The Ukrainian Activists Taking on Big Philanthropy

Less than 20% of humanitarian aid to Ukraine goes directly to grassroots NGOs. A coalition of Ukrainian activists is trying to change that

June 2024
October 2023
June 17, 2024
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Magic Cabinet

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the country’s grassroots organizers sprung into action – including the team at Feminist Workshop.

The Lviv-based NGO was founded a decade earlier to advance movements for women’s rights. When war struck, they broadened their activities to include psychological support for women, and housing for displaced people from regions with active hostilities.

They were part of a wave of reinvention by necessity.

In Zaporizhia, Voice of Romni, a nonprofit focused on advocating for Roma rights, shifted to providing basic needs like food, diapers, hygiene kits, and multi-purpose cash assistance. In Moldova, which borders Ukraine, the youth NGO Diversity opened a center for teenage refugees.

These community-led organizations have played a critical part in the war. Yet data show they receive a pittance of the billions in humanitarian aid that has flowed into Ukraine over the past 19 months.

The humanitarian outreach to Ukraine since 2021 has been historic. Billions of dollars have flowed in, including more than $1 billion from the United States alone, to priorities like health, food security, and access to water. But data from the UN Financial Tracking Service show that grassroots Ukrainian NGOs like Feminist Workshop receive less than 20% of foreign donor dollars directly – despite the fact that they do the vast majority of frontline humanitarian work.

Instead, funding goes to larger organizations, where it eventually funnels down to the grassroots – or not.

As one local organizer put it to Alliance Magazine: “There is an astounding difference between who is doing the work and who is receiving the funding.”

Data from May 2022 show the difference between those doing the work and those receiving direct funding in the early months of the war.

Over the past year, though, grassroots NGO leaders have spoken up to demand more respect.

Last summer, a consortium of NGO leaders and activists in Ukraine called the National Network of Local Philanthropy Development (NNLPD) published a provocative open letter aimed at international donors. The message: trust us.

Signed by more than 120 people and titled, “If Not Now, When?”, the letter’s basic argument is that humanitarian work is less effective when it’s mandated from the top down. By adding in layers of intermediaries, donors are missing out on opportunities to provide direct and effective services to local activists who are doing the work. This wasteful bureaucracy is not only unjust, it’s expensive (per one report, potentially wasting up to 32% of funding).

An Open Letter: If Not Now, When?

In August 2022, a consortium of activists and NGOs in Ukraine published an open letter to international donors. You can view it here.

This perspective has taken hold in institutional philanthropy and the development sector, where an additional narrative has emerged: that this model of paternalistic, donor-driven aid risks undermining philanthropy’s plainly stated goal of advancing democracy. By infantilizing Ukraine’s civil society sector, donors are undertaking a “sterilization” of civil society that has been seen in places like Palestine.

There have been positive developments, like a fall 2021 meeting between international donors and grassroots leaders. Meetings like that have led to innovative grassroots funding models, like participatory grantmaking and trust-based philanthropy. While nowhere near the norm, strides have been made.

In many ways, Ukraine is being watched closely as a harbinger for other countries, and other crises. The restless eye of aid has already shifted from Ukraine to Morocco, Sudan, and elsewhere, where similar conversations about local control have also begun.

As Joseph Bednarek of Global Fund for Children puts it: “If the international community can't get it right in Ukraine, they're probably not going to get it right anywhere.”

Context Clues

“International NGOs don’t always have local context.”

That’s the perspective of Voice of Romni’s Anzhelika Bielova. She shared her experience working with foreign donors to distribute multipurpose cash assistance. Many donors cap support at five people per family, but Roma families often consist of eight or ten. “This creates unequal access in the Roma community,” she says.

Another often-shared story from the beginning of the war was about a donor that sent a supply of cooling blankets in the middle of a cold winter.

That echoes a main critique in the NNLPD’s open letter. The letter argues that local leaders have “access”, “local knowledge”, and connections that foreign donors lack, not to mention language fluency. It’s a fair point considering that when the war hit, many international donors had little or no presence in Ukraine.

Bednarek says that this lack of context means donors have trouble providing effective philanthropy. “The largest international NGOs are often too reliant on foreign staff living in Ukraine, or try to do things themselves without local partners,” he says. “To go in and chop up a million dollars into 20 or 40 pieces and give it out – that’s not going to be effective.”

The most common workaround: giving through traditional humanitarian channels, like the United Nations or the Red Cross. But this has led to a complex, and often expensive, bureaucracy.

Anna Provozin, a Ukrainian living in Moldova, spoke about the challenges raised by this complex series of transactions. Provozin works at a youth-focused NGO called the Informal Education Center “Diversity”. When the war hit, they broadened their services nearly overnight to provide services like psycho-social support for Ukrainian refugee teenagers streaming over the border.

