Fundraising during an emergency

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Following the invasion of Ukraine, Daniel Fluskey, our Head of Policy and External Affairs, looks at fundraising in the context of an emergency.

During times of disaster, war, or tragedy, a remarkable response is often seen with the better angels of our nature coming to the fore and an outpouring of generosity. As our television screens and social media feeds turn us into witnesses of scenes of heartache and human suffering in Ukraine, many people will be asking themselves a common question – how can I help? 

As fundraisers and charities, we know that people will want to give at a time of emergency. Our responsibility is to make sure we give people an opportunity to do so, providing them with clear and accurate information and asking in sensitive and appropriate ways. When responding quickly to unfolding events, getting a fundraising appeal right can be challenging – there are many considerations to keep in mind.

So, if you are fundraising for or responding to the war in Ukraine, or any other emergency, here are some things that may be useful to consider. While this is written primarily for charities, it may also be used for non-charitable fundraising appeals or crowdfunding campaigns that benefit individuals or families.

1 – Make sure you can be as accurate and clear in your appeal as possible.

For any appeal to the public, it’s important to be as transparent and clear as we can be about what you are fundraising for and what you intend to do with the money raised. At times of emergency, it can sometimes be difficult to be precise – you might be fundraising for medical supplies or emergency aid to people of a specific country, but what if circumstances mean you cannot deliver those services in that country? Or perhaps the need changes, from providing immediate food and medical supplies to longer-term shelter and rebuilding? Donors will often be happy to give for general purposes, but if you are going to be specific about what you intend to do with their money, make sure that your wording and appeal doesn’t inadvertently mislead them. It’s also worth thinking through what you will do and what you will tell supporters if you cannot deliver the emergency aid you intend to do at the time of asking for it. Will it go towards your next appeal or general charitable purpose?

2 – How will you tell donors about the difference their donation makes or respond to questions from the public?

How and when will you be able to report back on the success of your appeals, where the money went, and the difference it made? Will you be providing supporters with updates on the appeal? Consider how and when you keep in contact with supporters, and even though things are fast-paced, don’t forget to thank them and acknowledge their care and generosity. Social media is, of course, the most immediate and responsive way to communicate what’s happening and put out fundraising appeals – consider your teams and colleagues who are managing those accounts for long hours, and any social media policy you have (for example, about responding to any negative comments or online trolling).

You may be asked about other charities working on the same emergency, or if you are not doing an emergency appeal yourself, who they can give to. While you, of course, will be working in the best interests of the charity you work for, you can signpost people to other charities, especially if you know that they are actively working on an emergency that someone is telling you they want to support.

Some people might have questions about your charity or how genuine your fundraising is – if needed, you can refer them to the safer giving guidance issued by the Fundraising Regulator to reassure them.

3 – How will supporters and the public feel about being asked at a time of emergency?

People may well be in a mindset of being ready to give when they see news unfolding. But they still need to be asked and given clear and easy ways to donate. Having a simple, clear message and perhaps a streamlined opportunity to give quickly may well be best, rather than putting too many options and checkboxes into the mix (although, of course, make sure that any data protection or terms and conditions are covered).

Human suffering and the consequences of war are inherently emotional and upsetting times. Fundraising appeals will be compelling and truthful, but they may be triggering for people. Think about whether your messages and images are suitable for the media/audience you have in mind and consider the emotion of your language carefully to avoid inadvertently making people feel guilty for not donating. And as always, remember the key parts of the Code of Fundraising Practice about not intending to cause distress without a justifiable reason and to give warnings if your material is likely to shock people.

It's also worth remembering that emergency appeals and tragic events may mean that some people are upset, anxious, or feel compelled to give even if they are in a vulnerable circumstance themselves. Think of your supporter care teams and any additional guidance or support they might need to ensure that you can respond to people in the best possible way. It may be worth reviewing our guidance on treating donors fairly and the policies you have in place.

4. Are there any offers of support that you won’t accept?

Decisions around acceptance or refusal of a donation are hard enough at the best of times. At a time of an emergency appeal, the timeframe for discussion and review may be tight, and the situation even more pressured or fraught. What if an oil company wanted to give a sizeable donation to your wildlife conservation charity in the wake of an environmental disaster they were responsible for? In most cases, the value of the money you can put into delivering your mission will be of greater benefit.

But there may well be times where a donation (either because of the way the money was made, or because of who the donor is) carries too much risk and negative associations that accepting that money would conflict with the values of your charity and cause a risk to your reputation, relationships with existing supporters, and ability to best deliver your services or charitable benefit that you may decide to refuse that donation. These decisions are rarely straightforward when they arise, but the more you can think through them in advance, have a policy in place and know what your decision-making process is, the better position you’ll be in. Our guidance on acceptance and refusal of donations can help you put in place the practical steps that will help.

Dan Fluskey
Dan Fluskey
Head of Policy and External Affairs at the Institute of Fundraising
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