Cathy Pharoah: How can we harness the Haiti effect?

The co-director of the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy considers disaster appeal donors

The response to the recent Haiti earthquake appeal demonstrates an awesome public capacity for generosity. The total of £91m raised to date by the DEC is equal to about a tenth of all giving to international causes in a normal year.

If this amount can be raised in a matter of weeks, perhaps we should be rethinking our assumptions about the public's capacity to give.

Do disaster appeals offer important lessons in policy and practice, or are they freak events - like the unpredictable tragedies that prompt them? Is there a specific group of 'disaster donors' who give only when prompted by large-scale natural tragedies?

After the Asian tsunami in 2004, the UK Giving 2004/05 survey indicated that most people who gave to the tsunami appeal did so in addition to giving to other causes, suggesting that there is considerable capacity for many people to give above their usual levels.

Research has shown that giving for international aid has a particular donor profile, attracting more highly educated and managerial or professional donors than is the case for giving generally.

Giving to disaster appeals appears to defy what we know about the factors that prompt donations. For example, people are normally more likely to give - and even give more - when they know and approve of the person asking for the gift and when they have some direct knowledge of need.

In disaster giving, we often have to make a huge leap of faith to support local charities, agencies and victims we know little about and have little in common with.

There is a growing body of research into the significance of feelings of compassion towards strangers and people with whom we have only peripheral ties. It is suggested that feelings of compassion are not necessarily linked to being able to understand or empathise.

If this is the case, attempts to use disaster giving as a trigger for other kinds of international giving by building understanding of development problems or sending out marketing literature might be misguided.

It could be far more important to find out how to extend the general feelings of compassion that are aroused towards strangers in major disasters to people suffering the longer-term impact of poverty and disease, as well as to our more domestic and local causes.


FACT FILE - Disaster appeals

The Disasters Emergency Committee's Haiti fundraising appeal has raised £91m to date.

According to the Red Cross, the total value of UK donations in response to the Asian tsunami in 2004 was £400m. The figure raised globally is estimated at about £3.6bn.

Figures from the 2009 Charity Market Monitor report suggest UK donors give £1bn to international causes every year. According to research from the University of Southampton, 7.7 per cent of people in the UK give to both international and domestic causes.

According to the Charities Aid Foundation's 2010 Disaster Monitor survey, 48 per cent of the UK population donated to charity as a result of the earthquake in Haiti. The report says 81 per cent donated to help the victims of the 2004 tsunami; the figure is based on a survey of 1,000 people in January 2005.

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