Update 12/21: Some of the comments from donors below this post are worth reading. Also, I’ve added UNICEF to the list of organizations at a reader’s recommendation. Happy holidays, and thank you for giving to Syrians in need.
Recently, a friend from Latin America expressed her difficulty in following along with what’s happening in Syria, and wondered aloud if there was anything at all she could do to help. She, like me, has friends in Syria, but largely feels helpless living in a city without a strong Syrian community, where there are virtually no protests to join, no ways to locally reach out.
One way to help that has a low barrier to entry is by donating or volunteering with organizations working with Syrian refugees. I’ve seen a lot of tweets about different organizations, and while I’m sure all have the right intentions in mind, as someone who donates (small amounts) frequently to a variety of organizations (and also as someone who has worked in fundraising), there are a few things to look out for when selecting an organization. You want to be sure that the organization is registered, and has been vetted independently by Charity Navigator, Guidestar, or similar ranking systems. If I’m considering a regular or somewhat large donation (large for me is $200+, I work for a non-profit too!), I like to look at the public financial records of an organization to see how they spend their money. I’m also put off by organizations that send out a lot of paper (like the ACLU, which I am a donor to but which annoys me with their constant mailings and phone calls) or sells my name to other organizations (ahem, Planned Parenthood).
With that in mind, I’ve put together a short list of organizations that are currently channeling funds into helping Syrian refugees, with comments as to their strengths and weaknesses. Your mileage may vary, of course, and I’m open to more suggestions, but let this be a starting place. In order of Charity Navigator ranking, top to bottom:
- Mercy USA is an 501(c)(3) nonprofit* that funds relief work largely in Muslim communities and is considered an Islamic charity, though the organization publicly commits to “no discrimination in aid given, impartial and non-political.” Mercy gets the Guidestar seal of approval for transparency and gets a 67.95/70 score from Charity Navigator. Right now, they’re running a Text4Syria campaign that makes it easy for anyone to quickly give $10 (by texting “SYRIA” to 80077), but you can also donate on their website, by phone, or by mail. Note: Mercy USA receives US government funding.
- Save the Children is an internationally known organization (65.30/70 on Charity Navigator) and 501(c)(3) nonprofit that currently maintains a Syrian children in crisis fund. Their program is unique in that they’re working to create “child-friendly spaces” to give children in refugee communities ” a safe space to play and get support while keeping their minds off the harsh reality they are facing.” This is important in that psychological help is as needed in a crisis as medical and other care. Guidestar also ranks Save the Children highly.
- The International Rescue Committee is a highly-rated relief agency and 501(c)(3) nonprofit (65.26/70 from Charity Navigator) with incredibly efficient use of funds (93% goes to programming, only 3% toward fundraising). You can’t specify that your donation goes toward Syrian refugees, but the organization has been doing a lot of great work in Syria and elsewhere. And if you don’t have a lot of cash, the IRC has a toolkit for running a fundraiser for a given cause. The IRC is not religiously affiliated and is independent from government.
- Islamic Relief–also obviously an Islamic charity, and a 501(c)(3) nonprofit–is working to provide assistance to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, distributing food, clothing, and medicine. As with the IRC, you cannot specify that your funds go to Syria, but can donate through their emergencies fund. Their Charity Navigator ranking is 65.09/70 and their financials are up-to-date on GuideStar. IR also offers ways to host local fundraisers. Nifty NB for Muslims: They offer guidelines for giving Zakat using credit cards.
- The UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, has a special fund for Syrian refugees, with clear indications of what support of different amounts can provide (for example, “$200 can provide blankets for 20 families”). Donations through that page go through USA for UNHCR, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and is ranked 51.17/70 by Charity Navigator. Part of the reason for their lower ranking is that they spend more than 20% of their funds on fundraising, which usually means a lot of paper (and it’s true: I do receive a lot of mailings from UNHCR generally). You can review their financials through Charity Navigator or GuideStar.
- UNICEF, the UN agency that works to protect children, is also collecting funds for Syrian refugees. Like the USA for UNHCR, UNICEF USA is also a tax-deductible organization. You can check out their rankings on Guidestar and Charity Navigator, where they have a 59.67/70 rating.
- The International Red Cross/Red Crescent is, as far as I know, not a registered 501(c)(3) (though the American Red Cross is) and does not appear to have a Charity Navigator ranking. Nevertheless, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent has been doing amazing work under dire circumstances. You can donate directly to the ICRC’s Syria fund using a number of different payment forms, including Ammado, a centralized donation platform that I really like.
- Syrianorphans.org is a new coalition that allows donors to choose between three foundations: The Karam Foundation (which is unranked by both Charity Navigator and GuideStar), the Islamic charity Zakat Foundation (55.29/70 on Charity Navigator), and the Syrian Sunrise Foundation (also unranked). Right now, given the relatively low ranking of the Zakat Foundation and the lack of ranking for the other two (not to mention the fact that, at the current moment, the website’s donation page is not functioning), Syrianorphans.org isn’t one of the best choices.
Lastly, here are a couple of organizations I’d be a bit wary of:
- SyriaRelief.com – I have no reason to doubt this organization, but it is brand-new, offers no financial transparency, does not appear to be a registered nonprofit, and has no rankings. YMMV.
- Sham Relief Foundation – Again, no way of knowing where your money is going. Why not give to a known, reputable organization instead?
* Donations to 501(c)(3) nonprofits are tax-deductible for US taxpayers.