It’s not something you see every day, especially in the wake of a natural disaster: a nonprofit organization turning away donations.
But there it was, on the Doctors Without Borders, USA/Médecins Sans Frontières Web site:
“We have received an extraordinary outpouring of support for the people of South Asia and we are extremely grateful. … As you know, it is very important to MSF that we use your contribution as you intend it to be used. MSF estimates that we have received sufficient funds for our currently unforeseen emergency response in South Asia. … We kindly request that you contribute to our general Emergency Relief Fund, which is enabling our quick response to the current disaster in South Asia as well as humanitarian needs in war-torn Darfur, Sudan, and elsewhere in the more than 70 countries where MSF is working around the world. …”
For its part, MSF raised more than $20 million to help tsunami victims, $16 million of which was contributed via the Internet. Worldwide, the organizational network raised more than $117 million. By as early as Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2004 — three days after the earthquake and resulting tsunamis devastated South Asia — MSF had, in effect, raised the funds needed to deploy more than 200 international-aid workers and 2,000 metric tons of relief materials to the ravaged area.
Ultimately, MSF’s prudent decision to cap funding for relief efforts drew hasty criticism from the media, which predicted the stance would undercut an unprecedented wave of private giving to provide relief for the region. (In all, more than $750 million had been donated to American charities helping the tsunami victims at press time.)
But according to Alyssa Herman, director of development for the U.S. section of MSF, the overarching goal was to respect donors’ intent, not to discourage giving.
“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.”
In fact, according to the most recent Reputation Quotient study conducted by market-research firm Harris Interactive and the Reputation Institute, Doctors Without Borders earned the highest scores among charitable organizations graded on their trustworthiness.
“We’re going to make a concerted effort to take people who’ve trusted us with their donations, who might have come on strictly as tsunami donors, and make them Doctors Without Borders donors,” Herman remarks. “We always want to prospect and get new people. Now we have people who have identified themselves through this extraordinary event.”
Since its beginnings in the United States in the late 1980s, MSF has relied heavily on direct mail to educate the public about its mission, recruit volunteers and, most importantly, raise funds. A considerable emphasis is placed on the medium because MSF does not accept any U.S. government funding whatsoever. Quite an arduous task to maintain private gift levels, that.
“We want to have a broad base of private support in the country,” Herman stresses, “because our programs are needs based, impartial and irrespective of religion, politics or race. And thus, we don’t want to be tied to any political agendas.”
In 2004, MSF direct mail donors who give less than $500 annually made an average donation of $56, slightly less than that of the previous year, when the same group contributed $59. The mid-level donor group — those individuals who typically give between $500 and $5,000 annually — made an average donation of $475, also less than that of 2003, when they gave $557.
What’s more, for lapsed and active contributors combined, MSF currently is fetching a response rate of 7 percent from its first-level donors, and 5 percent from mid-level donors.
But unlike many DM-centric organizations that draw on a decidedly older female demographic, MSF mails to a starkly different donor universe.
“We tend to skew a little bit younger: 23 percent of our donors are under the age of 50, and an additional 25 percent are between 50 and 60 years old,” says Fiona Walsh, marketing director for MSF, commenting on the 700,000 strong who contribute via direct mail. “Our donor base has an almost even ratio of men versus women, and our supporters tend to live in more urban areas, although we do have broad support from across the United States.”
For a direct mail program not even a decade old, MSF will drop a total of 8.5 million acquisition pieces over seven different launch dates in 2005.
“In acquisition, we have found that we have the most success when we provide donors with a detailed overview of MSF’s work, including an insert on our financial ratios,” Walsh notes.
The organization’s current No. 10 envelope control is simple in design and approach, and includes a one-page letter signed by Executive Director Nicolas de Torrente, an insert that illustrates how MSF uses its funds, and a front-end premium of name-and-address labels.
“We’ve had a really hard time beating it in the last ten years,” Walsh shares. “We’ve made some tweaks and changes here and there, but the main approach of the control piece has pretty much stayed the same over time.”
