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Fundraising in the Wake of Disaster

It may seem hard to fundraise when there are so many pressing disasters in the world, but if your nonprofit has been actively engaged in cultivating donors, you may find that, rather than encountering donor fatigue, you receive an outpouring of compassion.

The recent disasters are waking people up to all the real need in the world, and many are feeling more generous than ever, even to local causes. Loyal donors don't slip away in a crisis. On the contrary, they seem to have a special "extra pocket" out of which they give for disaster relief in addition to their regular contributions to their favorite organizations.

The last quarter of the year is a huge fundraising season, and since the hurricanes struck, many groups we're working with are finding that their fundraising activities are as strong as ever. Although donor fatigue may be a reality for some international nonprofits, it doesn't seem to be having a large effect on local causes.

Just 10 days after Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast, the American Red Cross chapter in Hampton Roads, Virginia, went ahead with its scheduled fundraising breakfast on September 15 to raise funds for its local operating budget, not Katrina relief.

"If we had canceled it, then we would have lost the opportunity tell our story to the 650 people who needed to hear it most," said CEO Heather Livingston. "We had people camping on our doorstep because they needed help from the storm."

The message Livingston wanted to get out is that in addition to working with evacuees and sending teams to the crisis, it deals with local emergencies every day—whether it's a house fire, heart attack, accident, the need for blood, or staying in touch with loved ones serving in Iraq.

Her chapter raised more than $200,000 in gifts and pledges (not including money earmarked for Katrina); it was the most successful fundraising event in the chapter's history.

Most of the Raising More Money alumni groups who hold fundraising events after a crisis tell us that donors appreciated being able to help a local cause.

United Cerebral Palsy of South Florida held a fundraising event the day after the fourth hurricane to hit Florida last year. "Although the entire community was hurting, people very much wanted to reach out and help us. Individuals who couldn't be in their own homes or businesses during this time still came out and supported our event," said Joan Rizzo, the development director.

It's important for all nonprofits to stay focused right now on their upcoming fundraising plans. If your nonprofit is doing relief work, it's especially important not to cancel the event, because now is a perfect time to explain to donors what you are doing. For other nonprofits, it's important to acknowledge the disaster and, when possible, to link your mission in some way to the disaster.

Arts groups, rather than downplaying their missions in light of a recent disaster, should focus on how the arts are critical in times of crisis for bringing people together and expressing the beauty and courage of the human spirit.

People who work for a food bank or help the homeless can talk about how their group is working every day to help people get back on their feet.

Domestic violence shelters can talk about how health professionals say the stress and strain caused by displacement will likely create a rise in domestic violence, already a huge problem in this country.

If there is no direct link between your work and the disaster relief, it's important at least to acknowledge the crisis and even to acknowledge donor fatigue with a brief phrase before making an appeal.

After 9/11, Chartwell School in Seaside, California, sent an appeal to donors through the mail with a special reference to the tragedy: "In response to last week's tragedy, we are pulling together as a nation to mourn the dead, to comfort those remaining and to unite to protect our freedom. With respect to all these things, Chartwell School is continuing with its mission to work with dyslexic children, as they represent the future of our nation. We hope that you will find the enclosed letter composed in this spirit."

For those groups working with disaster victims and facing a greater need for donations to cover the cost of those services, it is a good idea to stay connected with donors by sending them updates on what's happening.

Volunteers of America in North Louisiana, for example, has been sending out personal daily e-mail updates on its 25 evacuees, many from the flooded Veteran's Administration Hospital in New Orleans. One donor gave them $100,000 in response to those updates.

Other nonprofits are reaching out to other groups that share their mission around the country to find support.

For instance, SIRE, Houston's Therapeutic Equestrian Center, is part of the huge movement to come to the aid of the approximately 23 therapeutic riding centers that were destroyed or heavily damaged by the two recent hurricanes.

Rather than thinking there is a limited supply of funds in the world, recognize the awareness that the disasters have brought to the nonprofit sector. Remind people that this is the good work you are doing day after day, right here in their local community.

Terry Axelrod, Raising More Money
© 2005, Raising More Money

Terry Axelrod is the founder and CEO of Raising More Money, a Seattle-based organization that has trained and coached more than 2,000 nonprofits in a mission-based system for building sustainable funding from individual donors. For more information about Terry Axelrod and Raising More Money, please visit
Topics: Fundraising