Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Friday, October 13, 2006

Disaster Fundraising

No, I'm not talking about fundraisers that turned into disasters. I'm talking about fundraising for a disaster. If you haven't run such a campaign for your nonprofit, you are certainly aware of the massive fundraising pitches that go out on the heals of any natural or man-made disaster.

Gorik Ooms, head of MSF-Belgium (Medicines Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders), claims that such fundraising tactics are wrong, and often do more harm than good:
Emergency donations are too late to be of use, and swiftly turn to poison as they encourage incompetent interventions by NGOs desperate to dispose of earmarked cash, he said during a debate at the London School of Economics.

"If we take this money we end up doing things we shouldn't do," he said. "Many NGOs don't have real disaster relief capacity but they go for an appeal because it is a source of funding. NGOs that have real capacity are crowded out by those that don't."
Ooms called for "education" of the public into giving regularly, out of emergency time instead of emotionally at the time of crisis. But he admitted that this call goes against a powerful public sentiment.
(Read the whole story on Reuters)

I don't think "pre-need" fundraising for emergencies will ever fully replace the emotional pitch that rides alongside media coverage of the latest disaster, but Ooms has made several valid points.

It is up to us, as nonprofit community leaders, to educate the public about the need for building emergency reserves of disaster supplies and cash. When people are forced from their homes by earthquake, flood, or fire, they don't have time to wait while you mail out an appeal and recruit volunteers for phone-banking. You need to educate your supporters about why you need to be ready before disaster strikes.

And then there are those agencies, referenced by Ooms, who send out an appeal after each disaster, whether or not they provide services that are needed for that event. An agency I know of in California raised quite a bit of money to help them assist victims of Hurricane Katrina. True, a few Katrina victims did make their way out west, and were being served by the agency. But, the services they received were reimbursed by government contract. The private money raised "for Katrina victims" went to their general fund.

This type of fundraising is always dishonest, and an embarrassment to the entire nonprofit community. But it is especially cynical and detrimental to defraud your donors (and the public) at a time of emergency. This type of fundraising hurts the entire nonprofit community, as it teaches donors to not trust any of us.

Which brings us to Ooms' third point: Agencies that raise money for a particular disaster, and want to be honest about how they spend the money, may not spend it as wisely as they could. Such agencies try to make the solution fit the budget, rather than budget to fit the solution.

As Ooms says, "Educate." If your nonprofit provides emergency services, raise money for preparedness and pre-need supplies and reserves. Such money is earmarked for "future emergencies" and not any particular emergency. This gives you maximum flexibility, and - when disaster does strike - the ability to focus on services, not fundraising.

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