Nonprofit of the Month: Spotlighting Doctors Without Borders’ Nadine Ahrabi-Nejad
The Wethos team spotlighted MSF’s Creative & Production Marketing Manager & learned more about the nonprofit’s world changing work.
Very few nonprofits operate with the all-encompassing, global scope of compassion that steers the mission of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Thirty-three thousand staff members serving in nearly 70 countries provide for those that are suffering from war, natural disaster, disease, and neglect. Without casting a collective bias, they cast all political and religious agendas by the wayside to seek those who need care the most based on humanitarian law and medical needs alone.
Nearly a third of MSF’s projects are nested in conflict zones, where civilians find themselves caught in the crossfire and excommunicated from healthcare services. With the support of mostly private donors, they create safe spaces by offering free, high-quality medical care to both sides of a conflict. This benign neutrality allows them access to zones often barred to other support groups.
Nadine Ahrabi-Nejad first became involved with the nonprofit through a SUNY Global Engagement Program that emphasized pairing students with international and humanitarian-focused internships. After exploring a variety of industries as a marketing major, she became the Marketing Associate for MSF in 2013 and discovered a passion that allowed her to realize her craft while helping others.
She deftly juggles a variety of hats for the organization, including offline advertising, print ads, television and radio PSAs (recently NPR), creative work sourcing, and donor acknowledgment programs. Since she joined the team has doubled in size, working together each day to expand their reach and inspiring message of empathy.
Ahrabi-Nejad sat down with Wethos to talk about nonprofit marketing, freelancing, and the politics of staying neutral to ensure support for all who need it.
Back when you first joined what were your first impressions like? Have they developed or changed?
Nadine: We like to call ourselves a fairly “flat” organization. There’s a culture of debate, and everyone’s voice is really welcome at the table. That was one of the first things that inspired me to be a part of the organization.
There’s a real sense of connection with the field staff. We regularly have people coming back from missions that are talking about their experiences in the field. Even though I work in marketing, I still feel like what I’m doing is serving the overall purpose of the mission.
Working in the office, you’re able to have these inspiring conversations with people who bring stories back from the field and make you feel like you were there. Is it tough to maintain that level of intimacy and involvement with freelancers who work remotely?
Nadine: Yeah, definitely. I think we’ve really seen that the more connected to the mission and organization freelancers feel, the better their work is going to be and the fewer rounds we’ll have to go back and forth. Because they really understand what we’re trying to convey. So we try and connect freelancers as often as possible to both the mission and to our team.
We actually require our freelancers who work with us on a regular basis to come into the office at least one day a week. That doesn’t mean they’ll always be in meetings or working one-on-one, but at least they’ll be able to come in, work, and maybe have conversations with team members that are passing by. I think just being in the office helps them feel connected and like they’re part of the organization.
We also have these things called brown bag lunches, where field staff will come in and everyone at lunch will go into the big conference room and the field staff will talk about their most recent missions.
It seems like that same level of transparency you’ve fostered in the workplace also mirrors the relationship you’ve established with your donor base.
Nadine: We try to be really transparent. Starting this past year, now most of our direct mail will print a line at the bottom that lists the printing, production, and postage costs for the package. We’re literally putting the mailing costs in donors’ hands, because a lot of times it’s something like 33 cents, which can be really surprising to supporters who might not be familiar with the world of nonprofit postage, where it’s really cheap for us especially if we’re mailing in high quantities.
All of our information is public; we post all of our financials to our website so that it’s available to look at. It’s about us feeling confident in what we’re doing, so that we can look a donor in the eye and say, “I’ll take your ten cents and I’ll turn it into a dollar,” while truly knowing that it’s an acceptable thing to do because it means we can raise even more money and do even more in the field as a result.
Speaking of the field, it seems like you have teams that conduct extensive research and independent assessments of needs on the ground before a project is even opened.
Nadine: We actually have these teams called “explo” teams, and before we even have any mission this group of people will get on the ground and evaluate the situation and assess whether or not there is a need and if we have the skills to respond to that need.
There have been instances in the past where we hear of an emergency and our teams will go and take a look, and they might find needs that we’re not best suited to respond to. There’s a lot of emergency response nonprofits, and sometimes it’s not medical aid that’s needed, it’s the other things that we can do but aren’t our specialty. We’re able to step aside and let a better equipped organization handle that.
In choosing when to step forward or back, how do you assess whether or not your presence will upset the balance of neutrality?
Nadine: One of the big things is that we don’t take any government funding. When we start a project or we go in to respond to a crisis, we have people coming in from Europe and the U.S. and all over the world, but ninety-percent of our staff who is working on the ground has been hired locally in the area. I think that helps a lot with neutrality because they can understand the needs of people in the community. They can vouch for our neutrality and our independence to the leaders of the community because of that level of trust.
There’s always potential that groups involved in today’s conflicts — whether it’s the Taliban or even the U.S. or British military — could politicize the work you do, or use it to further their own goals. But your core values and belief in humanitarian law seem to establish a power of trust that eschews all of that.
Nadine: I really think so. In a conflict setting, we will treat the soldiers and the combatants and people on both sides of a conflict.
On the outside of all of our hospitals, we have signs that have a picture of a gun with a red “X” over it, so people know it’s a hospital and a safe space. We offer aid under humanitarian law and under medical law, and we’ll treat anyone who needs to be treated as long as they put their weapons down when they come in. I think that helps too, that everyone knows we’re here for one reason, which is to help people be well. It’s not to fight for either side of the conflict.
While remaining neutral, MSF also manages to speak out to both governments and our collective conscience about global injustice.
Nadine: A lot of times the things we’re speaking out on are the things our field staff has witnessed, or things that they’ve experienced through the eyes of their patients. Often it can be patients who aren’t able to speak out for themselves, so they’re acting as a voice for these patients.
A main focus of ours lately has been securing better prices for vaccines and drugs that we use in the field, and a lot of that work has called on the American population and people internationally to question big pharma. We have to question the costs that are set; there’s a lack of transparency within that industry where people can question things, speak up, and ask the big organizations who control this humanitarian space about the reasoning and answers for why the prices are set the way they are. It’s about holding ourselves accountable for one another and fighting for each other.