Disaster Giving – My (quasi-professional) Opinion

First, the easy part:  It’s good!
The Salvation Army is blessed by the public’s monetary support to provide assistance to those affected by disaster.

I am the humble steward of other people’s generosity

Further, we are blessed by individual and institutional integrity to carry out the ministry the public supported.

I am the faithful executor of others’ goodwill.

Thus endth the easy:  Now what?

I believe the “now what” for disaster donors is a three-step process.  A three-step process of gratitude.

1) Thank them–formally and beyond

2)  Thank them, acknowledging them as donors

3)  Thank them…for a lifetime

Step 1:  Thank ’em…a lot!  During times of disaster we get support from an amazing number of donors—some we already have on our roles, but many others are new to our databases.  Start with “thank you.”  Even in major disasters, we have to have the infrastructure in place – people and systems – to make certain our donors are thanked quickly and accurately.  Then, as quickly as possible, we need to thank ’em again.  This includes updates on the ministry supported through their generosity. In other words, let them know how we spent their money.

These updates are a vital part of the long-term relationship with those who have supported this aspect of our work.  From mailers to social media posts to phone calls, every touch counts.  No single thing we do will be seen by all our supports, so using a variety of methods and messages is key.  General service delivery information — number of meals, number of clean-up kits, number of spiritual contacts, etc. — is good, but the human aspect is important too.   Remember the old sales adage, “facts tell, stories sell.” You need both.  In those cases where you can add a local spin or some detail, all the better.  If your unit has personnel or equipment serving in the disaster, make sure you talk about that, including the civic/service club circuit when (s)he/it returns.

Mailers can be a letter, or a thank you card with a 4X6 photo (could be printed right from your phone) showing service in the disaster situation.  If you have a lot of donors to thank, go with a postcard with a photo collage, service stats, a personal story, etc.  These are super easy to develop and have a high “wow” factor.

Phone calls can be personal calls or even “OVM” (outbound voice messaging, the recorded message we often use related to mail appeal).  Calls could be the officers and a couple of staff members chipping away at the list over time, a distributed list with the Advisory Board, a thank-a-thon, or a trusted third party.

For social media, each platform has its own culture, but the key here is “differentiated repetition.”  (I think I made up that term, but I like it.)  By that, I mean using different “hooks” to share the same story or video (or vlog) or blog post several times over the course of a week, being certain to vary the times.  By pulling and promoting different aspects of the same story you’ll be able to broaden the potential audience – remember, just because they “like” or “follow” you doesn’t mean everyone is interested in the same things or are piqued by the same terms/ideas.   Also, consider throwing a few bucks (not more than $10) to promote it within the platform.   Facebook (and the other platforms to a lesser degree) has complex algorithms determining who sees what.   A few dollars can make a HUGE impact on your audience.

Remember:  The message is “Thank you” and “Look what YOU did.”  NOT, “please do more,” “please give more,” and especially not, “that and better will do.”

Let your imagination go wild with how to thank your donors.  We likely cannot take them into a disaster zone, but we can thank ’em from there (Facebook live, recorded videos, even notes/postcards from the impacted area).  We can thank them with stories and images of their support in action.   We can invite them to join us in our efforts (get trained to be an EDS responder). Few, if any will do so, but the invitation is meaningful.   We can invite them to a (free, no-ask) breakfast to listen to the Captain tell about his work responding to the disaster and explore a canteen.   We can thank them for being who they are, and for sharing a part of who they are (and what they have) with a part of our ministry.

Step 2:  Now that you have thanked ’em a few times, it is time to thank them some more.   The next step is to thank them as part of the greater Salvation Army community of supporters.  This “thanks” acknowledges they are part of the greater circle of our supporters.   Here is where I differ from a number of other fundraisers and partners.  Others will suggest that we “invite” them into this greater circle by asking them to make a gift to one of our mainstream ministries (Food, Shelter, or Christmas).   My stance is that generally speaking, disasters are what we deal with more than anything else.  Personal choice disasters, economic disasters, health disasters, and many more.  We deal with these disasters – one person and one family at a time – the exact same way as we deal with city-flattening hurricanes:  we share HOPE through some physical representation (food box, clean bed, or Christmas gifts), and we share the love of God through meeting a need that may otherwise blind them to it.

My point is our disaster donors are already in our larger circle of support.  That does not mean we must talk to them the same way as we talk supports of other aspects of our mission, but we certainly apppreciate all of our donors equally.  I cannot understand why so many want us to segment disaster donors in some special way as “disaster only donors” (DOD — I’m confident they understood the joke when they applied the name).  We have database files with a HUGE number of “Christmas Only” donors, but we don’t segregate them.  We have “food only” donors, but we don’t segregate them.   When we are doing our job effectively, along with our vendors/partners, we use variable text and list segmentation to make sure we communicate with each donor in the way (s)he wants to be communicated with.

We thank them for being part of our overall mission and ask them how they would like to be communicated with – then listen and act accordingly.   We are proud – nearing boastful – of our integrity in the use of our donor’s dollars; we must deploy the same level of integrity in our donor’s interest and time.

This doesn’t mean we can’t (or shouldn’t) expose our supporters to the holistic ministry of The Salvation Army – we should.  But, we must do so intentionally and incrementally.   For someone who only knows The Salvation Army from kettles, or family stores, or, in this case specifically, through Emergency Disaster Services; trying to share everything at once would be equivalent to putting out a candle with a fire hose.

