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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Fundraising, Part 7: International affairs group aims to show impact

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This article is from a report written for Blackbaud, which asked me to look at fundraising strategies that nonprofits have found to be effective.]

In the face of natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, donors increasingly expect international relief charities to show “your work is actually accomplishing something,” says Bob Ottenhoff, president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy in Washington, D.C.

Helping to fuel that expectation of seeing the impact of a charity is the fact that the tough economy has made money tighter.

“We’re still down about $25 billion from where we were at the peak in philanthropic giving in 2007,” says Ottenhoff, former president and CEO of GuideStar, which publishes online financial and tax data on nonprofits. “There’s less money, also less government money going into nonprofit activities.  At the same time, there’s increasing demand for services.”

International nonprofits, along with all nonprofits, also have seen an increasing number of  donors making gifts that are restricted to particular programs or to addressing particular needs, he says.

Donors’ growing expectation to see the impact of their giving and to restrict the use of their gifts has prompted nonprofits to try to do a better job measuring the results of their work and making those metrics available.

“Nonprofits first of all need to demonstrate that they’re aware of this issue, and demonstrate they’re a data-driven organization,” Ottenhoff says, a goal that also helps the organization improve the way it operates and the programs it delivers.

If a nonprofit maintains a “dashboard” of major metrics about its operations and impact, for example, it should make that dashboard available to its board and make elements of it available to the public, he says.

“These are signs of a data-driven organization committed to measuring impact,” he says.

A growing number of international organizations also are making greater use of technology to “engage program or service recipients in the field, where they can collect data, share that data with others, and then respond with changes in their programs based on the analysis of that data,” Ottenhoff says.

“Knowledge workers” armed with a cellphone might gather information from farmers about the seeds they are using and diseases and other challenges to crop growth they are facing, for example. That data would be collected, analyzed, organized and then returned to the farmers to help them answer questions, change their behavior or try new techniques.

“Technology is now helping nonprofit organizations to improve their performance,” Ottenhoff says. “It’s a way of answering donors’ questions: Are you a learning organization? Are you improving? Are you measuring impact? Are you better this year than last year?”

To address donors’ growing interest in making restricted gifts, he says, nonprofits need to move beyond a one-size-fits-all case statement.

“What you need is a case statement and a business or philanthropic strategy for each one of your programs, and each one of those programs is going to have its own set of donors,” he says.

“What fundraisers have to understand,” he says, “is that different donors come to the organization with different interests and priorities, and you have to organize your fundraising strategies around those different types of donors.”

Equally important, he says, is branding.

With over one million charities in the U.S., nonprofits need to recognize that “your organization is not the center of the universe,” he says. “There are too many organizations doing too many big things. To think everyone knows what you do and why you do it is totally unrealistic.”

Branding, he says, “is your promise to your potential donors. It says, ‘This is what we stand for, this is how we’re going to to do work.'”

A nonprofit’s brand, Ottenhoff says, “is what gives a donor understanding of why you’re unique and distinctive and worthy of support.”

Next: Faith-based groups count on direct mail

The series:

Fundraising, Part 1: Basics key as economy starts to recover

Fundraising, Part 2: Health care groups invest in development capacity

Fundraising, Part 3: Human services groups focus on direct response marketing

Fundraising, Part 4: Museums aim to diversify donor base

Fundraising, Part 5: Major gifts a focus of environmental group

Fundraising, Part 6: Direct marketing a key for public society benefit group

Fundraising, Part 7: International affairs group aims to show

Fundraising, Part 8: Faith-based groups count on direct mail

Fundraising, Part 9: Independent school partners with parent volunteers