Hub Stories: Mercy Corps’ Development Officer Challenges Changemakers to Examine our Giving Habits

[Name]: Mary Tam

[Areas of Expertise]: Fundraising, Community Development, International Relief

[Memory Lane]: 

While interning in Kyrgyzstan, I learned about some of the logistical challenges of doing programming abroad. If you’re doing cash distribution, you can’t just acquire the money and hand it out to a bunch of people. You have to be really strategic about who’s getting the money. It’s ideal to have two waiting areas to manage the flow– because if you don’t people tend to flood in and crowd the table. That’s not a comment on other countries– the same thing would happen here. It’s just people. I ride the N in the morning, I see what happens!

Remember Japan? Of course you do. Did you donate to the relief effort? Probably. Are you still giving? Hmmm, maybe not… According to Mary Tam, development officer at Mercy Corps San Francisco, giving habits and tendencies are strangely predictable.

“It’s interesting to track donor motivation,” she explains, “The recent emergency situation in Japan is awful: they got hit by the earthquake, the tsunami, and the nuclear tragedy that’s ongoing. And then you’ve got the second earthquake. It’s back to back, and it’s heart-wrenching, especially when you see the media coverage around it. And people are motivated to give and support right away, despite the fact that Japan is seen as a relatively wealthy and organized country.”

But when it comes to ongoing development, fundraising can get a bit trickier. While Mary is inspired by people’s willingness to give and support Japan,, she admits that a there can be a problematic gap between our altruistic desires and the humanitarian work that is most effective. Most people want their donations to be slotted for hot-spot countries, but much of what Mercy Corps does is long-term development.

“It’s frustrating to me,” Mary says, “that you’ve got situations like the Democratic Republic of Congo where people are constantly being displaced by violence. Rape is so rampant and normalized there, and there are no consequences for perpetrators. And people are not as responsive to that.”

What’s the psychological explanation for the disconnect between actual need and people’s generosity? Mary, who will celebrate her third year anniversary with Mercy Corps this month, guesses that people are less compelled to donate to long term community development in part because of the media’s selective bias toward extreme events. But she also postulates that tackling a long-term culturally-sensitive problem (like sexual violence against women) can seem overwhelming:

“How do you address that issue? With hungry people, you give them food. With cold people, you give them shelter and blankets. With a community that’s got these deep-seated problems, what’s the solution?”

Understanding the gap between greatest need and what people respond to is something Nick Kristof addresses in his article “Save the Darfur Puppy.” The article discusses how people will be significantly more inclined to give to feed “Rokia, a 7 year old child in Mali” or “Moussa, a hungry boy,” than they will to “21 million hungry people in Africa,” because they have a very direct and specific mental image of individual suffering.

But what’s surprising is that people were more inclined to give to Rokia alone than to two children, Rokia and Moussa together. “That’s why Kiva’s so successful,” Mary explains. While money from Kiva donors generally goes to the microfinance institution (MFI), to refund the MFI for a loan that’s already been issued, donors take on the risk of a particular loan and receive information on whether or not that loan is being repaid (it almost always is). This provides a more direct relationship and allows donors to recognize the impact on a specific person’s life.

Another problematic giving trend is when people want to give to a specific project versus “give to where most needed.” Mary attributes this to the fact that when people see the option “give to where most needed,” they may envision “exorbitant salaries or lavish holiday parties.” The fact is these unrestricted funds are used for crucial purposes like addressing chronic emergencies that are under-publicized, or acting as seed funding to leverage larger donations from public and private sources. Even when money does go towards overhead, that’s a worthy expense as well when managed responsibly. While some may be tempted to think of overhead as a waste of money, Mary challenges:

“Try to run  your business without lights! Try to run your business without a manager, or without a building. Overhead is required. But people don’t feel warm and fuzzy about that. They want to feel like ‘I helped feed ten kids,’ or ‘I helped build a school,’ and rightly so. But overhead is an integral part of getting that work done.”

Real change happens slower than change-makers would like. We often think of funding an emergency as “Oh, we need to rush all this food and water in and that should happen within a month.” But the sad truth, Mary admits, is that it often takes a community years to really recover, especially if you’re talking about a community that was already incredibly insecure and weak economically– with few job opportunities. “In terms of that recovery process,” she says, “it takes a lot longer than what people envision when they give.”

