August 18, 2015

This article appears in the Summer 2015 issues of Dispatches, the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) magazine.

When natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes happen anywhere around the world, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is almost always among the first organizations on the ground, providing urgent medical care and relief in countries that cannot themselves sufficiently respond.

But how does an organization that already works to provide emergency medical care in nearly 70 countries prepare itself for the unexpected? One part of the answer lies in our approach to fundraising. MSF Canada fundraising manager Conan MacLean explains how we make sure MSF has the resources we need to respond to any emergency that requires our help — and how we stay flexible enough to always work wherever the needs are greatest.


How does MSF fund its responses to emergencies such as natural disasters?

It’s crucial in any emergency situation that patient needs determine the funding we use, rather than having the amount of available funding define what needs we can meet.

Our funding model reflects the fact that we must be flexible and quick to respond in times of crisis. That’s why MSF depends on unrestricted contributions from private, individual donors. Private donations enable us to make decisions based on our own determination of immediate medical needs.


What do you mean by unrestricted contributions?

Unless otherwise specified, contributions to MSF are directed to our general emergency fund, which is what we draw upon to deliver lifesaving healthcare wherever it’s needed around the world. Regular monthly or annual general donations — gifts that aren’t restricted to use in a specific context — are one of the best ways to support our work. Not only do such unrestricted and predictable funds allow us to plan ahead and effectively implement the thousands of medical interventions we conduct around the world every year, they also let us respond to unexpected crises and emergencies immediately.

MSF’s rapid responses to natural disasters and other emergencies — especially our medical interventions during the critical first 72 hours of a crisis, when many victims can still be saved — are made possible thanks to the unrestricted funding we have received from our supporters. It’s from this pool of funding we draw the resources we need to act, and on which we depend for all our emergency-response activities.


Does MSF accept donations designated for specific emergencies?

There are some catastrophes so severe that we require additional support in order to maintain our response: The Ebola crisis in West Africa was an example of this, as was the Haiti earthquake in 2010. On these occasions, MSF launched specific fundraising appeals. In such cases, accepting designated funding allows us to scale up the resources necessary for a particularly overwhelming emergency without drawing resources away from other essential MSF programs around the world.

These are determined on a case-by-case basis, in response to needs and capacities. We won’t ask for additional support in a particular emergency until we can determine whether there is a need for our work. If designated support has not been explicitly requested, it is always best to visit the MSF website or contact us directly to find out if we are accepting donations for a specific crisis before making a restricted gift.


How did MSF respond to the recent earthquake in Nepal?

Within hours of the first quake on April 25, MSF teams and emergency supplies were already en route to Nepal, and were soon delivering essential care to those affected by the disaster, especially in areas that were otherwise cutoff from any immediate assistance. Fourteen Canadian field workers were part of that emergency response effort, and MSF Canada also sent supplies, including specialized emergency tents that had been developed here in Canada.

It was thanks to our supporters, and the contributions they had already made to our general fund, that we were able to respond so immediately and effectively. Our medical teams were then able to assess the needs on the ground, and we determined it was not necessary to raise further designated funds in order to do our work. It was an example of the fund operating as it should, and of a successful emergency intervention that we — our teams in the field and our supporters here at home — were able to do together.


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