Fundraising After a Disaster: Learning from the Christchurch Earthquakes

Hands in

Ashlyn Sowell: During my recent leave from Gettysburg College, I travelled to Christchurch to speak to the Educate Plus New Zealand local chapter.  I was quite moved by the challenges that my international colleagues face in fundraising after the devastating 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. One woman said to me, “I know we are supposed to have 50% of the money in hand before we start construction on a new building, but we don’t have any buildings!”

I followed up with Naomi Wilde, the Community Relations and Development Coordinator at St. Andrew’s College, an independent school, with one question. Her response led to a great deal of valuable information for all of us, and her responses are very worth considering as you look at crisis planning and post-crisis fundraising at your own institution.

When I asked her, “What has been the biggest challenge in fundraising since the earthquakes?” she answered: “The biggest challenge is probably building the case for support for your own institution, because of course you’re not the only institution affected, and your donors, especially those that live locally, are deeply affected too, and there are so many unanswered financial questions. The Case for Support needs to clearly mark your institution as standing out from the rest and as being positive, focusing on the future.”

Below are some of the other challenges that fundraisers have experienced following the earthquakes, as well as further thoughts about building a Case for Support after a natural disaster. Naomi also highlights how to turn each of these challenges into an opportunity.

Challenge: Operating in Crisis Mode

Immediately after the earthquakes, development professionals across Christchurch city were all involved in emergency matters for their institutions: arranging temporary buildings, accommodation, contacting parents, liaising with students, updating social media, and media liaison.

Fundraising took a back seat … and the workload grew.

Alumni relations and development staff get called on to assist because they understand public relations and reputation management, they often know key contacts, they have good people skills, and they are “ideas” people.

Opportunity: Dropping everything to help is an opportunity to invest in relationships with staff and with the school community and to work alongside your institution’s management and governors.

Challenge: It’s Personal

Naomi Wilde

When meeting anyone after the earthquakes, it was and is always personal, even with alumni on the other side of the world:

  • How is your family?
  • Where were you when it happened?
  • How are things for you now?
  • How is business since the quakes?
  • How have you been affected?

And you can’t discuss the situation without talking about and declaring your own personal standpoint and that of your institution.

Opportunity: Getting up close and personal is a chance to build deeper relationships with your donors. And you have an important reason to make contact and reconnect with alumni and donors, to check how they are doing and to update them on news from your institution.

Challenge: Storytelling

Building a Case for Support is all about building a story around your institution.

After the earthquakes it was difficult telling the story because at times, especially with donors outside of the city, you didn’t want to overstate things and be over dramatic, but you also wanted people outside of Christchurch to know and understand how much their help was needed.

You wanted to plead your case and communicate the urgency … but not paint a picture of a “sinking ship.”

The challenge was to tell a story that was in equal parts positive and negative, and to allow the story room to change as time moved on.

For example, we explained how institutions had been affected: the statistics, the members of community who had been hurt or killed, the buildings damaged, the challenges of re-insurance, but also how staff and students and boards had responded. We wanted to also tell the stories of the heroes.

We didn’t want to be too negative and compound a drop in enrolments, and so we also spoke of the unique opportunities for learning, the opportunities for fast tracking master campus plans, and the excitement of new facilities.

Opportunity: Building a story about your institution after a disaster is an opportunity for you and staff and management to revisit what the core values are, the most important challenges and successes for your institution, and to refocus on the future.

Challenge: Different Stories for Different Audiences

One challenge for our institutions is that there is not one single “truth.”

The story that you tell donors as part of your Earthquake Appeal is not the same story you tell a prospective student or parent.

And you need to remember that some donors in other cities in the country have ‘moved on’, and you need to put aside your own personal grief and frustration (“Don’t they know what we’re going through?”) and turn your focus away from the earthquakes when telling the story.

So the messages were segmented:

  • Annual Donors – special earthquake appeal – “We need your help, we’re hurting, this has been an unprecedented event, we are coping well, but if ever there is a time to give, it’s now.”
  • Prospective students and families – “We’re still up and running, it’s a great place to study, we have temporary facilities which are better than the old ones, there’s lots of opportunities for extra learning as a result of the earthquakes, and the future plans look great.”
  • Major donors –  “We want your investment; this has happened to us, but we have coped incredibly well, this provides us with an opportunity, this is what we’re planning in the future and how we are helping ourselves to get ahead. Please partner with us to help us go even further and faster.”

Challenge: Lack of Details

Many donors, understandably, want more details about the institution’s rebuilding plans, and have been frustrated when we don’t have the answers:

  • How much will the new building cost?
  • Is it a repair or a rebuild?
  • How much are you fundraising for?
  • When will you be starting on the building?

It has been very difficult to talk with donors and ask for their support and for a monetary gift when we don’t have a complete business case to put to them, or when we’re sharing incomplete drawings and vague budget estimates.

The reality for most educational institutions is that it has taken an incredible length of time – approximately 2-3 years since the earthquakes – for insurance settlements to be concluded.

In the meantime, building estimates and quotes can change frequently based on new structural engineering reports, geo technical reports on land damage, and new and revised building regulations. Drawings and budgets are revised and insurance settlements are renegotiated along the way.

In the aftermath of a crisis, the Case for Support needs to be flexible enough to accommodate updates and changes to plans and building decisions.

