We’ve all seen the news coverage. An earthquake hits in Haiti. A Hurricane savages the Gulf Coast. A Tsunami wipes out Indonesia. News anchors fly to the scene and broadcast live.

Tragic events. Horrifying images. Unimaginable grief.

Your heart pours out to the victims.

There’s a number on the screen to call if you want to donate to the relief fund. A growing roster of celebrities is putting on a telethon that will raise millions. Groups like the Red Cross, World Vision, and AmeriCares are all kicking their response efforts into high gear.

Within days, millions of dollars have been pledged by hard working folks who just want to help.

We should all be extremely grateful that there are groups like these who have the ability, the organizational capacity, and the passion to step in and handle terrible natural disasters. It’s amazing to watch the world respond when people are in dire need.


There is a down side to all this spontaneous generosity that no one likes to talk about. When we see dramatic footage of children suffering a world away, or even right here in our own country, we feel moved to help. Those haunting images of injured and scared children are too much to resist. Something deep down inside of us tells us to give all we can.

And so we do. We give in large amounts.

But, then, shortly after making our gift, a donation request letter from your child’s school shows up in the mailbox. Or, you have tickets to the dinner/auction for the local land conservancy group. Or you remember that you’re supposed to sell a couple of hundred dollars with of popcorn for the Boy Scouts.

You check your wallet. You look for change in the couch. You dig around in your car. Maybe you can return some bottles and cans. But, after you gave to the Tsunami relief fund, you don’t have much left over for your local charity. And the charities take a significant hit.

Maybe it’s because we see the images on television. If we only had radios, would we be moved to give as much?

So, what does this all mean to a small, locally-based non-profit, such as the ones I mentioned above? These tiny groups live and die off of the meager amounts they collect each year. A couple dozen less people show up to their carnival, and they have to lay someone off. Or they have to cut an after-school literacy program. That’s a pretty tight margin.

How can a hand-to-mouth non-profit compete for donations against those groups who are out there saving the world on TV?

Here are a few thoughts that might be helpful. Feel free to add your own suggestions in our comment section. They would be very useful, indeed!

  1. Devote a significant effort to marketing your “position” in the local area. Don’t let people forget how your organization has been there, through thick and thin, over the years. Take every chance you can to tell your story, highlight your accomplishments, and prove your indispensability to the people in your community.
  2. Start framing your organization’s mission in emergency-type words. This may sound overly dramatic, but remember, you are competing against the power of TV. In your public addresses, start to talk subtlety about what it would be like if your group didn’t exist. Talk about all the people who count on you and who would be lost if you had to close. Of course, you’ll not be this obvious, but your supporters need to be reminded of why they stand with you.
  3. Use the media to cover every single event you hold and send out regular press releases to them about your group’s accomplishments. If people see you in the local paper or hear you interviewed on local radio, the greater the chance you’ll develop a committed following who won’t forget you, even when they see the graphically disturbing images on TV or when George Clooney asks them to text in their $50 pledge of support.
  4. Work on a stock letter that you can keep on file that says something like, “Hey, we know that you’re probably just as shocked by the terrible earthquake in __________, as we are. It’s a terrible thing that happened. We want to help in every way that we can, just as you do. There are many wonderful relief organizations raising money for the victims. If you do feel moved to donate to these groups, but you also have pledged your support to us, we would understand if you needed to delay your scheduled gift for a short period.” Then go on to list all the things you’re working on for the community, so that you’ll remind your supporters of how important your group really is. Hopefully, they won’t delay your gift at all. You’re just sticking up your hand and saying “Hey! Don’t forget about us!” in a nice way. Send this letter out to your entire mailing list, whether a person had made a financial pledge or not. I realize this is kind of sneaky, but us little guys have to take care of ourselves in the dog-eat-dog world of fundraising.
  5. Make sure to show and tell your supporters how thankful you are every time they donate to you or volunteer for you. If you can create an emotional bond between your organization and individual donors, you are more likely to keep them giving to your non-profit.

I don’t want to come across as un-feeling and un-sympathetic to victims of disasters. I just want to have a conversation about what happens when people give the money they set aside for charity to causes outside their communities.

How do you feel about this? If there’s only so much pie to go around, how do we keep slicing it thinner?

Please share your thoughts!

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Posted on 16 December 2010

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