The GuideStar Blog retired September 9, 2019. We invite you to visit its replacement, the Candid Blog. You’re also welcome to browse or search the GuideStar Blog archives. Onward!

GuideStar Blog

Charities Learn to Turn Away Support Offered by Donors Who Are Overcome with Sympathy

charities-learn-to-turn-away-support.jpgOriginally published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy

Christine Benero, head of Denver's United Way, has spent a lot of time in recent months turning away some donors who want to support her charity.

Ms. Benero has been at ground zero of high-profile tragedies that have prompted emotional and generous philanthropic responses, first after the wildfires that destroyed more than 350 homes this spring and then after July's mass shooting on the opening night of a new Batman movie.

Too often, she says, she has seen donors and volunteers waste time and money after a crisis. And like a growing number of charity leaders, she is taking a more aggressive and blunt stance to tell donors when other groups can better use their money and when offers of clothes, food, and volunteer services get in the way of providing essential aid.

"It's very hard to say, 'We are so grateful that you want to make home-cooked meals for the firefighters, but right now, that's not going to be helpful,'" Ms. Benero says. But, she adds, it's also "critically important to meet donors' needs and do it in a way that actually makes a difference in the community."

Plan Ahead

Perhaps no time of year is as predictable for disaster fundraising as the next few weeks of hurricane season on the Atlantic coast, which brought tragedies like Katrina and Andrew.

This year, to help charities deal with disasters—both predictable and unpredictable—a national nonprofit coalition is about to offer a toolkit. And soon, with help from the UPS Foundation and the Ad Council, the coalition will unveil a national publicity campaign with the slogan "donate responsibly," to teach donors the best ways to help charities in times of tragedy.

But since most crises erupt with no warning, nonprofits of all types should engage in "scenario planning" about how they will handle an outpouring of donations, says Barbara Talisman, a fundraising consultant in Washington.

An organization needs to ask itself what sorts of gifts it should and shouldn't accept, and devise steps to take when people offer unwanted gifts.

"When a donor comes to us, we should have a response, and it shouldn't always be 'yes,' but it shouldn't always be 'no,'" she says. "We need an appropriate response."

That interaction with donors is also an opportunity to inform them how best to help out in the future, says Ms. Talisman.

Diverting Gifts

Nonprofits need to be especially careful not to accept gifts if they can't meet the donors' expectations, nonprofit experts say.

During the Colorado wildfires and after the Aurora shooting, some families were featured on the news—and local nonprofits had to temper donors' desire to earmark gifts for certain people.

Mile High United Way received inquiries from donors who wanted to support specific families, Ms. Benero says, so she explained that legitimate charities would take only donations intended to support all of the victims.

While her organization wasn't accepting money for either relief effort, she did tell potential donors about local community foundations that were handling contributions.

That's exactly what charities should do, says Janice Gow Pettey, past chairwoman of the ethics committee for the Association of Fundraising Professionals and author of Ethical Fundraising.

When charities don't consider a certain kind of activity part of their mission, she says, it's their duty to explain to a donor that others can do the work better. "It's about keeping our promises," she says.

Unwanted Donations

Informing donors of what the charity needs immediately after a crisis is essential, say experts.

Over the years, the American Red Cross has fine-tuned its guidelines for accepting gifts after seeing unsolicited—and unneeded—donations show up at its doorstep, such as second-hand shoes and clothes.

In a time of crisis, people "feel like they want to do something," says Suzy DeFrancis, the charity's chief public-affairs officer. "We try to make sure that we provide something that they can do."

Now when people want to empty their closets to give in times of crisis, Ms. DeFrancis tells them to hold a garage sale and give the money to the Red Cross instead.

A Social-Media Storm

The local Red Cross's only involvement in the aftermath of the Aurora shooting was setting up a shelter for the neighbors of the alleged gunman, who were displaced after investigators turned up in his bomb-rigged apartment.

But many people thought the Red Cross was the go-to group in charge of handling the larger crisis and took to Twitter and Facebook to tell people to aid the shooting victims by donating to the Red Cross.

The organization immediately sought to correct that misstatement through social networks and blogs and directed people to donate to Community First Foundation's online giving portal,

"Credibility is important," Ms. DeFrancis says.

A Tsunami of Support

While groups like the Red Cross are constantly dealing with crisis fundraising, many nonprofits don't expect to face such challenges.

The Japan Society, for example, focuses on educating Americans about the country and its culture. But after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, it was suddenly deluged with donors who wanted to help.

The society set up a fund that would collect money to support charities in Japan working on rebuilding after the catastrophe. In total, the charity raised $13 million from 23,000 donors. It has distributed $9.4 million.

From the beginning, the organization decided not to accommodate donors who wanted to earmark their contributions because it would take too much staff time, says Betty Borden, director of policy projects.

Instead, the society referred those supporters to GlobalGiving and Give2Asia, which connect donors to development projects overseas.

People also wanted to give the society clothes, bottled water, and medical supplies to send to Japan, but the charity turned those away because of the expense of shipping and distribution. "Early on, we knew we were not in a position to handle in-kind contributions," Ms. Borden says.

Raising Just Enough

Once a need is met, some experts say nonprofits should alert donors that their contributions may be used for some other purpose.

Doctors Without Borders has long had a policy of telling donors when it has raised enough for a specific crisis and turning away all other gifts unless they are for the charity's general fund.

The organization also takes pains to make sure it doesn't raise too much for an emergency.

During the hunger crisis in Somalia over the past year, the charity made an urgent fundraising appeal to donors, says Melanie West, the charity's director of marketing.

She calculated just how many solicitations were needed to raise a projected $6 million. In the end, the group raised $5.9 million.

"We're really careful not to mislead donors," Ms. West says, and the charity especially avoids overplaying a situation that falls short of a crisis. "We're very careful not to emotionally manipulate our donors too much."

No matter how much a charity does to avoid manipulating emotions, though, it often faces challenges after the news media get donors stirred up about a crisis.

That's why the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, a coalition of 108 charities, is now developing a way to educate the public to understand what type of donations—products or cash—do the most good, says James McGowan, the group's associate executive director of partnerships.

"We're really encouraging people to check the need before they give," he says.

The organization is working to spread the word in a radio and television campaign with the help of the Center for International Disaster Information, InterAction, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as pro bono assistance from the Ad Council and $75,000 from the UPS Foundation.

The toolkit to help charities craft donation policies and prepare to handle crisis fundraising, to be released soon, will be sent to more than 230 organizations that deal with relief work.

The main message is simple, says Mr. McGowan: "Cash is best."

Raymund Flandez, Chronicle of Philanthropy
© 2012, Chronicle of Philanthropy. Reprinted with permission.

Topics: Fundraising