News and analysis
September 09, 2015

Photo of Drowned Syrian Child Spurs Spike in Donations

Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images

Donations to groups that are aiding the thousands of refugees fleeing to Europe spiked last week but are already subsiding.

Charities responding to the flood of refugees into Europe saw a surge in donations during the last week spurred by graphic media coverage of the human toll of the crisis, especially a widely published photo of a dead Syrian boy washed ashore in Turkey.

Thomas Kurmann, director of development at Doctors Without Borders, said online donations in the United States accelerated starting Thursday, when the group took in $140,000. It was followed by $290,000 on Friday and $190,000 on Saturday.

On a normal day, Doctors Without Borders receives about $30,000 in online donations, Mr. Kurmann said. He cited two reasons for the spike: coverage of the group’s work by The New York Times and the photo of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian child.

"We have very clearly the identity, the visual, of an individual that has lived this tragedy," Mr. Kurmann said of the photo, shot by a photographer for a Turkish news agency. "That comes very close to people’s hearts."

However, the power of the photos to motivate donors may be fading quickly. Donations to Doctors Without Borders dipped to $140,000 on Sunday and then $120,000 Monday. On Tuesday, they fell to $80,000.

"We can really see the curve," said Mr. Kurmann, adding that the group focuses on unrestricted gifts to ensure the flexibility it needs to respond to different events.

Expanding Crisis

Thousands of people fleeing strife in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and portions of Northern Africa are traversing the Mediterranean to reach Europe, principally Germany and Austria. More than 2,000 refugees have already drowned this year, according to the International Organization for Migration. The flow of people is taxing governments and aid organizations.

The group Migrant Offshore Aid Station, which works with Doctors Without Borders to pluck refugees from the Mediterranean, said it took in about $200,000 in PayPal donations in a 24-hour period starting September 2, the day the photos of the Syrian boy started circulating. The amount was more than triple what it had raised via the platform in the previous two years, the group said in a statement on its website.

The rate of giving accelerated on Thursday and Friday, with more than $1.1 million in additional donations. The giving largely originated in the United States, Britain, Germany, Brazil, and Turkey, the charity said.

Amid the surge in donations, Migrant Offshore Aid Station launched a crowdfunding effort to raise $3 million in 10 days to fund an additional rescue boat. Currently, the group is operating one rescue boat and two drones.

Mercy Corps took in $100,000 in online donations last Thursday, and another $100,000 Friday, said Jeremy Barnicle, chief development officer, well above average for the organization. The charity is often listed by major media and others as a place to make donations, said Mr. Barnicle, which lends momentum to emergency-response fundraising. But much of the giving was born out of organic Internet search traffic.

"What is a little different this time is because of search-optimization work we have done on our website. Our organization search results on terms like "Syrian refugee crisis" — we come up high," Mr. Barnicle said. "We are one of the first organizations you would see."

Graphic Image

The timing of the spike in donations is closely aligned with the publication and circulation of the graphic image of the Syrian child, drowned after the boat he was traveling in sank.

"Even though the news last week and this week has been about Europe, we are actually seeing the search terms are all about Syrian refugees, which is in a way heartening because it means people get what the root cause of this issue is," Mr. Barnicle said.

The single image captured what is a very complex crisis in a very personal way, Mr. Baricle said.

"It gives people a reason to think they can and should get involved. And that is what we are seeing."

Lina Sergie Attar, co-founder of the Karam Foundation, which focuses on Syrian refugees, said Tuesday that her organization had taken in an above-average $30,000 in donations during the past week. It was driven in part by social media. She and her colleagues saw numerous examples of people sharing the image of the drowned child on Twitter with requests that people direct donations to the Lake Forest, Ill.-based Karam Foundation.

A Syrian-American whose parents were forced to flee their hometown of Aleppo, Ms. Attar said she is thankful for the attention. But she also worries that the last week will prove to be what she called a "hashtag moment" with little staying power.

"It has been extremely frustrating for us to watch Syrians in need and not seeing the international response and the American response they deserve," Ms. Attar said. "The crisis is political. This is a conflict. This is not a natural disaster. But at the same time, the majority of the people suffering are families."

In August, Turkish businessman Sezgin Baran Korkmaz pledged $20 million to expand Relief International’s work with children displaced by the Syrian civil war. Last year, Hamdi Ulukaya, a Kurdish Turk who moved to the United States and founded the Greek yogurt company Chobani, pledged $2 million to the refugee crisis.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.