For whom the bell tolls: helping donors find solidarity through unrestrict​ed giving

Published by Rebecca Davies on

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. – John Donne

There’s an interesting exchange happening right now between MSF Canada and our donors, a phenomenon I think would be interesting to fundraisers outside of the humanitarian-NGO arena and that I’d like your opinion on. MSF Canada donors are again being stress-tested by us, the very organization many Canadians look towards as an outlet for their compassion in times of sudden crisis, most recently and specific to this post, last month’s cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami in Japan. If our doctors’ acts of vaccination and surgery are their humanitarian tools, then the donations our supporters make are theirs. And so how do donors feel when MSF tells them we do not accept earmarked gifts for the catastrophe in Japan? Do we wrest from them a degree of solidarity with the Japanese people in asking for unrestricted donations?

It’s not easy to be an MSF donor. As an emergency response organization, MSF’s actions are driven by medical need alone and require a great deal of flexibility. We ask for the same flexibility from our donors, and ask that they trust our decisions about when and where we intervene, and whether the work can absorb restricted gifts or requesting instead that donors give to our general emergency fund. And we realize that sometimes our decisions on accepting earmarked gifts – or not – may seem confusing. Once again, it comes down to the needs of the people, and MSF’s specific ability to respond to those needs. (In Japan, for example, MSF’s medical action is in attending to the chronic healthcare needs of the elderly in remote regions, and mental health counseling: both critical but relatively inexpensive services as compared with, say, the vast surgical programs we mounted within hours of the earthquake in Haiti).

But donors see the apocalyptic images of Japan on television and the internet, and they want to respond. After all, money is their humanitarian tool. We’ve told them that for years. How many direct mail pieces has that idea been dropped into? (A very recent example: a paragraph from a doctor who penned MSF Canada’s spring acquisition letter: MSF has become my way to change the world of another human being. It can be yours too. It’s simply about refusing to stand by while people suffer and choosing, instead, to help. We each play our role in making things better for others who are suffering. I know I wouldn’t be able to do my part without people like you. I hope you will support the work we do together.) In the process of communicating with and educating our donors over many years, we’ve continuously reinforced the axiom that their act of donating is humanitarian action. And we always stress the primacy of unrestricted giving, so that MSF may respond to a disaster before it even hits the airwaves.

But there’s a nuance to the conversations we’re having with the donors calling in to donate for Japan, an aspect to the dialogue and donor-education process that’s new. Donors have spoken in terms of ‘compassion for the people of Haiti’or ‘empathy with victims in Pakistan’. What we’re hearing with this recent disaster, articulated or implied, is the want to show ‘solidarity with the people of Japan’.Solidarity is different from charity, which has traditionally been more of a top-down dynamic. An act of solidarity is the enunciation that all people are socially interconnected and equal, and is nearly always reacting against something: management, social injustice, The Man. Why are some Canadian donors now using the concept of solidarity with reference to the devastation in Japan? My theories are 1) the culture and lifestyle of Japan are more identifiable to Canadians than, say, those of Darfur or Myanmar and 2) the world’s ongoing, real-time witness to the Arab awakening: watching, for example, Mubarak step down when he realized the free world supported the protesters’ side, through peaceful expressions of solidarity on social and mainstream media.

