In episode two of the Nonprofit Answers Podcast, Jeremy Reis takes a question from Ryan who’s frustrated with their turnaround time on disaster response fundraising appeals. This is a topic that really hits home: how do we decide if we’re going to respond to a disaster and then get our appeals out the door quickly in email and direct mail? Jeremy shares how Food for the Hungry decides when to respond and how they send out emergency response fundraising appeals quickly.


I distinctly remember the frustration, the frustration of not being able to get the appeal out on time. We were sitting there five days in after a disaster, and we had not yet sent out our email appeal. At that time I made a decision that that wasn’t going to happen again, that we weren’t going to be that late in sending out an email appeal because we can’t help the most people that we can help, if we can’t raise funds the quickest that we could possibly raise them. This question from Ryan really hit home when it came in because I’ve been there. I’ve been there where it’s taken weeks to get out and appeal when it should have only taken days, where it’s taken a week or more to get out an email appeal when I should have had one out the same day. This question really hit home for us at Food for the Hungry. Hopefully, the advice I give here to Ryan will really hit home for you and help you get out those emergency disaster appeals on time.

Hi. My name is Ryan. I’m a fundraising analyst at a nonprofit that responds to disasters. Right now it takes us about a week to get a fundraising email out and several weeks to send a direct mail letter to our list every time there’s a disaster. We were wondering if you have any tips on how we can speed that up.

Ryan, thank you so much for your question about how to speed up your emergency response disaster mailing, really appreciate what your organization does in responding to disasters and helping people throughout the world in their greatest time of need. We’ve had this situation, Food for the Hungry, in the past on how do we quicken up a response? We’ve had situations where it’s taken seven to 10 days to get an email out or weeks upon weeks to get a direct mail campaign out. Of course, as we all know in the fundraising arena that when the media for a situation is hot that is the best time to raise funds, so that you can help the most people that you can possibly help.

Of course, if it takes weeks, and weeks, and weeks to get a fundraising appeal out, then you are not able to help as many people as you possibly can. You do want to quicken the pace of how you get appeals out the door. Some of this is just structural on how you do approvals and organize your fundraising department during times of disaster. We’re going to walk through a couple of the structural issues and then talk about digital and direct mail on how you can speed up the response, so that you can maximize your fundraising and again, as I said, help the most people possible because that is what we are here to do.

The first question I would have for your organization is, who decides to respond programmatically, and who decides to respond on the fundraising side? These decisions need to be made together. At Food for the Hungry one of the things that we did to speed up our decision making process on disasters is to really centralize the decision of response to myself as the director of marketing and our senior director of emergency response. When a disaster strikes he and I get together and make a decision as to whether or not to respond programmatically, and whether or not to respond from a fundraising side. Even though these two questions are separate questions, they both are connected. We respond to all sorts of disasters, everything from a mudslide in Peru all the way to a large scale earthquake or hurricane disaster.

In those times, there may be a situation that comes up that does not warrant a large scale fundraising response, but does warrant us putting boots on the ground and helping a community. In the example I gave there, the mudslide in the community in Peru, it’s a very localized, small disaster, and it may be something that depending on time of the year that we don’t respond to from a fundraising perspective but that the emergency response team does tap into their funds in order to respond with people on the ground to help. It needs to be a joint effort on how we respond and what we’re going to do when we respond.

When we do make a decision to respond on the fundraising side we form a disaster response task force within the marketing department. It’s specifically designed to have clear line of approvals for content that needs to go out and also to identify what we’re going to do in the response. We have a project template set up with our project manager that lists all of the possible things that we could do from a fundraising perspective or a marketing perspective with a response, and I decide which one of those things we’re going to do. We may send out an email, a direct mail campaign. We may do some telemarketing. We may write a blog post. We may do a press release. There are a number of things that may happen during the time of disaster in that example I gave earlier. In the time of a mudslide we might not do a press release, but we might put out a social media post. We may do an email campaign to people that have given to Peru before, asking for money.

