What we can learn from disaster fundraising

Author: Andy Beeforth

Andy Beeforth, Trustee at the National Emergencies Trust and CEO of Cumbria Community Foundation, shares five key lessons from Nottingham Trent University’s independent evaluation of the Trust’s £100m Coronavirus Appeal.

Five days before the UK first went into lockdown, the then fledgling UK disaster response charity, the National Emergencies Trust launched its first ever fundraising appeal. The Coronavirus Appeal was activated on 18 March 2020 to support people across the UK affected by the pandemic. Within weeks it had raised nearly £100million for those in need.

The first £2.5million from the Appeal was distributed five days later to UKCF and its network of 47 Community Foundations UK-wide. In the months that followed, £79million would support nearly 15,000 grassroots projects through that network, with further funding supporting the work of ten national charity partners.

For 18 months a group of researchers from Nottingham Trent University shadowed Trustees and team members and spoke with charity partners and beneficiaries. Their brief was to learn live about processes, decisions and impacts so that the worst happens again, we can do the best job.
What they learnt deserves to be shared because it validates what many of us in the charity sector have experienced in the last two years and apply outside of disasters. So, this is my liberally abridged take on key findings, but I do urge you to read the full report .

1. Flexible, trust-based giving is vital, especially during disasters
A broad, flexible funding criteria gave power to grant-makers to apply their specialist knowledge as they saw fit for their communities– and this trust-based approach proved pivotal to the Appeal’s success. It meant community foundations like mine could get funds to grassroots groups within days of receiving them – in Cumbria as early as 6 March. This flexible, trust-based approach to funding should be the sector norm and not the exception, especially during emergencies. It took a pandemic to show that the model works, now we need funders to maintain that momentum.

2. Empower lived and local experience in decision-making, up and down stream

The evaluation praises the flexible model for enabling fast, impactful distribution by community foundations but also points to the Trust’s growing network of charitable partners – from community foundations to national charities and consortia – as a valuable source of intelligence for overall funding strategy. While local and national partners presented ad-hoc insights during the Coronavirus Appeal, researchers propose formalising this lived and local input for future emergencies as a way to further enhance the approach.

It’s a recommendation that resonates with my own experience. During flood appeals, for instance, Cumbria Community Foundation is ideally placed to provide strategic insight. We’ve experienced three major floods since 2005 and are highly proficient in data-gathering; both picture-building and the ‘proof of reach’ needed to satisfy donors.

3. Focus on purposeful data collection

Information is power – and data is critical to sound decision-making. But during disasters, data collection can also weigh heavy on those responsible for it. The Coronavirus Appeal evaluation points to the clear picture created by quantitative and qualitative data points which helped to shape ongoing strategy. But it also points to opportunities to streamline this further for future appeals: to create evaluation frameworks now before they are needed that will ensure every single data point or case study serves a clear purpose and intersectional needs can be identified.

4. Immediate response versus longer-term recovery

During disasters, the immediate support for those affected is, understandably, a key focus. But as I know too well from flood experiences, longer-term recovery is critical too; and too often critically under-funded. Nottingham Trent’s researchers point to the steps the National Emergencies Trust took to take account of the pandemic’s long-tail: the flexible funding criteria that enabled grants to cover core costs, and follow-up grants to projects to fund recovery efforts. Looking to future appeals, the evaluation proposes the Trust continue to build ‘recovery’ into the overall funding strategy, where funds allow: a lesson that feels equally applicable to sector peers.

5. The ‘Network of Giving’

Lastly, Nottingham Trent researchers highlight the “Network of Giving” that emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic and the additive, co-ordinating role the Trust played within that eco-system. They point to the value of a collaborative, cross-sector approach to disaster relief where information is shared, the risk of duplication reduced and ‘hidden needs’ are far less likely to go unnoticed. It’s a recommendation that has the full support of the team and Trustees because it describes why the Trust was created: to offer people one, trusted place to give when the worst happens – and to share out the funds raised efficiently and equitably to those in great need. I hope that our ongoing efforts to make friends before we need them, means we can keep making this ambition a reality.

As we head into what is sure to be a tough winter for many, we should all be thinking hard about these lessons and how we can apply them to confronting the cost of living crisis.

Nottingham Trent University’s evaluation of the National Emergencies Trust’s Coronavirus Appeal was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. To view the evaluation in full click here.