Donations for Nepal are acts of pure faith

Donors need signals of trustworthiness to help them give

The world has mobilized to help stricken Nepalese in the wake of a massive earthquake on S aturday April 25. As ear ​ly as Sunday workers began arriving amid scenes of horrible loss and devastation, and a pervasive climate of fear.

The swelling expeditionary force includes dozens of secular development NGOs, religious mission agencies, specialized humanitarian groups, and teams deployed by governments. Meanwhile Christian, Islamic and Jewish organizations alike are appealing for funds.

My social media feeds and email also deliver appeals by agencies, and people pointing to their preferred international charities.

We are deeply troubled by the images of the suffering of people; it feels cruel simply to browse news stories online or passively watch the news. From basic empathy, and compassion and the need to act, and from our history, we have every reason to think Canadian donors will be very generous.

Canadian non-government organizations and NGOS around the world have an amazing ability to mobilize; it all costs major sums of money; and donors want to respond. But detailed plans and predictions are impossible. Armed only with general information on what agencies can or will do, donors must act on trust.

Donations made now are beautiful acts of pure faith. But they are not random. People respond to signs of trustworthiness that raise their confidence high enough to take the risk of making a gift in a very fluid situation.

I believe people respond to some mix, often highly personal to the donor, of seven signals of trustworthiness. To illustrate, I've collected some representative calls-to-action issued on Sunday, one day after the earthquake. I’ve used each example to highlight only one point, but of course, the organizations named offer several or all these qualities to donors. (Links are provided for follow up but content at those links changes rapidly).

I am not particularly recommending these or any other agencies. There are many excellent choices, some of which don’t have the capacity to be online with an appeal in a few hours. These seven examples are only used an answer to the question: in this moment of crisis, what are the components of trust that help a donor to act?

1.  A track record of impact

"UNICEF has saved more children’s lives than any other humanitarian organization. We work tirelessly to help children and their families, doing whatever it takes to ensure children survive. We provide children with healthcare and immunization, clean water, nutrition and food security, education, emergency relief, and more."

The appeal of UNICEF is their leadership position. There is no mention of any specific action plan. Such an assertion only works if it is credible: the statement reassures the donor, and then invites the donor to agree that, by extension, UNICEF will save lives in this situation.

2.  A sense of working together to make a difference

"The Humanitarian Coalition (Care, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam Quebec, Plan Canada, and Save the Children) brings together Canada's leading aid agencies to finance relief efforts in times of international humanitarian crises. As a joint Canadian approach to humanitarian response, the Humanitarian Coalition is a "one-stop-shop" for all Canadians during times of international humanitarian crises. The five member agencies of the Humanitarian Coalition work together to reduce unnecessary competition, inform the public on humanitarian needs, increase the impact of Canadian humanitarian responses and reduce administrative costs. . . . When disaster strikes, each member agency brings its specific expertise to implementing humanitarian programs. . . . The Humanitarian Coalition is responding to the devastating earthquake in Nepal with a national joint appeal. . . . Our member agencies are on the ground  . . . “

During a crisis, the “one-stop-shop” has tremendous appeal to donors don’t have a relationship with another aid agency. It satisfies the sense of urgency, helps to overcome hesitation about not knowing who to choose, and deflects concerns about competition among NGOs on the ground. The coalition has also attracted significant federal aid funds, which further reassures the donor.

3.  A human face  

World Vision staff are prepared to respond to the urgent needs of survivors, after a catastrophic earthquake hit Nepal, Saturday." Our relief response will target an initial 50,000 people in the worst-affected areas of Lamjung, Gorkha and Kathmandu Valley," confirmed Liz Satow, National Director, Nepal. ​‘Assessment teams are on their way to the hardest-hit areas. We will focus on shelter and distribution of non-food-items, child protection - including establishing three child friendly spaces, education, water and hygiene,’ said Satow.​”

Often World Vision is the agency that puts a face on a relief effort, as exemplified here by quoting a national director. When donors check out World Vision, they’ll get this message: we have a real person there, and that person is talking specific needs and real numbers. (Disclosure: World Vision has been a client of KMA’s.)