Probity in the ask isn’t a one-time thing, not even a short-term effort.  Thanking our donors through opportunities to support the aspects of our ministry for which their heart aligns while intentionally broadening their understanding of the overall work is vital to long-term success (aka Happy Donors).

Step 3:  Thank ‘em…for a long time.   They are donors and likely don’t view themselves as new donors, but as long-time donors; so anticipate that how they donate will not necessarily be how you would like them to; and that they will be with us for a LONG time.

Most Americans have supported The Salvation Army in some form; in turn, most Americans consider themselves (though perhaps not consciously) Salvation Army donors.  The four most popular ways the public supports our ministry go unnoticed by most databases and database managers:  A) cash in the kettles, B) clothes to the family store, C) adopting an Angel Tree child, D) third-party giving (such as the United Way or church benevolent fund).   There are, of course, several other ways: volunteering (ringing the bell with Rotary), attending a special event, giving corn and green beans to an office canned food drive, etc.  The point is, a huge swath of the American population already believes they support The Salvation Army, so the gift in response to the heart-breaking news footage following a hurricane is to them, a logical response.

It’s not that we have a new donor but that we, The Salvation Army, are just now aware of the donor; we are new to the relationship.  We are new to acknowledging their support because their (long-time) support has now been raised to a level or a method that corresponds with our processes. Let me be clear, this is not a slight on either side.  Keeping up with every bag of clothes in a drop box or every quarter dropped in a kettle is not possible, much less practical. The vast majority of donors understand this and are content (if not deliberately) being unnoticed.  We have to understand that they likely already view themselves as donors; more specifically, long-time donors who made a special gift in response to special circumstances.

We see this with Capital Campaign donors; we ask donors to make a special (larger than normal) gift for a special project.  We are happy when they make this special gift, and continue, or return to their normal giving patterns.  This is customary donor behavior.    In times of disaster, it is often the media (social and broadcast) asking (normally without mentioning The Salvation Army) our donors to make a special gift.

“Disaster donors give to the disaster, not the organization,” is a long-held and often-spouted belief.  I do not agree.   Are there some?  Probably, but only a tiny sliver.  Let’s be honest, the average person has to work at finding The Salvation Army when they want to support a disaster.  There are other agencies far more attuned to disaster fundraising and public awareness who grab attention and headlines.  Again, this isn’t a slight, simply an observation.   As an organization, we have made huge strides in getting our message and impact in the public eye, but we are still more concerned with doing great work than we are with sharing that effort with the public.

What others dismiss off-handedly as “giving to a disaster,” I acknowledge as an existing donor who has made a special gift in response to a special need.

It is also important to note that many of our “invisible” donors continue their “invisible” support even in times of disaster.   They may give a bit more through third parties, they may host or add to a canned food (or diaper) drive, etc.  They too may give a special (and still unseen) gift in response to a special circumstance.   We still need to thank them, and this is most easily done through broadcast and social media.

Did you know that donors who make (“make,” as in implement a plan, not die) a Planned Gift not only continue their annual giving, but often times increase it?  Yep! I hypothesize that the emotional decision of significant support through their estate plan bolsters their current interest in seeing the organization do well while they can enjoy it.

This is true with capital giving as well.   Donors who have been supporting The Salvation Army annually, often continue their giving in addition to their capital campaign support.   And, once they see the finished project, often increase their annual giving.   Again, I hypothesize that they want to see (touch, feel, smell, taste) their investment flourish.

It stands to reason then, that otherwise invisible donors who make themselves known (seen) with their special gift in response to a special need will not only continue their support, but likely increase it proportionately.  Of course, it may again be unseen (or at least untracked) just as it was before.   BUT if, as I suspect, the pattern holds true, we have to help them see the results of their support and see (experience) our appreciation for their trust.   Unfortunately, any increase in general giving is likely to be chalked up to “being in the news;” however, I’m confident that it is the result of our donors – seen and unseen, known and unknown – choosing to build upon their trust.

Our response in and after disasters is the perfect time to thank these unseen donors.  During our response, we find ourselves frequently in the media.   It is a great time to thank our supporters – those who gave for the disaster, and those who provide for our year-round services.   In this way, you can share the good work, as well as a word of thanks.

At this point, I’ve used more than 2000 words (I do love to rattle on) to say this:

Thank your donors, all your donors – in every meaningful way – and you’ll have donors for life.

To recap, I suggest the three steps for responding to disaster donors are:

Step 1:  Thank them – thank them in the formal way (acknowledgment, receipt, etc.), but that is just the first way to thank them.  Utilize differentiated repetition to explore as many ways as you can to express your sincere appreciation.

Step 2:  Thank them – thank them for acting in support of another of the many facets of The Salvation Army’s holistic ministry to the community.  Note their giving and accept that their support is equally valuable as a “Christmas Only” donor, even if you don’t get to keep this particular part of their giving.

Step 3:  Thank them – thank them for many, many years.   A large percentage of those who give a special gift in response to special circumstances will continue and even increase their giving.  We just have to have reasonable expectations and sincere appreciation for how each donor has chosen to express their love and trust.



A special note for my goal-minded friends:  This isn’t easy – never has been and likely never will be.  The understanding that there are those in the world who fluctuate their giving is not new.  Perhaps, however, the idea that there are those who fluctuate their giving in ways which make some aspects effectively invisible may be new to you.  There are several things you can do with attribution rules; but for the most part, you must simply understand, accept, and appreciate this aspect of your overall donor base.  They say, “knowing is half the battle;” well, now you know.  I guess the other half is how you act on what you know.

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