Opportunity: The Case for Support can be used as an engagement tool with donors – it’s an opportunity to ask them for advice and to keep them updated on progress.


To give you a sense of what our colleagues in New Zealand were facing, here are the key statistics on the earthquakes:

  • September 4, 2010: magnitude 7.1
  • But the most devastating quake was February 22, 2011 at 12.50 pm
  • The epicenter of that earthquake was right below Christchurch city centre
  • Magnitude 6.3
  • 1.8g Greatest ground acceleration recorded in the world – 1.8  times the force of gravity (Haiti 0.5 g)
  • 10,000 aftershocks
  • 185 deaths
  • Representatives of 20 nations among the victims
  • 3000 buildings damaged
  • 1000 buildings demolished
  • 10,000 houses demolished
  • 100,000 houses damaged
  • Cost $40 billion of damage (US$ 12 billion) 3rd most expensive earthquake in the world after Japan 2011 and California 1994
  • 200,000 tonnes of silt
  • 26,000 students supported Student Volunteer Army via Facebook
  • Up to 13,000 students helped volunteer each week
  • 20,000 chemical toilets ordered for people with damaged homes and utilities
  • There are currently 100,000 road cones in the city as rebuild takes place and hundreds of pop-up art projects as people turn vacant spaces into creative spaces.

Challenge: Donor Fatigue

Donors from within Christchurch, which includes alumni, parents, major donors and friends, are becoming saturated with requests and approaches for donations since the earthquakes. So the Case for Support needs to be compelling, and the relationship and engagement between the donor and the institution must be very good.

They are asking us “Why should I donate to you?” and “Why is your case any greater than anyone else’s?”

Christchurch City has a population of approximately 400,000. Most of the leading independent schools are actively fundraising in 2014, and at least four are close to launching capital campaigns. In addition there are our tertiary institutions and non-profit institutions, as well as specific earthquake charities.

Many families and individuals who have not been involved with philanthropy before, are now becoming donors to multiple institutions.

It will be interesting to measure the culture of philanthropy in Christchurch in the future.

Opportunity: Be different. Think donor-centric:

  • What does the city and its people need?
  • How can we engage with our donors and our community in a unique, innovative, fun and meaningful way?
  • How can we make an impact that will help our Case for Support?

Challenge: When is the Time Right for a Campaign Launch?

Development professionals know the theory: Have half of your fundraising target achieved in the quiet phase before publicly launching your campaign. But what if your institution needs the money now? A capital campaign normally has the luxury of time and planning and a mature major gifts program supporting it. But what if there have been earthquakes, you don’t have any of those things in place, and yet there is extreme pressure to bring in funds?

What if you don’t have a mature donor base and a good communication and engagement programme with your alumni? What if you don’t know your donors yet? What if the relationships aren’t ready yet? What if your institution doesn’t know its prospective donors and you need them to self-identify through a first gift?

What if you and your institution’s leaders want to make the most of the “wave of sentiment” and are fearful that if you don’t speak now, alumni and donors will be sick of hearing about the disaster and about everybody’s need for help?

Following the earthquakes, there has been pressure on Institutions to launch their campaigns, and leaders often want the sexy campaign underway quickly. There is the benefit of transparency and the benefit that the whole community can talk about it and you can engage your volunteers to help tell the story.

But it’s risky to launch a campaign without the lead gifts in hand. Publicly launching a campaign isn’t a short cut to getting funds, and there is no substitute for face to face meetings with donors and time out of the office. Fundraising takes time and money. Christchurch development professionals have had to apply pressure back on their institutional leaders and governors, communicating that resourcing is crucial and that institutions need to invest in order to get returns.

Opportunity: Developing a campaign strategy is an opportunity to work closely with your institution’s leaders, governors, and prospective major donors and campaign leaders. You can draw on their connections, knowledge, education, experience, and their inexperience of fundraising. You can demonstrate your knowledge and talent. It may be an opportunity to leverage support for additional budget and resourcing. This can be intense and it takes courage, but an unprecedented event requires an unprecedented response.

Challenge: Stress and the Personal Toll on Development Staff

The biggest challenge for development professionals in Christchurch has just been surviving!

Following the earthquakes, some individuals have experienced untold pressure to develop campaigns quickly, to achieve fundraising targets (which can increase with new building decisions) within a short time period and sometimes without a mature philanthropic culture within their institution. Institutional leaders are carrying massive responsibility and are not necessarily equipped with the skills to deal with the issues and the timeframes.

Often individuals have had serious earthquake-related issues to work through in their personal lives -– in some cases grief, the ongoing stress of aftershocks, personal homes to be repaired, and the stress of their own personal insurance settlements. And there are growing statistics which describe overall fatigue and stress-related health issues being experienced, even three years on.

The need for great leadership, a good work/life balance, and great friends are topics frequently discussed by Christchurch alumni and development folk. Working in development is unique and rewarding, and every day is different. We find that catching up with other professionals, sharing ideas, and reminding ourselves that we are not the only ones with big issues is the key to survival.

Opportunity: Development work can feel isolated, so meeting with other development professionals and sharing problems and solutions can be not only helpful but fun too, especially if wine and good coffee is shared at the same time! A problem shared is nearly always a problem halved.