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  • Writer's picturebruce yu

Volunteering in MSF - MSF Explained

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

In the early spring of 2022, the Russo-Ukrainian war began. Having heard of the refugees' tragic experiences, I was overwhelmed with sadness and sympathy. These people not only lost their home, but were also hit severely by various diseases and hunger. Thinking of doing something no one I know has done before, I contacted a number of international and local nonprofits in Europe, seeking for an opportunity to become an overseas volunteer in helping the refugees as a high school student.

Oslo, Norway

After a month, I finally received an affirmative reply from Doctors Without Borders (its French name is Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF). The reason why they were willing to take a 17-year old as a volunteer is due to their lack of support in the IT force. Luckily, I taught myself coding one year ago, and was glad I did. Everything was all set, the 17-year old took off and started his amazing journey in Oslo, Norway.

MSF: How it functions as an international organization

1. Joint force of different branches globally

Until the time I am writing the blog, MSF has formed 17 branches in different parts of the world, and has volunteering teams in over 70 different countries. So, how does this huge organization manages its teams all over the world?

From what I have observed, MSF organizes its campaigns separately. For example, the local office in Norway will organize its own local medical support events and campaigns. The most impressive campaign I have ever seen is the one collectively organized by MSF, Red Cross, and other nonprofits in Norway: the NRK Telethon English | Blimed – TV-aksjonen NRK 2022, which I will be explained later in the fundraising section. As different offices raised millions of donations used for good cause, MSF will actually manage the funds centrally, and distribute the funds raised each year to different offices according to their needs. For instance, Norway is well-known for its nation wide generosity and compassion when it comes to fundraising. However, it does need a lot of funds, so the donation MSF Norway raised will be distributed to other offices in poorer countries, such as Algeria, Albania, and Afganistan.

Similar to MSF's central financial management system, the MSF volunteer management system takes a central-local management approach as well. If there is a national emergency in another country, such as an outbreak of diseases or an unexpected war, all the other countries' offices will send out teams of doctors, nurses and volunteers to support the people suffering from the emergency. However, the volunteers still follow their own office's management when they are in their own offices.

2. How MSF recruits volunteers and employees

MSF takes different approaches when it comes to recruitment.

Some replaceable jobs are done by paid part-time employees, such as the telemarketing team, which calls donors for further donations. These works are less skilled works; hence, it will be sufficient for part-time employees to do them.

Most of the full-time employees there are recruited through normal job application do have salaries. Their salaries will not be too high, but enough for them to focus only on their current work. Hence, I really admire the poeple working full-time in a nonprofit, as explained by Maslow's hierarchy of needs, most of the people there really work for self-actualization, which means they try to become the best of themselves by working for good causes.

Then there comes the part-time employees/volunteers. They are usually compassionate medical staffs, such as doctors, psychologists, and nurses. They usually have a normal job and a position in MSF. Every few months, they will stop doing their normal work, and go on trips organized by MSF to other countries to help the people there. It usually takes months before they finish a MSF project; then, they go back to their home in Norway and get back to their normal jobs. Even though MSF pays for the trips, they still don't usually take any salaries for return. They are the most valuable to the firm, which means even MSF is a giant nonprofit with lots of donations now, the foundation of MSF is still built on people's good will and unhesitant action to do good.

3. How MSF raises funds as a giant nonprofit organization

Raising fund is one of the most important aspect in MSF Norway, as Norway is well-known for its generosity in donations and its high happiness index. The ways how MSF raises funds can be categorized into public and private fundraising.

Public Fundraising (75% of donation income, mostly from regular donors)

Door-to-door campaign team. The biggest team in MSF Norway. Over 100 volunteers distributed in the country. They target "cold donors" (people who haven't donated to MSF). In regular days, they will take off from Oslo, and knock on different people's doors, showing them what MSF has done for people in need, asking for donations. The most exciting times of their jobs, are the times during the annual campaigns organized by MSF. Among all the annual campaigns organized by MSF, the NRK Telethon is definitely the most exciting one:

"The NRK Telethon on the 24th of October is the largest information campaign and fundraising event in Norway. It involves everyone from local communities to the Royal Family. On the day of the Telethon, NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation) broadcasts a six-hour long TV-show reporting from the chosen countries and projects in the field.

They also broadcast live from the many fundraising activities happening across the country. A live auction takes place in the TV studio and various musicians and artists dedicated to the cause, perform on stage. While money from the door-to door fundraisers is counted, viewers can in real-time check how their county is doing compared to others. This friendly competition is one of many elements making the NRK Telethon a unique national tradition.

Celebrities and spokespersons are also invited to feature in the world’s longest radio show hosted by P3, Norway’s biggest radio channel for youth and young adults. The program is 100 hours long and raised over 8. 4 million NOK in 2021."

LTM Fundraiser (telemarketing): 10-20 part-time, hourly-rate paid employees.

The team's targets

  1. one-off donation (rarely succeed)

  2. converstion campaign (converting one-off donors to regular monthly donors)

  3. reactivation campaign

  4. reducing attrition

  5. increasing regular monthly donation amounts

Digital Fundraiser A core team of 6 people organizing online campaigns and responses to emails. Receive donations through Facebook and Website.

Private Fundraising

Corporate team $12 million raised in 2021. Contact partners and organize events with corporate partners, such as Deloitte - helps MSF develop LTM fundraising system, Thompson - helps MSF with legal issues, Haneklsen - helps MSF by providing its employees ice cream (I love them!), and more.

Legacy + major individual donors $17 million raised last year. This team also solves tricky issues of non-monetary donation conversion, such as gold, antique collections, bitcoins, and NFTs.

"Legacy is the most beautiful form of donation." - one of MSF's campaign manager

To conclude, with the help of the fundraising teams' diligence and passion, MSF Norway raised over $40 million of donation in 2021. The monetary foundation and the volunteers' passion in what they do are reasons why MSF becomes a global giant nonprofit organization. Hence, they are also the reasons why over 1 million patients are treated with care all over the world.

The experience from MSF makes me see the importance of expanding my own nonprofit startup in different countries, just as what we are doing right now. Home (


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