Immediate appeals: how ShelterBox plan for disaster

ShelterBox's strategy for immediate disaster response involves ready-to-launch digital appeals and optimising Google Ad Grants for quick action.


4 mins read

ShelterBox Ad 1

The background

Urgent appeals form the backbone Shelterbox's year-round work

Most charities in the last few months have had to significantly redefine their understanding of the term “urgent appeal”. Charity appeals by their nature usually have a degree of urgency at their heart, but COVID-19 has meant charities around the world have had to move, think and appeal to their audiences faster than ever to generate vital funds. Urgent appeals for critical support have been launched across the sector daily. But for some charities, urgent appeals form the backbone of the work they do all year round, even in “normal times”. ShelterBox is one such example.

Most large-scale charity appeals involve months of planning, with carefully thought out themes and creatives, and week-by-week Gantt charts. But for ShelterBox, time is a luxury they often don’t have when it comes to running digital fundraising appeals. When thousands of families are suddenly without shelter as the result of airstrikes, or people fleeing a cyclone need clean water and protection from disease, ShelterBox act immediately in order to provide support in the aftermath of disaster.

ShelterBox are emergency response specialists who deliver vital aid to people hit by natural disasters and conflict. They're a smaller charity than other humanitarian aid organisations (like the Disasters Emergency Committee, who we also work with). As a result, they can't have in-house teams on call 24/7; instead, they need flexible resource to dial up activity when disaster hits. That's where Torchbox comes in.

We work with ShelterBox year round running fundraising appeals, community events recruitment, and promoting their Visitor Centre through paid for Google Ads, Microsoft (Bing) Advertising, Facebook and Instagram Ads. We also manage their Google Ad Grants account. On top of our monthly support, for contingency purposes, we also have 'flexi-time' worked into our contract so if there's an emergency, we can immediately support them. If ShelterBox need more of our time, we’re there for them, however quickly we’re needed.

Our approach

Creating an urgent appeal strategy

When we first started working with ShelterBox in June 2019, our first priority was rebuilding their Google Ad Grants account. It already had most of the campaigns in place that they would need, but these had been built reactively in the past and there wasn't a consistent approach. We restructured the account around different types of disasters, so in the event of an emergency, we would already have ads running.

We then started work on an urgent appeal strategy by:

  • Reviewing previous urgent appeals to find the audiences and creatives that were most effective.
  • Creating ad copy templates and getting sign off from key stakeholders.
  • Agreeing who the points of contact would be in the event of an urgent appeal (with additional people as back ups on both sides in case someone was unavailable).
  • Establishing which channels we would use, our campaign structure, how many tests we could run, and what proportion of budget each channel would receive.

The strategy

Our approach, in action

Since December 2019, over 1 million people have fled Idlib, Syria in the largest civilian exodus since the war began over 9 years ago. ShelterBox work with their partners in Syria to distribute blankets, tarpaulins, mattresses and other vital supplies to keep families going in the harsh conditions of the camps. In February 2020, the situation worsened: airstrikes in Idlib decimated family homes, and destroyed hospitals and displacement camps in the surrounding area.

Torchbox were asked to respond immediately with a programme of digital marketing to raise funds for the situation. We were ready. We already had ads live in the Google Ad Grants account, and within a few hours we were running ads on Facebook, Instagram, Google Ads, and Microsoft Advertising. We added video creatives as they became available, ran Facebook and Instagram Stories ads, and Display activity through the Google Display Network.

The central challenge that all humanitarian aid charities face in raising awareness about areas they work in is in getting heard. The Idlib campaign was no different: there was almost zero media coverage of the disaster. Audience fatigue with a conflict that's been going on for years, combined with the tail-end of the Australian bush fires and the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, meant that news outlets just weren't running the stories we needed to pique public interest. We were planning a large-scale campaign to cold audiences, but we knew that the cost-per-donation would be too high for ShelterBox to justify the expense even though they needed the funds more than ever.

We decided to make every penny count by focussing on their core warm audiences. We ran the campaign for a week, spent 78% of our available budget, and hit 131% of our donation volume target. The planning we had put in place made setting up the campaign incredibly fast and easy, and we'll definitely be using this strategy again in future.

After this first urgent appeal we almost immediately launched a campaign focussing on Coronavirus in refugee camps. ShelterBox's tents allow people to isolate themselves if necessary, and giving families their own cooking equipment helps reduce contact in crowded conditions. We used the same planning strategy and found it was incredibly fast and easy to implement learnings and get new ads live in a tight time frame.


How does this apply to your organisation?

Your charity, NGO, trust or organisation may not work in disaster response, but in recent months, it’s likely that urgency has risen to the top of the agenda. All charities have a worst case scenario that could happen; whether it's a PR disaster or an unexpected piece of legislation. So plan for it.

  • Work out what your message would be in that situation and pre-write ad copy, emails, tweets, and press statements wherever possible.
  • Choose your channels, audiences, and provisional budgets ahead of time.
  • Decide who should have sign off in the event of an emergency. Try to keep the number of stakeholders as small as possible, but have a back-up in case they are unavailable.
  • Make sure your whole team is briefed and knows their responsibilities.
  • Have a quick response ready to go, but don't be afraid to send another more tailored message later.

Send us an enquiry

If you need any help with planning your next campaign, whatever the cause, please get in touch. We'd love to help.

Get in touch


Iona Twiston Davies

Senior Digital Account Manager