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 tornados, 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 Of Sight, Out Of Mind