As the East Coast starts cleaning up from Hurricane Sandy, those of us who have been in the industry a while can’t help but reflect on what this means for the fundraising sector and think back to the lessons of Katrina.

Domestic relief organizations of all kinds are no doubt mobilizing to support disaster recovery (read Molly’s post “7 Tips for Quick Response During a Time of Need”).  And, as we now all know all too well, disaster relief impacts a broad range of our sector—from traditional disaster preparedness organizations such as the Red Cross, to animal shelters across the nation that will no doubt open their doors to take in stranded pets, to places of worship serving as shelter, both physical and spiritual, many in our sector will no doubt put out a call for needed emergency funds. This is where our industry’s focus should be in the coming weeks—helping those affected recover and rebuild. But, from an industry perspective, we must also start thinking about how Sandy may impact our plans and programs in the weeks and months to come.

As the East Coast recovers, nonprofits should already be thinking about what the impact of Sandy will be on fundraising, not only in the immediate next few weeks, but also possibly for the year to come. Below, are some of the post-Katrina lessons that are worth keeping front of mind:

  •  If you are a disaster relief organizations, you are likely to “benefit” from an influx of donations. Whether mobile, online, or by more traditional means, the most important thing to keep in mind for fundraisers moving forward, and the hard learned lesson after Katrina, is to separate out the disaster-acquired donors and treat them differently than your “general” file. Remember—these are folks responding to a very specific event, not necessarily to your mission.  Treating them like the rest of your file and just throwing them into your regular solicitation cycle, whether renewals, appeals, etc, will only lead to diminishing results. These folks need to put in a separate track, with a focus on mission-building and conversion. At most, we have warm prospects, not donors.
  • Longer term, disaster relief folks, remember another lesson from Katrina—the revenue bump is likely just that—a temporary bump that should not be counted on from a long-term planning perspective.  Say you make $4 million between now and the end of November. Moving into budgeting for next year, can you really expect to see the same kind of revenue? What portion of it may be attributed to the disaster based fundraising?  Plan now so you don’t find yourself with a $2 million hole you have to explain come next November.
  •  For all organizations who may have just dropped their direct mail campaigns (and many of your likely have Thanksgiving campaigns that recently went out the door): expect for diminished/delayed results. Mail will likely be delayed on the East Coast for days, if not weeks.  Folks focusing on cleaning up and putting their lives back together may not be as focused on sorting through their mail.  Start to message within your organization about your expectations in terms of delayed responses (and diminished returns if you are not a disaster relief organization).
  •  The impact is not only going to be offline.  Earlier this week, both political parties halted sending fundraising emails to constituents in Sandy-affected areas.  Similarly, consider your email schedules: if you are not a disaster based organization, consider zip code exclusions and/or changing solicitation messages to simple messages of support in affected areas.  A cultivation message now in place of a direct ask may go a long way in helping return donors in December, when ensuring a strong relationship with your donors is of utmost importance.
  •  And finally, and perhaps most importantly, use data to your advantage. There is ample data available (see example below) on the impact of a disaster on overall fundraising. While we cannot predict exactly what will happen this time around, we can certainly use what we know to make best possible guesstimates and use our best judgment. Now is the time to understand how your file generally responds during a disaster (even if you are not working directly on the disaster, understanding what kind of downturn you usually take can help you manage income expectations), and the time to start working with your management and Board to plan for any impact to your organization and put in place plans to either make up for the potential revenue loss, manage the new influx of donors you may have, support outreach programs and mobilization efforts.
Target Analytics  DonorCentrics Index of Fundraising performance Q42010

Target Analytics DonorCentrics Index of Fundraising performance Q42010

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