Refugee causes face marketing challenges here in Canada, too, say experts

Why procuring donation dollars is difficult for charities.
(Credit: Getty Images)

Refugee crises are unfolding across the world, but chances are good that you're not donating to help victims anywhere. The question is… why?

The answer is a complex one; it involves bad marketing, donor fatigue and the limitations of human empathy, say marketing experts. And it's a problem specific to refugee crises, considering people were three times less likely to donate to help Syrian refugees than they were to victims of the Nepal earthquake or the Japanese tsunami, according to GlobalGiving relief organization as reported recently in the New York Times. It seems refugee causes don't hit the same generosity triggers.

"Promoting any kind of a charity these days is extremely difficult," said Ken Wong, Marketing Professor at Queen's University's Smith School of Business. "The causes are all equally good… it does end up coming down to the quality of the appeal that's made. It is, to be crass, a merchandizing issue."

Wong said one of the key challenges of "marketing" refugee causes is the long-term nature of the crises and ensuing donor fatigue.

"With the (Syrian) refugee crisis, when it first came up, a lot of people did donate money," Wong said. "How many have donated a second and third time?... Everybody's only got so much disposable money."

This inclination to give, but give once, might explain why people donate to causes that support the victims of natural disasters, knowing the worst of the crisis has occurred and need for help is immediate, he said.

Wong said charities working with refugees need to find ways of securing recurring donations and reminding the public the crisis isn't over. "The job is not done," he said.

Another challenge for attracting donor funds is the huge scale and complex nature of refugee crises, particularly the Syrian one.

"In the case of the refugee (crisis), it's like a tap that won't shut off," said Marvin Ryder, professor of marketing at McMaster University's DeGroote School of Business. "The problem itself keeps changing and morphing. As a result, it's very hard to get (people) motivated to just throw money at an empty slate."

Additionally, studies show humans are hardwired to feel empathy for people of the same ethnicity or social class as them, and they are more likely to be empathetic to an individual person than to a large group of people. A photo of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi's lifeless body face down on a beach might spur people to donate, but, perhaps, news stories about hundreds of migrants drowning might not.

To combat human apathy in the face of global crises, Ryder said charities need to be specific about who they help and how they help them. For instance, an organization that helps individual refugee families establish their lives in Canada, connecting them with donors here, is more likely to get Canadian donations than an organization with a broad mission of helping refugees globally, he said.

Tone of messaging is also important. "It's not about pity and guilt – that doesn't help raise money," said Debi Andrus, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business. "You have to look at it from the positive side." Andrus said potential donors are more inclined to give money if they can imagine the positive impact of their donation, such as funding a child's education. They're less inclined to donate if a campaign tries to exploit their guilt through photos of bombs destroying homes or people starving, she said.

It's also possible people don't give money out of fear their donation will end up supporting perpetrators instead of victims, though Andrus said it's not clear that's a factor that deters donation. And by donating to a reputable organization, people can generally trust their funds are going to the right people, she said.

Of course, it's not all bad. There are plenty of heartwarming recent examples of Canadians supporting refugees and donating to refugee causes. But even then, outpourings of support can end up unevenly favouring certain groups.

The problem arises when well-meaning donors specify their donations must be used toward certain refugees, such as Syrians, in turn putting refugees from other countries at a disadvantage, said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, a non-profit umbrella organization dedicated to refugee rights and protection. To prevent this, some refugee organizations have policies in place specifying they will only accept donations not designated for specific groups, she said.

In the meantime, marketing experts say refugee organizations looking to solicit donations need to keep their message fresh, knowing last year's campaign may no longer resonate; narrow their focus and keep the tone positive.

Still, finding the right balance is tricky. What prompts one person to open their wallet may prompt another to close it.

"We are rather fickle people," said Ryder. "If I'm in the charity raising (business), I want to approach these consumers, but we are not always that logical to deal with."

Katrina Clarke is a Vancouver- and Toronto-based journalist who writes about relationships, health, technology and social trends. You can find her on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.