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Haiti And The Rest Of Us: What’s Next For Non-Disaster Charities?

February 18th, 2010 Posted in Fundraising

Seventy million dollars and counting. That’s how much money the Canadian arms of three major aid charities (Médecins sans frontières, the Red Cross and World Vision) raised for Haitian relief work by January 25. Other international relief and development charities report unprecedented results as well. The Salvation Army received $120,000 in just a few days in its first ever text messaging campaign. The backroom technology that made it possible comes from the Mobile Giving Foundation.

Bandwagon unites private and public enterprise

Private enterprise and even some government corporations aren’t far behind. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario brought in $126,000 in one week for the Red Cross by asking for $2 at the cash register. Air Miles encourages people to donate points. Benefit concerts, bake sales, fundraising walks, classroom campaigns and Facebook pages abound. And then there are the endorsements from celebrities: Celine DionNelly FurtadoMichael J. Fox and Donovan Bailey, to name just a few.

janet_1In the U.S. the House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill allowing donors to Haitian relief to claim their gift on their 2009 tax return. (The Ministère des Finances in Québec announced a similar measure January 22.) “Are they saying that feeding and sheltering America’s growing population of hungry and homeless, caring for our nation’s sick or preventing life-threatening diseases is any less noble than the relief efforts in Haiti?” Greg Fox wrote on DonorPower.com in response to the U.S. action.

Right now we may feel like asking our media the same question.

2004 tsunami didn’t impede regular campaigns

What does all this mean for your charity’s prospects in 2010? We can look to the 2004 tsunami for clues. Arguably, that disaster occurred at a time when it might have had the greatest possible effect on overall fundraising – the crucial last week of opportunity for catch-up giving, scrambling procrastinators and tax-savvy donors. Yet the Association of Fundraising Professionals reported that in both Canada and the U.S., nearly two-thirds of nonprofits raised more money in 2004 than in the previous year (Canadian Fundraiser, August 31, 2005).

That’s good news for the rest of us. Add to that the fact that the generous response to the Haitian catastrophe occurs at the beginning of a new year of giving, that the economy seems to be recovering (for the time being anyway), and that the sector is more skilled and professional than it was in December 2004, and there may be no reason to tinker with the goals and budgets we’ve established.

Communicating our case

How, then, do we conduct ourselves as representatives of charities not relieving such dramatic need? Above all, says communications expert Nancy Schwartz, acknowledge it. “Pretending the disasters didn’t happen is the worst mistake your organization can make,” she advises.

It’s time for sensitive communication. You may actually go as far as to acknowledge the impact of the earthquake and the contributions your donors and prospects are likely to have made, she counsels. In doing so, you create the opportunity to talk about your issues and the resulting needs that persist even in the face of the Haitian tragedy.

Don’t overstate a connection between your organization, services or programs and the disaster, Schwartz warns. Continue your regular media campaigns and press releases, and if your pitch is timely, continue to make it.

Direct mail consultants differ on the immediate impact of the Haitian fundraising efforts. Lisa M. Deitlin told The Chronicle of Philanthropy that she recommended delaying direct mail fundraising appeals for a few weeks if possible. But Canada’s Fraser Green contends that the vast majority of disaster donors are not regular donors to charities in general. Since most of his clients see their greatest returns on the first renewal campaign of the year, usually held in January, he warns against delaying that first critical mailing too much.

Making the most of opportunities

Media coverage of a calamity inevitably declines as new news emerges. In Canada, the Olympics are just one of the stories waiting to crowd the devastating situation of Haitians off our news sites, front pages and airwaves. It’s not fair, but it is predictable.

Let us encourage the organizations engaged in Haitian relief to make the most of their limited time in the spotlight. Your solid communications plan, compelling case and knowledge of your audiences will have their usual effect in due time. We will all benefit from media attention to the many ways of giving, both old and new. Above all, we will benefit from the media’s celebration of generosity – the real good news in the midst of this tragic tale.

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