Using private sector know-how to improve humanitarian fundraising

29 April 2014
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In a world where humanitarian needs far outstrips funding for life-saving aid, could corporations and businesses be the new frontier for humanitarian fundraising?

At first glance, businesses don’t necessarily look like major humanitarian donors, often giving relatively modest cash donations after major disasters. Following last year’s Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, MasterCard, for instance, offered $100,000. While generous, donations such as these represent a drop in the ocean when considering the estimated $800 million appeal for the initial humanitarian response (and the whopping $8 billion needed for recovery).

However, businesses not only give money, they also mobilise resources from others. For example, you may be familiar with the donation containers in hotel rooms or the requests for loose change and unused foreign currency – ultimately bound for charities, NGOs and UN agencies – which come over the PA system on international flights. These often have a rather tokenistic feel to them, and it is rather hard to imagine the value of these contributions ever exceeding the costs involved in collecting and processing them.

But despite the presently small scale of these initiatives, businesses could ultimately prove to be incredibly valuable drivers of individual humanitarian contributions. Mobile phone companies, for instance, have already demonstrated this potential in creating text-to-donate campaigns after disasters that make it incredibly easy for members of the general public to donate to humanitarian relief operations. However, for the reasons discussed below, companies could go much further in helping to enable humanitarian fundraising.

Firstly, people interact with businesses far more than with aid agencies, governments or other institutions. Secondly, businesses have a proven ability to get people to open their wallets. Businesses have dedicated themselves to developing strategies to converting people who come into their stores into customers and for increasing the amount that a customer is likely to spend on any given visit. Stores are designed and laid out to make this happen, and customers are effectively steered to higher-margin goods without realising it.

Why can’t the same logic and tried and tested approaches be applied more fully to humanitarian fundraising? Doing so will involve aid agencies collaborating with leading market research firms but will also require the buy-in of the sorts of retail businesses and others who have daily access to hundreds of millions of customers.

Take our ubiquitous airline-based fundraising campaigns for instance. What if, instead of on-board announcements, airlines set up donation containers near security checkpoints, where that loose change becomes more of a nuisance than an asset? What if mobile boarding passes came with a small banner across the bottom that allowed people to donate to an aid campaign with a click of a button? Or what if online ticket sales included an easy-to-implement checkbox that allowed passengers to add two dollars or one percent to the price of their journey for a particular disaster (or for humanitarian efforts in general)?

Likewise, what if a company like Starbucks agreed to display information on humanitarian crises in their ubiquitous stores or printed the number for text-to-donate campaigns on their cups or napkins?  These simple methods would help to keep crises, including lower-profile ones, in the public consciousness and could lead to tens of millions of dollars in additional contributions.

And what if all of these initiatives – and many others – were designed with the support of marketing firms which use psychologically-derived methods to get people to open their wallets? Of course, such methods would need to remain ethical, and they would need to avoid presenting crisis-affected populations as helpless victims, but that still leaves a great deal of room to manoeuvre.

There are so many relatively easy ways in which companies can help people to contribute more to humanitarian crises and increase the volume of humanitarian aid which comes from individuals. We need to stop focusing on just getting humanitarian donations from businesses and instead look at new ways to get businesses to apply their real skills and know-how to support aid agencies to better tackle the challenge of raising money to help people recover from crises.

This is of course just one area where businesses are contributing to humanitarian action. The private sector is, independently and with aid agencies, helping to innovate in several areas of humanitarian action, from water and sanitation to shelter, logistics and information technology. Such innovations are more valuable than any financial contribution, though they should supplement rather than replace the private sector’s role in raising awareness about – and funds for – humanitarian action around the world.