Thinking Outside the Tent: How These Funders Approach the Refugee Crisis Differently

It’s difficult to believe that the Syrian refugee crisis is in its fifth year. As we are all aware by now, the country’s mass exodus of over 11 million people due to the ongoing conflict is widely considered one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history. That crisis has been compounded by multi-billion dollar shortfalls faced by top NGOs and government agencies working the front lines, doing their best to bring even a tiny bit of relief to human suffering on such a massive scale.

Related: More Bad News for Syrian Refugees, With Many Funders Still MIA

While we’re still disappointed by the general lack of response by major foundations in the U.S. and abroad, some funders are responding in a major way.  These include Save the Children and the Ikea Foundation, which recently donated a total of €9.4 million to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders. The money provides access to basic but essential services like healthcare and education for vulnerable children and families. 

Ikea has always been a nimble and substantial supporter of various refugee projects around the world, as have corporate funders like the UPS and Western Union foundations. Even the JP Morgan Chase Foundation has jumped in to help—despite the fact that supporting global humanitarian relief efforts isn't really in its funding wheelhouse. Gates and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation are paying attention, here, too. As are individual donors like Chobani yogurt founder Hamdi Ulukaya and the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and his wife, actress Isla Fisher.


These big outfits and big gifts win applause and accolades from the international humanitarian community, as well they should. Many of the most substantial gifts support large organizations and U.N. Agencies providing basic necessities like food, water, and shelter.

Yet even as the big donations trickle in for those basic necessities, there are a few under-the-radar funders that are approaching the refugee crisis a bit differently.

Education: Speed School Fund, Western Union

It’s currently estimated that around 700,000 Syrian refugee children are out of school. In the MENA region overall, conflict is preventing an estimated 13 million children from attending school. Enter the Speed School Fund, which describes itself as "a private donor philanthropic fund designed to develop and scale initiatives which help out-of-school children get back to and learn in school." Speed School Fund has committed to mobilizing $20 million to get Syrian refugee children back in class. 

The fund’s first CEO, Caitlin Baron, explains to us that Speed School’s catalytic partner, the Legatum Foundation, has already funded back-to-school programs in Mali and Ethiopia. Those programs returned more than 80,000 kids back to class. Baron states that those programs, and their successes serve as a “jumping-off point for the new fund.” She added that Speed School is “currently vetting expansion opportunities in Lebanon and Liberia.” It’s estimated that there could be as many as 400,000 out-of-school Syrian refugee children located in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, as we've reported, the Western Union Foundation has made education in the MENA region the next big priority for its international education grantmaking. This funder brings two strengths to such work: It often helps refugees and disaster victims, and it backs education for children in poor countries. 

Connectivity: Cisco, Vodafone Foundation,

One way that today's refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe is different from past crises is that a huge number of people on the move have connectivity needs. They want to keep their mobile phones charged and access the Internet in order to stay in touch with loved ones and navigate their way to new lives. 

Several funders, as we've reported, have zeroed in on these urgent digital needs. 

While the philanthropic arm of tech titan Cisco is attacking the refugee crisis on multiple fronts, including providing safe housing and warm clothes for those arriving in Europe by sea, there's also a big connectivity element to its efforts.

Cisco’s Tactical Operations Team, or TacOps, has deployed to the heavily traveled refugee migration route in Southern and Central Europe. The team installed and set up Wi-Fi networks and device charging stations at nearly 20 sites along the route. Cisco also provided an additional $200,000 in grant funding to Mercy Corps and NetHope to support their programs providing information services to refugees at local camps.  

Finally, Cisco is implementing its Refugee First Response Center (RFRC). A 20-foot shipping container has been repurposed to serve as an emergency medical clinic and comes equipped with “advanced communication technology, such as free Wi-Fi for doctors and refugees and systems allowing remote language interpretation during consultations through high-definition video.”

The Vodaphone Foundation is also in the connectivity space. Its Instant Charge program addresses the ongoing infrastructure problems at refugee camps in Europe. While these camps are located in areas with sufficient mobile coverage, they lack the infrastructure needed for refugees to charge their phones. Vodaphone solves that problem with Instant Charge, a portable charging station that uses a generator as well as an additional power sources like solar power to charge up to 66 cell phones simultaneously. 

Then there is, which made a $5.3 million grant to launch NetHope’s Project Reconnect, which provides 25,000 centrally administered Chromebooks to NGOs supporting refugees in Germany. The goal of this project is to help refugees rebuild their lives by facilitating access to education and other important information resources.

Rescue At Sea: Christopher Catrambone and Migrant Offshore Aid Station

Established by Regina and Christopher Catrambone, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) operates according to a simple guiding principle: “No one deserves to die at sea.”  Christopher Catrambone, a Lake Charles, Louisiana native, made his fortune as the founder of Tangiers Group, a “leading global business specializing in insurance, emergency assistance, on-the-ground claims handling, and intelligence services.”

Catrambone eventually found his way to his ancestral home of Reggio di Calabria Italy, where he met his wife. The couple felt compelled to establish MOAS “after seeing the lack of response to hundreds of drownings in October 2013 off the Italian island of Lampedusa.” And they would do so with $8 million of their own money. MOAS later became a publicly funded charity.

By August 2014, MOAS launched its first 60-day operation off the coast of Libya. 10 rescues later, it helped over 3,000 refugees migrating across dangerous seas in search of freedom from violence.

In August 2015, MOAS partnered with Global Impact, which became the organization’s fiscal sponsor. In September 2015, shortly after the heart-wrenching photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on the shores of Greece socked the world in the collective gut, MOAS received nearly $1 million in donations within 48 hours. In March 2016, MOAS surpassed $1.5 million in funding. Since that first launch in 2014, MOAS has rescued 12,000 people. 


The global refugee population will always need food, water and shelter. But other needs come into play as the years drag on—such as the need for education, adapting to a new community, learning to speak a new language, and how to find a job. 

This range of needs suggests there is lots of room for different funders to make a contribution, doing what they do best. The biggies, like the Ikea Foundation, will remain central players in alleviating a sprawling catastrophe. But there are opportunities for funders of any size to get in here and lend a hand.