Katrina response raises money, questions

By Karla Williams

The response to Katrina raised a great amount of money.

It also raised questions about the meaning of charity and philanthropy, and about systemic poverty and government priorities.

And it challenges our understanding of crisis-donor behavior and consequential donor saturation.

People who respond to crisis fundraising are unique and complex, and deserve to be better understood.

Crisis donors are often empathetic “cause donors” who have not developed a pattern of giving but are moved to act by national efforts.

They are also “inclination” donors who occasionally support broad community initiatives.

They include “biblical donors” who give regularly at church and for spiritual and religious reasons.

And a crisis will attract some “traditional donors” who make an extra gift, but continue their regular giving to favorite charities.

But being a “crisis donor” is not always gratifying or affirming.

Because they give quickly, emotionally and generously, these donors are more likely to experience disappointment.

They may never see the actual use or precise benefit of their gift.

After time, their gifts may seem insignificant against multi-million-dollar gifts.

Because of other organizational demands, some donors will not be thanked properly, and not all gifts will be stewarded effectively.

A crisis donor’s need for affirmation may not come until the next crisis, too late to matter.

All this is compounded by news reports that criticize how the crisis was handled, challenging where the money will actually be spent, and questioning if contributions were needed in light of government responsibility or reimbursement.

Of even greater concern for philanthropy is that “crisis fundraising methods” tend to be the most commercial and short-lived techniques to raise money.

Crisis messages are all about money, and seldom about ameliorating the underlying social and political problems faced by Americans.

History tells us crisis donors are often one-time response donors, not repeat donors of record.

How can we protect philanthropy and stimulate charity?

* Be sensitive to message saturation, stewardship of contributed funds, and donor respect.

* Donors deserve to know exactly what is going on with your mission and to have meaning in their gifts.

* Do not refer to the recent crisis or disaster, unless it specifically affects your mission.

* Be forthright with donors, letting them know your mission matters and is interdependent with all other missions in your community.

* Respect donors’ choices and intentions, whether they give to you or not, and acknowledge that your organization is not entitled to their support unless earned.

* Place emphasis on educating donors to the underlying causes of social problems you address.

* Resist using crisis methods in your fundraising, but demonstrate how your case is critical, urgent and relevant, and don’t beg or sell.

* Find ways for donors to volunteer in para-professional ways.

* Don’t wait for donors to ask where the money went, but encourage them to designate gifts to a program or service.

* Ask donors why they give to you, ask how they feel about the growing number of crisis appeals, and help your organization become more donor-sensitive.

* Treat every donor with mission and meaning: No more boiler plate appeals, dull thank letters, blanket invitations to participate, undesignated gifts, trite recognition items or requests for less-than-meaningful crisis gifts.

Karla Williams is principal of The Williams Group in Charlotte, N.C.

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