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The refugee crisis requires collaboration between big and small charities

The refugee crisis has been brewing for the past year, and has suddenly come into sharp focus following the pictures last week of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. The public mood has shifted dramatically, and now many people want to help. The key question is how.

The response from professionals in this field, the international charities, has been the usual one: “We are best placed to support refugees, please donate your money to support us.”

For many people, especially here in Stroud, Gloucestershire, this is not enough. Emotionally moved by the plight of millions, people don’t want to simply click a button and then move onto something else; they want to show solidarity, support and simple human warmth. Using the power of social media, Stroud Supporting Calais Refugees has sprung up overnight, and already has 1,500 supporters on Facebook and a van load of clothes, tents and other donated items ready to be delivered to Calais.

This simple idea that people are in need, we want to help, we will find them and support them has been at the heart of human society for thousands of years. It is the basic tenant of most religions. Indeed, this spirit was the founding stone of many of today’s aid organisations; for example, Oxfam was formed by a group of Quakerssocial activists, and Oxford academics responding to the great famine in Greece in 1942. Now, though, with the professionalisation of emergency response, the “enthusiastic amateur” is deterred from contributing aside from detached donating.

This clash between big and small charity is being highlighted now for a number of reasons. Social media now enables people to coordinate very quickly, and big organisations are behind the curve on this. People have grown tired of the old ways, of leaving it to the government and organisations to solve these crises. And this refugee crisis is more tangible than others in recent times, as people returning from summer holidays witness scenes of dire need and share these stories with their neighbours.

Yes, the situation is more complex than seems at first glance. Yes, it is difficult for charities to coordinate a messy response from many who are desperate to deliver support in person.

The real question is: why does big charity need to control this basic human response? When the zeitgeist changes so dramatically, catching and taming the energy and emotion into an ordered response is hard work and loses impact in the process. The real challenge is how can all responses, big and small, be welcomed and coordinated in a spirit of chaotic collaboration.

On a local level, this means long-standing local activists (councillors, politicians, charity workers) welcoming the sudden wave of support and helping to channel the energy in the best direction for the greatest good, avoiding the all-too human temptation to shape responses in their image.

Stephen Morley is director of Sango Consulting, a management consultancy

  • Guy Griffiths

    Same here in Wokingham, Berkshire, Steve. Overwhelming response through social media and word of mouth for local collections, especially because it feels like you’re doing something more than clicking the donate button, and it brings people together too… as in, “I’ve missed the local drop off”… “that’s no problem, there’s another one at this place/time”.
    I believe there’s also an aspect of people thinking that more of their donations will go directly to those in need, and I hope this is the case.

    • Steve Morley

      A real sense of community
      and cohesion has grown around this huge issue, and from anecdotal evidence this
      is apparently true in the Calais refugee camps as well as in local British
      communities. Apparently there has been a noticeable improvement in morale since
      people began arriving with practical and emotional support. Regarding the issue
      of how much actually reaches those in need, in my experience British charities
      big and small are relatively efficient and effective in delivering emergency
      aid.

  • Caron Boulghassoul

    There is also a shyness of smaller charities in making the ask. Whilst the big charities are ready and waiting for opportunities to raise donations, for smaller charities like Nottingham Arimathea Trust, we have been uncomfortable with making the ask for donations especially at vigils for the lost lives of people in the Mediterranean. Is this a time when we should ask, or just give space to the raised consciousness in society and then make the ask for donations at a later time?

    • Steve Morley

      Of course it’s important to be sensitive to donors, but you need to keep the bigger picture in mind. Small charities can only keep going, and making a difference to many peoples’ lives, if they learn how to systematically and consistently ‘make the ask’ of potential donors; many studies have concluded that the majority of people give because they have been asked, and not through an in-depth understanding of the organisation. I would definitely advise giving people who are sympathetic to your cause an opportunity to donate, just through subtle means rather than shaking a tin at them!