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Behind the Scenes of an Emergency Appeal: Christian Aid

4 min

We’re all familiar with the emergency appeals that spring up hot on the heels of news reports of humanitarian disasters. We may barely notice them – mentally dismissing them as the flotsam and jetsam of the charity world – or perhaps we register them but don’t respond, or perhaps that particular emergency resonates deeply and we dig deep and give generously.

Whatever our reaction, the speed at which the appeals are pulled together and publicised is impressive. We spoke to Adrian Adams, Head of Marketing and Fundraising at Christian Aid, to uncover something of the well-oiled behind the scenes machine that goes into creating an emergency appeal in double-quick time.

There are two types of emergency – those where the humanitarian teams working ‘on the ground’ have reported an emergency might happen, and those – like the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 – that hit without any warning at all.

Between March 2019 and November 2020 Christian Aid ran eight appeals; from the Cyclone Fani Appeal (May 2019), the ongoing Coronavirus Emergency Appeal (March 2020) through to the Hurricane Iota Appeal (November 2020).  But, just how does Christian Aid mobilise resources so quickly?

Adrian explains how the process starts: “As soon as an emergency has been identified, a standing group of senior leaders meet. Representing international development, fundraising, communications and policy, the group focuses on one key question: ‘Is this situation one that Christian Aid is well placed to address?’ We look at two things: our ability to act – we don’t have a strong presence in every region, and if we feel we can’t respond appropriately then we won’t proceed – and the likelihood of the appeal gaining media attention. We must be as certain as we can be that our messaging will resonate with the media and potential donors.”

And if the team say yes? “Then,” says Adrian, “everything is dropped to pick up the emergency work. Like most similar organisations, we run a lean operation and don’t hold budget for additional staff, so existing staff are redeployed, diaries are freed up and people could work for 24 hours non-stop.  Emergency situations bring a great deal of clarity to our work priorities – Christian Aid’s long-term aim is to bring about an end to poverty but the reality is, when a humanitarian crisis lands, the short-term needs are paramount.”

The collaborative effort is fast-paced, energetic and comprehensive. The finance and fundraising teams are responsible for setting up the cash appeal, and, in partnership with those on the ground, making sure the money raised goes to the right people. The marketing, digital, media, and creative teams work to pull the story together, often with very limited content as it can be neither safe to send in photographers, nor appropriate to use the staff on the ground to provide content when they need to deal with the emergency.

The humanitarian team, both in the UK and overseas, might update hourly and this may result in the appeal evolving to reflect new information. Adrian explains, “In a normal appeal we’ll have all the information we need at launch… with emergency appeals we don’t; we develop and refine it as we go. And that goes for testing too – we want the appeal to work so we need to know what’s resonating with audiences. We don’t cut corners on evaluation – we just adjust and update as we go.”

As well as sending money where it’s most needed, Christian Aid also makes sure that all those who have donated are thanked and kept updated on the impact of their generosity.

Most appeals are ‘live’ for around two months and raise anything from £100,000 to upwards of £1million. The majority of the income is raised in the first days and weeks of the appeal and Christian Aid’s research shows it mainly consists of one-off donations, often from regular supporters, who also maintain their regular giving. So, the hard work and long hours are definitely worth it.

Back to Adrian for the last word: “It’s easy to theorise and develop well-considered positions on planned appeals – but in an emergency we just get on and do it! We all run on adrenaline, things are in flux and we are continually adapting. The focus and sense of purpose is incredible... we all wish this work didn’t need doing, but it does, and it’s hugely satisfying.”