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Is “Crisis Giving” an Effective Development Strategy?

donors volunteers Sep 06, 2017

By Andrew Robison, President of Petrus Development

No matter where in the country you are, you have undoubtedly seen the images of the destruction that Hurricane Harvey has left in its wake. Over 21 trillion gallons of water across Texas and Louisiana, over 50 inches of rain in many parts of Houston and Southeast Texas, up to 500,000 ruined cars and trucks, 180,000 homes damaged or destroyed, over 42,000 people forced to evacuate, and up to $190 billion in overall economic cost to the region. And now we have Hurricane Irma barreling down on the Caribbean and Florida. Natural disasters like these have long-lasting effects on millions of people in the region and more secondary effects on just about every person in America. There’s no question about it.

As with many tragic events like this, we also get to witness the strength of people and communities coming together to help those in need. I live in College Station, TX which is about 90 miles northwest of Houston. Once we knew the threat of storms had passed, a friend of mine reached out to his neighbors and my group of “tailgate friends” and we fired up the smoker and started cooking and serving meals. From Wednesday through Monday, this small group served over 2,000 hot meals of pulled pork, chopped brisket, pork carnitas, sausages and more. As we made the rounds delivering sandwiches to shelters, first responders and people digging out of their homes (literally), we felt a spirit of community that can only come out in times of extreme stress. There were tears, hugs, high-fives and quiet thank yous aplenty. People were grateful for the hot meal and we were grateful for a way to help out in a small way.

Reflecting on this experience, I know that our group of friends was just one small group in a sea of volunteers and first-, second- and third-responders. I’m sure at some point, someone will tally up all the meals that were served and count all the shoes, gloves and bottles of bleach that were distributed and the number will be staggering. When people are in need, there will always be those who will want to give to make the situation better.

So with this reality in mind, why is it that fundraisers are always cautioned to avoid asking for donations out of an attitude of crisis and instead encouraged to ask out of an attitude of abundance? We tell donors that we have “giving opportunities” instead of “needs.” We highlight “impact” over “gaps in service.” People want to support organizations they know are “thriving” and not just “keeping the door open.” I understand this and have tried hard to practice this throughout my career and advised countless others to do the same. And yet, we see staggering numbers donated after disasters and major events. After tornadoes ripped through Joplin, MO in 2012, people donated over $39 million to charities to help with the recovery. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans and Louisiana but people responded with gifts of more than $7 billion to disaster relief groups. And if the YouCaring fund started by NFL player J.J. Watt is any indication (over $21 million in just the first week), donations for Hurricane Harvey relief will far surpass any of these events. So what’s the problem with a nonprofit turning every situation into a crisis for fundraising purposes?

Well, there are a couple problems with this as a fundraising strategy. Let’s discuss…


First reason is a practical one. It’s just really tough to retain those “disaster donors” after their initial gift. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) reports that on average, 19 percent of first-time donors to an organization will ever give again. Hospice organizations receive a significant number of “in-memoriam” gifts but only retain about 12 percent of those donors in subsequent years. In fact, in surveys, many donors see their gift as responding to the event and not to the charity (“I gave to Joplin relief, NOT the Red Cross…”). That being said, excellent stewardship efforts can help convert these new and first-time donors into regular supporters but it is tough. Organizations need to thank donors immediately and communicate the larger impact that those gifts have on the institution and the mission over and above addressing the immediate need to have any chance of retaining them in future years.


Secondly, crisis fundraising is exhausting. It is exhausting for a nonprofit to always be thinking about what the next crisis could be (“last year was the boiler…this year should be the roof”). Additionally, it is exhausting for donors to hear over and over that the sky is falling. Disaster giving is always an emotional response. People see images and hear heart-breaking stories of families and places in need and they want to respond and help. Just like the thousands of people pouring into the Gulf Coast to serve meals and tear out carpet, human nature drives people to offer to help in some way. I will tell you that after a week straight of cooking and delivering meals, my friends are beat. Not just physically, but emotionally beat as well. To expect our donors to jump every time we tell them something else is broken is completely unrealistic. Even the most generous hearts have their limits.


Final reason, I believe that the one thing that our nonprofit organizations can offer better than anyone is HOPE. Hope for a better future for those that we serve is what drives us to work so hard each and every day. Hope is also what motivates our alumni, participants and supporters to give us their time, talent and treasures year after year. People want to believe that the gifts that they give a nonprofit are being used to help and provide hope to others. People FEEL like giving because of the emotion of watching their fellow man leaving behind a flooded home, but they ACT on that feeling because they hope that that family will receive some relief and respite in their darkest hour because of their donation. As nonprofits, if we constantly approach our donors with an attitude of scarcity and need and not an attitude of abundance, they will leave us. Maybe not immediately, but eventually, they will take their money and send it to organizations that they believe are offering the hope they are seeking.

So what happens next time we have a leaky roof that will cost tens of thousands of dollars to repair? Am I saying not to ask people to pitch in to help? Absolutely not. Generous and loyal donors will give when the organizations they love are in trouble. What I suggest though, is that you save those “disaster appeals” for times when they really matter. And that you make sure your donors share in the same hope that you have that the sun will come up tomorrow and God’s love truly is abundant.

Have a different take on this? Leave a comment below or email me at [email protected].

Andrew N. Robison is President of Petrus Development. He has worked for over 12 years in development roles in Catholic campus ministry, higher education and academic medicine. Andrew works with organizations of all sizes to build sustainable development programs that allow them to better serve their constituencies.


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