When a major flood hit Calgary, Alberta, on 21 June 2013, more than 100,000 people from Calgary and neighboring communities were evacuated after their homes were flooded, instantly creating a wave of need. United Way of Calgary and Area is the city’s only privately funded provider of human services, connecting vulnerable Calgarians to resources that help them thrive. The disaster presented United Way with a clear opportunity to fulfill its mission to improve lives and help build extraordinary communities by quickly connecting concerned donors with urgent community needs. Human service agencies looked to us for support as they dealt with an influx of service demands; so did corporations and donors looking to help.
A major challenge stood in the way: United Way’s building was flooded, knocking the organization’s computer servers offline at the height of the crisis. This meant all staff (including communication staff) had no access to United Way’s intranet, email or phone lines, even from home, for a week. As the IT team worked quickly to restore the servers, we had to work nimbly with alternative tools not just to communicate externally, but also to relay crucial information to our own staff.
After the flood, we reached out to specific donor groups and the general public so they could understand our actions and would consider donating to our Emergency Community Support Fund.
The overarching goal was to make sure that our Emergency Community Fund was visible in the community, and that our messaging reached all of our intended audiences. The objectives for measuring the success of the efforts were:
- Donors and corporate partners contribute to the Emergency Community Support fund, with donations exceeding CDN$500,000.
- Every staff member knows the building is closed and receives updates;100% get the message and employees go to the building.
- All members of the board of directors are aware of United Way’s actions during the crisis; 100% of board members receive updates.
After the flood hit and the servers went down, the communication team prioritized its internal and external communication approach. They developed a daily process for connecting with targeted audiences to update them on relevant information and to gather feedback and answer questions.
While the servers were offline, our website became the communication hub for all key messages, linking to Facebook, Twitter and our Calgary Social Voice blog. United Way’s Facebook page saw a spike in the number of our staff coming to our page for updates and asking questions.
An independent email provider was used to connect with the executive team, and a face-to-face crisis meeting was held at President and CEO Lucy Miller’s house two days after the flood to review our community support approach.
As an immediate response, we alerted staff about the building and servers, and we posted a message on our website directing people to support the Canadian Red Cross and other agencies involved in frontline assistance. An action plan to cancel a major fundraising event, the annual UPS Plane Pull, was put into place.
A winning campaign
This campaign won an IABC Gold Quill Award of Excellence in the Crisis Communication category in 2014. For more than 40 years, IABC’s Gold Quill Awards program has evaluated the work of communication professionals around the globe, recognizing the best of the best in the profession.The Gold Quill early-bird deadline is 18 November.Enter today.
In the flood’s aftermath from 26 June to 12 July, we knew the damage to the city and were actively responding to new community needs. We received calls from agencies requesting emergency funding and activated our Emergency Community Support Fund. The fund began with CDN$1 million from our reserve fund. All of our communication and marketing efforts directed donors to this fund in an effort to raise money for the growing community need.
Our team worked directly with President and CEO Lucy Miller on the messaging to community. Because our building was flooded, we had no access to our media equipment such as video cameras, and instead used an iPhone to shoot video messages. We connected with the media, sending out new releases, via social media and Gmail. To support the growing community needs, our messaging promoted the 2-1-1 program, a support line that we fund through the Distress Centre of Calgary.
By the beginning of July our servers were back online and we were allowed back into the building. Our communication team became a street team to gather stories, pictures and videos of community spirit and the work United Way was doing on the ground level. The organization did a Day of Caring™, cleaning houses in the nearby High River community.
United Way had no budget ready to promote the emergency fund, as our advertising budget for 2013 was already allocated. So we relied on existing channels that donors knew and used: our website, newsletters and blog. Our CEO allotted money from a reserve fund for special promotion to place one ad in the Calgary Herald, a popular newspaper read by our major donors, for CDN$5,000. The ad ran twice in print and for a week online, linking back to our donation page.
Goal: Donors and corporate partners contribute to the Emergency Community Support fund, with donations exceeding CDN$500,000.
Result: Corporate donors contributed CDN$500,000; the fund also received CDN$41,000 in online donations.
Goal: Ensure every staff member learns the building is closed and receives updates; 100% get the message and 0 employees go to the building for work.
Result: Only 1 employee reported going to the building.
Goal: All members of the board of directors are aware of United Way’s actions during the crisis; 100% of board members receive updates.
Result: President and CEO Lucy Miller reported that all board members were aware of what United Way was doing during the crisis.