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In the Face of Disaster, Americans Respond with Their Hearts and Minds

National disasters bring out the best in the character of America's citizens, as they rush to the aid of victims of catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. As professional fundraising consultants, we are often asked about the impact of such disasters on fundraising for other philanthropic needs.

Not surprisingly, the news is good. Americans respond with their hearts and their dollars but don't do so at the expense of other worthy causes. According to Giving USA, overall giving increased by 5 percent in 2004, a year heavily affected by the tsunami. But this increase did not occur at the expense of other charities.

Most charities saw giving increase in 2004, although some shifts did occur. Recipients in health care saw the greatest increase while those in the human services sector experienced a slight decline. Yet in spite of one of the earth's greatest disasters, charitable giving domestically still increased.

Now that we face the most significant natural disaster of our time, Hurricane Katrina, followed so soon by Hurricane Rita, concerns are again raised. How will hurricane relief efforts affect total charitable giving in the coming year?

First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers go out to the hundreds of thousands of people and their families that have been devastated by these natural disasters. Second, we want to encourage Americans to continue to give and to be wise in their giving. Proper stewardship of these generous gifts will help all philanthropic organizations for years to come.

What Non-Profit Leaders Can Do

As nonprofit leaders, we may be faced with tough questions about our own fundraising from our constituents, our donors, and our volunteer leaders. With the cost to rebuild from Katrina alone projected to be many times greater than the recovery efforts after 9/11, and with those costs compounded in many places by Hurricane Rita, we cannot yet estimate the full extent of the need. There are, however, a few things we can do as we move into what is typically the busiest fundraising season of the year for most nonprofits:

  1. Become informed. Your donors, volunteers, constituents, and staff look to you to provide sound reasoning and a balanced perspective on what's being done, how relief appeals and corresponding giving will affect your organization, and what is appropriate for near-future plans. Seek information from credible national resources.

  2. Ask what you can do. If your organization is affiliated with a broader network or parent organization, learn how your counterparts have been affected and help your leadership and constituents understand how they can help. For example:

    Kansas City-based City Union Mission is a member of the National Association of Gospel Rescue Missions. The Mission sent out bulletins to its supporters letting them know of needs of sister rescue missions in the Gulf region and is responding with offers of monetary assistance and supplies as well as offering open shelter and camp space to individuals and families who've been displaced from their homes.

    The YMCA of the USA has notified its member associations of its willingness to coordinate efforts to help YMCAs affected by the disaster and to help those associations respond to local needs, including offers of employment, housing and relocation assistance, and collecting and shipping supplies.

    If you're not affiliated with a national network or organization, learn what local resources are available to you. Take time in staff and volunteer meetings to discuss the need and what your organization can do.

  3. Be sensitive and compassionate. We are all aware that needs at home continue. Take time this year as you plan year-end appeals to pay extra attention to your message and how you communicate your needs. Be sensitive to what your donor will hear and read. Above all, resist the temptation to exploit the situation, which will backfire in the eyes of your donors.

  4. Stay the course. Although it is well advised to be sensitive to what donors perceive in other causes asking for support in the face of disaster, you must continue to advocate for the needs of your nonprofit and the people you serve. Well-thought-out appeals underscoring your continued needs, tempered with a degree of sensitivity, will help you weather possible bumps in the road ahead.
Jeffrey Byrne, Jeffrey Byrne & Associates, Inc.
© 2005, Jeffrey Byrne & Associates, Inc.

Jeffrey Byrne is president and CEO of Jeffrey Byrne & Associates, Inc., a nonprofit capital campaign consulting firm based in Kansas City, Missouri, with offices throughout the United States.
Topics: Charitable Giving