On Agency Director Alastair Irons reflects on charity fundraising during times of crisis and what we can learn from history.
Listeners to Radio 5 might have been as surprised as the presenter when an expert from Edinburgh’s Mary King’s Close – a secret underground world beneath its busiest thoroughfare, the Royal Mile – countered their suggestion that the 15th century plague and the current pandemic had little in common.
In fact, in 1498 she pointed out, people wore face masks, were confined indoors, and travel was restricted. They also wore special clothing as they observed that people who wore leather didn’t attract the disease.
People acted compassionately then as now. Food and drink were provided to the plague sufferers housed on Edinburgh’s Burgh Muir and to the poorest and most vulnerable people trapped in their homes. In June 2020 the Trussell Trust reported food banks’ busiest ever month. Back in plague times, frail and elderly beggars escaped the harsh treatment meted out to their younger and healthier brethren while debtors were actually freed. Compensation was given to people whose clothes were forcibly destroyed.
After Black Death, which first arrived in England in 1348, the resulting dramatic population decrease forced rulers around the world to see people as the most valuable resources of the state. Key workers anybody?
And the lack of a workforce stimulated technological innovation – think remote working in 2020 and digital transformation. Furthermore, cities that suffered under the Black Death epidemic began to understand the health of the population was their responsibility and consequently developed the earliest forms of public health.
As we are anticipating with the so-called ‘new normal’, epidemics can and do permanently alter society, and often for the best by creating better practices and habits, including in charitable activity, volunteering and in fundraising.
In response to the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, The Free African Society, an institution run by and for the city’s black population, was particularly altruistic, providing two-thirds of the hospital staff, transporting and burying the dead and performing numerous other medical tasks. Strike any chords?
Meanwhile the Mayor Matthew Clarkson asked volunteers to collect donations of clothing, food and money. They created a makeshift hospital – not called Nightingale – and built a home for 191 orphans.
Historically, disease has fuelled many such fundraising programmes. The USA polio epidemic of 1952 left 21,269 cases of paralysis, with some 57,000-plus sufferers. After the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis temporarily ran out of cribs for babies with polio, the National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis supplied iron lungs, rocking chairs, beds and other equipment. And funded doctors, nurses, therapists, and social workers where needed. This later came to be known as the March of Dimes and has distributed around $25 million through its local campaigns, setting the standard in public health education and fundraising since its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s.
In January 1925 when the people of Nome, Alaska, faced a shortage of antitoxin – between them they simply didn’t have enough to go round – to tackle a diphtheria outbreak, 20 of the area’s finest dogsled teams volunteered to bring a supply of the serum all the way from Fairbanks—674 miles—in record time, facing temperatures of more than 60 degrees below zero. Their delivery on February 2nd, plus a second shipment a week later, successfully halted the epidemic, saving Nome’s children from suffocation. It is now memorialised most notably, with the annual Iditarod race. And the significant challenges of delivery by dogsled also sparked the investigation into the possibilities of medical transport by airplane, which takes place all the time in remote areas today but was then still in its infancy.
In March 2003 the Severe Acute Respiratary (SARS) outbreak came in Hong Kong where the next four months saw 298 deaths plus over 1700 other cases. Quarantine began in April and the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a travel advisory against Hong Kong. ‘The entire society slowed down with people avoiding work and public places.’ Strict measures, similar to the plague years and not unlike now, eventually led to a decrease in cases.
Hong Kong was affected by SARS both as a physical and mental health crisis. Studies documented that many people, ‘felt helpless or worried themselves or their family members would contract the virus’ and revealed ‘increased frequencies of sleeping problems, smoking and drinking’ and ‘family and financial stress,’. Just like now.
However, a study also found some positive outcomes: strengthened relationships with family and friends, a new drive to start focusing on mental health and over a third of people took more time to rest, for relaxation or exercise.
Which brings us to the economics of epidemics.
David E. Bloom and David Canning of the Harvard School of Public Health have said, ‘The links between epidemics and economics are broadly similar to those between health and wealth in general. Prosperous societies not only have better health; they are also at least somewhat protected against epidemics.’
