A Conversation with Thomas Kurmann, MSF-USA's Director of Development

Yann Libessart/MSF

Where does MSF-USA’s funding come from?

In 2013, 92 percent of our donations came from more than 630,000 private individuals, and the other 8 percent came from foundations and corporations. We have what we could call a financially democratic pyramid; we are not dependent on a few top donors; 57 percent of our revenue is being generously donated by donors that give to us less than $500.

Can people earmark their donations for specific projects?

Our philosophy, in line with our humanitarian principles of impartiality, independence, and neutrality, is to prioritize giving that is not earmarked. This allows us to stay flexible and to allocate money where our medical assistance is needed most.

We accept earmarked donations when it corresponds to a wish of the donor. Major donors, particularly foundations and corporate partners, do often want to allocate their donation to a specific project. It is one of our fundraising principles to accommodate the wish of the donor. And we will at exceptional times launch specific campaigns for ongoing projects that need funds. But in both cases, we have to be sure that we can actually spend the money where and how it’s intended to be spent, that the needs are there, and that we have teams that can address them.

Are there specific projects you see needing more funding now and in the year ahead?

Syria, Central African Republic, and South Sudan are still underfunded. These are examples of places where there is space for earmarked funds. Across our offices in the world, campaigns focused on these places have not received the response we’d hoped they would. The contexts are complex, the crisis is human made, and it’s very difficult to see progress, which I think gives donors pause. Unfortunately, the needs are the same regardless.

How do you ensure that MSF-USA can meet its financial contribution to the entire MSF movement?

Globally, MSF is trying to increase fundraising to a level that corresponds with the massive operational needs our teams see in the field, and we have, after an in-depth analysis, identified a few countries where we see potential. The US is one of them, and we intend to increase revenue from the US over the coming years based on our current five-year plan, which outlines our strategic priorities.

We are pursuing several new initiatives designed to get our message, the message that so many have responded to so generously, to more people. A primary focus of our efforts will be to inspire even more people to give on a regular basis, because monthly giving helps keep us responsive if and when emergencies occur. It provides the organization with increased financial stability and predictability of revenue, which is important for our project management in the field.

How do you balance the need to invest in new initiatives with the need to keep our expenditures at a certain level?

We have to keep a healthy balance between investments and revenue in order to keep our administrative spending at an acceptable level. But we do see growing needs for field projects and we would like to continue to develop and expand programs that bolster our ability to run more vaccination campaigns, offer new treatments that have shown strong results so far—seasonal malaria chemoprevention, for instance—and to support our efforts in conflict zones and isolated areas where we see fewer and fewer other agencies working. We have to convey these needs to the public and help them understand the great impact they can have by supporting these efforts.

Why do you think people give to MSF?

We asked donors this in focus groups last year, and their answer was very clear. They support us because they see us as an emergency organization. Donors admire the doctors, the people who go to the field and dedicate their lives and their time to our lifesaving activities. They respect that we are an organization that is independent and goes into areas others do not, in crisis situations, in war situations, where assistance is most needed.