Are donors diverting their money from your nonprofit/cause to Haiti?

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

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. Money is scarce.
  2. 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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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13 Responses to Are donors diverting their money from your nonprofit/cause to Haiti?

  1. Good article with eyeopening statistics. Yeh for TG. Where would we be right now if we were still using past fundraising techniques?

  2. Joanne Fritz says:

    Great points, Ed. I’m going to link to this in today’s post.

    • EFoley says:

      Thanks, Joanne–your “best links” really always are the best. I encourage all my readers to check them out, or my name isn’t Ed, er, Eric. 🙂

  3. Jon Hirst says:

    Eric, thanks for this post. I think the key challenge is to begin building a group of champions who are not primarily driven by emergencies but are proactive and God-focused in their giving. What a challenge and what a wonderful discipleship opportunity for us to invest in our champions this way and encourage them to grow in how they give.

  4. Katya says:

    Great points – I’m linking to them, too!

  5. Pingback: Follow Friday: What Has Haiti Shown Us About Nonprofits? « Entry Level Living

  6. Pingback: Is your church giving being impacted by Haiti? « Church Giving Matters

  7. PJ Breen says:

    An interesting article, but with respect, I would seriously question your contention that the premise ‘money is scarce’ is fallacious.

    Across the board donations to non-profits are down, donations by philanthropists are down, giving by grant making foundations are down – there are well publicised surveys around on this.

    Add in the fact that unemployment is at its highest level ever, and that for those remaining in employment, many have had to endure salary cuts and now the possibility of tax increases to fund bank/economy bailouts.

    In short, if the premise ‘money is scarce’ could be incorrect, the premise ‘money is more scarce than it was’ certainly isn’t.

    At first sight, its hard to marry that argument with the $600 million in donations to Haiti – but not really – people, being generous by nature, will give when the cause is of sufficient scale to move them. But the same doesn’t apply to your ‘every day’ non-profit.

    If you’re trying to raise money, for e.g. for education in Indiana, it’s very hard to sell yourself with the same urgency as Haiti. Moreover, you are selling today the same cause as you were two years ago, but you’re trying to sell it to people who either have, or perceive themselves to have, less money than they had before.

    People will respond to a disaster simply because it is a disaster almost regardless of their personal circumstances – the amounts they give might depend on their situation but their willingness to give won’t. If you’re a ‘non disaster non-profit’ though I don’t think the same applies.

    Good post though.

    ( )

    • EFoley says:

      Thanks for dropping by, PJ–and thanks for your kind comments.

      As you browse some of the other pieces on this site, you’ll see that the studies you note are indeed quoted, though to very different effect.

      Traditional transactional fundraising (what I call “ttf”) does equate a drop in donations with a drop in available money.

      Transformational Giving (TG)–the approach we talk about on this blog–looks at the drop in donations and sees it as the logical consequence of the ttf system, which views giving as latent in donors rather than learned. One of the other studies cited on this blog notes that the percentage of income given annually by the average American has neither increased nor decreased in the past 50 years. The present system, in other words, has been powerless at increasing generosity.

      A core premise of TG is that giving is not latent but rather learned–something reflected well in philanthropy in other countries such as South Korea, where giving among South Korean Christians–another study cited in some of our posts–dwarfs that of US Christians and reflects an approach to philanthropy not based on extraction of resources (what we call fundraising) but rather on equipping givers to more effectively impact the causes about which they care. This is the heart of TG.

      Through this lens–one not often used in ttf–we gain some insights into the popularity of disaster relief. It’s possible to say that people give to a disaster simply because it is a disaster, yet what do we mean when we say that? One important and surprisingly neglected consideration is that people are inherently convinced that they KNOW how to impact a cause during a disaster, and they know their giving is needed, so they give. Impacting education in Indiana? Not so clear.

      The idea is that there is more here than urgency, more here than repeated exposure on television that drives disaster relief. People give because they know giving is necessary and sufficient to be able to help. Applying this principle to other causes doesn’t mean portraying other causes more like disasters but rather aiding individuals in knowing how well set they are (not only through financial giving but through all forms of involvement) to impact the causes about which they care.

      In taking this approach, the parameters are not set by the giving amounts people are prepared to give today but rather by the greater giving amounts people are inclined on an ongoing basis to give as they are coached in how to impact the causes they love in their sphere of influence. Those investments tend to be remarkably recession-proof, as we discuss in several of the posts on this site. One of my favorite posts in this regard is . Hope you enjoy it.

  8. PJ Breen says:

    If the percentage of income donated remains roughly the same, when the overall income of a given population decreases then the amount donated decreases too. So I think I’m correct to contend that even if money isn’t scarce per se, it is more scarce than it was.

    I wasn’t advocating portraying ‘non-disaster appeals’ more like ‘disaster situations’ by the way – merely saying that a current disaster is more likely to overshadow other fundraising efforts for the period that it is both current and a disaster.

    Thanks for taking the time to reply to my post – one of the reasons I’ve been ‘lurking’ here as a reader for a bit is exactly that – the time you give to discussions rather than simply posting.

    ( )

    • EFoley says:

      To me, the discussions are ALWAYS more important than the posts, PJ! Glad to have your thoughtful commentary now and hopefully for the future as well.

      The development strategies I commend are indeed tied explicitly to increasing the percentage of income the average individual gives to impact the causes they love. Only through such an educative coaching process can we ever dissociate donations from Gross Domestic Productive–two statistics that have been welded together during the entire modern period of fundraising (much to modern fundraising’s chagrin!).

      My comment about portraying non-disaster appeals as disasters was definitely not directed TO you. It is, however, as you know, the time-honored traditional transactional fundraising strategy. Just saw this again yesterday with a non-disaster nonprofit recasting its own cause in light of the Haiti disaster. Blech!

  9. jayfrost says:

    Great stuff! Thank you!

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