The Disasters Emergency Committee estimates that it spent £1.5m on Google advertising during its emergency appeal for the people affected by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, which raised more than £90m.
It is understood that DEC members spent a similar amount on the more recent appeal for the recent earthquake in Nepal, but a spokesman for the DEC declined to give details on the grounds that it might give the charity’s competitors an advantage.
The £1.5m spent on the Haiyan appeal was the cumulative spending of all of the 13 DEC member agencies – which include the British Red Cross, Save the Children and Oxfam – on Google’s paid advertising product, Google AdWords. Most of the money was spent during the three-week peak of the appeal – the "period of joint action", as the DEC calls it – in November 2013.
AdWords works by charging organisations to display their adverts in the advertising section of a Google search. Under a model known as cost-per-click advertising, advertisers have to pay only when someone clicks on their advert, but during an emergency appeal this can happen thousands of times every hour, causing costs for charities to escalate rapidly.
The expenditure during the Philippines Typhoon appeal came from the AdWords accounts of the DEC and a number of its member charities.
The DEC spokesman acknowledged the spending figures were significant and said the charity had approached Google on a number of occasions over the past five years about working together – for example, by publicising its appeals on the company’s UK websites or reducing its AdWords costs – but to date Google had declined.
He said that the "significant majority" of the £1.5m spend on Google for the Haiyan campaign was made by the DEC itself rather than member charities. The return on investment for the DEC's share was an average of 15:1, he said, which was significantly better than the ROI for print advertising and represented an excellent return on investment.
If this ROI held true for the entire spend by the DEC and member charities, it would mean that £22.5m of the £90m raised came from advertising on Google.
The spokesman said that for the Philippines appeal, the DEC spent 4.6 per cent of the funds raised - approximately £4.14m - on overhead costs such as fundraising and communications.
"When we launch an appeal the DEC and its partners help generate an extraordinary level of public interest, but we and other charities have to pay market rates for adverts on related search terms such as ‘Nepal Earthquake Appeal’," said the spokesman.
He said the DEC did receive a free advertising budget from Google – part of the Google Ad Grants scheme whereby registered charities can spend up to $10,000 (£6,800) on AdWords at no cost to them – but that the grant was too modest to have any significant effect on the charity’s fundraising success or appeal costs.
He said: "We are usually at the top of the organic search results for the terms we advertise against so we are paying Google for our adverts to appear above our own organic results."
He said that paying to advertise made sense for the DEC in order to ensure that its ads appeared above those of non-DEC charities such as Unicef, which might be not ring-fencing donations for specific disasters.
He added: "The DEC always seeks to raise the largest possible income for the lowest possible cost, so we would of course be delighted to have Google as a partner as we seek to achieve this."
A spokeswoman for Google said: "We’re committed to supporting disaster relief agencies in as many ways as we can. The Google Crisis Response team provides online tools, satellite imagery and other services to ensure critical information is easily accessible in emergencies.
"We also provide advertising grants to tens of thousands of charities to help them raise awareness and funds, and in the last year alone we’ve donated tens of millions of dollars to non-profits in response to disaster situations."
She said Google had partnerships with charities including Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children and in the past year had provided more than $21m to non-profits in response to global disasters such as the earthquake in Nepal and the Ebola crisis.
She said the company had given more than £20m to UK charities through programmes such as Google for Nonprofits and The Impact Challenge, which supports charities to tackle problems using technology.