News analysis: Emergencies reshape fundraising

The number and size of disaster appeals this year has left its mark on the sector. Georgina Lock reports.

"Planet Earth and humanity is not having the rub of the green at the moment," says Lindsay Boswell, chief executive at the Institute of Fundraising, musing over the proliferation of charity appeals this year.

So far, the Disasters Emergency Committee has run three campaigns - the Darfur appeal, which started in July 2004 and closed in April, raising £35m; the tsunami appeal, which set a record with donors stumping up £350m; and most recently, the West Africa appeal, which has to date raised £17m.

Also in July came the Red Cross-led London bombings appeal, and now donors are being asked to help the people of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Consider all this against the backdrop of the Make Poverty History and Live 8 awareness campaigns, and it has been a very busy year for charities and donors alike.

Medium charities squeezed

Although it's not unprecedented for the DEC to run three appeals in a year, the amounts raised in this year's appeals have dwarfed previous ones. The last triple-whammy was in 1998, for Sudan, the floods in Bangladesh and the Central American hurricane, yet in total they raised a relatively low £26.5m.

This increase in giving can largely be explained by the expansion of global telecommunications that allow prospective donors to watch back-to-back coverage of disasters. But what is the effect of all these appeals on fundraising in general, particularly on domestic charities? ChildLine and the National Missing Persons Helpline are among those that have admitted flailing in the wake of the tsunami - bearing out Directory of Social Change chief executive Debra Allcock Tyler's post-tsunami prediction that some charities would find 2005 very tough.

Last month, Allcock Tyler said some of her organisation's clients were "increasingly strapped for funds" and "definitely feeling the pinch". Although she expects overall sector income to be up at the end of the year, she anticipates a clear bias towards those that work in disaster relief.

She had hoped that, while individuals rushed in their millions to respond to the DEC appeals, trusts, governments and companies would take a more considered view and not always pile into the "popular" causes. Unfortunately, according to the Institute of Fundraising's June survey into the tsunami appeal's impact on charities, this has not been the case. The results, sent in by 132 big, medium and small charities, showed more than a third had seen their corporate donations drop.

In the first six months of the year, 55.5 per cent of the charities surveyed saw their revenue grow while 44.4 per cent reported a drop compared with the same period last year. Of the latter, three-quarters attributed the fall to the tsunami.

Overall, however, 73.6 per cent predicted that the long-term effect of the tsunami appeal would be positive. According to both Lindsay Boswell and Mark Astarita, fundraising director at the British Red Cross, the pessimists are more likely to be medium-sized charities, stuck in the wilderness between small organisations with their core of committed local donors and large charities with sizeable marketing budgets.

Even larger charities are having to work harder, though. Jonathan Storey, relationship fundraising manager at disability charity the Shaftesbury Society, said disaster appeals only crowd an already competitive environment.

He says: "All charities need to move from pulling heart-strings for an immediate response to encouraging long-term, tax-efficient giving, which enables all of us to develop long-term solutions."

But Cathy Pharoah, director of research at the Charities Aid Foundation, thinks the public response to the appeals represents an "enormous opportunity" for charities.

"In a wealthy society, people will be asked for donations," Pharaoh says.

"This is a chance to look at things more strategically." She says although there has been a genuine need for all the appeals, there is a danger of "donor fatigue" as people are repeatedly asked for one-off donations.

One way to address this, she suggests, is for charities that deal with disasters to build separate funds for such eventualities.

The Institute of Fundraising's research also showed that charities have seen a rise in committed gifts, use of digital media and Gift Aid this year. Astarita echoes Pharoah's positive outlook. "It's tough out there because there is a lot of competition," he says. "But I think 2005 will see voluntary giving rise. As new relationships with donors are built upon, the trend might continue."

Like it or not, competition from the DEC is here to stay, so charities had better get used to it. As Astarita says: "What would you have us do?

Not ask? That would be intolerable."

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