Managing a Sensitive Situation: Traditional Philanthropy in the Face of a Natural Disaster
As nonprofit leaders and fundraising professionals, surviving through a natural disaster is something we do not always consider as part of our philanthropic strategy. However, it can become a critical consideration if you lead a nonprofit organization that exists outside the affected areas, or if your organization’s mission is not obviously tied to disaster relief.
A Shift in Giving
For your donors, traditional philanthropy in the wake of these recent disasters becomes less of a priority. Donors will typically shift their giving to support more immediate needs. Although it is heartbreaking to witness some of the most recent incidents in places such as Houston, Beaumont, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as fundraisers, we realize that relief funds will most like spring in to pave the way to support recovery. Gifts made to such disaster recovery funds are not always planned in the same way as gifts to more traditional funding, which means, as nonprofit leaders, knowing how to keep donors engaged, while at the same time, being sensitive to the situation is a rational and moral conundrum that we must face.
Being responsible for your organization’s fundraising efforts and being cognizant of your fellow disaster relief nonprofits and its donors—which in some cases, may be your donors—can become a balancing act for nonprofit leaders who rely on traditional fundraising, even during a time of community disasters.
Understandably, many people react to tragedy with an outpour of support, and there is a place for such generosity. While funds are donated for immediate relief, long-term recovery for victims and help for affected families, the challenge for nonprofit organizations that do not have a disaster-relief focus is how to simultaneously support these immediate needs, while keeping up with efforts to support your their organization’s ongoing needs.
There are two key approaches nonprofit leaders can use to demonstrate their support towards the greater good, while at the same time, maintaining a connection with donors. You can either pause fundraising or fundraise carefully. These seem like simple steps, but they are safe in an environment where donors and constituents are focused on the greater good of the community.
The spirit of pause fundraising is that it is the most common response and simply the right thing to do. It is respectful and considerate. However, I caution nonprofit leaders not to equate “pausing fundraising” with ceasing all communications with donors. Let us not lose sight of our organization’s purpose and need to remain financial sustainable.
Check your upcoming communications and social media posts to see if they are tone deaf to your audience. But do not stop talking to your donors. Your cause is still worthy of philanthropic support. The need you exist to fix is not going to go away, so neither should you. In pausing your solicitations, you may choose to devote your major gift calls to expressing your gratitude.
Call donors and say “thank you.” You may even consider sending a postcard to supporters thanking them for their support of your mission and encouraging them to support one of the groups your own organization is supporting. Hitting the pause button can be a reasonable approach to fundraising in the wake of disasters.
If your organization still needs the funds that you were planning on soliciting during a natural disaster, you still need to get out there and raise those funds. But during the time of broad tragedy, as you make your major gift contacts, listen with your heart even more than you normally do. Even if you’re far from Texas, people may have family there. (As a native of Houston, and a fundraiser, I had to consider this advice myself.)
Or they may be hurting from the awful stories they’re hearing in the news. Hold that space with your donor. Be a safe person to help them start processing their grief and anguish.
Have an Understanding of Your Donor Desires
Be human, be considerate and still make the ask. It is your role as a servant of your organization’s mission. You might modify your ask amount or you might see perils of your mission and things the donor has said. Key is to understand that your cause is still worthy of the funding. Just be careful with your approach and be sensitive to the desires of your donors.
As we venture down this path, we can always do both and pause with some donors and prospects and ask carefully with others. It is times like these that we get to experience the best in each other. And as nonprofit leaders and fundraisers, we get a front row seat to experience the beauty and generosity of our community.
Tarsha Whitaker Calloway serves as vice president of philanthropy for Tessitura Network. For almost two decades, Tarsha has helped nonprofits develop fundraising, board governance and fundraising strategies to further their mission. Tarsha has directly led efforts to raise more than $50 million for the nonprofit organizations, including the Woodruff Arts Center, Emory University and the American Cancer Society. She frequently presents locally, regionally and nationally on fundraising; organizational and board development; and diversity and philanthropy.
Outside of work, Tarsha has a monthly column in NonProfit PRO magazine and is actively involved in her community, including board of trustees for Destination Imagination, board of directors' executive committee for Leadership DeKalb, board of directors for National HBCU Hall of Fame and former board chair for Atlanta Shakespeare Theater. Tarsha holds a master's of business administration in international business from Mercer University Stetson School of Business and a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism and theater from Texas Southern University. She also holds certificate in current affairs fundraising from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University and a certificate in diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace from South Florida University.
Tarsha resides in Atlanta with her husband and son.