[Podcast] John Lyon on Mobilizing Donors for Global Emergency Response Efforts


We may never know when disaster will strike. However, with the right team and proper planning, your nonprofit can make a huge impact in disaster relief. We learn how to put those plans and processes in place to mobilize donors immediately on this week’s episode of The Modern Nonprofit Fundraiser podcast.

Our guest is John Lyon, the President and CEO of World Hope International (WHI). World hope is a Christian relief and development organization that works with vulnerable and exploited communities to alleviate poverty, suffering and worldwide injustices.

John has worked with the organization for more than 18 years and is considered an expert in global development. He has more than 12 years of experience in international law and shared some of his best insights on planning for the unexpected, leveraging technology to connect with your donors and how to find balance in the midst of all the chaos.

Key Takeaways from This Week’s Episode

We enjoyed all of the tips John provided, but our top three takeaways are:

  1. Preparation is key. In a disaster, donors will want to give cash, goods or services. Your team needs to be ready to mobilize all three of those donations. Make sure you have a training team ready to give your volunteers all the information they need to provide relief as soon as possible.
  2. Constant communication is imperative. To keep donors engaged and ready to give, they need to see the impact they made. Close the loop with as many donors as possible to create a deeper connection to your nonprofit.
  3. Hire smart people. Working in the nonprofit space can feel chaotic at times, especially if you work in disaster relief. Hire smart people who know exactly what to do next, so that you can focus on the big picture decisions.

Full Podcast Transcript

Announcer: Welcome to The Modern Nonprofit Fundraiser podcast. Where we help non-profits reimagine generosity and put the joy back in fundraising. Hear from leading non-profit fundraisers and marketers as they reveal strategies for strengthening donor relationships to propel your non-profit forward.

Gabe Cooper: Hey everybody, welcome to the virtuous podcast. This is Gabe. Today I’m so excited to have John Lyon with us. John’s the president and CEO of World Hope international. World Hope is an amazing organization doing work in countries like Liberia and the Philippines. John, welcome to the podcast.

John Lyon: Thank you Gabe, thanks for having me.

GC: Absolutely. I’d love to hear just a little bit from you about how you got into nonprofits and how you ended up at World Hope.

JL: Sure, I’ve always had an interest in international relief and development. I’ve also had a sort of a dual passion for law, so after college I joined The Peace Corp and served for two years in Jamaica. After that I went to law school and after law school I practiced law for over a decade.

When this opportunity at World Hope opened up I decided to get back to my roots in the international development space. But even while I was practicing law I would always take opportunities to do pro bono work around supporting programming abroad.

Then after I worked at my law firm I worked as a general counsel at a start up energy company that was developing hydroelectric dams in Africa. So that gave me some more project finance experience and development experience which I’m now bringing to bear from the nonprofit perspective.

GC: That’s amazing. I love the combination of the legal and managing the bureaucracy of doing international work. And some of the really hands on experience in the hydro space. That’s a good experience to have to bring to bear. Tell me a little bit about World Hope in general. What countries are you working in? I know you mentioned five countries. What are the areas that you’re focusing on, what’s your vision for the world?

JL: Oh sure. Well, we are fighting extreme poverty and we’re focused on five countries. Sierra Leone, Liberia, Philippines, Cambodia, and Haiti. And within those countries we have five programs that we’re focusing on: water sanitation, health, human trafficking and gender based violence, education, and emergency response. Within these countries we’re really doing a lot of all those things but the nexus between all of them is the geography that we’re doing these in, these programs.

Sierra Leone is our largest country. We’re literally operating in every district in the country. In Cambodia, Liberia, the Philippines and Haiti we’re growing and we want to continue expanding our programming and increasing our impact.

Mobilizing Your Donors During a Disaster

GC: I love the mission of the organization. It’s so hard for me to even wrap my mind around how you guys are holding attention both in emergency response aspects of what you’re doing and the long term play, holistic care. But focusing on specific countries I think is just a beautiful approach.

As you go and try to think about fundraising for World Hope, my guess is that you have this focus on, “Hey we need sustaining donors that are in this for the long haul that really understand our holistic long-term plan for these countries.” At the same when the emergency happens you have to respond. Can you talk about how you mobilize donors in those emergency moments? What kind of tactics have you used to be able to move large groups of people fast?

JL: Yeah. Whenever there’s a disaster, donors want to participate in it. It’s an interesting donor psychology, right? If there’s a disaster that’s in the news I think donors find meaning in doing something now. They get the exigent reason to do something now.

And actually I really like disasters. I don’t like the death and destruction that happens as a result of a disaster, but what I do like about it is that a disaster really strips away all the fake differences that we have as humans. And really, you start to see people rally around and support each other against a common existential threat.

For me that’s one thing I like about disasters. I could work with a, maybe there’s a person that I was competing with and now all of a sudden they’re my best friend. We’re working together to fight this disaster. I think that’s one thing I love.

