Charities fear post-tsunami donor fatigue

The tsunami disaster has deflected attention from other crisis areas, such as Darfur Keystone

Swiss charities are bracing themselves for a drop in donations following the huge success of a fundraising appeal for victims of the Asian tsunami.

This content was published on January 12, 2005

They fear that with all the media attention on the disaster region, the public will forget about the suffering and needs of other communities at home and abroad.

The charity Swiss Solidarity, which launched a campaign to raise funds for the tsunami-hit region, has amassed SFr154 million ($131 million) in two weeks and money is still coming in.

But as the fundraising arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation talks of a new record in public giving, other charitable organisations predict a decline in their income.

Even charities that are active in the disaster region – among them Emmaus Leprosy Relief – fear their work may be overlooked and that a shortfall in donations could force them to curtail their development programmes.

Christmas giving

The tidal waves struck in the middle of the Christmas period, a time when charities traditionally receive the bulk of their donations.

Emmaus – which relies on public donations of around SFr7 million a year – saw income plummet when a deadly earthquake flattened the Iranian town of Bam on December 26, 2003.

It expects a similar drop after the Asian tsunami, which struck exactly one year later.

“The solidarity of the Swiss population towards this tidal wave disaster was huge, and we are a bit afraid that… people will not be as sensitive to other [ongoing] disasters in the world,” Emmaus director René Stäheli told swissinfo.

Markus Mader, chief executive of the Pestalozzi Children’s Foundation, is also anticipating “a certain reduction” in donations, but thinks projects in Switzerland will continue to receive the public’s support.

As an example, Mader cites the public reaction to the landslide that devastated the village of Gondo in 2000.

Although Swiss Solidarity raised a record SFr74 million, this did not have a negative impact on donations to the children’s foundation.

“What we expect is rather a drop in donations for our programmes abroad,” Mader told swissinfo.

Hidden tragedies

The charities are all too aware of the power of television to influence the public. Images of suffering and devastation pull at the heartstrings and cause an outpouring of public sympathy – and cash.

But, as Antonio Hautle of the Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund points out, suffering is nothing new and much of it goes unnoticed.

“Every day, as many people die as a result of malnourishment, lack of medical care and conflicts as did on December 26 [in the tsunami],” Hautle told the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper.

Markus Mader, who also serves on the board of Swiss Solidarity, wants to see a portion of the funds raised by that charity committed to “the many continuing human catastrophes, which receive no television coverage”.

Setting limits

Mader concedes it would be extremely difficult to set a limit on how much cash is devoted to any one disaster, but says the huge amounts raised by the tsunami appeal will force Swiss Solidarity to discuss the issue.

“The big question is: can we say at the very beginning of a campaign where the limit will be? But I would say that after a certain point, part of the money coming in should go to another cause,” he told swissinfo.

Ironically, while charities face a possible drop in donations, those working in the disaster area have a bigger task than ever to fulfil.

Emmaus Leprosy Relief says some of its projects in Sri Lanka – one of the countries worst hit by the tsunami – have been affected and the charity will need to spend money on restoring its infrastructure there.

“We have several projects there, mainly for rehabilitating people affected by leprosy, and many of their houses and small shops have been washed away… maybe 1,000 families have been affected,” said Stäheli.

swissinfo, Morven McLean

In brief

An appeal by the organisation Swiss Solidarity has raised SFr154 million ($131 million) for victims of the tsunami.

Swiss charities fear this record level of public giving could have a negative impact on the donations they receive.

Some of these charities are active in the disaster region and face greatly increased costs.

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