Three weeks have now passed since a magnitude 7.0 earthquake swallowed Haiti.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that through last Wednesday, the first fifteen days post-quake, donors had so far given $528 million to US nonprofits. (You can see which organizations received how much here.)
Katya Andresen notes how quickly donors are losing interest in Haiti, a fact attested to by the almost total absence of posts being done on Haiti by the usual fundraising and nonprofit blogger suspects I regularly quote on these pages (though Nathaniel Whittemore hit up with a first-rate relief-to-recovery Haiti post this morning at Change.org).
Sum it up and say: Another disaster come and gone from the news, and it’s not immediately apparent that we’ve been transformed by our initial giving in the process.
From a nonprofit standpoint, a familiar question is making the rounds, one typically asked at roughly this spot in the timeline during previous large-scale disasters:
Did that $528 million include money that would normally have come to my nonprofit?
In other words: Are donors diverting their money from your nonprofit/cause to Haiti?
Incomprehensibly little research has been done to date on this question in relation to previous disasters, leaving us pontificators to pontificate with impunity and without the niggling constraints of, say, actual data.
My own reply to the question takes the form of a simple thought experiment:
- Most nonprofit fundraising, especially mass fundraising, actually follows the form of disaster fundraising. That is, when a nonprofit executive director or ad agency sits down to write an appeal letter, he or she or they ask, “What is the most urgent, compelling, heart-tugging need we can muster at this moment?” And they write the appeal letter as a kind of “micro-disaster”, i.e., “We need your help today! This is a tragedy! Please respond with the most generous gift you can! Run, don’t walk, to your mailbox. Better yet, give online!”
- As a result, we train donors to give to disasters. Urgency, it seems, sells even better than “complimentary” address labels.
- When a big disaster like Haiti hits, donors trained (by us) to give to disasters give to the big disaster.
- As they do so, they sometimes leave out giving to the monthly “micro-disaster” letter from the charities whose “micro-disasters” they respond to intermittently…at least until we can convince them that our “micro-disaster” is once again more disastrous than what’s happening in the big disaster to which they previously diverted their giving.
There are three typical responses that normally crop up among nonprofits seeking to raise money for their cause in the midst of a disaster.
- For a brief time, tell your donors to give to Haiti instead of giving to you. For the Haiti version of this, please refer to Haslam, Bill.
- Try to explain your cause in terms of Haiti, working on the idea that if donors gave to Haiti, you can build on that by describing your own cause as similar to what’s happening there. No less a luminary than Bill Gates tried this one in his annual Gates Foundation letter.
- Open with a compassionate mention of Haiti and then, as tactfully as possible, note that your organization still has needs, too, and would sure appreciate you remembering our light bill in your monthly giving. This is a variant on the strategy that nonprofits have been employing throughout the recession, i.e., “I know a lot of you reading this letter are out of work, and I want you to know that we’re praying for you: praying that you don’t cut us out of your monthly budget even if it means sending in money from your unemployment check.”
The problem with all three approaches is that they turn on two basic premises, both of which are fallacious, namely:
- Money is scarce.
- The only way donors give is if the need is urgent.
In other words, because money is scarce I should instruct you not to give to me so that you can give to Haiti. Because donors only give when the need is urgent, I need to prove to you that my need is significant, too. And because money is scarce and my need is significant, too, it’s not in bad taste for me to sigh for a minute about Haiti before putting the full court press on you to remember how badly we need your money in our corner of the world, too.
So if you are a nonprofit and you suspect your donations are down due to the Haiti disaster, what should you do?
- Don’t–just don’t–write your donors and draw comparisons between the disaster in Haiti and the disaster your cause addresses. Never ever contemplate writing a letter that says, “It is a terrible tragedy that 200,000 people may be dead in Haiti due to the earthquake, but did you know that that number pales in comparison to the number of people who will die this year because of [insert your cause here] unless we do something today?” Even if that approach doesn’t backfire on you, it should. The deaths of 200,000 human beings should never be invoked as a means to any end.
- Do accept the drop in your donation income as a sign that one sows what one reaps. If one motivates one’s donors through a micro-disaster-of-the-month-club approach, one must accept that when a bigger disaster comes along, your micro-disaster will be trumped that month.
- Commit to a fundraising approach that recognizes that donors can–and should–be giving to a comprehensive range of causes. Encourage that with more than lip service. Provide resources (like Alan Gotthardt’s Eternity Portfolio) that enable your donors to learn to grow in their giving maturity, not just in their gross giving to your cause.
- Don’t focus on sharing the desperate needs of your organization with your donors. Organizational desperation doesn’t motivate donors any more; in fact, if they smell death, they will move on and away from you as discretely as possible. Instead, continue to provide donors with meaningful opportunities for involvement with the cause about which both you and they care. Settle in your own mind that people can and do (and should) care about more than one cause, and reaffirming the comparative importance of the one you’re involved in is far less important (and dignified) than continuing to provide customized, personalized opportunities for donors to build on the important work they’ve already begun with you.
- Convey your genuine interest in Haiti by being genuinely knowledgeable about the subject and transparent in your own response to the disaster. (You did respond…didn’t you?) If you are comprehensively involved in a wide range of causes other than your own (which you should be), your care and compassion will come across as a whole lot more compelling than if you have no idea what’s going on in Haiti and didn’t respond to the disaster at all. The best picture your donors will ever get of being appropriately involved in more than one cause…is you.
This won’t immediately refill your nonprofit’s coffers, but sometimes that’s good. Even more important than full coffers today is a fundraising strategy that is mature and steady and sustainable over time…one that enables your donors and you to care about all the causes about which we as human beings should care…not just the one we get paid to care about.