Fundraising during disasters

Why give to St. Maarten but not Syria?

(And the lessons you can learn for your own fundraising)

I always find the nice thing about arriving home after a holiday is going through all the ‘old’ newspapers that are waiting on the doormat. Sometimes the news is already long forgotten, and sometimes it is still topical.

I came across one of those forgotten news facts in TROUW on 10th August, 2018. The headline read:

“Aid Campaign for Syrians Fails”

The gist of the article: After one week (!) the Red Cross was already sounding the alarm about the campaign to raise money for Syrians affected by civil war. After one week the campaign had only managed to raise 160,000 euros. In the article they compared this campaign to the one for the disaster on St. Maarten, where millions of euros had been collected in the first week alone.

Yes, the Dutch are generous people. At least …

… when a disaster meets certain criteria.

Why do we get our wallets out for the people on St. Maarten with the media giving it lots of attention – while for Syria, wallets remain shut tight and the media silent? (The disaster in Syria is often referred to as Europe turning a blind eye.)

However unfair it may seem, people are only willing to help others when the situation meets a number of conditions. We largely make this decision in our subconscious. Donating is an emotional decision.

I want to mention three key conditions that apply – not just during disasters but – in any fundraising situation:

1. I can identify with the situation

Firstly, people must be able to identify with the situation. This is possible because we have had the same experiences, because we have the same history, the same religion, the same gender. Or simply because we feel connected to the other.

2. There is a clear ‘enemy’

Furthermore, there needs to be a clearly identifiable ‘enemy’ or that something unjust has happened in the life of the victims.

3. My support produces immediate results

Finally, we need to feel that our help, our actions, will bring immediate results. If we don’t instantly see how we can make a difference in someone else’s life today, then we don’t act. We don’t see the point.

Why we gave en masse for St. Maarten, but not for Syria.

If we look at the natural disaster on St. Maarten, we see that this disaster meets these conditions. There is recognition: we know St. Maarten as part of us. But also as a holiday destination, There is a clear enemy: the natural disaster. And finally, with our donation we were able to help people immediately: tents, water, medicines.

If we then look at the disaster in Syria, we see a different story. It is (mentally) far away in an unknown region with unknown peoples. Most people have a different religion compared to the average donor. There is no clear enemy; everyone seems to be ‘bad’. And the conflict seems so complicated and insoluble that we don’t see how we can directly help there.

What applies to disaster relief, also applies to “normal” fundraising.
Charities are often busy with dozens of fantastic projects. They are – rightly – enthusiastic about this. And want to share all these wonderful projects with their donors.

But that’s not always a good idea.

Just like not all disasters manage to get donations, not all your projects lend themselves to fundraising. It is therefore advisable to look carefully at what your donor wants to hear and how you can touch them, instead of what you want to tell them.

How can you translate this into effective fundraising?

Even when you do so much more: go for one clear story in all your fundraising. A project that lends itself to effective fundraising will fit the bill:

The project must be easy to explain.

So tell about a child who is hungry instead of an “infant nutrition programme”.

The problem is urgent and can be solved by the donor.

So instead of saying I can support a programme to reduce the number of malnourished children by 4.5 percent in five years, tell me that by donating today I can save a child’s life by feeding them for a month.

There must be a clear, identifiable enemy.

So instead of talking about the difficult and long-term projects to get governments on board, fight corruption and raise basic knowledge about agriculture in a country, tell me about the father who does all he can for his family, but how drought and floods have caused the harvest to fail these past two years.

We must be able to identify with the story.

Instead of telling all the details of the “infant nutrition programme”, tell the story of a mother who every day goes above and beyond to try and prevent her children from going to bed hungry.

I think ‘Operation Smile’ from America is a good example ( They help children with a cleft palate in the developing world. And yes, they do a lot more besides. Information, counselling during pregnancy, training doctors. Setting up school programmes. Fighting stigmas and exclusion. But in all of their fundraising, they choose one clear story: through surgery you can give a child their smile back.

Finally, how do we collect money for people in Syria?

Is there a solution to raise more money for the people of Syria? I fear that the difference between one disaster and the other will always remain. However what does help in this disaster is telling stories of mothers and children with the same fears and wishes that we have. And to tell the problem in the form of a small, concrete and solvable parts. I don’t have to solve the war, but I can help another mother find a safe place for her children. That’s what every child deserves, right?

Good luck with making the world a better place.

Bas van Breemen
Senior Strategist

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