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Disaster Relief Fundraising: 5 Keys for Nonprofits

9 min read
May 17, 2022
Alex Huntsberger
A man and woman hold each by a car amidst wreckage and rubble

When disaster strikes, the need for aid is immediate and immense. Established nonprofits are in a prime position to respond by collecting funds for relief efforts. Disaster relief fundraising can be a good way to expand on your core mission and provide help for devastated communities when they need it most. 

Here are five keys for any nonprofit organization looking to hold a disaster relief fundraiser.

Key #1 Partner with a Frontline Organization

In the immediate wake of a tornado, hurricane, or other disaster, there are immense logistical and financial hurdles to be conquered. 

The logistical hurdles can include challenges like delivering large amounts of food, water, and clothing when the roads have been washed out. These challenges are endlessly complex and require special expertise. 

The financial hurdles are a little more simple. In order to purchase and transport needed goods, materials, and services, frontline organizations need money—and they need a lot of it. 

If you’re a nonprofit looking to get involved in disaster relief, you should tackle the financial hurdles while leaving the logistics to the experts. Partner with an existing frontline organization and raise funds for them to use as the situation dictates. Frontline organizations are the ones with the experience, knowledge and connections to get disaster victims the help they need. 

When possible, work directly with their staff to understand what messaging you should use with your donors and how you’ll transfer funds to them. This will ensure your fundraiser goes smoothly and won’t create extra work for them, and it will help you report back to your donors about how their money made an impact.

One area of disaster relief fundraising and relief that’s tricky for non-specialized organizations to navigate is documentation about how money is raised and used. The circumstances following a disaster are chaotic. While short-term emergency assistance carries less stringent documentation requirements than other forms of charitable disaster aid, gathering that documentation in the field is still difficult. 

If your organization wants to provide aid directly to affected individuals, this is another reason to partner with an established frontline organization. Providing direct assistance to affected individuals comes with additional scrutiny due to the “private benefit” provision of the US Tax Code. Without the proper know-how, providing direct assistance could land your organization in hot water with the IRS.

Key #2: Donate Money, Not Goods—Unless Asked

Disaster survivors need goods like non-perishable food, clothing, blankets and water. It can be tempting to focus your disaster relief fundraising efforts on collecting and/or purchasing those items yourself.

Unless specifically asked by your partner organization on the frontlines, you should resist that temptation. Instead, focus your efforts on raising money that your partner organization can then use to purchase goods as a part of their own operation.

This is another instance where you should leave the logistics to the experts. Frontline disaster relief organizations have the best idea of what resources survivors need, and they also know how to obtain those items quickly and cheaply. The best thing you can do is provide them with funds so they can put their knowledge to work. 

Many of these frontline organizations have existing partnerships or agreements that allow them to secure discounts on much-needed supplies. By pairing your funds with your partner org’s experience and connections, you’ll help your donors’ contributions go further. 

As we mentioned in the previous section, the logistics for purchasing, transporting, and distributing goods in a post-disaster environment are complex. If you are providing goods instead of funds, that donation will require additional capacity from your partner organization. Money, on the other hand, can be transferred easily.

Of course, there are always exceptions. If your frontline partner specifically requests that you purchase or collect specific types of goods, you should trust their expertise and honor that request.

Key #3: Use Clear Branding to Ensure Credibility

After a disaster, donors should always be on the lookout for scammers posing as charities. With everyone rushing to chip in, scammers can easily set up a fake nonprofit or run an innocent-looking social media fundraiser to collect funds. Others use disaster relief fundraising as an opportunity to run phishing schemes, stealing people’s information when they click on an email about disaster relief.

The FCC has some best practices for consumers to protect themselves, but the last thing anyone wants is for a potential donor to avoid giving because they are worried about being scammed. 

This is where your nonprofit can bridge the gap. Your reputation as a known charitable organization in your community means that donors and community members trust you. By donating to your nonprofit, people can rest assured that their money is in good hands. 

