Faced with multiple natural disasters, charities broaden their appeals

A flood of natural disasters around the world in the last month has some aid organizations taking a different approach to fundraising to prevent donor fatigue.

One event can galvanize donors, but many together can paralyze them, advisory group says

Disaster after disaster ... will it be a disaster for emergency fundraising?

6 years ago
Duration 2:15
Disaster after disaster ... will it be a disaster for emergency fundraising?

A flood of natural disasters around the world in the last month has some aid organizations taking a different approach to fundraising to prevent donor fatigue.

For weeks, Canadians have been inundated with video of the damage caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in the United States and Caribbean — and two devastating earthquakes in Mexico. Before that, it was the wildfires in British Columbia.

Aid agencies usually issue individual appeals for single events, such as the 2004 Asian tsunami or the 2011 earthquake in Haiti. 

With so many disasters in the news right now, there can be a numbing effect for donors, said Kate Bahen, managing director of Charity Intelligence Canada.

 "We're inundated with these disaster pictures. When you have one disaster, it can galvanize the donor community. When you have multiple disasters, it can paralyze," she said.

Aid agencies recognize that — and several are changing their approach for the most current appeals. World Vision and Unicef are launching campaigns targeting the areas in Mexico hit by earthquakes and the devastated regions of the Caribbean that were hit by two Category 5 hurricanes.
Djouveline, 13, (left) is sponsored by World Vision in Haiti. 'Fortunately I was safe during the hurricane. I was really scared of the winds. I didn't feel good at all when the strong winds were howling,' Djouveline said. (Guy Vital-Herme/World Vision)

"It's a particular challenge to get the word out and communicate the needs to Canadians when there are multiple disasters happening at the same time, especially in such quick succession," said Michael Messenger, president of World Vision Canada, a Christian relief, development and advocacy organization. 

"Perhaps it's time to combine our efforts and actually have a common appeal for all of the various elements of the relief that's really critically needed for Latin America and the Caribbean. ... It will provide the opportunity to Canadians to give to a single appeal."

​UNICEF Canada is also making a general appeal.

"That gives us the flexibility to go where most needed," president and CEO David Morley said.

"We're providing support to children, education and health and child-friendly spaces in all of these disasters, from Dominican Republic to Dominica to Mexico, we're working in all of these countries so we're going to do a general appeal. Because for us what matters is helping children. The country matters less than that we're able to help these children," he said.

UNICEF and partners supervise the evacuation of a Haitian orphanage as Hurricane Irma approaches on Sept. 7. UNICEF is providing drinking water and sanitation to affected communities, as well protection for children and adolescents. (Maxence Bradley/UNICEF)

MSF rarely issues disaster appeals

With lives at stake and urgent timelines, charitable organizations have to distinguish themselves from others and develop a base of supporters who will donate money even when natural disasters are not making headlines.

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders rarely issues disaster appeals. Instead, it relies on private funds and monthly donations to a general emergency fund.

The exception is extreme cases such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where the scale of the disaster and the response needed were overwhelming. 

"We know that there are going to be emergencies every year and there are some that are going to be 'CNN' emergencies or tug on people's heart strings where they'll want to donate, but there be others that will receive less press attention or that might be more complicated and hard to understand and not end up having that same public generosity," said Stephen Cornish, executive director of Doctors Without Borders Canada.

'Generalized giving'

"There's only one or two places at a time that can make our nightly news and so I think it's important also to be able to participate in some generalized giving."

MSF sets aside 20 per cent of its response capacity every year for unknown emergencies. When a disaster strikes, they are on the ground responding to immediate needs in the crucial first 72 hours, not waiting for the launch of a fundraising appeal.

Another benefit, Cornish said, is that MSF spends less money on administration and advertising. So while some charities will spend 35 cents to raise $1, MSF spends approximately 15 cents.

Still, he acknowledges donors are moved by disasters.

"When we deal with more difficult stories. Ebola for example … it was a huge crisis, it didn't bring a lot of generosity in the early days until we were able to educate people. …Once people understood the story, then the generosity followed."

Making communities more resilient 

Mohammed Asirmo, 67 and Rashid Mohammed, 10, received goats from MCC's partner in the Afar region of Ethiopia. It has been severely affected by drought. (Matthew Sawatzky/MCC)

Then there are groups like the Mennonite Central Committee, which likes to remind donors that it's not only a disaster response organization but also focuses on development and peace-building.

For example, MCC helped with the 2016 emergency relief after Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti but its work has continued and has largely prevented cholera in the regions it worked in.

"It's an investment in changing the preconditions, making a community more resilient and less vulnerable to the next disaster," said Rick Cober Bauman, incoming executive director at MCC Canada.

The organization is also working in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo to try to prevent violent clashes, but that's a much harder sell.

"Peace-building is harder to fundraise for. … There is no question that natural disasters are more captivating for most donors," he said.

One thing most aid organizations do agree on — cash is king, especially when the response time is crucial.

How to decide where to donate

Charity Intelligence Canada advises donors on where their funds are needed most, and which aid organization will do the best work.

Some of that information is already on its website. For example, CI is recommending Virgin Unite for British Virgin Island recovery, Samaritan's Purse Canada and GlobalMedic for St. Maarten and Barbuda, and Oxfam Canada in Cuba.

They base their recommendations on four criteria:

  • The number of people affected:  deaths, injuries, homeless.
  • Economics of resilience:  GDP per capita, estimated economic cost.
  • Disaster preparedness: preparation time, infrastructure (building codes, breakwaters).
  • Funding need for Canadian donations:  does the area affected need outside humanitarian support that Canadian charities can provide?
"We look at the type of disaster. ... Famines are different from earthquakes and hurricanes. So each disaster will have its own different characteristics and that requires different aid responses," said Bahen.
Charity Intelligence Canada advises donors on where their funds are needed most and which organizations will do the best work, says Kate Bahen, its managing director. (CBC)

Then, how can a Canadian donor help the most?

Sometimes, Bahen said, it's by supporting local organizations working on the ground. For example, during the Fort McMurray fires, Charity Intelligence Canada recommended food banks in Edmonton and Calgary.

"If we look at history, the biggest sort of Canadian appeals where Canadians gave the most, [were] in the 2004 Asian tsunami and the 2011 earthquake in Haiti. Those were record levels. Again in 2016, Fort McMurray was an unprecedented Canadian disaster response of over $189 million. So we're definitely seeing Canadians step up when needed," Bahen said.

"We're so lucky we're in Canada. We work with some of the best donors in the world and they're really hungry for information."


Karen Pauls

National reporter

Karen Pauls covers Manitoba stories for CBC national news. She has worked across Canada, U.S. and Europe, and in CBC bureaus in Washington, London and Berlin. Some of her awards include the New York Festivals for coverage of the Greyhound bus beheading and a Quirks & Quarks question show, and from the Radio Television Digital News Association for stories about asylum seekers, the Michif language, the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy, live elections and royal wedding shows. In 2007, Karen received the Canadian Association of Journalist’s Dateline Hong Kong Fellowship and did a radio documentary on the 10th anniversary of the deadly avian flu outbreak. Story tips at