August 2005: I was taking my first couple of days off in years. We had just finished transitioning leadership at the organization, and things looked like they were finally coming together. We had re-branded the org, giving the members a new mission statement, logo and mascot; re-engineered the faltering development department and had some strong, solid plans for the upcoming fall and final quarter of the year.
At my hotel the McPaper ( USA Today) was delivered to my room each morning.The images on the front page on August 29 were shocking and horrifying. One of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded made landfall along low-lying sections of the Gulf Coast, utterly devastating huge swaths of neighborhoods, towns and New Orleans and beyond. Hurricane Katrina had overwhelmed so many so quickly, the severity of the storm damage was shocking and the magnitude of the destruction almost incomprehensible.
When I got back into the office, there were calls from some of our members with questions about fundraising. Many of them wanted to know if they could host a fundraiser to benefit those affected by Katrina under the umbrella of our nonprofit ( a health advocacy nonprofit for a not well-known disorder).
What is the Right Thing To Do?
It was an interesting dilemma: one the one hand, the destruction and loss in the Gulf Coast was so extensive and the lack of infrastructure so appalling, the gigantic need was painfully clear. On the other hand, our members were suffering as well, also needing support and help; their battles were ongoing. I did find it interesting that the same members who whined and dragged their feet about any local fundraising for our foundation were now chomping on the bit to have bake sales and gather donations for others.
Review Your Mission Statement
The organizing charter for our organization was quite specific, and we did not have the authority to raise funds for another cause or organization and any funds we did have had to be dispersed in accordance with our mission. Those were not my rules, they were part of our charter and articles of incorporation. The answer for me was clear, if not easy.
As much as I grieved for those who lost so much, it was my job to keep my organization operating, achieve our fundraising goals and keep our plans and programs spinning. We had set out our plans for the last 3 months of the year that included events, direct mail and email campaigns with specific dates and hard targets. What was the right thing to do? We didn’t want to appear callous and disregard this national tragedy, but we were a smaller org that didn’t have the cushion to not meet our goals or to deflect energy away from our work.
After a discussion with the board and our senior volunteers, we decided that we had to stay the course. It was hard to think we were going to miss our targets and miss them badly in this situation. We wrote a short piece describing the limitations of our charter which didn’t allow the organization to provide funds to another organization, but that didn’t limit our members from doing anything on their own for the hurricane victims. This was published on our website and in the newsletter.
We changed the language in our solicitations to reflect our awareness of the urgent needs of Katrina’s victims, however the battles and challenges of our members and families continued unabated. The work to educate physicians and other health care providers still needed to be done and it was, in fact, life or death for some of them. The urgency of need for our own continued and was important to keep in mind as people decided how to choose where to donate.
We stayed true to the mission of our organization, encouraged members to donate individually wherever they felt showed the greatest need or where they felt would be the most meaningful.
We Did OK
In the long run, we did finally hit our targets. The funds came in more slowly, and many donors split their gifts between Katrina and our own backyard. We found our regular donors did not reduce their gift amounts and while some of donors did cut back on their donation totals, many members did appreciate that we kept our focus on our work and their needs.
In this past tragic year, with the horrific shock and sadness, there is a natural inclination to want to give everything in some attempt to address and mitigate these terrible events. Those of us who toil every day to support quieter, enduring issues for our clients, members, friends, and communities must keep our eyes on the long term vision and mission that defines our work.
It’s a terrible thing, to have to make these kinds of choices in these kinds of situations; thoughtful consideration will help determine what is best for you.
image credit: http://www.baaghi.tv/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/BREAKING-NEWS5.jpg