After a disaster there’s always three things people offer. They’ll offer their cash, they’ll offer stuff, you know goods, and then they’re willing to offer their services. The services are something that we’re, if it’s a domestic response, last year during the hurricanes we set up sites in Texas and Florida. And we were able to move about 500 volunteers into those sites to just do basic like cleaning people’s houses out, helping people get things fixed back up.

Internationally, it can be a little more tricky so we’ve organized a program called Fresh Water Production Teams. What we’ve done in advance of the disaster is we’ve trained about 90 volunteers to staff a portable RO, reverse osmosis water purification system. This will allow us to be able to get teams to an international disaster site and to set up water points wherever there’s need. And to be able to make water, 360 gallons of fresh water per site per day using solar power or a small generator. So having teams trained in advance really helps to be able to mobilize people.

Also the logistics, we have partnerships in place in advance of a disaster to be able to move people. We have a partnership with a group that have a group of yachts that we can move people to. We’ve got some partnerships with a group called Air Link that can move people as well for disasters. And then there are some general aviation folks that we are teaming with to be able to get people to a disaster quickly.

Yeah, I mean it’s all about partnerships. We also, on the engineering front, we have a partnership with KatadynUSA, which is a really sophisticated water purification company. They make hiker, you know, commercial grade filters for hikers. But they also make these units that can either desalinate water or purify water through a reverse osmosis system. A partnership with them has helped us have the technical capacity to be able to do this as well.

Using Partnerships to Help Your Nonprofits

GC: That’s great. You talked a lot about partners, your engineer partners and your travel partners, but then you have your donors as partners, other people just on the ground in an emergency. In coordinating all that which just sounds, you know, you turned what normally would be a three year project into a two week project, just microwave everything, which is hard. What are some lessons that you’ve learned in coordinating all of those partners that you could share with some of our listeners that might be helpful?

JL: Yeah, I think advance planning, as much as you can do. All these disasters are unique. Since I’ve been here, since I’ve been CEO in 2013, we’ve responded to at least one major world-wide disaster every year. And every single one of them is different. From the Hurricane Ayana in the Philippines, to Ebola in Sierra Leone, to the Nepal earthquake in Nepal, Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, the earthquakes in Ecuador and then last year’s hurricanes. We responded on the mudslide in Freetown, Sierra Leone last year as well.

Every single one of them is completely unique. The goal is just to have a network of pre-established partners that you know that you can lean on. And work with people on the ground to figure out what’s the greatest need and how can you make the biggest impact with the resources that you have.

GC: Yeah. That’s great. In those, in the moment of high intensity emergency, your partners a little bit, but probably even more donors, how do you guys, how do you get them to get the word out to your constituency that, “Hey there has been a problem and these are the updates as we go along and this is what it means for you?” How do you think about messaging? How do you guys use technology in those moments too, to kind of spread the word and get people mobilized faster?

JL: Whenever we decide we’re going to respond to a disaster our communications team has a checklist of things that they run through. One of them is an immediate email to all donors. We also have a partner outlets that we message through. One partner we have is the Westland Church. So we message through all of the 1500 Westland Churches in North America.

So when we’re working with all of our partner outlets. We use social media to try to drive more quick, real time updates. We have a public relations team that we work with. Because we’re getting there quickly, we actually have something that’s useful for the news. We have on the ground people that can speak to the disaster from the on-the-ground point of view. So we position our people with the news to be able to speak to that. That’s another message.

We’re also using, currently using, Google ad words and Google advertisements to get the message out. So using those online tools—

GC: That’s great.

JL: —Facebook as well, kind of helps blast out the message to as many people as we can get it to. Then, as we execute on the ground we report back. For me, I want to, one of the things that attracted me to World Hope was, when I was a lawyer, I made a donation to World Hope to build a specific building. And they sent me a photo of that specific building after it was done. I thought that was just the coolest thing, that we had, I was just one degree of separation from the actual project, right?

I think the bigger you get the harder that transparency can be. One thing I like about World Hope, and I want to keep it that way, is having that kind of real-time transparency so that donors can feel a part of the good work that we’re doing. That, in a disaster, their dollars are directly supporting a relief effort that’s saving lives.

Pre-Planning Helps You Make the Biggest Impact

GC: Yeah. Well, let’s spend a second there because that’s so important. Closing the loop with the donors and actually giving them a real sense, like statistically and stories, of what their gifts are accomplishing in the world. It’s so critical and I don’t think everybody fully gets that.

But logistically it can be challenging. I know you guys have a pretty lean team here in the U.S. and a lot more boots on the ground in the five countries you’re working in. So how do you guys do that? I mean how do you guys get the picture of the well or the picture of the building cycled back to the donor and talk to them about the impact they’re making?

JL: For disasters, it takes pre-planning, right? For instance, these teams that we’re sending out, they’re actually going to be going with beacons which are satellite based internet connections. So they’ll be able to beam back photos and communicate even though all of the telephone lines and telecommunications are completely gone.