In order to address this challenge, Mercy Corps often takes the opportunity to enter a country through an emergency situation. After an emergency, funding is easier to leverage and people are disrupted from their regular routine. “That’s when you can get in there and have dialogues that you would never have before, or introduce a possible program or a service that wouldn’t be considered were it not for current circumstances,” Mary explains. Once they’re in, though, they’re committed.

“While most of the countries we work in are incredibly unstable both politically and economically, we’re trying to stay for the long haul. Not just be there, hand out some goods, get some media coverage, and then haul out once the cameras are gone.”

Mercy Corps’ humanitarian work operates almost entirely independently of foreign volunteer work. Unlike volunteer-based organizations, Mercy Corps focuses on employing locals and supporting pre-existing non-governmental (NGO) infrastructure as part of its philosophy. Mercy Corps has 3900 staff worldwide, and somewhere between 90-95% are country nationals.

When the earthquake in Haiti happened, Mary remembers that a lot of people wanted to go there to volunteer. “That’s great and beautiful that people want to offer themselves and their services,” she affirms, “but the best way to help is to fund programs like cash-for-work which employ locals to clear debris and rebuild basic infrastructure.” That way, locals have income that they can use to buy food and supplies from local businesses. In turn the program helps the local economy out as opposed to just handing out flour and water, which “may not be appropriate anyway for certain cultures.”

“It’s all about empowering the local communities to take ownership over their projects. We give them the tools and knowledge they need, but ultimately it’s not about the U.S. swooping in and saying ‘We’re your saviors, here’s everything you need to do, here’s a ten step plan,’ it’s about getting people involved and invested.”

What is the future of giving? Mary is interested to see if habits change in the next five years, as there’s an effort to educate the general public about their own giving tendencies. “What we’re trying to do now in SF is raise the visibility of Mercy Corps because so few people know about us. With the exception of places like the Hub, where people are pretty international-minded, if you ask somebody on the street what Mercy Corps is, chances are they either won’t know or they think it’s ‘Mercy Housing’ or ‘Mercy Ships.'”

Why should you know about Mercy Corps? Mercy Corps’ work is not just putting on a show and talking about what’s going on, it’s providing programs that are actually helping people. According to Mary, Mercy Corps is great about  monitoring and evaluation, and sharing information within the organization. Mercy Corps also emphasizes innovation and utilizing tech for humanitarian work: Mobile banking in Haiti is one great example. Another is the fuel-efficient cookstoves project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an authentic triple bottom line endeavor:

“People throw around the term ‘triple bottom line’ all the time, and I don’t know how often it has meaning. But the fuel-efficient cookstove program in the Democratic Republic of Congo exemplifies the triple bottom line. Women make and sell cookstoves out of local materials: there’s the economic component. They reduce the amount of fuel consumed and trees cut down, thus reducing carbon emissions: there’s the planetary bottom line. And most importantly, because less fuel is required, you don’t have women and children going out as often to gather firewood, which is when they’re routinely sexually assaulted: there’s the “people” bottom line. That a fuel-efficient cookstove can do all three of those things is just really cool.”

How did she find the Hub?  Previously, Mercy Corps leased office space from a law firm on Sutter Street. The lease was ending, and Mary’s colleagues, Jeff Jones and David Lehr, had heard about Hub SoMa opening up. The three came over to SoMa and saw the space while it was still in construction. “The offices weren’t even built yet,” Mary remembers, “Alex was giving us a tour and showing us what was going to go where, saying ‘The nest is going to be over here!’ We needed an office space, this opportunity popped up, and it made more sense to be interacting on a daily basis with people in the social enterprise field. Being part of a community where there’s idea-sharing and network-sharing has been great.”

If you’re interested in changing the way you give, take a minute to donate now. To learn more about  Mercy Corps’ work abroad, look for Mary at the Hub or check out the website at  

As always, thanks for reading!

Samantha, Your Hub Stories Correspondent



Filed under Hub Soma, Hub Stories, Members

2 responses to “Hub Stories: Mercy Corps’ Development Officer Challenges Changemakers to Examine our Giving Habits

  1. Pingback: Hub Berkeley Weekly Roll Up: Extra Feel Goods | Hub Bay Area

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