Steps nonprofits can take to fund disaster relief projects
Testifying before Congress on March 10, 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged concerns regarding what has been referred to as the Tigray conflict.
“The challenge in Ethiopia is very significant. And it’s one that we’re very, very focused on, particularly the situation in Tigray where we are seeing very credible reports of human rights abuses and atrocities that are ongoing.” Blinken also mentioned that he wanted to see security forces in the region “that will not abuse the human rights of the people of Tigray or commit acts of ethnic cleansing which we’ve seen in Western Tigray.”
For those unfamiliar with the conflict, in 2018 Ethiopia experienced waves of ethnic and political violence. Ethnic Tigrayans across the country became recipients of hate and violence. Tigrayan families who had lived side-by-side with other ethnic groups found themselves targeted and isolated with their safety in grave danger. Many were forced to flee to Tigray and, in the process, were stripped of all their belongings. The Tigray regional government was ill-equipped to respond to the massive displacement. Instead, it focused on pacifying the crisis for fear of worsening the situation.
For many in the United States, this violence might feel removed. But U.S. members of the Tigrayan diaspora are deeply saddened by the violence in our homeland. To these ends, we decided to use our expertise and position in the United States to organize fundraisers to help those displaced. We are a small yet committed group who come from all walks of life. But in our pursuit of aid for the people of Tigray, we stand united.
Here are the steps we have taken to deliver on-the-ground relief. We believe these steps can be replicated by other American-based nonprofits to fund disaster relief projects.
1. Formation of a Nonprofit
In 2018, one of our founding members initiated a call to action to support IDPs (internally displaced persons) using his Facebook page, and several concerned community members answered. At the time, Facebook Messenger (now Meta) served as a virtual office for brainstorming sessions as well as strategizing and delivering support to those most affected in Tigray.
However, the founders of the Tegaru Disaster Relief Fund (TDRF) had no knowledge of how to file for a nonprofit. To gain the necessary information, we turned to the web to learn how to draft articles of incorporation and bylaws. Once the bylaws were written, we asked members of our local communities who were familiar with the process for advice and feedback. The following year, TDRF filed for a certificate of formation in Texas and, by 2019, had been granted an exempt letter from the IRS.
2. Fundraising Drive
Understanding that good intentions were not enough, we knew meaningful assistance required global fundraising. During one of our meetings, a founding member came up with the idea for a social media challenge that went viral within the Tigrayan community. Essentially, the idea was a modern chain letter: one person would create a video talking about the current issues faced by IDPs and then nominate three people to do the same, with each video creator making a small contribution to a GoFundMe account.
Through this method, we were able to mobilize Tigrayans worldwide to financially contribute to our campaign. By utilizing the power of social media and our networks within the Tigrayan diaspora, we also spread awareness of the suffering faced by Tigrayan IDPs. Through these efforts, we raised approximately $100,000.
3. Implementing Relief Projects
While raising a lot of money was a challenge, implementing a relief project was just as demanding. In particular, we knew we needed local help within the region of Tigray itself to truly make an impact. We then turned to our social media connections, which later became formal partnerships.
To coordinate fund management, TDRF opened an organizational bank account with the help of a local project manager in Tigray, who oversaw the transfer of raised funds. Three reputable people from the local area were also chosen to serve as signatories for this bank account as well.
But we knew we needed more local connections, so our Tigrayan project manager connected us with Keradion Elders Association, an organization based in the city of Mekelle, that served holiday lunch to IDPs. We used them as our boots on the ground to help displaced families.
At first, TDRF was optimistic about empowering some of the displaced families into thriving entrepreneurial opportunities, using a list from the regional Bureau of Social Affairs and Labor to identify IDPs. Considering the enormous number of displaced persons, we knew we could not help everyone; however, we were hopeful that those who we supported could use the cash as launch pads to restart their lives. Although we originally wanted to connect IDPs to entrepreneurship training in the Tigray region’s Mekelle University, we were unable to do so due to a lack of support and resources. However, we still were able to effect some change through our local partnerships.
