From late August to early October, Americans are on alert for something beyond their control: the hurricane season.
The devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma from last year still can be felt, and one has to question how organizations have prepared for another disaster.
“After every major disaster we do a ‘lessons learned’ to prepare ourselves better and to see what we need to fix,” said Margaret Carter, interim director of direct response fundraising for the American Red Cross, Washington. “Katrina was felt on the largest scale, so we therefore need scalable solutions.”
The Red Cross raised $2.067 billion for relief from hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. It spent $1.787 billion, about 85 percent of that money. The rest is for its Hurricane Recovery program, which will assist victims in the coming years as needs arise.
The group has been preparing for this hurricane season since last year’s ended. It has a capacity of a couple call centers to receive donations throughout the year, but now pays a monthly fee to ensure it has 20 in place in case of a disaster.
The Washington Post reported last year that federal authorities said 49 people had been indicted, accused of defrauding the Red Cross Katrina fund of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Red Cross enhanced its reporting capabilities and its outbound direct mail. It has 1 million pieces of pre-staged mail in inventory for immediate mailing.
The majority of individual donations, however, are made online.
“Katrina was a banner event for online,” said Tish Mokrzykzi, manager of online fundraising for the Red Cross. “We received 1,000 gifts per minute, so we have to make sure we have our systems and tools in place and refine overflowing systems.”
The group has redesigned its site at www.redcross.org, minimizing copy and including a monthly online donation option along with Katrina anniversary donation templates.
Ms. Mokrzykzi cites flexibility as the most important thing in the event of a disaster. But one has to be prepared to market in the absence of a disaster, too, she said.
“During a disaster, free media increases our visibility, so we have to be prepared for nothing the same way we have to be prepared for a disaster,” she said.
The organization also added a recorded outbound phone thank-you message to confirm with donors that their funds were received. It has employed text message donations as well, which drew about $500,000 last year.
“We are working with corporate partners and cause-marketing [firms] to develop customized sites and drive new donors,” Ms. Mokrzykzi said. “We are flexible to set up multiple sites in the case of a disaster and to immediately start the streams of giving.”
A Force for Salvation
The Salvation Army, the nation’s other leading nonprofit, has plans set for the hurricane season. Immediately after last year’s events, the group provided shelter, food, water, ice, cleaning and baby supplies and hygiene products, serving 1 million people in at least 30 states.
The organization last year received $365 million in hurricane-related donations. It dispensed 40 percent on initial emergency response services.
Of the $142 million spent so far, 68 percent went to direct financial assistance for survivors, the Salvation Army said. This included prepaid gift cards, accommodations and utilities assistance. The rest went to meal services, cleaning and personal hygiene supplies for survivors and equipment, transportation and lodging for Salvation Army disaster relief personnel.
“Last year pushed us harder to be ready for a disaster,” said Lindsey Evans, assistant community relations and development secretary at the Salvation Army, West Nyack, NY. “We have done extensive training with hundreds of volunteers who will be ready to serve immediately in a disaster.”
Salvation Army volunteers have no prior relationship with the organization. But they are provided with skills and an understanding of the group’s mission.
The Salvation Army has never had an extensive fundraising campaign for donors. The charity relies on the public in times of need. Recognizing this, the organization has developed a new online disaster relief program, similar to its Red Kettle campaign at Christmas.
The new site at www.salvationarmy.org lets individuals create their own disaster appeal profile and e-mail others to try to gain their support as well. The nonprofit also added more call centers to handle anticipated large-response volumes.
“It is very tough to predict the demand, but we think we’re planned,” Mr. Evans said.
He urged donors to give money instead of goods so that their aid can be felt immediately.
“There can be delivery problems at the site of the disaster, and people may not donate things that we need,” he said.
Others Hunger for Attention
The Red Cross and Salvation Army are the first groups that people turn to with money in times of disaster, but what happens to smaller organizations? How do they manage while the world is focused on hurricane relief?
America’s Second Harvest is by no means small, giving 2 billion pounds of donated food annually to those in need. Yet despite being the nation’s largest charitable hunger-relief organization, people often look elsewhere to donate in times of disaster.
“We first took a look at last year’s response and then held a half-day retreat to evaluate our efforts and learned some important lessons,” said Alice Archabal, vice president of philanthropy at America’s Second Harvest, Washington.
The charity created a department specifically for disaster relief and stockpiled direct mail pieces ready for immediate dispersal.
The organization released a hurricane stewardship letter Aug. 15 to donors that highlighted its 2005 response efforts and donations received in an effort to increase future fundraising efforts.
“With the success of last year, we were able to integrate our communications teams and work together on public relations materials,” Ms. Archabal said. “It is important to send really clear messages, especially when a disaster has struck.”
Wilde Direct, a direct marketing agency in Holliston, MA, also felt the impact of the hurricanes. Its vice president of operations kept in touch with the U.S. Postal Service regarding disbursal of mail after Hurricane Katrina. The agency also informed each of its clients whose communications destinations included Louisiana.
This year, Wilde Direct plans to fine-tune these methods.
“Once the post office released a mandate, we pulled any affected mailings-in-progress from our production stream and supplied counts to our clients,” said Sally Moren of Wilde Direct. “Likewise, for planned mailings we ran a ZIP suppression for hurricane-affected areas and placed them in an out file for future disposition.”