Branding is a powerful tool to convey credibility. Start by using your existing channels—like social media and email—to send your communications. Next, ensure that your nonprofits branding—color, fonts, logos, etc.—is present on all your landing pages and donation forms. 

It is critical that you maintain your branding through every step of the donation process. If a donor clicks through to a donation form that looks blank and anonymous, they could suddenly become worried that they’re being scammed and decline to give. 

To learn more about setting up a fully optimized donation page, download Neon One’s Donation Page Checklist below.

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Extra Key: Don’t Start a New Nonprofit 

Are you looking to start a nonprofit specifically to raise money for disaster relief? If so, then you should pause for a moment and reassess. Established nonprofits are well-positioned to assist with disaster relief fundraising. A brand-new nonprofit? Not so much.

For one thing, donations made to charitable causes are not automatically tax deductible even if your organization is tax-exempt. In order for its donatIons to be tax deductible, an organization must also document how that money is used and how their recipients qualify for aid. Established nonprofits have those procedures in place. A brand-new nonprofit will not.  

The time and energy you spend forming a nonprofit could be better spent supporting an existing organization’s fundraising efforts. If they are holding a disaster relief fundraiser, consider contacting them to see how you can get involved. You could possibly launch your own peer-to-peer fundraiser to collect donations from your network on their behalf. 

If you still want to form a nonprofit to provide disaster relief, here is a list of resources from the IRS to help you get started.

Key #4: Target Donors in Areas Near the Disaster

With any fundraising campaign, you need to identify potential donors that have an affinity to support the given cause. But if you’re holding a one-off disaster relief fundraising event and are looking to target your communications, your existing donor data might not translate as easily. 

One way you can target donors is by their geographical proximity to the disaster area. According to the 2022 Neon One Donor Report, “Geographic proximity to a disaster increased the likelihood of individuals donating to disaster relief.” 

When planning out your campaign, segment your audience by location and focus your communications on those who live closer to the affected communities.

Here’s an example: A nonprofit has donors in the Chicago area and the Atlanta area. If a tornado were to strike a community in Alabama, they should focus on raising funds from their donors in Atlanta. But if a tornado were to strike in Indiana, that nonprofit should focus on their donors in Chicago instead. 

Donor data collection and segmentation is a critical factor for fundraising success. Even if you are raising funds for a cause like disaster relief that is outside your traditional scope, there are always ways to use existing data to make smarter strategic decisions.

For more data-rich donor insights and industry trends, download a copy of our 2022 Donor Report. 

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Key #5: Use Traditional Media and Peer Networks To Spread the Word

One of the most difficult steps for any fundraising campaign is simply getting people’s attention. With your typical fundraising campaign, it’s hard to gain any news coverage from your local paper or TV station. Instead, you have to rely on your own efforts to make people aware of your cause.

But when it comes to disaster relief fundraising, the math is a little different. A disaster usually makes for big news. You can use that attention to help the affected communities by reaching out to your local news organizations to solicit coverage for your fundraiser. Even one quick spot on the local news or a short story in the paper will boost your campaign. 

You should also tap into your business and personal networks for a peer-to-peer campaign. Reach out to board members, large donors, volunteers, business partners, and local organizations and ask them to collect donations on your behalf. If you’re using a platform like Neon Fundraise, you can set up your fundraisers with a simple, easy-to-use set of DIY tools that they can use to set up their campaign in a snap.

Your Nonprofit Can Help

You don’t need to wait until a disaster hits to start making a disaster relief fundraising plan. Have conversations now with your leaders and your board to sketch out your plan and identify potential partner organizations. 

One topic of conversation to address is how disaster relief fundraising would speak to your organization’s mission. Is there a specific line of disaster aid you would like to focus on? For instance, if you are a humane society, you could look for organizations that help animals post-disaster.

Once you have a plan in place, you can keep up to date on the disaster philanthropy landscape and ongoing events with the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. When disaster strikes, you’ll be ready to help.


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