Provozin says that donor bureaucracy slows the process of getting funds to local NGOs – and results in less money overall. “It feels like a lot of money is just going to the offices of these different organizations – they’re re-re-transferring the money. And the amount that finally gets to the local level is just so much smaller than it could be.”

In fact, a 2022 study, Passing the Buck, found that local leaders can deliver programming that is 32% more cost efficient than international intermediaries, by stripping out inflated overhead and salary costs. That would equate to roughly $4 billion dollars in annual savings – funding that would cover the entire UN humanitarian appeal for Ukraine in 2022.

Provozin also spoke about how these extra rounds of bureaucracy add layers of reporting requirements that can “retraumatize” aid recipients. “I’ve seen cases where refugees were asked to fill in very long forms after receiving hygiene at work, or clothing to cover their basic needs,” she says. “They had to answer questions like, ‘How did you use it? Did you sell it? Did someone sell it to you?’”

This can lead to mistrust of the NGO handing out the questionnaire. “We try to make it as simple as possible and maintain dignity for those coming to receive our support,” Anna says. “We tell people all the time, ‘This is for you. You don’t have to feel guilty asking for it.'”

For all the questions of effective philanthropy, there’s another argument for international donors to decentralize their grantmaking power: to ensure the long-term success of Ukraine’s fertile civil society.

Undermining Democracy?

The war in Ukraine is a proxy for many things, but perhaps none more so than the future of global democracy.

It’s no surprise that “strengthening democracy” was a theme of philanthropy’s early messaging around Ukraine aid. When Open Society Foundations launched the Ukraine Democracy Fund in the days after Russia’s invasion, for instance, they wrote that it was “to respond to Putin’s assault on democracy”.

That’s why critics allege that donors’ paternalism toward Ukrainian civil society is undermining their own pro-democracy goals. The Lily School of Philanthropy at Indiana University releases an annual index of global philanthropy. In their 2022 edition, written just before the outbreak of war, the authors wrote fawningly about Ukrainians’ “extreme resilience” to anti-democratic pressures over the past decade:

Expectations of [the] rise of nationalism, state failure or economic collapse have not come to pass… Ukrainians have supported moderate policy proposals such as decentralisation, shunned right-wing politicians and parties, and participated in peaceful elections… Civic identity is gaining ground at the expense of ethno-nationalist identity”

Indeed, Ukraine has an active and fertile civil society sector – ranging from nonprofits and NGOs to aid organizations and informal activist groups. The ranks of these groups started to grow during the Orange Revolution in 2004, and spiked in 2014-2015 when Russia invaded the Donbas region.

By the time of the 2021 Russian invasion, there were 4,365 civil society organizations registered in Ukraine. Some 1,700 new groups have formed since. These organizations are a key part of the story behind the strong demonstration of resilience and mutual aid that Ukrainians have shown since the early days of the war.

But there is growing concern that international donors’ top-down and bureaucratic approach to funding could sterilize this thriving civil sector in the long run.

One analogy is what happened in Palestine. In 1993, the year of the Oslo Accords, Palestinians became some of the largest recipients of international aid in the world virtually overnight. Two decades later, many Palestinian leaders felt their communities had become “dependent” on foreign aid, to the detriment of their centuries-old civil society.

One critic is Moukhtar Kocache, who left big philanthropy to build the Rawa: Creative Palestinian Communities Fund. Kocache has argued that new structures and intermediaries set up by foreign donors caused brain drain for local community groups, pulling long-time community leaders onto the payroll of global NGOs with their own agendas.

“When you create a massive administrative system that is vital to people’s livelihood, they will become passive,” Kocache says. “If you tell someone they don’t know how to make decisions and they need hand-holding, they will internalize that. It’s a sterilization of grassroots organizing and community development on many levels.”

As the creators of the documentary Donor Opium have written, “Peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state have been the declared goals of [donor support]. But actual results are the fragmentation and pacification of the Palestinian people.”

Donor Opium: The impact of international aid to Palestine

This documentary film features Palestinian criticism of foreign aid and development. Some donors worry that the same dynamics could be at play in Ukraine.

The NNLPD’s open letter makes a similar case – that bureaucracy kills initiative and entrepreneurial drive by NGOs. “What chance do newly created organizations have for success if funding is limited and selective?” the letter asks. “The internationalization of resources undermines the development of leadership at Ukrainian CSOs.”

There are already some warning signs that the effects of this internalization are starting to be felt: burnout. Yosh, who leads Feminist Workshop, argues that donors’ competitive mindset is exhausting activists, and leading her feminist peers to quit activism.

“We have people join our work because they feel an urge, an anger, an inspiration to make a difference,” she says. “But in this atmosphere of competition for money, there’s so much pressure on them. You have to show results and deadlines and metrics. When an activist has a failure, or makes a mistake, they often don’t know what to do about it. So they go home.”

Yaroslav Minkin, an activist with the arts NGO STAN, echoes this idea: “The activists I know who are working with large international organizations are the most burnt out.”

