Fundraising, Part 5: International affairs groups refine message

By Todd Cohen

[This article was written for Blackbaud.]

With serious disasters abroad in 2013 eclipsing those in the U.S., international aid organizations showed a sharper focus on disaster planning and preparation before disasters, says Bob Ottenhoff, president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

International aid groups also have focused more attention on post-disaster recovery and rebuilding, and turned increasingly to social media to help educate donors about disaster needs, he says.

“We’re trying to help donors understand that if we can do better planning, if we can help countries build and plan better, and if we can put people and supplies in place before disasters,” he says, “we can do a much more effective job. By getting people back into their homes, kids back into school, and people back to work faster, it will reduce the overall impact of a disaster.”

Traditionally, Ottenhoff says, 90 percent of donations for disaster relief are made within 90 days of the event, with few donations being made after that.

As a result, relief groups are working to help donors understand “there’s a full arc of disaster relief” that includes pre-positioning supplies and people, building connections with local relief groups, and preparing for post-disaster recovery.

To help deliver that message, he says, international relief organizations are making creative use of digital technology.

To “engage donors more in the unfolding of the story,” for example, organizations are sending staff members into the field in disaster areas to file daily reports, often featuring video, to create a “more personal  engagement” with donors, Ottenhoff says.

International groups also have increased their engagement with local teams of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, that are much closer to the areas hit by disasters and more familiar with events on the ground.

And international groups increasingly are functioning as “re-granters,” passing on some of the funds they raise to local indigenous groups that have experience working on the ground in the affected country.

A big challenge for disaster philanthropy in recent years, Ottenhoff says, has been to deal with “growing uneasiness about where the money’s going.”

In the immediate wake of disasters, donors often make contributions “in the emotion of the moment, after watching television,” he says, “and they’re not exactly sure where the money is going or what it will do.”

Months or years later, if they hear news reports that people in the disaster area still are without homes, or that their lives have not been rebuilt, he says, donors may become skeptical about making gifts for relief in future disasters.

What donors may not understand, he says, is that disasters simply can compound pre-existing and underlying problems.

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti is a perfect example, he says.

“Haiti was a vulnerable country with vulnerable populations well before that earthquake hit,” he says. “Its problems didn’t start with the earthquake.”

To address donors’ skepticism, he says, “NGOs are trying to do a better job of telling a fuller narrative about what’s involved in disaster relief.”

Next: Religion focuses on fundamentals

The series:

Part 1: Growth tied to capacity, cultivation, communication.

Part 2: Healthcare groups invest in capacity.

Part 3: Higher education cultivates major gifts.

Part 4: Data key for independent schools.

Part 5: International affairs groups refine message.

Part 6: Religion focuses on fundamentals.

Part 7: Arts and culture groups focus on donors.

Part 8: United Way diversifies.

Part 9: Conservation groups connect with donors.

Part 10: Communication, planning key for human services.

Part 11: Peer-to-peer strategy fuels medical research.

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