Disasters and crises can occur anywhere, at any time. Hopefully they won’t have the impact of mega-disasters such as the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks or of 2005’s hurricane Katrina. However, even disasters of considerably less magnitude can impede the fund-raising efforts of non-profit organizations located in areas where they occur.

Flood, drought, storm, and other natural disasters are obvious candidates to impact an organization. Major accidents, industrial or otherwise, can hit hard too. On top of these gloomy possibilities there is always the crisis that could result from change. A key supporting industry moves away or closes. The local economy enters into a general malaise. Add to all those, the results of bad publicity hitting a non-profit organization or the impact of what happens when a well-known national charity is embroiled in scandal.

When problems of this magnitude arise in an area, officials of local non-profits can be tempted to question openly whether they should proceed with regular fund-raising, let alone dare to tackle new initiatives.

But local events aren’t the only occurrences that can weaken a non-profit’s fund-raising resolve. Terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. and hurricanes striking the Gulf Coast can chill the fund-raising climate across the nation if officials of organizations allow themselves to believe calamitous events hundreds of miles away will seriously affect their community’s capability or willingness to give to local causes.

No Excuse Is A Good Excuse

A few months ago, a major institution in my state announced a huge deficit for its current fiscal year. A spokesperson for the institution placed a significant part of the blame for the shortfall on what he said was, “The redirecting of their donors’ money to help disasters, such as the September 11, 2001 attacks.” This was years after 9/11. That statement was nothing more than an excuse. To my way of thinking, that particular connection between a horrendous disaster and a shortfall in fund-raising, was deplorable. The truth was far more likely to be that the institution’s fund-raising organization and effort were less than inspired. But, of course, they could not and would not say that.

In the fall of 2005, I was asked by a number of organizations how I thought Hurricane Katrina and its disastrous aftermath, would affect fund-raising in the country as a whole. Would the generous and caring people who gave money to the hundreds of disaster relief organizations fail to be as generous as usual with their own local non-profit organizations? Would money sent to Louisiana and Mississippi be taken from favorite charities at home, especially the smaller ones?

Don’t Anticipate Failure

My reply to those questions was to emphatically state that donors giving aid to Katrina’s victims would neither abandon nor neglect their own local non-profit organizations. That’s still my answer. The true danger to non-profits across this country is the fear inherent in those questions. Disasters seen as siphoning off local money to be redirected to states far away can become a convenient excuse for fund-raisers and leadership who fail their organization.

That said, I am not surprised that many non-profit organizations, especially smaller ones, would be concerned about being forgotten, at least for a period of time, when their traditional donors are making gifts to aid Katrina victims.

However, we only need look at the results after similar fears were voiced following the 9/11 attacks. Local non-profits’ fund raising efforts were not devastated. In my opinion, those organizations that blamed 9/11 for failed campaigns should have been looking in the mirror instead of the TV screen for their villains. Fund-raising efforts have failed before 9/11 and they have continued to fail afterward. But those failures share common causes: poorly planned campaigns, unrealistic goals, and weak execution.

From what I observed and heard following 9/11, far too many non-profits simply anticipated a loss in contributions. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Others felt it would be the noble thing to do to reduce, defer, or to otherwise abandon their fund-raising to stay out of the way of the flow of support to 9/11 victims. I believe that those attitudes led organizations to expect failure before they even began to fund-raise. I believe they were making bad decisions when they canceled or put off fund-raising campaigns.

When Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc, there seemed to be a continually growing list of scenarios promising to negatively impact local fund-raising. First there was the direct impact of the hurricane. Then there was the flood in New Orleans. Following that one too was the prediction of dramatically higher prices for gasoline and every other product relying on the devastated ports, refineries, and chemical plants. Already uneasy and insecure non-profits took one look at these gloomy reports and assumed the worst lay ahead for their fund-raising efforts.

Those of us who have lived long enough to have been through more than a few hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes, not to mention a disastrous attack on our country—I remember Pearl Harbor—know, or should know, of the astoundingly resilient spirit—and generosity of the American people

Far too many non-profits look for excuses when there are no calamities with which to contend. They use those excuses to avoid the daunting and hard work of fund-raising. Many times when they are unwilling or unable to conduct campaigns, they put them off with all sorts of excuses:

  • Let’s wait for the economy to improve.
  • The time will be better once the Holidays are over.
  • You can’t raise money in the summer.

There is never a shortage of excuses, so why not add terrorists and hurricanes to the list?

Never Needlessly Pass Up Contributed Income

One year, our Cleveland Orchestra went on strike. Musicians picketed our concert hall. It was for us a bizarre scene. World-class artists carrying picket signs and marching was almost impossible to comprehend.

Great pressure was put upon me to suspend all fund-raising activities until the strike was over. There was concern that already irritated donors and prospects would become enraged if we asked for money at that time. My argument was that I had faith our supporters would want to continue their donations, even increase them, to get the orchestra they loved out of the picket line, off the street, and back on the stage. At my insistence, we proceeded with all of our fund-raising campaigns as usual. We created a compelling case for support, worked harder than ever before, and the fund-raising campaigns all exceeded expectations.

