NEWS IN FOCUS: Iraq appeals leave little space for other causes

Annie Kelly

Fundraisers fear the barrage of emergency requests will divert donations away from organisations at home and elsewhere.

In a week that has seen five major aid charities launching emergency appeals, the public has been swamped by calls for cash to help prevent an impending humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

At the same time, 24-hour blanket media coverage of the war has seen other issues pushed from the news pages, raising fears that charitable fundraising not connected with Iraq may suffer.

"A worrying aspect of emergency appeals is that they can be enormously effective and that then detracts from other work that is going on both in the UK and overseas," said Nicholas Young, chief executive at the British Red Cross, speaking at the recent Future of Giving debate hosted by The Giving Campaign.

"There is a huge food crisis in Ethiopia and Southern Africa and people will switch their giving from that to the immediate crisis. It's not yet clear that the humanitarian crisis in Iraq is really sufficient to warrant that kind of switching of giving."

Stephen Butler, chief executive of fundraising consultancy The Domain Group, warns that charities have to be prepared for a knock-on effect from the public's preoccupation with events in Iraq.

"Aid agencies are fortunate in the way that they can still raise funds throughout a war," he says. "In these kind of times, a lot of giving that normally goes to domestic causes will be diverted to war appeals."

Butler believes that charities should remember the impact that 11 September had on many voluntary organisations in the US. He says that they had no way of persuading their donors not to desert them. "Many found that their donors were simply abandoning traditional charities to focus their efforts on supporting those agencies providing relief in New York," he says.

Marie Curie Cancer Care is well aware of the effects that such a major event can have on a giver's psyche. Sandra Osborne, director of fundraising, believes that it is vital that domestic charities continue to communicate how important a donor's support is. "We have to ensure that our message is still out there and strong and people don't underestimate the value of what we continue to do," she says.

Although Osborne says she would "consider" cancelling some events and won't launch major direct mail appeals alongside emergency aid campaigns, she will not be halting any planned fundraising drives.

"What we may do is alter our message to reflect the prevalence of the war," she says. "For example, we may concentrate on the message that people are feeling anxious at the moment, so imagine the pressure that a family coping with a sick or dying relative must be under. Our support in these difficult times is just crucial."

The war also throws up some difficult issues for those charities trying to raise funds for areas of conflict outside Iraq. Medical Aid for Palestinians, which raises funds to provide on-the-ground medical aid in the region, relies on national press ads linked to media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict to raise a substantial portion of its income.

"We're going to have difficulty keeping up our recruitment levels as the war is knocking everything else out," says a spokesperson at the charity. "It's much harder for us to remind the public that the situation in Palestine hasn't changed - it just isn't getting reported."

Tony Masters, a senior partner at consultancy firm John Watson Partnership, also believes that charities should pull back on new donor acquisition campaigns until the Iraq conflict is resolved. "My advice would be to delay prospecting as much as possible until you can get hopeful news that the war is near completion," he says.

However, he warns against altering charities' core messaging to their existing supporter base. "At times like this people need consistency," he explains. "Donors are loyal to a cause and if a charity changes what and how it is seen to be working, then a dislocation can occur between cause and donor."

However, some industry figures do not agree that the war will have a significant impact on charitable fundraising. Stephen Pidgeon, chief executive at marketing agency Target Direct, believes that the sector won't encounter a big downturn in income.

"The war won't affect mainstream charities with loyal donor bases," he says. "Cancellation of mailshots is overcautious at this point as the main way the war is going to affect the voluntary sector is its contribution to the general financial downturn that is likely to get much worse."

James Kliffen, head of fundraising at Medecins Sans Frontieres UK, also rejects the notion that donors will stop giving to charities not connected to the Iraq conflict, and dismisses the idea that people have an allocated pot of money to give to charitable causes.

"People make a donation out of their disposable income and may be inclined to give to an emergency appeal instead of spending the same cash on leisure activities, but I don't think that they will stop giving to causes they already support or stop being affected by other causes."

And Michael Jacobs, general secretary of left-wing think-tank the Fabian Society, believes that the war may actually have a beneficial effect on giving.

"I think people are more engaged with the world at large than they have been in recent years and that will encourage them to give more," he says.

"As more people understand the nature of the world the more they will give.

"In the longer term, I think there may well be a positive effect to the crisis in Iraq."

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