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A Conversation with MSF-USA Director of Development Jennifer Tierney
January 31, 2013
This article is part of the Winter 2013 issue of the MSF Alert newsletter.
DRC 2012 © Elise Odiekila/MSF
What are MSF’s fundraising priorities in the year ahead?
In 2012, there were very few of what you might call “sustained visible emergencies.” Even where there were massive emergencies, like the refugee crisis in South Sudan, we saw sparse media coverage because the presidential election was the central story of the year. That meant that we received significantly less spontaneous giving than we did in a year like 2011, when the Japanese tsunami and the Sahel crisis were widely covered. We had to work really hard to bring in as much funding as we had the prior year because despite a shift in media coverage, our medical priorities and funding needs stayed the same. We did it, by just a percentage point or two, but we had to make sustained and concerted efforts to raise those extra dollars.
Planning for 2013, we’re faced with the challenge of keeping our programs well-funded when there is uncertainty about this spontaneous revenue, which can be close to 20 percent of our total income in some years. So, the question is how much do we invest in fundraising while keeping our low cost to raise a dollar? The best way to do this is to increase our multi-year pledges and monthly donations that we are fairly certain will materialize. We want to grow those areas.
“MSF-USA created a gift acceptance policy that restricts us from accepting gifts from corporations that come into direct conflict with our mission: extraction companies, alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and pharmaceutical and biotechnology.”
Financially speaking, what is MSF-USA’s role in the larger MSF movement?
We raise from 17 to 20 percent of the total income for the movement in a given year. There are 25 offices that fundraise, so we clearly have a large piece of the fundraising pie.
What types of gift will MSF not accept?
MSF-USA created a gift acceptance policy that restricts us from accepting gifts from corporations that come into direct conflict with our mission: extraction companies, alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and pharmaceutical and biotechnology. We do this to maintain our independence. If we are advocating against a pharmaceutical company’s efforts to secure a patent that would increase the costs of the HIV medicines we use in the field, it would be difficult to have a strong position if we were taking money from that same company. Biotech companies don’t often adapt their technology to resource-poor settings where we work, so it is a similar situation with them. Extraction companies can cause a great deal of strife in the areas where we work—to me the starkest example is the Niger Delta, where conflict over resources exploits the poor and can incite violence. Alcohol, tobacco, and firearms are all clearly bad for your health, and our Board of Directors, many of whom are and have been medical field staff, feel strongly that we should not take money from these sources.
We also won’t accept gifts from a donor who wants to fund a particular project that we’re not already doing, or a particular village or something along those lines. We try to keep funding aligned with the needs in the field and stress private giving to maintain our independence and neutrality.
“I think having returned field staff and office staff working as volunteers to assist people on the eighteenth floor of a housing development with no electricity, helping people who are elderly or infirm and can’t access their medication get the care they need, is a perfectly relevant thing for us to do.”
In the last year and a half, you spent two months at a project in South Sudan and another in Lebanon, helping with MSF’s projects in Syria. What did you get out of it?
Those were great experiences. And the projects were clearly relevant. We’re not kidding around when we talk about saving lives. We really do what we’re say we’re doing in the direct marketing pieces.
The team in Pibor, South Sudan, was amazing. They were so particular and careful about spending money, fearful of overspending money, on the project. They were almost too cautious in some cases, but it showed that people in the field are very cognizant of the fact that these are private donors supporting us and being very careful about spending funds on the most pressing needs. There are frustrations, too, of course. Working in Lebanon on the Syria project and knowing that security and access issues were limiting our work was incredibly frustrating, and by extension this limits the money that we can spend and the work that we can do there. In South Sudan, where we did have access, we spent a great deal of funds responding to the refugee crisis there. I believe that was the largest response we had in 2012, financially speaking, and it was incredibly relevant because there were not a lot of other actors on the ground.
Why did MSF work in the US, which it normally does not do, after Hurricane Sandy?
We learned from Katrina not to assume that the government was going to respond in the full-fl edged way necessary to address the needs of the most marginalized people in these communities. So we were monitoring the situation, thinking there is probably a narrow role we can play in the medical field, and we did identify some very specific needs in different locations. I think it was an appropriate response. I think having returned field staff and office staff working as volunteers to assist people on the eighteenth floor of a housing development with no electricity, helping people who are elderly or infirm and can’t access their medication get the care they need, is a perfectly relevant thing for us to do. It raises the question of how much we can do that in the US, but in this case, it seemed like the right thing to do.
Is there anything else you think people should know?
I think they should know that the staff in the field has a real appreciation for their support, something I wish I could bring out more in the materials that we send. I’m not sure we’ve been successful at communicating what a community it is, and how essential every element is— the staff here, the people in the field, the donors. It’s all interconnected and I don’t think the donors hear that enough. So I’d be happy to have them know that people on the ground are very aware of the part the donors play in the work they do and the care they can provide others.
Tags: How MSF Works