After a dismally slow start, the international community has finally mobilized over the past three months and officially committed $1.2 billion to the Ebola humanitarian response in West Africa.

Despite this, the UN’s inter-agency response plan (which includes all short-term UN activities through February 2015) still faces a funding gap of at least $338 million.

What’s more, this shortfall does not account for the funding needs of most of the 60-plus NGOs playing a role on the ground. (Doctors without Borders, for example, has treated approximately one quarter of confirmed Ebola patients.) Nor does it reflect rebuilding needs in West Africa once Ebola has been contained; the World Bank estimates that economic losses may reach $33 billion.

Money alone will not fix everything; doctors and nurses are needed on the ground, as is basic health system infrastructure. However, a baseline level of funding is required just to bring the crisis under control, thereby allowing the international community to shift its attention from direct emergency response to rebuilding.

Few individuals and corporations have donated to Ebola

Donations from companies and individuals could potentially help fill the current funding gap, but so far, they have barely made a dent in the fight against Ebola. Although funding estimates vary by source, data from the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) indicates that only 2 percent of the $1.2 billion committed to fight Ebola thus far has come from individuals and corporations. Private giving as a whole, which includes foundations and NGOs, has generated 7 percent of total funding, or $79 million.

Private giving in response to past humanitarian crises dwarfs these figures. Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, for example, private giving made up 36 percent of all donations to recovery efforts within the first year. After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, this figure was even higher: 62 percent. For both crises, private giving surpassed that of any one country or multilateral organization.

Data comes from the OCHA Financial Tracking System for each disaster response. Data for the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Haiti earthquake captures all humanitarian funding committed during the first year after the disaster.

Despite some philanthropists giving with largesse, Ebola has also received limited support from individual donors. This trend contrasts sharply with the response to Haiti, when more than half of all American households donated to recovery efforts, and individual $10 donations through SMS accounted for $43 million.

Why aren’t individuals and companies donating?

The atypical nature of the Ebola crisis as an ongoing, unfamiliar, and global threat appears to have constrained individual and corporate giving. Ebola has emerged as a crisis over a six-month period, unlike the Haiti earthquake or the Indian Ocean tsunami, which occurred suddenly and left behind catastrophic damage on an unprecedented scale.

Instead, the outbreak’s arc is unknown, and it is unclear when the crisis will peak. We do not know whether or how it will spread beyond the countries currently affected. Much of the discussion of Ebola centers on closing borders and quarantining travelers, burying the picture of the outbreak as a humanitarian crisis.

This uncertainty means people are unsure how to respond—and no one has yet given clear directions on how people should respond. Few UN agencies and organizations have made public and open requests for Ebola donations, and the mobile platforms used after the Haiti earthquake have largely remained silent. Without direct solicitation, many individuals do not know how to contribute.

Potential solutions to unlock private giving

Boosting individual and corporate giving in response to Ebola would require increased advocacy and publicity efforts. Solutions to mobilize untapped resources include:

  • Using public figures to encourage individuals and corporations to contribute. The emergency response efforts to previous disasters have included an open plea for support from high-profile individuals, ranging from politicians to celebrities.
  • Publicizing where to donate. Organizations fundraising for the response could seek platforms such as Facebook, which recently added a donation link to all user profiles, to better publicize their efforts. For example, the UN Multi-Partner Trust Fund (MPTF) for Ebola Response—which has raised only about 12 percent of its target $1 billion goal—accepts contributions from all donors, including individuals and businesses, but has not launched publicity efforts to encourage companies and the mainstream public to contribute.
  • Unlocking individual contributions through a “push” platform, such as mobile SMS. “Text to Haiti” introduced the world to mobile giving, and since 2010, many relief efforts—including those for the Japan earthquake and tsunami, and the BP oil spill—have relied on services such as mGive or to solicit funds. Additionally, the Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of Text to Haiti donors contributed to other recovery efforts after giving to Haiti, suggesting that mobile donors would consider giving to the Ebola response if the opportunity were made more public.
  • Unlocking corporate contributions by publicizing the variety of financial and non-financial ways companies can contribute effectively. Currently, corporations are contributing to the Ebola response in different ways, from conducting vaccine research to handling the medical evacuation of health workers. Of the corporations that have donated, there is a roughly even split between non-financial and financial contributions (44 percent and 56 percent, respectively). There may also be potential to contribute in new ways. For example, given the shortage of human resources in the response effort, relevant companies could engage in “technical philanthropy” by giving paid leave to their own healthcare workers who step up to volunteer. Although some companies can offer these unique non-financial assets—workers, transportation, supplies—this is not a prerequisite to contribute, despite popular misconception. In fact, the UN Business Engagement Guide lists financial contribution as the primary way for a corporation to support the Ebola response.

Without question, Ebola is different from previous humanitarian crises: It is frightening, uncontrolled, and it places the entire world at risk. The pandemic falls into the domain of public health more so than a typical natural disaster, which could lead some to question the role of individuals and businesses in the response. Yet unlike an earthquake or a tsunami, Ebola will not stop on its own. Therefore, every dollar committed now could prevent an even larger crisis in the future.