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As a firestorm of donations is unleashed by bushfire appeals, some non-bushfire causes are left feeling out in the cold and nervous about their fundraising efforts. F&P publisher Jeremy Bradshaw investigates.


As bushfires raged across parts of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia, starting in September and roaring through November, December and into January, a spate of bushfire appeals were launched by local, state and national organisations.

The shocking images of fleeing, distressed people and the charred remains of property struck deep into the psyche of Australians and they began to give. The media, with its blanket coverage of the fires, ensured no-one could escape knowledge of what was going on (the media do love a good bushfire story). The tinder was lit for an avalanche of giving.

Bushfire appeals caught on and mums and dads opened their wallets and purses. Then the celebs piled in, both local and international. Too many to count. Nicole and Keith were in, Chris Hemsworth too. Metallica gave. Sir Elton John, here on his Yellow Brick Road tour, forked out for the fires. Warney auctioned his baggy green. Even the usually brattish Nick Kyrgios thought about someone other than himself for once and pledged to give $200 for every ace he served over the summer. Bravo!

And the philanthropists weighed in. Andrew Forrest dropped a cool $70 million of relief through his Minderoo Foundation. The Paul Ramsay Foundation kicked in $30 million. Gandel Philanthropy, the Murdochs and many more gave significant sums.

Corporates got in on the action too with big donations. The big four banks chimed in, as did the major supermarket chains, BHP, Holden and numerous others.

With all the giving going on there were multi-million-dollar donations flying around thicker than an ember storm.

And then, of course, there’s the mother of them all. The Celeste Barber Facebook appeal for the NSW Rural Fire Service, which is currently sitting at just over $51 million raised. Extraordinary!

So, what does all this mean for the fundraising of charity and not-for-profit organisations not directly related to the bushfire emergency? If you’re one of these, then you might reasonably think some of the oxygen may have been sucked out of your recent fundraising efforts.

Here at the F&P office we’ve fielded some emails and phone calls from charities with concerns that could be summed up as follows: “How can our cause possibly compete with all the attention the bushfire appeals are getting? Will our fundraising be affected?”

Lessons from the past

History would suggest that if yours is not a bushfire-related cause, then there is still reason for you to remain relatively confident that your fundraising will do OK. And the best examples to refer to are the Asian tsunami of Christmas 2004, the Victorian bushfires of 2009 and the Queensland floods of 2011.

Figures from the Australian Tax Office for tax deductible giving show two clear trends. Firstly, there were significant spikes in giving for the years of these specific events. Secondly, each disaster attracted a cohort of new donors who had never given before.

Graph 1 overleaf shows spikes in giving in the years of the Asian tsunami (2004/2005), Victorian bushfires (2009) and Queensland floods (2011).

Expanded giving

According to John McLeod, who has consulted in and researched the changing nature of philanthropy in Australia for almost 20 years, at times of disaster, donors tend to expand their giving to give something extra to the immediate crisis, as well as continue to support the causes they usually give to.

“There’s not generally a redistribution of giving by donors away from the usual causes they support. There may be a little bit of redirecting of donations, but it will be minimal. Donors loyal to causes will largely continue to support those causes,” he says.

Nigel Harris CFRE concurs with this sentiment. As long-time CEO of the Mater Foundation, a former winner of the FIA Arthur Venn Professional Fundraiser of the Year and former Chair of the FIA, Nigel has more than 40 years’ fundraising experience to call on.

“Giving is elastic, it’s not a fixed market. Disasters like this challenge people to give, but not at the cost of other causes they usually support. These events enlarge giving.”

New donors unearthed

Another consequence of disasters like the current bushfire situation is that a bunch of new donors give for the very first time. Stirred by the calamity unfolding on their TV and mobile screens, people respond emotionally. They want to help their fellow citizens through the dark times.

But there is a caveat, according to McLeod, “Unfortunately, these people do not tend to keep giving.”

Again, there is evidence from the Australian Tax Office statistics that demonstrates this. And anecdotally there are stories of charities that have conducted very successful disaster appeals and have tried in vain to nurture these one-time disaster donors to give again.

The Graph 2 overleaf shows the proportion of Australians giving over time and the clear spikes in the years of disasters such as the Asian tsunami, Victorian bushfires and Queensland floods.

Christmas appeals a window onto how fundraising is faring

The bushfires in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland have coincided with an important time in the fundraising year – Christmas appeals.

So, if the bushfire appeals were impacting the fundraising of non-bushfire-related causes, there’s an argument to say this might show up in Christmas appeal results.

Let’s have a look and see what’s going on at this all-important moment in the fundraising calendar.

Vic Zacharias is a direct mail fundraising consultant with almost 20 years’ experience and probably has as good a sense of how the bushfires may impact the wider fundraising landscape as anybody.

“We conducted Christmas appeals for 16 charities, mostly based in New South Wales, and none of them were bushfire related. Of the 10 appeals we have preliminary results for, six are doing better than Christmas 2018, and the other four are either on par or slightly down on last year’s result. And some of the ones that are doing better than the previous year are substantially up despite the bushfire impact. My gut feel is that non-bushfire-related charities are around 10% down on what they would have raised had the bushfires not occurred.”

That’s the topline perspective, but let’s go a bit deeper.

