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The White House Asked Kickstarter To Launch A Campaign For Refugees

The White House asked the crowdfunding giant to help make up the $4 billion that Syrian refugees still need this year.

Posted on October 6, 2015, at 9:02 a.m. ET

Over the course of four years, the Syrian refugee crisis has only grown in scope as the global response has seemed to dwindle.

Khalil Mazraawi / AFP / Getty Images

More than four million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes since the start of the country's civil war began in 2011. The length of the war, along with the number of other humanitarian crises around the world, has seen funding for the crisis plummet.

The United Nations asked for $7.42 billion this year to cover the needs of the Syrians both still inside Syria and those who have escaped to neighboring countries. As of early October, they were still $4 billion short of their annual goal.

The United States has donated $4.5 billion in humanitarian aid since the crisis began, but has been criticized recently for the relatively small number of refugees it has agreed to resettle.

Two weeks ago, White House Director of Product Josh Miller reached out to Kickstarter to ask the company what it thought about helping to tackle the crisis. "We immediately said yes," Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler told BuzzFeed News.

Khalil Mazraawi / AFP / Getty Images

That agreement came in spite of the the fact that Kickstarter normally focuses on creative projects, Strickler said. "We were really compelled by an ask from the White House because of some sense of civic duty and wanting to step up, but also just feeling what a global situation this is and felt like this is an opportunity where our product and our community could have real value."

That led to Kickstarter partnering with USA for UNHCR, a U.S.-based non-profit charged with raising funds and awareness for the UN Refugee Agency and launching the first charity drive in the the crowdfunding company's history.

USA for UNHCR/Kickstarter

"Their expertise is on helping refugees and overseeing that entire experience and raising money to do that," Strickler said, "we had to bring the 'Kickstariness' of how can you make this communicate well on the web."

The special campaign, like most Kickstarters, has a time-limit: one week. Unlike the usual effort, though, there's no rewards for donors. Instead, users can see the sort of things their donations will provide for refugees.

USA for UNHCR / Kickstarter

Strickler made sure to be clear that there was not clear that the exact dollars donated would go to those exact goods, but felt that it was important for donors to have some kind of context for what their money would buy.

The Kickstarter team basically had to build a new offshoot to their site in order to make donations possible, by disabling the need for donors to have a kickstarter account

Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP / Getty Images

Typically Kickstarter charges 5% of what is raised for administrative and other costs, Strickler explained, but in this case the company is donating the full amount to USA for UNHCR. The usual "all-or-nothing" rule that Kickstarter campaigns have — where if a campaign doesn't reach its funding goal, the funds are returned to donors rather than distributed — is waived for the refugee effort.

After the week is over, Kickstarter says that they'll transfer the funds to USA for UNHCR "almost instantaneously," Strickler said. Those funds in turn will be immediately spent in the field, USA for UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Patterson said.

Joseph Eid / AFP / Getty Images

Every year, Patterson said, the amount of money that USA for UNHCR has pulled in for the Syrian crisis — including the money that's being spent on refugees once they've reached Europe — has increased. So far this year, they've raised more than $10 million. While that may seem like a lot, it's still a drop in the bucket compared to how much the U.N. still says it needs.

While Kickstarter doesn't plan on changing its rules to allow for regular users to create charity campaigns in the future, USA for UNHCR CEO Anne-Marie Grey hopes that this is just the start of using crowdfunding to help provide for humanitarian needs.

Anwar Amro / AFP / Getty Images

"We have had individuals that have used crowdfunding to assist us, but the backing of a global company like this is just the beginning," she said in a call with BuzzFeed News, adding that other initiatives were already in the works.

Neither Kickstarter nor USA for UNHCR wanted to speculate on how much the fundraising drive would raise. (The largest amount raised in Kickstarter history was $20 million.)

Khalil Mazraawi / AFP / Getty Images

Even if the campaign raises double that, though, it would still leave more than $3,900,000 shy of what the U.N. needs to feed, clothe, and shelter Syria's refugees.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.