Biased Altruism: Islamophobia and Donor Support for Global Humanitarian Organizations 113
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 1, pp. 113–124. © 2019 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
Abstract: Providing humanitarian assistance to displaced individuals is a critical policy challenge. Many refugee
camps are run by charities supported by Western donors. If refugees are predominantly Muslim, might Islamophobia
suppress donations to these charities? Using a survey experiment conducted in the United States, the authors examine
whether donors’ willingness to support a charity is influenced by the dominant religion of the refugees, the regions in
which refugee camps are located, and/or the religious affiliation of the charity. The authors find modest support for
Islamophobia: while willingness to donate is not affected by the location of camps or the predominance of Muslim
refugees, it declines significantly for Islamic charities. Respondents overall tend to be especially willing to donate to
a charity that serves Christian refugees in the Middle East. Among self-identifying Christians, respondents are more
willing to donate to a charity serving Christian refugees than one serving Muslim refugees.
Evidence for Practice
• Global public policy suffers from an institutional deficit in the provision of short-term help to international
• Charities play a critical role in addressing this institutional deficit. They raise substantial donations from
individuals in Western countries to provide help to refugees.
• Despite concerns about Islamophobia in the United States, individual donors in this study do not treat
charities catering to Muslim refugees differently than charities catering to refugees of all faiths when making a
• Donors are more interested in giving to charities catering to Christian refugees, especially in the Middle East.
• American donors are less favorably inclined toward charities that profess the Islamic faith.
University of Maryland
University of Washington, Seattle
Biased Altruism: Islamophobia and Donor Support for
Global Humanitarian Organizations
Wars and natural disasters cause large-scale
human displacement within and across
countries. The scale of the challenge
is staggering: about 65.6 million individuals are
displaced worldwide, and 20 people are forcibly
displaced every minute (UNHCR 2017). According
to a Pew Research Center report (Connor and
Krogstad 2016), “nearly 1 in 100 individuals in
the world are now displaced from their homes.”
The picture of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian
child whose dead body washed up on a beach in
Turkey, symbolizes the unacceptable toll of the
refugee crisis. Displaced individuals (such as refugees)
often find shelter in camps run by charities and
intergovernmental organizations such as the United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Both charities and the UNCHR seek donations from
households to operate these camps.
Americans tend to support charitable work generously.
In 2016, U.S. charities received $390 billion in
total giving, of which donations by U.S. households
amounted to about $280 billion or 72 percent (Giving
USA 2017). Six percent of total household giving ($22
billion) was directed to international charities (Giving
USA 2017). A vast body of literature examines factors
that motivate individuals to donate and how some
causes attract more donations than others (Bekkers
and Wiepking 2011; Gittell and Tebaldi 2006).
However, little systematic work focuses on how donors
differentiate among potential recipients within the
context of a given cause. After all, willingness to donate
to a cause might be endogenous to the characteristics
of the individuals benefiting from this giving (Barman
2008). For example, donors to universities sometimes
earmark their funds to help students with specific
characteristics. If universities did not allow donors to
do so, this might lead to a decline in giving, at least at
the margin (Eckel, Herberich, and Meer 2017).
In this article, we examine charitable giving in the
context of a specific cause: helping overseas refugees
Aseem Prakash is professor of political
science and Walker Family Professor
in the College of Arts and Sciences,
University of Washington, Seattle. His
recent awards include the International
Studies Association’s 2018 James N.
Rosenau Award for the “scholar who has
made the most important contributions to
globalization studies” and the European
Consortium for Political Research Standing
Group on Regulatory Governance’s 2018
Regulatory Studies Development Career
Award for notable “contributions to the
field of regulatory governance.”
Joannie Tremblay-Boire is assistant
professor in the School of Public Policy,
University of Maryland, College Park. Her
research centers on nongovernmental
organizations, nonprofits, and foundations.
Her work has appeared in
Administration Review, Nonprofit and
Voluntary Sector Quarterly,