What we learned from previous crises, is that some people don’t stop giving.
Although previous crises to hit the charity sector – the housing crash of 1989 to 1993 (the market didn’t actually bottom out until July 2005), and the 2008 credit crunch crash – have been principally financial, with a potential £10.1bn shortfall in the sector, this deadly and heart-wrenching pandemic has just as devastating a financial effect.
But many charity donors are independently wealthy and financially secure. Either through personal or business financial success, pensions, investments, inheritances or a combination of all four. They are therefore substantially immune to the financial effects of many crises.
As The Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) reported in 2009 regarding individual giving at the time of the 2008 crisis here, over half the adult UK population (54%) continued to donate to charity in an average month.
Whilst there was a slight decline in the proportion of adults giving, levels were equivalent to what they were in 2006/07.
Current evidence suggests that the length and severity of any recession brought about by the pandemic will impact on the levels of charitable donations and that not all causes will be affected equally.
The Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) says that when asked at the end of April 2020 about, ‘donations to their charity, 53% said that they had decreased whilst only 18% agreed that they had increased’. Their UK Giving research already showed that ‘not only do people have less disposable income but that the cause areas they are giving to have changed since the crisis began’.
The Institute of Fundraising has also helpfully pulled together all the research they could muster, including some striking figures from Pro Bono Economics:
- UK charities face a £10.1 billion funding gap over the next six months.
- 72% of charities expect demand to rise over the next six months.
- In order to meet the increase in demand, the sector would require £3.4 billion of funding.
- 59% of charities have had to significantly reduce their activity due to reduced income as a result of the pandemic.
So on the one hand you have greater demand, and on the other, less money and fewer donors able to support you financially.
Of the lessons to be learned from the past, the first and most obvious is that if you’re not asking for money, you are going to be a part of the 53% suffering a monetary shortfall.
- As Professor McGregor-Lowndes, Director of the Centre of Philanthropy and Non-profit Studies at Queensland University of Technology, previously wrote,
‘If charities decide to reduce their activities to ask for donations or reduce fundraising staff, then it may be a self-fulfilling prophecy’.
2. Edinburgh’s plague experience shows us that new propositions may be needed to address very specific needs arising from the pandemic. Where the people of the fifteenth century needed money for clothes to replace those destroyed to protect them, what effect has the pandemic had on the people, animals or environment you support? What is needed now that wasn’t before? What changes to your service provision need a new proposition?
3. From Philadelphia we learn that help may come from a new source – the importance of turning to different and potentially unexpected audiences for support. If your existing donors haven’t the ability to give, who has? Who may be willing and able and may just be waiting to be asked?
4. Minneapolis shows us that what might now appear to be an urgent appeal in response to an ongoing emergency could in time become the single-most significant and long-lasting fundraising campaign that your charity will ever conduct, so it’s important to think of every appeal as just that, part of a campaign.
5. From Nome, Alaska, we understand to turn to the people we know and trust the most in an emergency – for charities that is your most long-served, generous and loyal donors. Equivalent to the 54% who continued to give during the 2008 financial crisis.
We also learn that if people are not willing and able, but instead willing and unable, what else can they give? You may not need an expert dog-sledder, but what do you need? With demand up and income down, where can volunteers help charities fill the gaps? Maybe the first thing to do is to ask lapsed donors, especially those who have cancelled their regular gifts, how else they may be willing to help.
And diptheria in Nome also showed the importance of the delivery method – not only the best available at the time – the dog-sled, but what would be better in future i.e. airplanes.
6. Hong Kong’s experience of SARS shows that epidemics can have long-lasting positive effects too – so it’s important to recognise and value such changes – the spirit of community, the need to cherish everybody around us, even the sudden awareness of the importance of an up-to-date Will – that may be some of the consequences of the current pandemic.
And if you’re wondering whether we should really be looking to the past for our learnings, at times of bubonic plague, Edinburgh’s curfew was 10pm, taverns and schools were closed and people were quarantined.
And scientific consensus has it that it was this quarantine that eventually eliminated pandemic Black Death.
Alastair Irons, Director, On Agency