In fundraising, not all disasters are equal

If so many people respond to the earthquake in Haiti, why don’t they respond to other tragedies?


I’ve spent a long time doing fundraising projects in response to disasters. Turns out there are answers to that question. They aren’t very satisfying answers.


You see, not all disasters motivate compassion equally. And the difference in response is neither fair nor logical. But they’re extremely consistent.


Through the years, I’ve seen that for a disaster to unlock a high level of response, it has to have these qualities:



  • A high death toll. Shocking, huge numbers of deaths are what drive media coverage. And media coverage is the key to strong response. Generally, if the death toll is below the tens of thousands, media response is tepid and short-lived. Last September, an earthquake and tsunami struck Samoa. The destruction was astounding. Fewer than 200 people were killed. Do you remember any coverage?
  • Natural, not manmade. This is probably the most distressing factor in disaster response. But human-caused disasters, even those of shocking scope and devastating death-tolls, like those in Darfur or the Democratic Republic of Congo. They simply elicit a lower level of response. To those who suffer and die in these conflicts, there’s no meaningful difference between a natural and a manmade disaster. That does not change the fact that donor response is lower.
  • Sudden, not slow. Long developing crises like climate change or chronic famine simply don’t get the media coverage. And when it’s not all over the news, it doesn’t get the outpouring of support.
  • In a sympathetic and/or accessible place. If it’s so remote that reporters can’t get there, it won’t get much coverage. Similarly, if it takes place in a nation that’s widely disliked in the US, response will be lower. Take the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran that killed 26,000 people. Response was not what it should have been. (Conversely, Hurricane Katrina, which killed a relatively modest 2,500 people, raised record-breaking amounts of disaster funds. But that’s right here at home.)

Please note that I’m not defending this pattern of response and non-response. It’s simply the way it is.


All this is not to say you can’t raise funds for disasters that don’t meet these criteria. Of course you can, and many do. You just can’t expect the same kind of response that rose to meet to tragedy in Haiti, or the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.


See also Dan Pallotta’s blog, Haiti Is a Marketing Lesson, where he makes the important point, The reason people are giving so much money to Haiti is simple: They are hearing about it.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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