Failure to Plan is Planning to Fail - Emergency Responsiveness

When a natural disaster strikes and it’s all hands-on deck you barely have time to stop and think, never mind manage the day to day running of the appeal. The Pacific is one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world so it’s incredibly important for organisations likely to face fundraising for emergencies to have a plan in place and be prepared to fundraise during an emergency.

I have had several opportunities to develop approaches and executions to help charities be ready to fundraise as soon as a natural disaster occurs. It’s not an easy task but being prepared has ensured these organisations are able to give their donors and the public a quick and easy way to support.

Here are my ideas to help you be prepared to fundraise in an emergency.

Firstly, we work with internal stakeholders to confirm the key channels possible for donors to give to your organisation in response to an emergency. It’s likely your negotiation skills will be required because I push for a 24 turn around even if it’s a weekend so getting buy in is critical! When I worked with Oxfam NZ to develop their approach for Typhoon Haiyan, we managed to get the first emergency response appeal out the door in 24 hours, and we used the learnings from this to update the agreed process, so when Cyclone Pam hit four months later the process went even smoother.

Most importantly, ask yourself can the organisation manage the response handling process during an emergency situation for each of these channels? The failure of a response channel working can be more detrimental than not using the channel at all.

Next we create templates with prepared disaster imagery and copy to major audiences for these channels. Direct mail, email and a simple homepage banner or story linking to an appeal specific landing page would be my top three priorities. Direct mail, email and the website real estate works for both warm and new donors. The more content we can template and have approved in advance the quicker the turnaround during an emergency.

Social media can be rapidly developed and deployed if and when you need to, so this doesn’t need as much preparation as the other channels do but do have a process timelines for how this is developed and who is responsible.

When working through the templates my approach is to ensure we have:

  • a compelling, emergency lead proposition
  • design that allows for quick and easy updating and is efficient from a printing perspective
  • appropriate content and copy for a two-page letter (typically longer is better but in response to an emergency you will have a compelling enough story and ask to make, so keep it short and sweet), simple emergency driven lifts (with at least one specifically developed to be adapted for the emergency in question)
  • an acknowledgement strategy that credits the supporter for their donation to the emergency specifically (no generic thank you copy please!) and increases their desire for future involvement with your organisation

I love the data team here at Pareto as they make the next bit easy for my clients and me.

  1. Review your segmentation and confirm the donor segments most likely to respond to an emergency ask, ensuring an appropriate ask strategy is agreed and in place for each
  2. For donors with an email address, prioritize the output file for this group so you can get an ask out quickly
  3. The DM mailfile shouldn’t take you longer than 12 hours to produce

One of the great things about partnering up for my clients is they delegate this responsibility to us – so one of our data team could be generating email and mail files from the updated monthly data supply we hold for them at any time of the day/night.

You should be aiming to brief your printer and mailhouse within 24 hours. Engage your key suppliers early, get them enthused about the prospect of helping during an emergency by prioritising your job for quick turnaround (and of course thank them profusely once it’s all done and dusted).

Once all of the preparation has been done, responding to your next fundraising emergency will be easier. But what is more important is what comes next.

New emergency donors are decent prospects for subsequent giving if you plan your follow up. The primary problem is when they make the donation, their priority is helping the disaster victims rather than starting a relationship with any one charity.

You have a small window of opportunity to convince them to support you in the longer term and it is vital that a donor conversion communication goes out as close to their original gift as possible. Large scale emergencies like the Indian Ocean Tsunami (2004) showed us that waiting months, even weeks was too late for any impactful conversion of newly acquired Emergency donors. Testing and trials in response to emergencies since have proven having a plan and being prepared to ask again, quickly is critical.

Update your website with any new information, photos and updates from the ground. Thank donors for their original donation again, update them with new information and feedback on progress. Email is your friend here but know that for some direct mail is your only option. Use this time to make the second ask and communicate just how crucial it is to receive support within these first few days. This strategy will work for warm and new donors.

For new donors develop an emergency conversion approach. The phone is brilliant, direct mail can also work. The ask needs to tie in with the original emergency content, e.g. ongoing help for a disaster affected area or disaster preparation - emergency donors respond better to subsequent emergency themed content.

No organisation wants to be faced with fundraising in response to a natural disaster, but should this tragedy ever occur it pays off to be prepared.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Failure to plan is planning to fail”.

LJ Byrne is a Senior Account Manager at Pareto Fundraising. She helps New Zealand & Australian charities develop and execute donor acquisition and renewal campaigns.

Pareto Fundraising’s five key stages in emergency fundraising preparedness, summarised in the diagram below










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Some additional insight - access the situation on the ground. Get as much information as you can about the damage and the need. Aim to interview an eyewitness or a colleague in a local office but don’t wait for it if it’s not available. Set the deadline for gathering key information and then go ahead with the information you have. It is more important to lodge fast as opposed to agonising over detail. Supporters understand that you won’t have all the information upfront – our role is to ensure we get the ask out first and give donors the opportunity to help. Your prompt and dynamic action will result in a significant increase in your income.

Failure to Plan is Planning to Fail - Emergency Responsiveness



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