How MSF works: A fundraising model that allows for immediate response when emergencies or natural disasters occur

When emergencies or disasters such as floods or earthquakes happen anywhere around the world, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is often among the first organizations providing people critical medical care and support in countries that cannot themselves sufficiently respond.

But how does an organization that already works to provide emergency medical care in over 70 countries prepare itself for the unexpected? One part of the answer lies in our approach to fundraising.

How does MSF fund its responses to emergencies?

It’s crucial in any emergency situation that people’s humanitarian needs determine the funding we use, rather than having the amount of available funding define what needs we can meet.

Our funding model reflects the fact that we must be flexible and quick to respond in times of crisis. That’s why MSF depends on unrestricted contributions from private donors. Private donations enable us to make decisions based on our own determination of immediate medical needs.

What do you mean by unrestricted contributions?

Unless otherwise specified, contributions to MSF are directed to our general emergency fund, which is what we draw upon to deliver lifesaving healthcare wherever it’s needed around the world. Regular monthly or annual general donations — gifts that aren’t restricted to use in a specific context — are one of the best ways to support our work. Not only do such unrestricted and predictable funds allow us to plan ahead and effectively implement the thousands of medical interventions we conduct around the world every year, they also let us respond to unexpected crises and emergencies immediately.

MSF’s rapid responses to disasters and other emergencies — especially our medical interventions during the critical first 72 hours of a crisis, when many survivors can still be treated — are made possible thanks to the unrestricted funding we have received from our supporters. It’s from this pool of funding that we draw the resources we need to act, and on which we depend for all our emergency-response activities.

Does MSF accept donations designated for specific emergencies?

There are some emergencies so severe that we require additional support in order to maintain our response: The COVID-19 crisis is an example of this, as was the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014. On these occasions, MSF launched specific fundraising appeals. In such cases, accepting designated funding allows us to scale up the resources necessary for a particularly overwhelming emergency without drawing resources away from other essential MSF programs around the world.

These are determined on a case-by-case basis, in response to needs and capacities. We won’t ask for additional support in a particular emergency until we can determine whether there is a need for our work. If designated support has not been explicitly requested, it is always best to visit the MSF website or contact us directly to find out if we are accepting donations for a specific crisis before making a restricted gift.

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