“We had to convey a very nuanced message, and in some cases it was reported incorrectly in the news,” Herman admits. “On Monday [Dec. 27, 2004], I was saying to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to raise $10 [million], $15 [million], even $20 million without really doing any fundraising.’ I saw this generosity and this tremendous emotional outpouring through the Web, and I wanted to make sure that we honored our donors’ wishes.”
On Wednesday, Dec. 29, a message was posted to the organization’s Web site, DoctorsWithoutBorders.org, to let prospective donors know that its South Asia relief program was just about fully funded. By Friday, MSF had stopped collecting donations altogether.
“I was feeling concerned early on that we were going to get this deluge of restricted money that we really couldn’t spend. That’s why we put up that message,” Herman notes. “We wanted to be forthcoming with our intentions and also direct peoples’ attention to the other parts of the world that we’re serving.
“For all our fundraising initiatives, it’s important for us to collect general funds for our operational independence,” Herman adds. “The nature of our work is that we never want to have more funds than we could spend, or need, in the event that we do have to shut a project down, for whatever reason.”
MSF’s assessment reflects a broader circumspection among relief agencies about honoring donor intent. To many, this emotional outpouring from donors calls to mind the controversy surrounding American Red Cross’ response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when the organization planned to distribute funds raised to other programs not directly related to the New York City and Washington, D.C., relief efforts.
As a charity mindful of its reputation in the world, MSF saw no choice but to cap funding.
“Our donors want to know that we really care about their intentions, that we’re using their donations very carefully,” says Herman, an MSF staff member since 1992. “People really respect that, and I think it’s helpful in establishing and cultivating long-term relationships.”