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An Imperfect Storm: Raising Money and Awareness after Disaster

Last light at Port Aransas, 2017. By Robin Bradford.

Last light at Port Aransas, 2017. By Robin Bradford.

Using my running shoe as a hammer, I hung a white board in a make-shift office. It was Labor Day, 2005, and the nonprofit I worked for in Austin was preparing to welcome families with small children and the elderly who just arrived from New Orleans. A guest checking out of the hotel we were converting into temporary homes must have heard the racket because he stuck his head in and handed me a $100 bill.

“Use this to help someone,” he instructed, then disappeared. In my role as director of development and communications, I did just that.

The next two years were a blur of many such acts of kindness, new opportunities and relationships, lots of grant applications and reports, and the chance for my nonprofit to do what it did best—help families on their path to success through affordable quality homes and on-site supportive services.

When Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast just two days before the twelfth anniversary of Katrina, I thought with compassion of thousands of Katrina survivors who’d made new homes in the Houston/Port Arthur/Beaumont area. I’ve been thinking, too, of the nonprofits across the Texas Gulf Coast that are being called into action by their mission and the community outpouring of donations.

Disasters bring out the best in people. In fact, any accident, crisis or event that creates unexpected adversity for a significant number of people that’s widely covered by the media inspires people to donate money.

After weathering a variety of community crises—the car crash that killed concert-goers at SXSW, a four-alarm fire at an apartment complex, a sudden change in organizational leadership—I offer a few things to keep in mind to those who find themselves raising money and awareness in response to a disaster:

  • Take a breath. I know you thought you were very busy executing your fundraising plan and preparing for your next fundraising event, campaign or grant cycle. Know that this is a unique opportunity to grow personally, professionally and as an organization. Marshall the support of your staff team, volunteers and also your friends and family. This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
  • Ask for help. You don’t even know what you need yet, but your newest fundraising campaign is disaster response. As quickly as possible, ask for help and collect donations through your website, eNews and other communication channels. Be sure your “disaster response fund” is unrestricted and flexible. Your organization may need to “front” funds to provide new services and even hire additional temporary staff. You may receive grants that are restricted to a very specific service you provide. Frankly, flexibility is key in all areas when it comes to disaster response.
Darkness at Port Aransas, 2017. By Robin Bradford.

Darkness at Port Aransas, 2017. By Robin Bradford.

  • Tell stories. The news media may quickly move on, but donors and volunteers are depending on you to know what’s going on. The needs of those you are helping will change daily, weekly, monthly and eventually annually. What is the need right now? What difference can donors make today? Consider daily updates, then weekly. Highlight actual families or composite stories of families. Don’t ask disaster survivors to recount their disaster experience. Do allow them to express their gratitude and ask for what they need. Prepare for the news media to contact you on anniversaries or key FEMA deadlines.
  • Show your impact. Share the successes you are having. Highlight a family’s progress and complement that with data on what services you’re delivering. Often the scale of disaster-related work is more meaningful than the depth of services provided. (Ex: The Smiths visited their home for the first time, your volunteers helped the Browns clean out their flooded home, your volunteers have drunk 30 cases of water or gathered a 6-foot high pile of debris one block long.)
  • Choose collaboration over mission creep. A disaster invites collaboration with other nonprofits and local government that bring additional expertise. Otherwise, you may find your organization and volunteers providing services you cannot do efficiently or effectively. Work together to share the spotlight and your stories of success.
  • Say yes a lot, and no sometimes. Kind people will want to host fundraisers for your organization. Your nonprofit’s role is to speak about your work at the event (when possible), collect the check and say thank you. Set clear expectations roles and responsibilities. Train the CEO, development and communications staff and key program staff all to deliver a consistent message. It’s also okay to say: “Thank you, but no. We don’t have the resources to do that right now.”
  • Say thank you. Disaster-related work swings from fast-paced team-oriented adrenaline highs to soul-sucking 2 AM insomniac lows. Disasters always affect those with less, more. They reveal the deep-seated inequity in our communities and institutional racism. They are heart-breaking. Unlike other projects, disasters don’t end on a high point—they tend to just dissipate. There is usually not an obvious point to celebrate success. So be sure to create moments for your staff, board, volunteers and donors to celebrate their hard work and mission-driven impact. Make thank you’s personal and less formal—a handwritten note or low-key picnic hosted by a board member.
  • Relax, reflect, re-commit. Whenever possible, encourage staff to take time off, spend time in nature, reconnect with their spiritual practice if they have one. Remind staff of counseling resources, since those who work with traumatized people can themselves experience trauma which can have serious long-term health effects. Consider bringing in a speaker on the topic of resilience. Recent research has shown that resilience is a “muscle” that can be strengthened to better spring back from stress.

As disasters become more common and destructive, all of us will find ourselves part of disaster response personally or professionally. Nonprofits have a unique role to play to deliver services to those affected. Nonprofits also provide the community with ways to help their neighbors and with information about what is most needed. Many donors and volunteers who get involved with your nonprofit during a disaster will become your most loyal advocates long after the “new normal” of a disaster becomes just normal.