What makes it so difficult to raise funds for Southern China’s flood victims?

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2020 is turning out to be a year of instability and unprecedented challenges. For China in particular it has been a tough year: in addition to the deadly coronavirus outbreak in January, flooding disasters have been sweeping through towns and villages in southern China since June. Floods in southern China have affected more than 27 provinces and cities, causing 158 deaths and losses worth 144.43 billion RMB.

The government at all levels has arranged rescue and emergency services for the areas worst affected. Charity organisations have also been an important part of the action. In fact, a number of charities started taking action even before the authorities gave any specific guidelines for the rescue activities.

While various charities have been actively involved in the relief efforts, they have found raising funds for their operations very challenging, as a recent report by the Charity Times (公益时报) reveals. 47 online fundraising programmes organised by 20 philanthropic organisations had raised 7.09 million RMB by the 13th of July, which was merely 17% of the expected goal. Many have suggested that this is due to donor fatigue following the coronavirus crisis in the first half of the year, when the public donated widely to hospitals and medical centres. However, difficulties in raising funds for flooding disasters are not rare. According to research, the public tends to donate much less for floods compared to other disasters, such as earthquakes and pandemics.

Why is this the case? What prevents people from giving generously to those affected by floods and organisations carrying out rescue and relief operations? Gao Wenxing, the author of the Charity Times report, examines this predicament for Chinese charities and offers three factors that might explain this phenomenon. One factor is that the high frequency of floods in China has led to less interest from the public. Flooding is a type of disaster that has happened quite often in China since ancient times. While disasters like earthquakes and pandemics are more rare, the Chinese experience floods nearly every single year. Although floods are still regarded as a natural disaster, people are more used to seeing them and tend to give them less attention and donate less to aid services.

False expectations and misunderstandings between the public and charitable organisations also contribute to this difficult situation. In a series of fundraising events for floods in southern China, charities set certain targets that they expected people to help them reach, but these targets turned out to be unrealistically high. Apart for two fundraising events initiated by two celebrities’ fans clubs which reached 90% of their targets, the majority of fundraising sessions reached less than 35% of their targets. The public expects a lot from charities, without realising that they lack the money to give the aid expected. Moreover, it is reported that the public would often prefer to donate goods, like food, to charities or directly to the affected areas, rather than giving cash. But in most cases, this attitude only causes more problems for organisations trying to distribute urgently-needed items to the people affected. “There is contents included in aid workers’ professional training for floods that the public know little about”, commented an aid worker. “People normally donate what they expect to be useful in a disaster, for instance bottled water and instant noodles, but actually they are of little use for rescuing the affected people.”

Last but not least, both the government and philanthropic organisations in China have not made enough effort to educate the public and communicate effectively to help improve public understanding of different kinds of disasters, including floods, and how they can help in these circumstances. Sometimes the public donates much money to help carry out aid work for a disaster that in fact does not need that many resources, but in other occasions, such as the floods in southern China this year, the public chooses not to give very much. In other circumstances, people are keen to help but they do not know how they can be helpful. In the aftermath of a disaster, charitable organisations should make sure that information and good communication are provided for the public to better understand their jobs. “The public tends to focus on things only for a short period, but their information is often outdated and it is a gradual process for them to gain a good understanding of natural disasters” said Liu Yueyuan, manager of the Department of General Rescue in the Yi Foundation, “but it is a process that is worth all the time and effort, and this will help establish a sustainable mechanism for rescue and aid in the face of all kinds of disasters.”