To raise funds, or not to raise funds. That’s the question.

I have been one of the lucky ones being able to attend the IFC for quite a number of years. Now I am also involved as a volunteer in the IFC Advisory Panel, which is a great honor. Except for the 7:30 AM meetings every morning. Nobody told me about this when I accepted and I can tell you as an evening person (enjoying the bar time networking and catching up with old friends and colleagues) this was quite a struggle.

This year was the first year that I was presenting one of the Great Debates. For those of you who are not familiar with the concept: you have a panel with great members and you present your views and discuss with the audience about a specific issue. Our topic was: Should we be raising funds for disasters occurring in developed economies?

No one questions the legitimacy and necessity of fundraising when disasters hit a developing country, like the Tsunami in Asia or the earthquake in Haiti. Millions of people from all over the world showed their support to the victims and made substantial financial contributions.

But what about Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in New Zealand, the bombings in London and most recently the Tsunami in Japan?

Two of the panel members, Rebecca Mauger (British Red Cross) and John Gray (ChildFund International) were in favor and Andrew Barton (Oxfam GB) and myself (UNICEF International) were against.

We were not debating that charities based in the developed country where the emergency hits should not raise money within their own country. American charities can raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina within the USA, but not for the emergency in Japan.

So should we, as fundraisers, start a fundraising campaign for a disaster in Japan? The third richest country in the world and a global leader in disaster relief and recovery. On top of that they – the Government as well as the Japanese (I)NGOs – did not even ask for financial support. Yet many of us started campaigns raising millions, millions also spent on luxury goods as refrigerators and microwaves. The Japanese Red Cross alone raised 3.7 billion USD in Japan in a couple of months.

Number of disasters reported 1900-2010 (


So why do we do this? What is the rationale behind this response?

We looked and discussed a number of possibilities.

  • Is it part of our mission? Some of us did not have a program in Japan, but we raised money anyway and the program was ‘found’ afterwards. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
  • Is it simply a Pavlov response: when disaster strikes, we raise money? We just do it, no questions asked.
  • Are we using the huge media exposure inherent to disasters, which has a great deal of influence on the public’s willingness to give? There is more media in developed economies than in remote and underdeveloped countries. Easy money, easy go?
  • Or do we start fundraising because a competitor does? Being afraid of losing market share?
  • Maybe we do not want to disappoint our donors, who want to make a donation? Some of the first people to donate to the London bombings were living in NY. What about the demand for transparency on how the donor’s gift is being spent? Are we creating our own disaster by not telling the public their money is also being spent on luxury goods?
  • Are we acting as a channel for people to show their solidarity?

But isn’t our mission to make a difference? Meaning we should only raise money for countries that do not have the means to cope with the impact of a disaster. Many of us are struggling with a high number of underfunded and silent emergencies, impacting millions and millions of women and children. And as a consequence don’t INGOs have a task in informing the public why we should not raise money for developed countries? Or should we support the public and serve as a channel to delivering compassion and money to the victims whom they identify with?

Next to Andrew and me in the panel, there were 2 other people in the audience debating against raising money in developed economies. Luckily it was an extremely lively and engaging debate. Some people were quite furious with me and tried every angle to persuade me to change my mind.

These debates are part of what makes IFC a great conference; we can hear different views, discuss between knowledgeable colleagues, and get new ideas and fresh insights.

(If you are a IFC 2011 delegate you can check the video of the debate with your login details.)


This blog post is the last one in a series of six blog posts covering the IFC 2011:

– IFC: folding letters and licking envelopes! – Reinier Spruit
– I Am The Comms Devil – Margaux Smith
– Legacy Fundraising 101… Fresh from the IFC! – Juan Hendrawan
– Stepping out of your comfort zone – Sonya Swiridjuk
– IFC 2011 – Thinking differently! – Ellen Janssens
– To raise funds, or not to raise funds. That’s the question. – Julie Verhaar

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