News and analysis
November 06, 2012

Fundraisers Respond Faster and Smarter With Each Relief Effort

Save the Children

Save the Children has raised $1-million to set up child-friendly spaces like this one at the shelters across the communities affected by Sandy.

The more than $90-million charities have raised in the week since Superstorm Sandy hit landfall is in large part a sign that nonprofits are getting faster and savvier about how they tap the public’s impulse to give before it fades, say nonprofit experts.

Keeping attention on storm cleanup efforts has been even trickier than usual with Election Day distracting many Americans from the challenges that continue to bedevil people in New Jersey and New York.

Katya Andresen, chief operating officer at Network for Good, an online giving portal that accepts gifts on behalf of many large charities involved in helping storm victims, says the daily­ volume of donations she has tracked are on pace with those raised after the Japan tsunami and Haiti earthquake.

She and others say that’s because relief charities have realized after previous missteps that they always need to be ready to mount emergency appeals.

“As soon as a disaster hits, they’ve got their plan in place,” says David Lamb, a senior official at Blackbaud, who has written about how to keep donors long after they give to disaster relief. “Their marketing materials are ready to go. All they have to do is fill in the blanks.”

He adds: “Nonprofits have gotten smarter and more effective in their response, not just in what they do but how to prepare for it.”

'Agile’ Fundraising

Even before or as Hurricane Sandy arrived, some charities were busy updating their Web sites with hurricane-related information, putting up content with resources on how to help and other useful information and creating donation pages for people to give as they watch the media coverage of the storm unfold.

“That preparation is so important. When you look at giving patterns, they rise and fall in lockstep with media coverage,” says Ms. Andresen. “The instance you see the disaster leave the front page or home page of a Web site, you see the giving dies.”

Typically, she says, disaster-relief contributions spike and fall within a week. The first few days, she says, are when “most of the giving is going to happen. People are very generous if they see the story before their eyes.”

Church World Service’s fundraising and communication staff members immediately went to work as Sandy reached landfall. First they sent a mass e-mail to donors on Tuesday morning, October 30, after they had set a plan in motion the previous day through phone calls with key staff members who manage the charity’s online presence.

The New York organization had created a storm-related landing page on its Web site, where employees soon posted updates of the charity’s relief activities and directed where people could give donations. The group also asked 30,000 congregations to download and print a church-bulletin insert from its landing page asking donors to give during Sunday service.

The charity has raised $48,000 so far and will need a lot more: It’s already shipped some $482,000 worth of blankets, hygiene kits, clean-up buckets, and the like to disaster areas in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Its fundraising goal for Sandy is $618,000.

The group believes its planning will ultimately pay off.

“Certainly, we’re much faster and more agile at this time than we would have been seven years ago, starting with the tsunami and with [Hurricane] Katrina,” says Tom Hampson, director for constituent engagement at Church World Service. “We have a much more established pattern of how we sort of kick into gear in terms of our fundraising and our preparation.”

Disaster Hits Home

Superstorm Sandy arrived with plenty of warning, allowing many organizations to get their relief workers into place. Still, the storm also created havoc in the offices of some of these aid organizations, and on their workers’ residences.

Church World Service’s e-mails to donors included a brief video of a staff member whose New Jersey neighborhood was wrecked by Sandy. In the midst of the destruction, the employee armed himself with a camera and captured some footage for the charity’s online fundraising appeal. “The devastation you see is his front yard,” Mr. Hampson says. “That’s one of the challenges for us—and for a number of emergency responders. This hurricane hit us where we lived.”

Save the Children also experienced the storm firsthand. Its staff members were dispersed as Sandy battered the coastal town of Westport, Conn.; its headquarters there was soon flooded with more than a foot and a half of water. But the fundraising drive continued amid the chaos. The charity’s emergency fundraising and communications team, which was created two years ago, sent e-mails to donors, held conference calls with supporters and volunteers, and set up ways for donors to give by text message or smartphone. They plugged in online and worked at bookstores, coffee shops, neighbors’ homes, libraries, and other places.

“For the first time, we’ve actually been affected with the power outages and lack of Internet access,” says Susan Ridge, vice president for marketing and communications at Save the Children, who has been working from a local Barnes & Noble that has power and Internet access. “That’s created an additional challenge.”

Despite the setback, Save the Children has raised $1-million to set up child-friendly spaces at the shelters across the communities affected by Sandy. Ms. Ridge says she plans to gather her staff members soon to evaluate technology solutions that would help them during another emergency where they themselves were affected.

“It’s because we want to keep being more effective and more efficient doing this so that we can be out there faster, on the ground faster and fundraising faster,” she says.

Making a Plan

As charities continue to seek relief gifts, they should tell the stories of the difficult circumstances their workers are encountering. Organizations should say how much flood water is sitting in the office, says Ms. Andresen, or how they’re feeding the homeless cold sandwiches because they can’t prepare hot meals. “Those are the stories that people can relate to and can inspire people to support,” Ms. Andresen says.

Most important, she says, is a communications strategy for these kinds of situations, such as a timeline of when the Web site should be updated, key messages for different platforms, media contacts to reach out to, and a way to thank supporters.

“Have it down to a science,” she says. “Plenty of people do this on the fly, but it’s not the best way to do business if you’re a fundraiser.”

For instance, Team Rubicon, a disaster-relief organization whose members are military veterans, was ready with its fundraising appeal on the Monday that Sandy was bearing down on the East coast.

“We saw the storm was awful,” says Mike Lee, communications and fundraising coordinator. “We were able to get mobilized quickly. And we started plugging in volunteers” in areas where they were needed.

By the end of the next day, it had received $15,000. And by Thursday, that grew to $43,000 from individuals plus an additional $170,000 in corporate donations.

The secret: Individual donors each received a phone call thanking them for their contributions. Many of those donors were so motivated that they started reaching out to friends and relatives to contribute, Mr. Lee says. While the organization had long wanted to make personal appeals to donors, this was the first time that it was able to do so.

Says Mr. Lee: “It’s been so much more effective than we could have hoped.”