4.  Like-minded connections

Samaritan’s Purse deployed a team of 16 disaster response experts, including six medical personnel. Staff began to arrive on Sunday. We will work with local ministry partners in Nepal. We will be helping victims with emergency shelter, water, hygiene kits, and other emergency supplies. We are sending initial supplies for 15,000 households, and anticipate doing more as the response continues. The medical team and supplies will support mission hospitals that are Samaritan’s Purse partners.”

With a history in Nepal, and a lot of logistical experience, Samaritan’s Purse focuses its appeal on the specifics of what and where it can deliver. Their web site pinpoints where they’ll be working, and they are superb at generating reporting from a scene (including reporting Sunday’s second quake very quickly online). They leverage their network of local agencies, mostly church-related, for both distribution and accountability, and that network forms part of their value proposition to donors.

5.  Long-term strategic thinking 

“Mennonite central Committee (MCC) is aware of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that has struck an area between the capital Kathmandu, and the city of Pokhara, Nepal. We have confirmed that all of our staff are safe and our buildings are intact. MCC will be responding to the earthquake, and we welcome donations to this effort. We will provide more detail on our response as we assess the situation. We ask for prayers for the people of Nepal and those affected in neighbouring countries.”

Notice the implied long-term relationship, the assumption that the readers will want to know about MCC personnel and properties, suggesting those donors feel an affinity for all aspects of the work. MCC donors are typically better informed about international needs and issues, and tend to support efforts for years at a time. They wouldn’t believe a “give-today-save-a-life-today” promise. They will give, generously and intentionally, favouring strategy over immediacy, and know they’ll get detailed reporting. Not all the donors will be Mennonite – name recognition and trust is high for MCC among a wide swath of people.

6.   Depth of presence in the field

“The magnitude 7.9 earthquake that struck near Kathmandu, Nepal, has caused widespread devastation and resulted in immediate humanitarian needs for people in the region. Red Cross teams are on the ground providing assistance and Canadians are encouraged to help support the effort.”

Red Cross may be one of the most recognizable brands in the world. I applaud how matter-of-fact and terse this is: “Red Cross teams are on the ground.” Of course they are: we have taken that for granted for a couple of generations. No need to describe who they are or what they do. The donor who simply wants to give to someone credible and trust that good things will happen finds the Red Cross powerfully appealing. And Red Cross, through its many national organizations, faces no questions about whether or not they have staying power.

7.  Transparency and accountability 

“The international medical humanitarian medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is sending 8 teams to assist those affected by the Earthquake in Nepal.

  • Four MSF teams departed this morning from Bihar state in India and are currently at the border with Nepal clearing with authorities before heading to the areas affected by the earthquake
  • A surgical team composed of 8 highly skilled staff, will, this afternoon leave Brussels for Kathmandu. The team will set up a surgical unit as well as run mobile clinics aimed at reaching affected people in remote areas.
  • One MSF team from Delhi, India is now headed for Kathmandu after initially being re-routed back to India due to aftershocks. The team is expected in Kathmandu later today and will start providing medical assistance. 
  • One team of medical and logistical staff is headed for Kathmandu Valley from Japan. 
  • More emergency supplies are being sent from Bordeaux, France today. 
  • Another MSF team from Amsterdam will depart today with additional medical and water and sanitation capacity.”

MSF are the SWAT team of international aid and relief. Look at the moving parts and details: what they offer is specificity and focus. If I’m drawn by knowing more precisely how my funds are being used, MSF is hard to beat. But where they have especially stood apart in the past is due to their transparency and accountability: in Haiti in 2010 they asked people to stop giving them money because they could not use it.


People want to give. We want people to give. They’re looking for that mix of signals that dispels anxiety, and fosters confidence and hope – creating trust and justifying their faith.

- Larry Matthews