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How Mercy Ships NZ raised $1 million to help double its capacity to provide essential surgery for the poor.

First published 18 Feb 2020

Globally, five out of seven people have no access to essential surgery. In low and lower-middle income countries this rises to nine out of 10 people who have little hope the future can be any different. That’s where Mercy Ships comes in.

Since 1978, the volunteer professional crew of the faith-based hospital ship NGO, Mercy Ships, has performed over 100,000 free life-transforming or lifesaving surgical procedures for people living in extreme poverty. These life-changing transformations have directly benefitted more than 2.71 million people in 70 nations.

The essential surgical need in developing nations is immense. To meet this demand Mercy Ships has commissioned a second ship, the world’s first purpose-built civilian hospital ship at an estimated cost of US$192 million. This vessel will double the organisation’s ability to end premature death and needless disability.

The 16,000 tonne Africa Mercy is docked for 10 months in each nation, providing free surgical and healthcare services. In 40 years Mercy Ships has served 57 nations at the lowest end of the Human Development Index, primarily in West Africa.

At the launch of its very first capital campaign, US$40 million remained to be raised globally by the end of 2019. The campaign, called ‘One chance to make twice the impact’, would contribute to the overall impact of the new ship – doubling Mercy Ships’ capacity to provide essential surgery for the poor.

Specifically, Mercy Ships New Zealand (MSNZ) undertook to raise the NZ$1 million cost of building one intensive care unit, giving MSNZ the ICU ‘naming rights’ – a gift from the people of New Zealand.

Getting ready for our first capital campaign

In November 2017, Giving Architects was hired to conduct a feasibility study and identified these key findings:

  • trust in and passion for MSNZ – the majority of those interviewed had volunteered on the ship or knew someone who did
  • need to increase public awareness of Mercy Ships and the transformational services provided for Africa’s poor
  • engagement potential of passionate alumni volunteers to help ‘join the dots’ between the charity’s distant proximity of service and the New Zealand public.

Despite being the first capital campaign for MSNZ, the campaign readiness assessment concluded it was within the reach of the charity to achieve this ambitious target.

In January 2018, Giving Architects was contracted for 12 months to design and facilitate the capital campaign and to mentor key MSNZ staff in best practice fundraising practise throughout the campaign.

A capital campaign cabinet leadership team was recruited to support MSNZ with the campaign. A very influential Auckland businessman was appointed as campaign patron. With a newly engaged businessman as campaign chair, the capital campaign cabinet initially met to brainstorm potential prospects.

The cabinet met monthly to share updates, successes and challenges; spurring each other on in the task. Throughout the campaign, Giving Architects and MSNZ leadership worked together to ensure milestones were achieved.

A compelling case for support was created for the capital campaign cabinet to tell the Mercy Ships’ story of transformational impact using the wealth of imagery, graphics and statistical information available. The text and captivating photos succinctly communicated the life- altering difference made for people of all ages living in poverty who receive free surgeries on the Mercy Ship.

This campaign collateral engaged prospective donors and advocates alongside a PowerPoint presentation. Two impacting videos showed the life story of Mercy Ships’ patients before and after their transformative surgery on board.

As prospect relationships developed, a gift chart table was used very successfully to ask the potential donor if they would like to make a transformational gift within the indicated range.

New donors were primarily engaged through influential advocates within the cabinet. In each case the individual or trust was visited. When appropriate, a presentation was made and they were asked to become involved in the project through one or more gifts, depending on the prospect.

In October 2018, 34 affluent and influential people attended a drinks and canapes event held at the exclusive residence of the campaign patron.

To overcome the challenges posed by the lack of proximity to the ship in Africa, the evening’s program included a live video link to a nurse and IT specialist couple from Auckland currently volunteering on the ship. They engaged the audience, talking about the patients being treated that day.

The patron/host and the campaign chair discussed what is compelling about Mercy Ships. The board chair, the CEO and the communications manager (who have all volunteered onboard the Mercy Ship) shared personal stories about being on the hospital ship and the difference it makes in people’s lives.

The guests who indicated on the response device that they were interested in more information were followed up accordingly. Those who did not indicate a desire to give received a Christmas email greeting. This included a link to a very compelling short video story of a mother and daughter who received surgery on board.

