disaster fundraising

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that it’s important to recognize when others are having a very different life experience than I am. I’ve also seen how this relates to times when donors, volunteers, and colleagues are dealing with a disaster in their region. 

As I write this, I’m evacuated from my home in New Orleans due to Hurricane Ida and have been for nearly two weeks. Thankfully, my dog and I are safe with family. We hope to return home soon to assess the damage and help our friends and neighbors who were hit much harder by the storm.

No matter the type of catastrophe, it can be hard to know what to do when connecting with those in the affected area before, during, and after the event. 

Here are a few observations from myself and colleagues in the region that we hope will be helpful to you and your colleagues when navigating your disaster-related outreach.

Check in and give grace.

Although we didn’t answer right away or even at all depending on the situation (as well as access to technology), we appreciated the various texts, emails, and social media messages checking to see if we were safe and if we needed anything. 

Over the days immediately following a disaster like this storm, keep in mind that even if donors, volunteers, and colleagues have safely left the area, they’re still consumed with what is going on back home. Those of us who evacuated Ida spent and continue to spend time each day checking on those who stayed behind, getting them information, and sharing details on how others outside of the affected area can best offer assistance. 

Additionally, there’s a level of stress of not knowing when you’ll return home and what the state of your home is, even if you’ve been able to have a friend or neighbor check on the premises.

And for those donors, volunteers, and colleagues in the disaster zone? They’re likely dealing with limited or no utilities or access to the other supplies which make our daily lives easier. Please practice patience and give grace when checking in.

Suppress mailings and emails—especially solicitations.

In the wake of a disaster, your contacts will be focused on their and their family’s immediate needs, as well as those of their neighbors and community members. You should review your messaging and adjust immediately, especially those pre-scheduled messages. 

While nothing can be done about mailings that are already on their way to the region, removing donors, volunteers, and colleagues from upcoming mailings and emails is recommended, especially since postal services and internet access could likely be interrupted. 

On the other hand, don’t send a message to these audiences for the sake of sending something either. Empty messages are noticed and simply add to the noise. Consider if you have a purpose or resources to share. 

Ask what is needed before giving resources.

Most nonprofit professionals are motivated by a desire to help others, so it’s natural for you to want to offer aid to donors, volunteers, and colleagues in an affected area. If possible, connect with your contacts to find out what is needed before automatically collecting supplies or offering what you assume would help. Those on the ground in the affected area know what is most needed.

Also, consider offering financial aid to those affected, whether through a nonprofit, a mutual aid group, or directly to individuals. This often makes the greatest impact, especially as resources are limited and the ability to work in the affected region impacts income for many.

Remember: Hard times will continue long past the news cycle expiration date.

Even as the days and weeks pass, your contacts will be dealing with tasks and challenges and trying to resume their normal lives. Please continue to offer grace and understanding. While work and life continues on as normal for you, know it will be some time before your contacts will feel some sense of this return to normalcy. They may not be able to contribute as much time to your operations, especially if they’re dealing with things like insurance claims and repairs to their home. 

Remember the flexibility remote work has given and understand this will likely be the case for your contacts who are juggling the effects of the disaster, their work, and their personal lives.

If you are an affected colleague, practice self care as you are able.

For those directly impacted by a disaster, there’s a struggle between needing to do all we can for our organizations and their relief efforts and getting our lives back in order. 

Here’s a refresher of self-care tips. Try to take even one tip and find a way to implement it in a small way so you can avoid burnout and continue to serve others.

Are you ready to enact your fully developed crisis communication strategies? You can download our free nonprofit crisis communications plan template to get started.

Lisa M. Chmiola, M.S., CFRE
Lisa M. Chmiola, M.S., CFRE, has nearly 20 years in philanthropic development experience. She has served in major and planned giving roles in education (public and private) and religious institutions, following initial career experience in event-based philanthropy. An AFP Master Trainer since 2014, Lisa has presented at four AFP International Conferences, and a variety of AFP and other industry association regional conferences, chapter meetings, and webinars. She also serves as an adjunct instructor in Rice University’s Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership. As Chief Fablanthropist for Fablanthropy (the intersection of fabulous and philanthropy), she is available for consulting, training, and speaking opportunities. Lisa also is an active volunteer, serving on the board of the AFP New Orleans chapter and the U.S. Government Relations committee for AFP International, a board member of the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners (and past president of the Houston chapter), a sustaining member of the Junior League, and a graduate of Leadership Houston. Additionally, she has co-authored several pieces for AFP’s Advancing Philanthropy magazine. Lisa is the proud mom of Ava, a Mini Schnauzer with her own social media presence (@avalynndog).