Raising money — and spirits — in times of emergency

In Short

Storytelling, highlighting why a need is urgent and personalizing your message can combine to combat donor fatigue.

In the less than five months since the war with Hamas began on Oct. 7, Yad Sarah has distributed a year’s worth of medical equipment as we strive to meet the growing needs of injured and disabled people from all sectors of society.

But these efforts have left the organization — Israel’s largest health-care and social services NGO — running low on many items, even as the war continues and the number of injured and those at risk for being injured continues to grow. Further complicating the situation is the fact that many cargo companies are avoiding the Red Sea and Suez Canal amid ongoing attacks by Iran-backed Houthi militias, delaying the arrival of needed equipment and supplies and raising the cost of shipping to Israel and elsewhere.

With dire shortages of medical equipment, we at Yad Sarah recently launched an emergency fundraising campaign, “Breath of Life,” in order to airlift two of the most in-demand and vital devices: mobile oxygen generators, which are small machines that pull extra oxygen from the air, allowing people to leave home without a portable oxygen tank; and continuous passive motion machines, which help deliver physical therapy after injuries or surgery.

In some ways, raising funds for an emergency or unexpected need is a straightforward task and can often be successful as long as donors and the public can clearly see the need and feel its urgency. Like any fundraising, however, it also has challenges, and there are best practices that organizations can turn to when undertaking emergency fundraising.

Turn to past and current donors

One of the first steps when raising money for emergency needs is to turn to former and current donors, especially those who have supported similar causes in the past. Practically speaking, these donors are already on their mailing lists and/or subscribed to other communication channels, so organizations can reach them quickly and immediately. Studies have also shown that among the main motivators for giving are belief in a specific cause, and it is reasonable to think that those who have previously supported a cause would be likely to give again if that same issue or project needs more support. 

In addition, maintaining contact with past donors by reaching out to them with emergency appeals is an effective way to build a sense of community — if done the right way.

If organizations only ever reach out with funding requests, then message recipients will likely only open the email if they know they want to donate; they may even come to view such requests as spam, making it difficult to build relationships. An effective way to keep in touch with donors and increase the likelihood that they will contribute to an urgent campaign is to reach out, even during emergencies, with regular updates about services, volunteers and future plans — giving a glimpse inside the organization as it works to carry out its stated mission, rather than solely highlighting its needs.

Following up after emergency or other fundraising campaigns is equally important, as it shows donors how their money was used and builds their confidence and trust in the organization.

Tell stories

It is essential that any emergency campaign contain compelling content and information outlining the current need and why it needs to be met immediately. This can be accomplished by telling the stories of people who will receive the help, or of those who have recently been helped. These stories should be told via communication channels that will reach both established donors and potential new donors. If possible, they should also include information from outside sources such as news articles highlighting the need you are bringing to their attention and supporting your narrative that is larger than the nonprofit can currently meet with its existing resources.

Storytelling and highlighting why a need is urgent, as well as personalizing the message, can also be a way to combat donor fatigue. Donor fatigue happens when people get tired of repeatedly being asked for support, or they are inundated with too many requests that don’t resonate with them. Stories that clearly illustrate how donor support, even at a minimum level, can make a difference right away for someone in need are an effective way to combat donor fatigue and inspire people to give, whether for the first time or the hundredth time. Just remember that stories and other content should be tailored to specific audiences — crafted with details and messaging and delivered via the messengers or channels will appeal most to them.

Ongoing efforts can help with emergency campaigns

Two other practices that have helped us with emergency funding in the past are the existence of an emergency or flexible fund, and running the budget carefully during the year. While it is true that many donors like to know exactly where their money is going, there are others who, if they believe in the cause, will trust the organization to use their money well. In order to appeal to both types of donors, organizations should consider establishing a donor-supported emergency fund for urgent needs. This can be especially relevant for organizations working in health care, social services or education. Work in these fields often involves vulnerable populations like the elderly and children, where unmet needs due to emergencies or unexpected events can significantly impact quality of life or even put lives at risk.

Running an organization well and making sure each donor dollar goes as far as possible also sets up nonprofits for being better equipped to handle unexpected needs. At the very least, donors will see that past money was used well. And, in the best-case scenario, an organization will have extra resources to apply during emergencies or a larger reserve dedicated to unexpected needs.

It is inevitable that many organizations helping people and societies will experience unexpected or emergency needs. Rather than seeing this as a crisis, organizations can run successful campaigns that help them meet these needs while also building their donor bases and building better relationships with loyal and new donors. In some cases, an emergency campaign also lays the groundwork for new, permanent programs if needs persist. 

When in the midst of intense emergency fundraising as we are now, I also often remind myself that Yad Sarah was originally founded to meet an emergency need: Back in the winter of 1976, many children in Jerusalem suffered from respiratory illnesses that required nebulizers. Out of that campaign to purchase and lend out nebulizers at no charge, the organization grew organically to include all sorts of medical equipment, services and facilities. 

Today, nearly every family in Israel is helped by Yad Sarah. With the support of our donors we will make sure those families are getting what they need, and that we are also reaching new families in need during these difficult times.

Philip Bendheim is the director of Yad Sarah’s International Board of Overseers.