To stay true to mission, we need to convert donors’ emotional reactions into rational decisions. Our starting point in the conversation with donors wanting to restrict a gift or host a third-party event for Japan: thank you, and we appreciate that you want to reach out, and you’re doing the right thing by wanting to help. Next, we listen intently to the donor: to the motivations, inspirations and aspirations behind their philanthropy. The next part of the conversation is the most challenging, for both the fundraising team and the donors. After explaining that we cannot accept their restricted gift for Japan relief, we need to help the donor understanding that, for both them and MSF, derestricted donations are as much symbols of compassion for the people of Japan and Colombia, Ivory Coast, and Libya as earmarked ones. That donors can extend their gesture of solidarity by giving a gift that allows MSF to react quickly and vitally wherever and whenever. We drew upon unrestricted funds to mobilize our response in Japan quickly to save as many lives as possible. By making a gift now for general emergency response, you are replenishing our fund and, in effect, very directly participating in MSF’s response in Japan and other parts of the world. By first listening to the donor, then explaining how their reaction is correct and how it fits into how MSF operates, we’re able to take the donor from their emotional response of believing an earmarked donation for Japan is the best and only way they can help, to a rational one that works within our strategic and reactive planning. After all, at the end of the year, donors want their humanitarian organization to be prudent, one that budgets, raises and spends money responsibly, so that one context is not overfunded the expense of another.

Our donor relations team is tracking that 97-99% of donors derestrict their Japan donations and next give generally to MSF Canada. Again, these conversations aren’t always easy, and require patience, sophistication and effort on both sides. And the few percent who revoked their gifts are all first-time prospects to MSF Canada, who’ve not had sufficient communication and engagement with us and our operational principles. We’re now calling back hundreds of people who’ve sent in white mail with a cheque earmarked for Japan. These were fascinating conversations in the beginning and now are predictable: most of the donors say they know why we’re calling, that they sent in their cheque on an impulse to help after seeing the images on the news, but soon realized that that may not have been the most helpful gesture for MSF Canada. The rest hear us out, perhaps remain surprised that we don’t have targeted fundraising campaigns specific and proportional to the damage in Japan, but say they trust us to make the best decision on allocating their donation. Thank you for this!

As a fundraiser, I believe that, within my influence, I have a duty to our beneficiaries and donors to remove the blocks to donating as makes sense to my organization, allowing donors to participate as fully as possible in humanitarian action through their tool, the donation. But how far do we take it? MSF is not a social justice organization. Or is this the future? Is it good fundraising strategy to always offer donors companion advocacy or solidarity campaigns? Over to you now, my colleagues and donors reading this: should MSF Canada honour our donors’ growing articulation of the human need to show solidarity for whom they are writing a cheque? How can we do this within the guiding principles of our mission of emergency medical response?

Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies is incoming Chief Development Officer of Save the Children Canada. As past director of fundraising for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada, from 2007-2014 she lead a team that in seven years increased private revenue from $19 million to over $50 million. Prior to joining MSF, she held senior fundraising positions in some of Canada’s top hospitals and the University of Toronto. Her current volunteer passion is the Ripple Refugee Project, where she and a group of concerned Torontonians are sponsoring and settling five Syrian families over the new few years. Rebecca’s an active musician (French horn), plays hockey and golf, and very proudly is on the executive for and was the inaugural blog post contributor to 101fundraising.org.


Bethany Wall · April 18, 2011 at 23:46

Hi Rebecca,

Great post!

As a fundraiser at a local organization that treats children I run in to the restricted/unrestricted problem often, though on a much different scale. It sounds like you’ve hit on the perfect solution, though: strong, personal, honest relationships with your donors as you help them to understand the very real challenges you face in working in such a diverse set of countries. I would think that, not only does this help your donors make the best decision about their gift right now, it will also help to build real trust of MSF in the future. Supporters know that you will do what you say you will, and that you’ll tell them if you can’t.

The reality, as you point out, is that unrestricted donations show solidarity and support just as much as restricted ones do – by supporting the work that MSF knows is essential, and is already happening in the places and communities the donors care about.

Thanks for sharing MSF’s experience!


Dan Blakemore · May 1, 2011 at 21:50


It was very interesting to read about how MSF Canada deals with restricted giving and encouraging unrestricted gifts in response. I think that you all are doing a great job of clearly articulating the importance of unrestricted donations, while tying it all back to the mission that you are pursuing. I’d say that your best bet is to keep doing what you are doing, so that your donors remain clear on this point. Keep up the good work!

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