The Business of Disaster Relief

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In the south-eastern corner of Australia we’ve just had a major bushfire disaster with 300 presumed dead and thousands of homes lost. The nation has been left stunned by the tragedy and there has been a quick response from the entire community, right across the country, to get relief to the victims. Many businesses have chipped in with donations of not only money, but also food and supplies as well. It’s all heartfelt and great to see. But let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. Let me ask the question that only idiots like myself ask. Let me question the unquestionable and rattle the pillars of heaven. Let me ask the question of where charity ends and marketing begins.


Firstly, let me just say that I’m not maligning the businesses that have kindly donated to the bushfire appeals or to any other charity. I’m certain that it was done with the absolute best intentions with the hope of alleviating the suffering of those in desperate need. However, as the idiom says, ‘the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.’ What was done for good reasons can be misconstrued as something entirely different. Usually by idiots like myself.

I was brought up believing that a donation is something that you give without expecting something in return preferably anonymously. So seeing report after report of businesses donating x-number of dollars to the Bushfire appeal doesn’t sit well with me. Not only doesn’t it resonate well on a personal level, at a professional level is appears fraught with risks. It really does sound too much like a pissing contest. A game of one-upmanship where each donor attempts to appear more generous than those previous. It could easily be misconstrued as a cynical marketing exercise in order to attract headlines and tv news coverage. Each being forced to bid higher in order to attract the coverage. It could easily be perceived as buying goodwill. This can be quite dangerous. Should the general public feel that the enterprise is attempting to cash in on the suffering of the disaster then the public backlash would be devastating.

Similarly, many businesses have established funds that will go to the bushfire disaster relief. Some are taking straight donations, others are matching donations from customers up to a certain amount. One approach that is quite contentious is the one where a certain percentage of the businesses profits go to the charity. This could be easily be inferred as profiteering. After all, is there much difference between this approach and selling ‘I survived the Victorian Bushfires‘ t-shirts with the promise that one dollar from each t-shirt will go to victims?

There’s nothing new about businesses using donations as a marketing technique. However there is a fine line between what is acceptable and what is considered to be profiteering. That line becomes even finer when it’s in response to a devastating disaster. Business owners and managers need to be fully conscious of their intentions when organising a donation. Is it just to help the victims or do we want something in it for us too? If it’s just for victims why not give the donation anonymously or ask that the amount remain confidential. If you want something in return then be aware of the risks that involves and have a plan in place should it all go awry.

Attribution: Slider image by Divine Rapier

About the Author: skribe

Based in Perth, Australia, Antonio Barimen (aka skribe) is a writer, digital media consultant and social media producer.

He is available to help you develop social marketing and digital media strategies, improving communication between staff, partners and suppliers or just increasing the number of fans on Facebook. He has developed successful digital and social media projects for clients including CBS, Evian, Procter & Gamble, Discovery Networks, Pernod Ricard and American Express.

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Post Under Advice, Marketing February 12, 2009
  • I too prefer to donate anonymously or on the quiet. The drawback there though *could* be the perception that because you are not being *seen* to help you are therefore doing nothing.

    As to businesses using donations as a marketing technique, ultimately I think it is down to the individual to access each proposition on its merits and act accordingly.

    As you say businesses need to be conscious of their decisions in this regard, and most would be very aware of the consequences of making misleading undertakings especially in these particular circumstances.