I’m not equating a picket line with planes crashing into buildings or hurricanes that leave hundreds of thousands homeless. Those truly are disasters of the first magnitude. But the attitudes with which we approach fund-raising in times of crisis can make all the difference. Expect the worst and you will probably get it. Expect the best from the people of this country and, I guarantee they will come through. Shame on any non-profit that uses a national disaster as an excuse for failing to do its fund-raising job.

Out 0f Sight—Out of Mind

When something terrible happens, invariably there are people who want to stop the campaign. “Put it on hold!” is their cry. “Wait until this passes by, then restart the campaign,” they say. But they do not realize that an extended break in the habit of giving to them on the part of their donors could result in those donors shifting their support to other organizations. When you defer a campaign, have a hiatus in your fund-raising efforts, it can be awfully hard to turn the machine back on. Other non-profit organizations won’t have waited. They’ll have solicited your donors. Those donors will have the money earmarked for you available but it might not be there when you get around to asking for it. Taking a break in fund-raising can be the same as giving your donors away.

Selling A Worthy Organization Short

One year, I was consulting with a large community and family services organization on a major capital campaign. We had strong leadership in the person of an outstanding and extremely capable chairman. He recruited a solicitation committee of 26 people of influence and affluence in the county. We had five prospect rating and evaluation sessions that yielded about 110 prime prospects capable of giving at least $25,000. Of these, we felt 27 could give $100,000 or more. The goal was well within reach. The brochure was published, and the kickoff was scheduled for a date in late in October of 2001.

A few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the campaign chairman on his own decided to scrap the plan and instead to ask each of the twenty-six members of the solicitation team to select one name from the $100,000-prospect-base and seek individual and personal meetings with them to conduct a survey to see how they felt about giving to the campaign. The campaign chairman believed that they, for the most part, had given to the 9/11 charities, and that their investment portfolios had suffered as well from the market plunge following the attacks. He felt that as a result the prospects should not be solicited at that time for the local campaign. He expected his informal survey to prove him right.

I protested long and hard. I told the campaign chairman that prospects capable of giving $100,000 were obviously individuals capable of giving much more and that they should not be denied the opportunity to give to this cause as well. Plus, he had no way of knowing, which if any, of his prospects actually gave to the 9/11 charities or how much they gave.

This honorable and good campaign chairman would not listen. He went ahead with his survey. But many of those asked to carry out the interviews failed to do so. Those who did, interviewed the high-level prospects in a non-scientific manner. The survey was out of context with the impending campaign. It was ludicrous in its concept and execution, prompting negative responses by its very nature. The campaign chairman, knowingly or unknowingly, had set up a mechanism that would at the very least reinforce his fears. It did, and the campaign was doomed.

In April, 2002, the director of development for the organization, who had been as dismayed as I by the failure to carryout the campaign, phoned to report that a meeting had been convened to resurrect the committee to see how they could pick up the pieces and go forward. Much to the campaign chairman’s credit, he opened the meeting to attempt to revive what he had quashed in October with the words, “I goofed, and I’m sorry.” The feeling was sincere and deeply meant as an apology. It was said about as honestly and with as much class as possible. Nonetheless, the damage had been done.

Months had passed. The needed money had been unavailable. Facilities that were to have been renovated and new ones that were to have been built were not. Many hundreds of people in need who would have been served were not. A strong campaign committee had been left to disintegrate. Prospects who were expecting to be solicited weren’t. Months had passed, and everything needed to be re-energized. A truly painful and unnecessary process lay ahead.

Never, ever stop a campaign because of external reasons beyond your control. A campaign deferred, is a campaign defeated. Volunteers will disappear. Previous donors not yet solicited will be less likely to give when the campaign is restarted. People who have already given money will be left wondering what is going to happen to their gift. Pledges will be rescinded. No matter what, halting a fund-raising campaign will make it worse. The media might even hop on the suspended campaign as an indication that the organization is in trouble.

Believe That There Is No Bottom
to the Philanthropic Well

I believe there is yet another, and perhaps even more important reason for non-profits to continue their fund-raising efforts within their community without regard to the possibility that local donors may have recently given to national organizations engaged in support and rescue work during a time of a crisis brought on by a disaster.

An organization that holds back its solicitation efforts under such conditions may very well be doing a disservice to its donors and prospects. A national disaster is an extraordinary event. The gifts people make aid those impacted are extra ordinary gifts. They are gifts made above and beyond normal, ordinary charitable donations.

Give your donors the credit they deserve. They realize the extraordinary nature of the gifts they make during a national disaster. They also realize that they need to continue to support those organizations at home that have relied on their past generosity and must rely on their future generosity. When called upon, people open their hearts wider. They find the resources to support national and local needs.

If there is one thing I have learned over many years in the non-profit fund-raising profession, it is to never take it upon myself to determine what donors will or will not do. That’s their privilege. We simply present the options to them. They choose and, in my experience, choose well.

NOW Is The Best Time To Fund-Raise

Considering the realities and the gravity of the fund-raising climate at a time of any disaster—national or local—non-profits might find themselves wondering, “When is the best time to get on with fund-raising for our own community organizations during this crisis?” The answer is: Now!

Even in the face of a national disaster, go and raise money. Do the good things you do. You can count on people rising to your expectations. But should you shrink from your resolve, and have no, or low, expectations, you will receive accordingly. It’s your decision to make.

That’s my opinion regarding my charge to non-profits to never falter when it comes to raising money. I would be pleased to know what you think.