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How Fundraisers Should to Respond to the Sulawesi Disaster

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The videos coming from Indonesia are shattering: The massive angry wave crashing ashore, engulfing buildings and people. The unstoppable surge of black water pushing cars and shattered pieces of buildings through the streets. The rows of body bags.

Our thoughts and best wishes go to the people affected, their families and friends and charity workers across the world doing their best to help.

What should you do?

You may have already made a gift yourself, but what about your donors?

If you work for an organisation that doesn’t work to help with disasters like this, please – don’t change anything in your fundraising plans. Changing because of a disaster can be a disaster for your cause.

If you’re at an international organisation, you’re no doubt talking about your response to this disaster.

Here are some thoughts from a fundraising perspective — you obviously have to make some decisions on whether and how you are going to respond, and these have little or nothing to do with fundraising.

How much effort, time, and money should you put toward fundraising for the Sulawesi disaster?

Assuming your organisation is responding to the disaster, you should probably do something in fundraising.

Media coverage should also dictate how much and how long you stay on it as a fundraising topic. When it drops out of hourly news broadcasts and off the top of online newsfeeds, the fundraising moment is largely finished.

As of this writing, the Sulawesi Disaster is getting:

Huge coverage in Australia. After all, Indonesia is our neighbour.
• A lot of coverage elsewhere in Asia.
• Nearly as much in Europe.
• Middling coverage in North America.

Media coverage has increased over the last day, driven by the rising death toll and the drama of the images and video that have come out. It’s possible that coverage will continue to increase, depending on the information from Indonesia in the coming hours and days.

Given that, here’s a minimal response — probably right for most North American fundraisers for now:

• Send an email to your supporters. Now, if not sooner!
• Make the Sulawesi Disaster the main (preferably only thing) thing on your home page.
• Keep sending emails, daily or more, until it drops out of media coverage. These emails can be very simple and short, some containing photos, some not.
• Cover it in your social media channels.
• If you are already active in Search Engine Optimisation, make sure you’re on top of this disaster.
Don’t change your direct mail plans — unless to delay a mailing that’s scheduled this week by a day or three.

Outside of North America (and possibly there too if coverage continues to grow), here are some additional things you might do:

• Consider other media outlets to get your message out, such as radio, television, daily newspapers, and public relations — but be careful not to spend much (or any) money doing so — that is probably not a good investment now.
• If you have an already-scheduled piece of direct mail going out in the next few days that you can still affect: Add a small, brightly coloured slip of paper that says something like, “As this message went to press, we got news of the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi. Please consider a special gift to help the victims of this disaster.” This will likely help improve response to that piece of mail. But don’t do this if it will cause a long delay to the mailing.

What you should consider doing

Call your donors.

That’s right. Get on the phone — this week — and ask your current donors to help disaster victims. Even more important, call new donors that have come to you because of this disaster and ask them to give again. And here’s the main thing:

While you have them on the phone, ask them to become monthly donors.

This is the best way to turn this tragedy into a future benefit for your organisation and those you serve. It’s a way to turn those disaster donors — who are typically younger and have much lower retention rates than typical donors — into strong, ongoing supporters.

My most important warning about disaster fundraising

Disaster fundraising can be a disaster for your fundraising.

Because it can eat up all your staff time to raise money that effectively goes ‘through’ your organisation. That time would have been spent on other activities so effectively costs you money, no matter how much you raise.

That could be a huge problem, especially this time of year, when you need to be focused on your normal year-end fundraising efforts.

Track staff time spent on these efforts! Guard your time — it’s your most precious and limited resource, after all — and don’t let the urgency of the moment blind you to your plan.

Work hard on any new donors to get them on board with your broader mission. For many organisations, this can be your most cost-effective donor acquisition.

Please share your experience with disaster fundraising by leaving your reply below. We’d love to learn from your experience.

Jeff and Sean

Related Blog: Finding Committed Donors from Disaster Responders


  • Sean Triner

    Sean Triner is a Co-Founder of Moceanic and Pareto Group. With over three decades of experience in fundraising and a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in mathematics, Sean has a wealth of fundraising expertise to share with Moceanic members and blog readers. He is also a coach and available for bookings on the Coaching+ program for fundraisers to help answer your questions and work hands-on directly with you.

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