News and analysis
October 08, 2015

September a Record-Setting Month for Donations for Refugee Crisis

courtesy of Karam Foundation

The Karam Foundation received $130,000 in September to support Syrian refugees. The grant maker's mission is to "build a better future for Syria," according to its website. Among other things, it has sponsored Syrian refugees, like 14-year-old Mohamad, who now lives in Reyhanli, Turkey, and is enrolled in school.

September was a record-setting month for charitable donations in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, according to officials at several aid organizations, the result of heavy media coverage. Still, the scale of the Syrian conflict and others, which have created a record 60-million displaced persons worldwide, coupled with years of donor silence, means resources are insufficient.

"The needs are really escalating out of control," Rebecca Milner, spokesperson for International Medical Corps. "The sheer numbers are overwhelming."

During the last five weeks, the group received $1.2 million in private donations for its work with Syrian refugees, Ms. Milner said, after taking in almost none previously. It has been providing relief since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, with money from the U.S. and British governments and U.N. agencies.

Migrant Offshore Aid Station, based on the island of Malta, raised $2.7 million in September, Director Martin Xuereb said by telephone Thursday, an about-face for a group that once struggled to raise any money. It costs about $450,000 a month to operate its 130-foot rescue boat, drones, and other equipment to pluck distressed refugees from the Mediterranean.

"We don’t consider it a windfall, we consider it a bigger responsibility to our donors," Mr. Xuereb said of the spike in donations.

Like other charity leaders, he cited the widely circulated photo of 3-year old Syrian Aylan Kurdi, who drowned on a beach in Turkey, and mentions of Migrant Offshore Aid Station in the media, as the accelerant.

The organization, which was founded by an American couple living in Malta, has six full-time staff members in addition to its boat crew and has recently been approached by a few small U.S. foundations, Mr. Xuereb said.

Mercy Corp raised $2.1 million for Syria-related refugee work last month, said Jeremy Barnicle, chief development officer, a one-month record for the organization. Individual online donations spiked shortly after the photo of Aylan Kurdi began to circulate on September 2. Donations from corporations including TripAdvisor, MasterCard, Western Union, and PepsiCo were close behind.

"Giving really came alive when awful images and stories of Syrians suffering in Europe came to light," Mr. Barnicle said.

In September, the U.S. Fund for Unicef took in $1.4 million for Unicef’s Syrian and refugee response, spokesperson Jodi Patkin said. It was a one-month fundraising record on the issue for the organization.

In the week following the publication of the drowned Syrian toddler, donations spiked 636 percent to $591,000, she said.

By contrast, in all of August, the U.S. Fund for Unicef received $75,631.

A record 60 million people have been displaced worldwide, according to a report published by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in June. The conflict in Syria has produced nearly 3.8-million refugees and displaced 7.6 million more people internally.

The human flows are taxing governments and aid organizations. Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have absorbed the bulk of the Syrian refugees. But in 2015, 500,000, people — principally from war-torn Syria but also Iraq, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa — have surged into Europe.

Nearly 3,000 have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean in overloaded, rickety vessels, according to the International Organization for Migration. Those images and others — families clawing up Greek beaches and cramming into trains bound for Austria — captured the world’s attention for weeks in September.

It was the heavy media coverage that finally jump-started charitable giving for a cause previously ignored by donors, according to charity leaders and disaster-philanthropy experts.

Speaking in Washington this week, Bob Ottenhoff, chief executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, said that slow-burning catastrophes like the Syrian civil war do not produce substantial charitable giving.

"Virtually no donations either from the private sector or from individuals have gone into that event," Mr. Ottenhoff said. "There is something in the American donor community that says we need a media event to really drive contributions."

Last month offered up that media event. In 72 hours in mid-September, donors maxed out an online fundraising campaign in which Google matched donations, raising a total of $11.2 million. The money went to four nonprofits working with refugees: Doctors Without Borders, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Lutheran World Relief received 357 donations, online and in the mail, totaling $140,230 in September, according to spokesperson John Rivera. The month prior it received five totaling $568, he said.

The charity was listed in how-to-help boxes published by The New York Times and CNN’s Impact Your World, which "undoubtedly helped to drive donations," he said.

Lina Sergie Attar, co-founder of the Karam Foundation, which is based in Lake Forest, Ill., and focuses on Syrian refugees, received a record $130,000 from individuals and corporate donors in September. The group also received a $15,000 ad grant from Twitter and gained 20,000 followers on Facebook.

"We hope that people will continue to support the Syrian people — the refugees and the displaced — even when the media coverage dies down," she said in an email.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launched four new emergency appeals in September to aid refugees flowing through Serbia, Macedonia, Hungary, and Greece. It started another appeal, for its work in Italy, in May. As of October 2, the organization had hit 60 percent of its overall target for all five appeals, spokesperson Benoit Matsha-Carpentier said by email.

The length of the appeals is typically about seven months, he said.

"For now, the response to our appeals has been quite good," he said. "We can reasonably hope that we will reach the targets, but we can never be sure, and we need to keep donors mobilized on this issue."

The appeals will be revised based on assessments of needs in various countries, he said. As for media coverage, he added, "we can see that it is going down a little bit now, despite the fact that thousands of people still arrive every week and the temperatures are dropping quickly."

Send an email to Megan O’Neil.