emergency fundraising, but to also be able to change that plan because each disaster will be different and different, too, in how it is covered by the media and, hence, what the public reaction will be.
When Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005, the organization was faced with the question of whether or not it should respond, as an international relief agency, to a domestic disaster. The main question, Hambuchen said, was whether Mercy Corps' presence would add value, and there were also concerns about how donors might react. Through the urging of donors and because of the magnitude of the disaster, the organization decided that it would help. Hambuchen said this underscored Lesson Two: Listen to donors. Donors were saying that they wanted the organization to help Katrina victims and while an organization shouldn't automatically jump to meet its donors' demands, Hambuchen said the organization evaluated the disaster and found that stepping in to offer aid was, indeed, the right decision.
The reaction of donors was the organization's main concern when a 7.6
magnitude earthquake shook Pakistan in October 2005. More specifically,
Hambuchen said Mercy Corps was concerned that its donor base, already
seemingly stretched thin by tsunami and Katrina fundraising, would be tapped out. And what of the organization's usual trove of direct-mail holiday appeals almost set to drop? In the end, the organization decided to go back to its donors a third time. Its reasoning was twofold. One, it's in the organization's mission to respond to disasters, so it's what donors would expect it to do. Second, Mercy Corps realized that its donor base is made up of people who would feel compelled to give to people in need, so if Mercy Corps didn't ask them for funds, donors would end up giving to another organization instead. Hence, Lesson Three, Hambuchen said, is to never underestimate donors. You may have a suspicion that they're tired and tapped out, but you can't just assume that they are. For Mercy Corps and other disaster-relief organization fundraising in 2005, donors met and exceeded each challenge.
In the final point of her presentation, Hambuchen stressed that organizations follow media coverage and disaster fundraising by telling the public what they've done with donor dollars. Don't just respond to inquiries and wait for donors and the public to ask, she added -- be proactive and show that the nonprofit community is accountable to donors and the general public.