The package will see myriad modifications, albeit small, as current humanitarian crises around the world evolve. MSF often will use its direct mail to alert the public about new and devastating outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as in January 2004, when it profiled some of the geographic regions in danger of an epidemic.
“We talked about malaria in one country, meningitis in another, measles in another,” Walsh says. “The next month we talked about what was then just starting to be a problem in Sudan and Chad. We try to make our direct mail geographically diverse and current to what we’re doing and seeing on the ground.”
A different message
But after collecting record sums through the Internet late last year, MSF had to rework its January mailing to address the tsunami disaster and alert prospects and donors on how it will receive such funds.
“That mailing focused on the fact that it was the ongoing support of our donors that allowed our medical teams, many of which were already working in the affected region, to rush to help those in urgent need,” Walsh says. “Going forward, the emphasis will continue to focus on the link between MSF’s quick response to emergencies and the strong private support we receive from our donors.”
MSF, like other conscientious nonprofit organizations, understands the benefits of holistically integrating its marketing channels. When donors give online, for example, they receive a thank-you note via e-mail, as well as a direct mail package two weeks later that thanks them again and illustrates some of the organization’s accomplishments in 2004.
“Online gifts are considerably higher than direct mail, averaging in the $185 range for the under $500 population,” Walsh says. “We also receive quite a few large donations online. For donors who give more than $5,000 annually, the average gift is around $6,200.”
In 2003, for the first time, the U.S. section of MSF established a major-gifts program with the goal of raising $30 million in new money over the next five years. Prior to the new initiative, there had been no MSF staff member or program in place to proactively cultivate major donors. Big gifts on the order of $5,000 just came in via direct mail and the Internet year after year.
“As we’ve started to grow our major-gifts program, there has been more recognition that our direct mail has brought a lot of people spontaneously up to this level,” Walsh says proudly. “It’s very rare that you see a direct mail package go out and come back with a $5,000, $10,000, even $25,000 gift.”
MSF’s major undertaking
The woman in charge of fostering relationships with high-dollar donors — those 1,200 generous individuals who contribute more than $5,000 annually — is Mary Sexton, a former MSF volunteer who took her post as major gifts officer in 2003.
“When I started here, there had been only limited contact with these people,” Sexton affirms. “Now we’re making a concerted effort to meet with them one on one to find out what their interests are and why they chose to come to us. Is it because of our work with HIV/AIDS? Or because of work in Africa?”
Previously, the MSF development staff had cultivated major donors on a minimal basis and without a long-term strategic plan. They at first had a hard time knowing what global issue, or issues, inspired donors to give at the higher level.
“You look at a donor record now, someone who’s been giving to us since 1994. They might have started off through direct mail giving maybe $50, and then went up to the $500 level,” Sexton goes on. “Now, for the last five years, they’ve been giving $5,000. Here is a person who might be ready to move up to the next level.”
Enter Sexton. As part of her work to develop relationships with high-dollar donors and provide them with a real-life sounding board, she zips off handwritten notes to every individual who contributes more than $5,000. Those donors also receive personalized renewal letters once a year to encourage them to give again, as well as to upgrade their gift; an annual report; and MSF’s Insider newsletter, a new publication that vets the organization’s humanitarian undertakings around the world.
“The challenge for us is that we don’t take donors into the field, even though some relief agencies do,” Sexton says. “So we’re always trying to figure out ways to keep people personally involved, where they really do feel like they’re an invaluable part of our work.”
For example, Sexton will make a phone call or send a note to a donor who has expressed interest in a certain cause, such as MSF’s new HIV/AIDS treatment program. It might sound something like, “Hey, I thought you might like to know what we’re doing in Rwanda with survivors of the genocide that occurred in 1994. A team of five psychologists helps women — many of whom were raped during the genocide and have subsequently developed AIDS — to express their anxiety and anger.”
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. One other thing Sexton has observed firsthand since the fledgling major gifts program was implemented — now that donors have her ear — is that operational costs are an issue of deep concern.
