As the civil war in Syria becomes more acute, so too does the refugee crisis in neighbouring countries. Since the outbreak of hostilities, millions of Syrians—including one million children—have fled to refugee camps. Charities have responded, appealing for funds to help meet essential needs—including tents, food, medicine and clean water.

Many charities, such as the Red Cross and Save the Children, have launched dedicated emergency appeals for Syria. However donors can also give to a charity’s general funds, through a direct debit or a one-off donation. For donors concerned about Syria and wanting to help, what is the best way to give?

Emergency appeals are a fantastic way of raising large sums of money very quickly. UK donors have shown themselves to be generous contributors to these appeals: the Haiti appeal following the earthquake in 2010 raised £107 million. Unlike most regular giving, funding from emergency appeals is legally restricted, which means charities must spend it on humanitarian relief. Donors can feel confident that their funding is being spent as they intended—especially reassuring for donors who are moved by the plight of people in Syria but do not wish to support a charity’s other work.

However, this restriction on appeal funds can be unhelpful. In situations such as Syria, the needs of refugees can change fast; if funding is too restricted charities can not adapt to meet these needs. For example, a donor could provide funding specifically for food parcels, but when the money reaches the camp, there is plenty of food but almost no medical supplies. In this situation, the charity could not automatically redeploy the funding, which could delay the help that’s really needed.

The other downside of emergency appeals is that they often focus on short-term, urgent needs. These are undoubtedly important, but it’s worth thinking about longer-term needs too—such as finding permanent housing for those displaced or providing education for children living in camps. Some appeals may have flexibility to deploy funds to these longer-term goals, but it’s not always the case.

Too much money?

Another consideration is what happens if funds raised by an appeal are in excess of what’s needed to meet the immediate crisis. While the idea of excess funds may sound unlikely, there are examples of this—Médecins sans Frontières raised four times more than it needed for the Asian tsunami and had to contact donors to ask if funds could be used elsewhere.

None of these drawbacks are reasons not to give to appeals—they just highlight why its important to think carefully about where your funding will do the most good. So how do you decide if an emergency appeal or a general donation is the best option? Here are two questions to help you decide:

  • What will the funding be spent on? An appeal with a broader funding remit may help the charity meet needs on the ground more flexibly—try not to limit organisations by funding specific items.
  • What happens if you raise too much money? Find out if there’s flexibility for funding to be used to support Syrian refugees in the longer-term or if it will be deployed to other emergencies.

A donation to an emergency appeal may be exactly what is needed. But, if not, donors can still support the work of charities in the region by providing unrestricted funding. You may not be able to guarantee your funding will be used to support Syrian refugees, but you will help them respond flexibly to the most urgent needs on the ground and may also support projects over the longer term too.

A version of this blog was originally published by Spear’s magazine.