Private fundraising has played a key role in allowing Ukraine to defend itself militarily

Over the past six months Ukraine’s armed forces have surprised many observers with its ability to resist Russian aggression and liberate much of the Donbas from occupation by Kremlin-backed insurgents. Prior to the conflict in east Ukraine, many had written Ukraine’s military off as a corrupt and ineffective fighting force. Stripped by successive governments of funding and suffering from a top-heavy hierarchy featuring a disproportionate number of generals and not enough combat-experienced officers, few expected the Ukrainian army to be capable of mounting serious resistance to any outside threat. 

These grim predictions appeared largely justified when the Ukrainian armed forces retreated from Crimea in March 2014 without offering any coordinated resistance to Russia’s lightning invasion and seizure of the peninsula. However, when Russian agents began seizing towns and cities in eastern Ukraine in April 2014, the Ukrainian government made the decision to stand and fight, plunging the Ukrainian army into its first ever war. The conflict has confirmed many of the misgivings previously held about Ukraine’s army – namely that it is poorly led, poorly equipped and vulnerable to corruption. Nevertheless, few would argue that the flawed performance of 2014 was above and beyond expectations. 

One of the key factors enabling the Ukrainian army to put up a fight has been the mobilization of the general public in support of the country’s armed forces. Thousands have joined volunteer battalions, while millions of ordinary Ukrainians (and international sympathizers) have donated money to help fund the defence of the country. This unprecedented fundraising effort has helped finance the war effort and provided crucial supplies for troops. While it is difficult to calculate exactly how much has been raised, it is clear that this financial support has been vital for the Ukrainian war effort – some have even called it decisive. 

Inevitably, among all the goodwill and activism there have also been instances of corruption and attempts to exploit public engagement in the conflict to con people and steal funds meant for the Ukrainian military. Business Ukraine spoke to the Ukrainian Freedom Fund - one of the international groups involved in fundraising efforts for the Ukrainian military - and asked them what steps they have taken to make sure that all funds donated by members of the public find their way to the intended recipients and are not syphoned off along the way. 

Who were the driving forces behind the establishment of the Ukrainian Freedom Fund?
The Ukrainian Freedom Fund (UFF) was set up by several Ukrainian and foreign entrepreneurs. It has also been endorsed by the EU-Ukraine Business Council, the US-Ukraine Business Council and the European Business Association. At the time of the Crimea crisis in early 2014 it was already clear that we needed to take action as a society in order to support the security and defence of Ukraine. The process was essentially reflexive, with all residents of Ukraine forced to contemplate defending their country much like a homeowner must defend his home against thieves. The UFF was designed as a tool to involve as many people as possible in the process of defending the country - not only those who live in Ukraine, but also sympathizers all over the world. The threat Ukraine is facing today has major global consequences and while we all hope that it will not develop into World War III, clearly the international community has a vested interest in supporting Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself.  

What kind of assurances can you offer to donors that their financial support will reach the desired recipients?
All the financial activities of the UFF are audited according to international standards by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The UFF is the only fund in Ukraine whose activity is monitored in this manner by professional auditors. We provide all the necessary receipts, orders from commanders, tender proposals, and commercial offers to our auditors for verification. Procurement reports and statistics are also posted on the official UFF website, while the fund’s Facebook page also provides regular updates.

How have your aid efforts developed since the launch of the fund?
UFF has grown organically and remains the only international charitable foundation bringing together volunteers around the world to raise funds for the purchase of non-lethal supplies to support the Ukrainian army and help civilians affected by the Russia’s war against Ukraine. We currently have UFF representatives in Brussels, London, New York, Boston, Toronto, Denver and California, with more representatives joining weekly. We are now planning to launch a joint project with partner organizations which will allow us to arrange medical treatment in the United States for wounded soldiers. We are simultaneously working on increasing our volunteer network around the world while also trying to inform international audiences about the realities of the situation in Ukraine.

What kind of people have been your most active donors?
The most active donors so far have been from the US, Canada, and Great Britain. There has also been significant support from the Baltic States and Poland. We have received donations from dozens of countries, including Russia. Some of these donations have come from members of the Ukrainian diaspora, but many have been sent by well-wishers who have no personal connection to Ukraine. This backing from ordinary members of the public in a variety of countries has been very encouraging and suggests that international support for Ukraine is not limited to the political arena. 

How quickly did the international community respond to your aid efforts?
The response of the international community was rapid and efficient. In the first six weeks following the UFF launch we received more than USD 150,000 in donations – around 80% of which came from international donors. 

What would be your advice to anyone who wants to support Ukraine but is afraid that their donations may not reach those most in need?
It is crucial to make sure that the aid organization which you are donating to can be trusted. As a potential donor I would try to find out who stands behind any fundraising organization. If it is a reputable organization it should provide detailed reports of purchases including photo and video evidence. It is also important to check who recommends or publicly endorses any fundraisers.

What are the lessons for Ukraine’s civil society of the grassroots aid efforts which have been launched over the past year in the country?
It would have taken years to achieve the kind of progress which we have seen in the development of Ukraine’s civil society over the past year of revolution and war. In the 1990s not many ordinary Ukrainians knew what NGOs were all about, and many did not really understand why there was any need for charitable organizations in Ukrainian society. During Soviet times it was common to assume that the state would take care of everything and address all social issues. As a result of the Communist system people got used to the idea that society should be passive while the state resolved all social issues. It has taken many years for these Soviet attitudes to be replaced by a more European approach to dealing with social issues. We are now witnessing a return to the European values which underpin the existence of a healthy NGO sector. The Euromaidan revolution taught us that our demands will only be met when we unite as a society – it is an important lesson which has provided Ukraine’s civil society with a major boost.