Katrina’s Great Wave of Fundraising: How to Minimize the Impact on Your Non-profit

During the past two weeks we have been bombarded with horrific pictures, video clips, and stories of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Hurricane Katrina has caused a dramatic wake-up call to the issues of poverty and race in America, and has unveiled the ineptness of our government bureaucracies.


But, the outpouring of food, clothing, money, and other resources from individuals and organizations in an effort to relieve the suffering is unprecedented. Americans have already contributed over $788 million to the hurricane relief efforts with millions more coming in every day. In the 10 days after the September 11th World Trade attack in New York, Americans donated $239 million; and in the nine days after the Asian tsunamis, Americans raised over $163 million.

The great surge of philanthropic support from corporations has been equally dramatic during the past two weeks. Wal-Mart donated $15 million, General Electric donated $6 million, Coca- Cola donated $5 million, and Michael and Susan Dell donated $5 million. In addition, the government will probably provide over $100 billion for relief efforts.

Non-profit leaders are concerned (and rightly so) about the impact this huge swell of giving will have on local and regional fundraising. We can certainly expect, and should prepare for a dip in giving during the next three months. The other issues that should be factored into the equation are the price of gas and the spending on the war in the middle east, which are already causing a downturn in the economy and in people’s discretionary income.

What are charities to do? How can we prepare for the future? What have we learned from previous disasters that can be applied to what we’re dealing with now?

1. Take a long-term view. In relative terms, Katrina will impact non-profit agencies for the short term. Within six months, charitable giving should be back to what it was prior to the hurricane. Just remember that there are always going to be unforeseen changes in the economy, so your best insurance policy is to have a long- term and diverse fundraising strategy in place.

2. Government supported contract plan. We will soon begin to see a slow-down of public and federal dollars to non-profits because these dollars will be redirected for the efforts to help the victims of the hurricane. This will cause some of the contracts and fee-for-service dollars to be delayed and could seriously impact the cash-flow and payroll requirements of non- profits. Create a cash-flow contingency plan now through your bank, credit union or perhaps a community foundation.

3. Design a contingency plan. Make sure you have a “back-up” plan in case philanthropic giving takes longer than anticipated to turn around. Look at where you could cut expenses (and don’t necessarily jump to cutting staff). Identify some potential donors and friends who you could appeal to during an emergency and line up their potential support before you need their help.

4. Stay the course. Revise your revenue projections and schedule, but don’t cancel direct mail appeals, fundraising events, and grant proposals entirely. If your organization is involved with programs that serve the poor and minority communities, it is likely that you could make the connection between the disaster in New Orleans and the critical needs in your community.

5. Don’t spin your pitch. Unless your organization is directly involved in relief efforts or is somehow connected to the hurricane affected areas, don’t try to “spin” your organization’s mission to somehow fit with the money that’s being raised for the Katrina victims. This strategy is likely to backfire.

6. Keep your team together. A huge relief effort failure was in dividing families and scattering them across the country. This disunity is unhealthy for developing a strong community. The same can be said about your organization. Take great care in times of uncertainty to pull your team (staff, board, volunteers) together and spend extra time strengthening your relationships. And take time to reach out to your supporters in a personal way during the next three months.

7. Focus on your mission and needs. Despite the emotional distraction of Katrina, your current supporters really care about your mission and programs. Make sure you focus on this and communicate with them more often now than ever before. Send them e- mails, newsletters and don’t be afraid to send them an appeal during this time.

8. Prioritize close to home. Kim Klein, publisher of “Grassroots Fundraising Journal,” says that you already know all the people you need to know. Focus your time, energy, and resources on deepening the commitment and involvement of your existing friends and supporters rather than prospecting for new donors.

9. Back-up your data. We learned from 9/11 and Katrina that the only certainty is uncertainty, and the only things in life that are predictable are unpredictable. Make sure you are backing up all of your databases, files, e- mails, servers, and other important information. You never know when a disaster will hit your community or neighborhood.

10. Communication strategy. Cell phones and land-line telephones were down in much of southern Louisiana. Try to have a back-up communication strategy so you can communicate with all of your staff and board members in case disaster strikes in your neighborhood.

Richard Male and Associates
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