“The people we’re dealing with at this level are savvy, and very aware of the percentages,” Sexton says. “If they get too much mail, they’ll ask me, ‘Why are you spending this money?’ Nearly every solicitation call I go on I’m asked about administrative and fundraising costs.”
At the time of this interview, Sexton was still busy assessing the unprecedented sum of high-dollar donations that had been contributed to MSF for its part in the tsunami-relief effort. Many large gifts came from people who’d not previously existed on any prospect files. Some have giving histories with MSF, but only at a $100 level, for example, and well below Sexton’s radar. But then, all of a sudden, bang, they anted up $15,000.
“I’m calling people who’ve given specifically to the tsunami-relief effort and saying, ‘Thank you so much, it’s very generous of you, but I’m sorry, we cannot absorb this money as a restricted gift,’” Sexton says. “I tell them, ‘We’d like you to consider our Emergency Relief Fund, which allows us to respond quickly to emergencies like the tsunami [in South Asia].’”
Many donors de-restricted their gifts with little reluctance, Sexton reports, citing a deep admiration for MSF’s mission of providing medical aid to victims of armed conflict, epidemics, and natural and man-made disasters. One donor replied: “I don’t know why I restricted my gift in the first place. I’ve been thinking about giving to MSF, but I’ve been so busy lately.”
Another woman asked, “Well, what other projects could I contribute to, then? I’d really like to know where my money’s going.”
Sexton quickly reminded the woman about the current crisis in Sudan. “That’s still going on?” the woman asked. “Of course, MSF currently has 282 international staff members and 3,657 national staff members on the ground,” Sexton responded.
One constant in international-relief efforts: the more media coverage a crisis attracts, the more donor dollars stream in.
“Now, because of the tsunami, we think we might be able to identify major donors who we didn’t know about and who didn’t know too much about us,” Sexton says. “We thought, even pre-tsunami, that we would hit our $30 million goal sooner than expected. Now it’s making us look at our goals a little differently.”
In calendar year 2004, MSF received $9.4 million from foundations and corporations, a vastly improved revenue stream from that of 2000, when the organization pulled in close to $1.8 million combined — the first year it had raised such funds.
An ongoing challenge for Patricia A. Surak, MSW, director of foundations and corporate relations, is to find new support from credible firms and grant-making institutions that meet the criteria of the organization’s strict gift-acceptance policy.
MSF will not accept any contributions from corporations or industries and their respective corporate foundations whose core activities could be considered in direct conflict with the goals of its humanitarian work. The organization has broken such groups into three categories: tobacco, alcohol and arms manufacturing; mineral, oil, gas and other extraction industries; and pharmaceutical industries.
The latter juggernaut happens to commit huge funds to international-relief organizations on an annual basis. Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb and GlaxoSmithKline are just a few of the pharmaceutical firms that have contributed mightily to the tsunami-relief effort.
MSF feels that accepting corporate funding from pharmaceutical firms, particularly members of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, would compromise its position with respect to its Access to Essential Medicines Campaign.
According to the charity’s corporate-gift acceptance policy, the IFPMA, as a body, “objects to parallel imports and compulsory licensing, supports uniformly high prices and sets a profit-driven research and development agenda — all of which counter the objectives of [our] campaign.”
But much like the first-time major donors who discovered MSF’s Web site, address or 800 number of their own accord, foundation and corporate supporters of nearly every stripe “came out of the woodwork” to help fund MSF’s South Asia project, says Surak, who’s been busy herself persuading tsunami supporters to de-restrict their gifts.
Going forward, Surak and her team plan to focus more energy on soliciting corporate gifts from the financial-services sector, as one of MSF’s largest institutional supporters is a banking firm.
“Most financial companies coincide well with our corporate-gift acceptance policy,” Surak says. “We know that there’s a philanthropic arm to almost every financial institution, and we certainly know there’s money there.”
Many of these firms are, in fact, international institutions but tend to focus their philanthropy in local communities where they have operations, Surak says.
“This seems to be changing, because many [firms] have recently set up disaster-relief programs or international, grant-making mechanisms,” she adds.