Reaching our target

On October 26 2019, the target of NZ$1 million was reached. This was achieved in 50 gifts from a wide variety of donors. A handful of gifts were under $2,000, several in the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands; all were gifts that the donors were proud of. Acknowledgement of this was gratefully expressed by their campaign cabinet advocate. Of these, 28 were first-time donors to Mercy Ships who made gifts totalling NZ$768,550 – 77% of the campaign.

The campaign’s success was acknowledged by the Fundraising Institute of New Zealand, which awarded Best High Value Campaign to Mercy Ships in 2019.

Lessons and challenges

An important and very distinctive element of the campaign was the volunteer nature of the capital campaign cabinet.

In addition to their fundraising commitment here in New Zealand, half of the cabinet had actually volunteered their services on the hospital ship in Africa. This hands-on experience of seeing the transformations that occur on board with their own eyes enabled a dynamic level of engaging communication that cannot be underestimated in its impact.

Leon before his free surgery on the Mercy Ship

Leon after his first surgery on the Mercy Ship, attended by Auckland nurse Vivian Welch.

One of the greatest challenges for the campaign was the hospital ship’s lack of proximity in West Africa. It took a lot of creativity and the use of videos to help bridge the gap.


The project was brought significantly closer to home because two cabinet members had close friends currently volunteering, while four had served on board. Location also threw up a number of obstacles, as many trusts that were potential sources had New Zealand-focused criteria for giving.

The weighty decision for this charity to engage a fundraising consultant proved to be the springboard to campaign success. Giving Architects developed and informed the strategy and plan, working with the MSNZ team to create a platform for success.

The commitment of the campaign patron and chair to advocate for Mercy Ships and willingness to open up their networks was vital to the development of the prospect pool.

Formal recognition of the gifts included handwritten cards, timely receipting of donations and phone calls by the capital campaign cabinet. Due to the nature of this project, no naming rights or material gifts were given. The importance of taking time for a campaign assessment phase became clear as MSNZ learned the important questions that people were asking about the charity and the project. The assessment flagged people passionate about Mercy Ships and engaged with the project. Some were asked to join the capital campaign cabinet.

The vital role of confidential, up-to-date data was quickly determined. The respect this extended to the donors was evident as it ensured correct and accurate information was consistently used. It also provided opportunities for donors to give at levels they hadn’t given at before. Influential advocacy brought about new donors who were not connected to Mercy Ships prior to the campaign engagement.

On reflection, greater impact could have been achieved from the campaign engagement event if it had been scheduled a few weeks earlier. It edged into the Christmas season, which negatively affected both guest availability and the window for effective prospect follow up.

It was surprising to learn that people of high net worth are seeking worthy charities to donate to, and that providing existing evidence of transparency, accountability and sustainable outcomes enables donors to ‘tick their boxes’. It was a matter of making the right people aware of the opportunity to give, rather than the misconception of an unwilling donor being cajoled into giving a token amount. This new awareness helped transformed MSNZ’s perception of fundraising and empowered the organisation to campaign success.

Mercy Ships NZ discovered that when a donor is presented with a problem, a solution and a transformational impact that inspires them, it enables the donor to give significantly.

The momentum and inspiration gained through the capital campaign was energising and engaging for the cabinet members who decided unanimously to continue to a second phase to raise a further $250,000 to help fund the operational costs of the new ship during its first field service; the Hope and Healing Fund. Gifts will be designated to fund specific surgical specialities or the general operational costs of the new Mercy Ship as it is deployed.

All donors are being nurtured by MSNZ into a long-term relationship, with communication on campaign progress and milestones.

Our impact

During the period of the campaign, approximately 5,000 people in desperate need in Africa received free, life-changing essential surgical services. More than 3,000 local healthcare professionals participated in mentoring and training on board the current Mercy Ship. Yet twice as many individuals will receive hope and healing, in the same duration, once the new vessel is deployed.

With the addition of a second vessel to Mercy Ships, the charity will double its capacity to provide essential surgery for the poor. Donors were inspired to make twice the impact by being part of the campaign.

Sharon Walls Sharon first stepped onto a Mercy Ships gangway in 1983 knowing she wanted to invest her life in “something bigger than me”. Four Mercy Ships, four land-based offices, a husband and three children later, she remains committed to bringing hope and healing to Africa’s poor and marginalised. Sharon and her husband, Graeme, the CEO of Mercy Ships NZ, returned to New Zealand with their family in 2008 after volunteering overseas for most of their lives. Sharon is the Communications Manager for Mercy Ships NZ.

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