4. Formalizing Partnerships
We have realized that we are not alone. In fact, many Tigray-centric nonprofits have emerged globally since November 2020 to advocate for an end to the war as well as to provide lifesaving aid to the millions facing deadly catastrophe. Looking at this global outpouring of support, TDRF realized we could increase our efficacy by joining more formally with other organizations.
However, TDRF knows to be intentional and strategic; after all, partnerships do not form out of thin air but require a lot of labor. We don’t want to sacrifice our ability to deliver aid in the pursuit of partnerships. Rather, we need to be selective and deliberate with our potential partners, diligently conducting organizational research before entering formal partnerships.
To this end, we have created a formalized two-step process that we used to establish partnerships.
First Step: Virtual Meeting
First, we request a virtual meeting with the organization’s leadership team. At this meeting, we ask important questions to ensure mission alignment and to cultivate a productive collaborative partnership.
Examples of these questions include:
- How was the organization founded (and to what ends)?
- What does your organizational structure look like?
- What has been your experience of working with other organizations?
- What would an ideal partnership look like to you?
- What do you expect out of this partnership?
These questions help us to ensure that we are on the same page and that a partnership will be mutually beneficial for both parties.
Second Step: Execute MOU
Then, we formalize the partnership with an execution of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) by the involved parties. To begin an MOU, one party leads by drafting MOU language, which is eventually agreed upon by both parties. We want to keep expectations consistent with each partnership, so TDRF usually takes the lead. Of course, we also encourage partners to review and provide input before executing the MOU.
Once a formal partnership has been established, we can be confident in our increased ability to better serve Tigrayans. The final stage of this partnership process then uses social media to amplify the work of our partnering organizations.
5. Amplification through Social Media
From our first viral video chain fundraiser, we recognized how crucial social media is. On one hand, social media offers a fantastic opportunity for supporters to connect with organizations directly from the comfort of their homes; on the other, organizations can readily access their supporters for a call to action — a solution where everyone benefits! We have realized that an integral part of our partnerships has to include using social media to display our partners’ work as well as any exciting project-based news they might have.
Of course, we use social media in order to establish less-formalized partnerships as well. Via social media, we share informative, historical, and cultural information about Tigray with our followers as well as fundraise and recruit help, both for specific tasks and longer board positions. From supporting formal partnerships to just getting the word out, social media has been one of the primary tools we have mechanized in the pursuit of implementing our disaster relief project.
In All You Do, Center the People You Serve
The complex political environment coupled with emotional distress from an ongoing genocide make it exceptionally difficult to remain consistently devoted to a mission. There are a lot of politically (internal to Tigray or externally within Ethiopia) divisive conversations that may derail the focus of advocacy and disaster relief work. It is particularly important to remain centered and mindful of the people still in desperate situations irrespective of their religious or political affiliations.
In this, TDRF always aspires to center the Tigrayan people it seeks to serve. This means we assess every single project and partnership to ensure each is carried out with integrity and transparency. Internally, this also means we seek resources that will make the work of our mission more efficient and cost-effective while still being of the highest quality and impact. Again, one of the primary ways we do this is by mechanizing social media channels to engage with both our donor community and our partners. We are also excited to look for new opportunities to share resources and tools in order to help increase productivity and overall capacity.
As you plan for your organization’s success, remember to prioritize collaboration over competition. Reach out to other organizations to offer support and help them achieve their goals. Not only will this benefit the communities you serve, it will also create an environment of mutual success.
About the Author
Tsehaye Zemenfes is the Executive Director and founding member of the Tigray Disaster Relief Fund. He holds a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Nova Southeastern University and a Master of Public Health degree in Public Health Practice from the University of Florida. With more than 10 years of experience as a pharmacist leader and consultant across retail, ambulatory health centers, and public health environments, Dr. Zemenfes is a seasoned healthcare professional with a record of contributions in both operations management and clinical services.
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