The template is set up so that it’s easy to decide which items we’re going to do during the response. Those are automatically then assigned out to the people that are responsible for them. There’s no question of each time trying to define, what is that we’re going to do? We already have that set up within our project management system. As I mentioned, there’s a clear line of approval during times of disaster. Often the approval stops at me as the director of marketing. That way we can respond quickly without a lot of people being involved in the approval process. You need to have a clear succession plan in case the approval process, some of those people are out. I’ve been out of the country before and unavailable during times of disaster. When that happens, then we’ve got a clear line of succession of who approves fundraising, so that we make sure that we did not slow down the process in case someone is not there.

We also create templates for our email and for our writing things like talking points. These templates are prewritten based on what we generally do during time of disaster. If it’s a earthquake, we may provide emergency kits. We may provide shelter, food, clean water, just prewritten things generally on how we would respond for certain types of disaster. It really speed up both the writing and the approval process because all the language is prewritten. There’s also the challenge of getting assets quickly from the field. In times of disaster like a hurricane, communication lines are often down. We may not have the photos and videos that we desire to use in fundraising. In those times we’ve relied on partners before. There’s many time government agencies that will post photos and videos to things like Flikr and then release them into the creative commons. What we do is in those times where we don’t have direct assets of our own, we may use assets from a partner or another agency and then mark those accordingly, so that our donor base understands that those are not our photos or videos, but those are coming from a third party.

You also need to know how you’re responding. What are you actually doing? We don’t want to make promises to our donors for things that we aren’t going to be doing on the ground, but we do want to be very accurate and tell them what we’re going to do especially when we write our impact report in the end to show them what we did. It really needs to align with what we said we’re going to do. Sometimes those things will change as the situation changes on the ground, but generally speaking, understanding what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it on the ground is a good idea when you’re preparing your content for your response.

You also need to think about your talking points for your customer service team and for social media, giving them as much information as possible in case people reach out to find out what your organization is doing. If you decide not to respond at all, then what we do, we recommend other organizations that we have partnered with in the past for donors to donate to. I know that may seem weird, us recommending other organizations, but we know that our donor base really trusts us. We believe that by providing them the name of an organization that we know does good work, that then furthers the relationship with our current donors, and does not create a situation where a donor leaves, and never comes back.

If you have partners that you’ve worked with in the past, and you know they do good work, then that’s a situation where you can extend some of that trust out to your donor base, so that they know where to invest their funds, looking for a good response. There are organizations out there who don’t provide good response. By you providing a recommendation of an organization that does, it really helps your donors and helps them fulfill their mission of supporting a people group or a cause that they have a passion for.

Let’s talk about direct mail. There is a lot of lead time in direct mail, and you’re not going to get a direct mail campaign into homes within just a few days, usually. How do we speed up that process, so that we could create a direct mail campaign that goes out quickly and gets into homes as fast as possible? A couple of the things that you could do is you could preposition some letterhead at the mail vendor. This will speed up the print process by having all the extras of the letterhead areas already done. With that, each month you should prepare a mail file of likely donors to disasters and position that at the print vendor as well. That mail file, that’s going to have a list of donors that you believe are good response donors for the emergency appeals. You can refresh that once monthly. That way when it does come time to mail out for a direct mail campaign that you’re not trying to pull segmentation, and figure all that out, and get it authenticated at the print vendor. All that’s already taken care of, so that the mailing process is much faster.

The other thing in direct mail is often times there’s many levels of approvals that are required. You really need to find a way to speed up your approval process, so that you can get that direct mail approved as quickly as possible. In some situations that may rest on my shoulders. In other situations especially if it’s a letter from the president, then he may want to say it and approve language before it goes out. Then sometimes it goes up to the chief development officer who is my boss to approve that before it goes out. The trick is to figure out your approval process and really speed that up, so you’re not spending days, and days, and days, and redoing, and rewriting, and reproducing things that can be sped up and done much quicker.

Thank you so much for the work that your organization does. I know you do good work with beneficiaries on the ground, and really appreciate all the hard work that you do, and hope that these tips will really help you speed up your response in fundraising, so that you can raise as much money as possible and help as may people as possible. Ryan, thanks again, really appreciate the question. Take care.

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