News in focus: Disaster also brings an opportunity

Other causes won't necessarily suffer because of the tsunami appeal, reports Katherine Demopoulos.

One UK family that regularly supports ActionAid has just decided to increase its donations by sponsoring 11 children around the world - and not just from areas hit by the tsunami.

This family is not unique. ActionAid, one of the 12 Disasters Emergency Committee members, reports that many donors are increasing their donations to areas unaffected by the tsunami. "Regular givers have actually been saying they're reviewing their donations and thinking about increasing them," says a spokeswoman. "It's strengthened the existing support we have."

Cafod, another DEC member, does not want to count its chickens before hatching its main annual fundraising drive next month, but it says the level of non-tsunami-related donations does not seem to be falling.

Public donations to smaller charities don't appear to have fallen either, despite some suggestion that they would. A spokeswoman for the Institute of Fundraising says the organisation believes all charities will benefit from the giving momentum and it would be surprised to see any service cuts. Rather than detracting from current giving, the donor base has expanded.

"People who give to disasters and emergency appeals often aren't the sort of people who usually give," she says.

Giving momentum

A source at a small charity focused on poverty alleviation in Africa says donations from its supporters have increased and new donors have emerged. "People are saying 'Please make sure this money goes to Sudan'," she says. She fears, however, that although public goodwill is there in the short-term, charities will struggle later in the year unless they capitalise on the momentum now.

Joe Saxton, director at research agency nfpSynergy, expects that the impact on each charity will depend on its particular method of fundraising.

"If you do it through direct debits and legacies, those decisions were made a long time ago," he says. "If you fundraise through events, you are likely to be badly affected."

Nonetheless, Saxton believes the real challenge for the sector is capitalising on the new donor base the tsunami appeal tapped into. "Out of crisis comes opportunity," he argues. "Charities will be looking to see what they can make out of it in the long term."

He also believes DEC members should agree to give the umbrella group more power to contact donors at times of emergency. Individual members currently market to their own supporters. "It's a real opportunity for the DEC to turn people who gave to a humanitarian crisis for the first time into long-term, committed supporters of humanitarian crises, wherever they occur," says Saxton.

DEC chief executive Brendan Gormley says only: "We will be keen to report back to our new donors and, when appropriate, ask them to support future appeals."

Although all agree it's too early to say what the fundraising scene will look like at the end of the year, some are attempting to draw tentative answers from comparable disasters.

Cathy Pharoah, research director at the Charities Aid Foundation, will soon publish research on the impact of the DEC appeal on broader donation levels. She believes there's no evidence that a large-scale disaster appeal increases subsequent overall public giving. "If you look back at 9/11-related giving in the US to relief agencies such as the Red Cross, it increased, but giving in that year did not go up markedly," she says.

"After Diana's death, there was no evidence that giving went up significantly. When people give very generously to one appeal, they don't give to others."

Pharoah believes, however, that the unique set of factors surrounding the tsunami means the financial consequences for the sector as a whole might be different this time. The unusual nature of the event, the immediacy of the media images, the ease of electronic giving, the fact that so many people have connections to the area, and that it occurred on a day when the population is traditionally glued to TV sets, have made a difference already.

"Indications are that overall giving might go up," she says. "It's a very close call. Contributions for relief and recovery as a result of 11 September were $1.25bn (£700m). That's less than 1 per cent of giving by individuals in 2001. Individual giving in the UK is already 2 per cent of what we would normally give in a year, so tsunami disaster giving seems very high indeed."

Tim Aldred, Cafod humanitarian co-ordinator, adds: "This disaster is totally unprecedented in terms of public response, making it very hard to predict. There continued to be reporting on the Make Poverty History campaign and Africa, which I hope is a signal that what we're seeing is a connectedness with developing world issues more generally."

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