Zacharias says some organisations are feeling a bit defeated by the bushfires. If appeals are down, they are reluctant to chase the money.

“There are things they could do with their current appeal such as review who hasn’t given yet, and ring those who are their more loyal and larger givers, and make an appropriate ask to encourage their gift,” he says.

With the benefit of experience, Zacharias is also optimistic: “I used to panic when a disaster struck because I thought it would negatively impact the fundraising of the charities we work with. However, time shows the impact is short-term and the money comes back.

“If there are some donors who choose to give to a disaster instead of their usual cause, or they give a bit less so that they can make a donation to the current disaster, then they usually give more strongly in subsequent appeals to make up for the gift they didn’t give.

“Organisations often make the money back in the next one or two appeals. The fundraising levels return to normal. It all evens out over the year,” he concludes.

Graph 1: Tax deductible donations and donations to PAFs

Graph 2: Proportion of taxpayers making donations in Australia by state.

What’s happening at the coalface?

To see what’s going on at the coalface of fundraising for non-bushfire-related causes, we contacted several organisations to take the pulse of their fundraising over the last couple of months, and to see if they are doing anything different to take into account the bushfire giving.

Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation

At the Victorian-based Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation (Peter Mac), Fundraising Direct Marketing Manager Julia Cameron says things are travelling along mostly as they normally do.

“Our Christmas appeal is tracking very similar to last year. We noticed a bit of a slow down in donations post-Christmas, but that might be due to Australia Post getting our third wave out a bit late. We may not reach our stretch target of $600,000 but we are getting very close.”

Peter Mac will be sending out its usual donor care campaign in the second half of January and the email component will acknowledge the hardships created by the bushfires. The organisation will also be doing a separate donor care communication to those people living in bushfire affected areas. An acquisition campaign planned for mid-February will go ahead as planned.

Peter Mac’s face-to-face fundraising teams are staying away from the areas directly impacted by the bushfires, and there have been times when their teams have halted in Melbourne because of smoky conditions. However, in Wodonga, an area not too far from some of the bushfire activity, they have experienced some above average results with the face-to-face team.

The telemarketing program, which is mostly conducting upgrade and reactivation campaigns, is not calling bushfire affected postcodes. However, for all other donors, their agencies are reporting positive conversations. The scripting for these calls acknowledges the bushfire situation.

Peter Mac launched a DRTV regular giving acquisition campaign about three weeks ago and responses are tracking as expected.

Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute

According to John Montecastro, Direct Marketing Coordinator at the Victorian-based Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, the bushfires have had a significant impact on fundraising.

“Our summer appeal is sitting at around $200,000, but at the same time last year we were at $265,000. Our wave one went out in early November, which coincided with the start of the bushfires, and with subsequent waves of mail and email we excluded the postcodes of bushfire-impacted areas,” he says.

The organisation is delaying an acquisition campaign planned for early February, which will now take place in late March. And the autumn appeal will be pushed back from mid-February to early March.

Cerebral Palsy Alliance

At the New South Wales-based Cerebral Palsy Alliance (CPA), the General Manager Fundraising, Lucy Jacka, says its Christmas appeal does not seem to have been significantly impacted: “Things are a little quieter than usual, but it is generally performing OK.”

CPA will be sending out its usual donor-care newsletter in early February, which has a soft ask, and the bushfires will be acknowledged in this. An appeal planned for late March will also go ahead as planned.

The biggest impact for the organisation though is that it has cancelled one of its key annual fundraising events – the Krazy Kosci Klimb. The event is usually held in Kosciuszko National Park in February, but the park is closed because of the risk of bushfires. It’s unclear when the park will reopen, but CPA has taken the step of cancelling the event for safety reasons.

The Smith family

Things are going along just swimmingly at The Smith Family according to Louise Woods, Manager, Appeals and Acquisitions.

“Our Christmas appeal has been on an upward trajectory for the last few years and this year is no different,” she says.

In fact, the 2019 appeal is doing exceptionally well. The appeal is $500,000 up compared to the same time last year and is now $150,000 over the target of $4.263 million.

So why has it performed so well?

According to Woods, there are numerous possible reasons: “We’ve really focused on our existing donors and using better data segmentation. Our mid-value donor program is doing really well – donors are giving higher amounts. There’s been an excellent collaboration across our teams in communications, digital, appeals and media.

And we had a great partnership with Southern Cross Austereo, which boosted our exposure across TV and radio. We’ve also had new staff and a new creative agency, which has helped.” Woods says the charity has referenced bushfire victims and hardship in appropriate and respectful ways at various points over recent months and says donors would expect them to do this.

The Christmas appeal launched in the first week of November just as the bushfires were sparking up. Woods concedes, “We were concerned that our message might get lost in all the bushfire coverage.” However, this does not appear to be the case.

The appeal featured a case study of a disadvantaged family (no mention of bushfires) like it often does and postcodes affected by the fires were not mailed. As The Smith Family helps disadvantaged families, Woods says it is possible donors appreciate it’s likely that the organisation will be helping some of the families and communities who have suffered as a result of the bushfires.


Jeremy Bradshaw

During his time in non-profit fundraising and marketing, Jeremy worked with the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children, YWCA NSW and as a consultant with DVA Navion. He founded F&P and its parent company, Bombora Publishing in 2004 and continues to oversee the magazine and its related annual conferences and courses.

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