Then, we train all of our volunteers on like how they can talk, what’s the best process to talk to reporters. What kind of information are they going to be looking for, what kind of information should they be looking for for other disaster responders so that we can be a part of a force-multiplying effect of the response. That’s how we are organizing our communication side.

On the development side, it just takes consistent policy and practice and really encouraging, make sure our staff are following through. For instance, any donor that gives over a certain amount will get a specific well report and will have a photo of the well with some of the village’s GPS coordinates, the drilling depth, the water productivity, that kind of thing. Also the number of beneficiaries and other key data points on that well. I want to keep doing that. We can’t do that for someone that gives five dollars. We wouldn’t be able to, our administrative costs would go through the ceiling. But we can do that for a significant gift, like $5000.

GC: That’s great. Do you guys have a way to pool your, that project data coming in from the field, pull that into your donor management and marketing tools to be able to push it back out to donors?

JL: Yeah, we do. We use Blackbaud CRM, so that’s how we’re able to loop all that communication back. The donor cycle is find somebody that’s interested in your work, tell them about our work. If they’re interested, they give. All this gets plugged into the CRM system and then we know that that person needs to get a report at some point in the near future.

GC: That’s great.

JL: We have a whole gift processing CRM team that’s keeping track of the record, the gifts and the reporting back.

GC: That’s perfect, that’s great. Well, that’s really helpful. Logistically, you know, closing the loop, not just in emergency response but for those long term projects, too, it takes a lot of discipline to do it well. If you can do it well, it makes a huge difference in generosity and I think it’s amazing that you guys have made that a priority.

JL: Yeah, definitely.

The Modern Nonprofit Fundraiser Lightning Round

GC: We usually finish these things with a little bit of a lightning round. So I’d love to, if you’re okay with it, just fire a couple of quick questions at you to kind of finish our time together?

JL: Sure.

GC: Perfect. First one, I love this one, especially from your point of view. What book kind of that you’ve read in let’s say the last year or so, has had the biggest impact on you and/or what podcasts are you listening to right now that you’re really digging?

JL: Most recent book I’ve read is a book called Resilience. It’s a book about how people can become more resilient. It explores that from a medical perspective but also a psychological perspective. I thought that was a really good read. And yeah, just basic things like humor, a sense of humor. Things like going to church, knowing that there’s a higher purpose for what we do and our being makes us more resilient. Definitely I highly recommend the book.

GC: Great, I’ll put that one on my list.

JL: Podcast, I’ll have to start listening to your podcasts, Gabe.

GC: That would be great.

JL: Honestly, I don’t do a lot of podcasting. It’s probably just listen to the radio or when I’m in the car. Yeah, I guess Planet Money is one I’ve been enjoying.

GC: Oh yeah, Planet Money, it’s a good one.

JL: Yeah, that’s a good one.

GC: I figured with how much time you’ve spent on airplanes traveling all over the world you’d have a couple of podcasts to keep you sane.

JL: Yeah, actually books. I read more books. My reading list this summer is the, I finished reading Resilience, actually, I’m going to pull it up for you here if you’re curious about my reading list. Let’s see here, yeah, I posted it on my Facebook page if you’re curious. [crosstalk 00:19:06] My reading list here, you have Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, by Dr. Stephen M. Southwick and Dr. Dennis S. Charney. White Working Class: Overcoming Class Clueless-ness in America by Joan C. Williams. Master Your Money by Ron Blue, and Energy in Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil. That’s my list for the summer.

GC: That’s a diverse list. I love that list, it’s a great list. Okay, well last one here. How do you find balance? Just the pressures of running an organization that’s doing such important work all over the world, traveling all over, managing a team, how do you stay sane? Do you have kind of go-to hobbies or ways to relax and find balance?

JL: Well, other than reading, I like to get outside and go hiking, be out in the woods. That’s something I enjoy. I have two young boys, I like to get out and play with them. And I have a good wife that I enjoy spending time with as well. I try to exercise as much as I can. That helps as well. Also, we are doing a lot but we have really great people working at World Hope. So I lean on our program directors, our country directors, and our senior leadership of our organization to make sure that the ship’s steering straight.

GC: Yeah, that makes a huge difference. You have to be just smart enough to hire people smarter than you. And when you can do that your life gets a lot easier. That’s such a big one.

JL: Definitely. My view is we hire smart people so that they can tell me what to do instead of me telling them what to do.

GC: Exactly, exactly, oh that’s great. Well, John, it’s been a pleasure having you. Thank you so much for taking the time. I know you’ve got a lot of travel coming up so safe travels and we appreciate you joining us today.

JL: Terrific, thanks much, Gabe.

GC: All right, talk to you soon.

JL: Bye.

Announcer: We hope you enjoyed today’s episode of the modern non-profit fundraiser. The podcast is brought to you by Virtuous, the CRM and marketing automation software helping charities raise more money and create more good. Be sure to rate and subscribe.

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