Donors talking

Last September, Anna Provozin attended a convening in Poland hosted by feminist organization VOICE, which gathered feminist NGO leaders from five countries that border Ukraine. Also in attendance were a dozen or so representatives of international donors and NGOs, who Mendy Marsh, Executive Director and Co-Founder of VOICE, referred to as “resource allies”.

VOICE is a women-led organization that works to “[revolutionize] emergency response systems to prioritize and protect women and girls and other at-risk groups locally and globally.” In the spring of 2022, their team conducted an assessment of the needs of women- and girl-led organizations in and around Ukraine. They identified two critical needs among all front-line responders: the need to recharge, and the need to connect. All the NGOs who responded were rapidly approaching burnout and expressed increased feelings of loneliness as other volunteers dropped away. 

VOICE organized the convening with a focus on connection and restoration. Their goal was to bring in trusted donors who, Marsh says, “we knew would join us with open minds and willingness to illustrate their values related to trust-based philanthropy.”

Provozin remembers: “It was a lot of games, drawing, talking in smaller groups. It felt very restful and relaxing after a crazy half-year of full-scale invasion.” But it was also productive. “You could get a sense of what was happening in different countries on the ground.”

The convening was one in a series of spaces that have been set up by international donors to create a more meaningful dialogue between donors and activists like Provozin. The convening had certain rules. When it came time to discuss donor/NGO relationships, the donors were invited to sit at the table, but asked to listen, and not speak unless spoken to.

Provozin recalls: “You had the possibility to talk with donors face to face. It was the first time I felt that donors were sitting there, answering questions directly, being there for us. We could ask anything anonymously, like, ‘Why does it take so long for you to get money to us?’ It was very honest and open, and it was the first time I could feel like donors were also human, that they had their own challenges.”

The donors in attendance hardly represent the entire philanthropy and international aid ecosystem, but they represent a portion of donors who want to learn how they can systematize trust. These donors are driven by the honest realization that getting funding to Ukraine is hard. Many of them didn’t have a local presence in Ukraine before the war because it simply wasn’t at the top of their list of priorities.

As Matt Sinclair and Daniel Matz of Philanthropy News Digest put it in an editorial in July 2022, philanthropy “lacks a clear road map” for Ukraine. Or, as Open Society Foundation’s Viorel Ursu wrote when they launched their fund: “This is the most difficult kind of grantmaking: providing resources in a fast-changing war environment.”

Mendy Marsh remembers: “A lot of our local partners had been responding to the invasion from day one and had never taken a day off. In twenty years of humanitarian work, I’ve never seen so much burnout.”

Provozin wants to provide those donors who are willing to listen with a roadmap for how to shift power to local Ukrainian NGOs. She says, “We have regular calls with other activists. And we develop strategy. We discuss the problems we see in our local communities and what we want to change. And then we try to find solutions for them and try to approach bigger donors to deliver that message.”

Coming out of these convenings, the message to donors has revolved around things like flexible funding, reducing reporting requirements, and participatory grantmaking.

“The activists I know who have received the most flexible funds, who have invested in their teams and their development, those are the ones that have been most effective,” says Yaroslav Minkin. One organization offering flexible funding is the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Last winter, when the country was seeing rolling blackouts, CDP provided Voice of Roma with a long-term grant of two-year institutional support for the team. That took the form of overhead, which the organization immediately used for laptops and rent for their office.

Reducing reporting restrictions is another common solution. Evegniya says: “We have a war going on and there are rolling blackouts, so we need to rearrange the schedule of counselor meetings all the time. And in the middle of all that, we’re asked to write a donor report. We have to ask ourselves, what’s more important, the report or the people we’re helping?”

The Global Fund for Children has been a leader on this front: when the war started, the fund shed all reporting requirements completely. Joseph Bednarek remembers: “Grantee partners were asking me 'When do you need the reports? And I was like, settle down, go keep your family safe.'”

Another solution: participatory grantmaking. Several international donors are practicing participatory philanthropy in Ukraine, including Global Fund for Children and the Global Resilience Fund. The Global Resilience Fund’s Rosa Bransky argues that participatory grantmaking doesn’t have to come with the kinds of compromises funders might assume.

“There’s this false tension in philanthropy between speed and scale, and participation,” says Bransky. “There’s this idea that participatory work is slow work. We’re trying to turn that idea on its head. The GRF team has done some really amazing work convening participatory panels within 24 hours of the earthquake in Syria and Turkey.”

“We have to be comfortable saying: there's a way of doing this, and it looks different, and we have to hold people differently, but we can collect decisive decision making at speed and sometimes at scale,” Bransky said. “It doesn't need to be hyper process-heavy, with six months of investment and so on. The more we can recognize that, the more we can speak to community accountability being something that can happen anywhere at any time, even when bombs are dropping.”

What’s Next?

Already, humanitarian aid to Ukraine is starting to fall. The Ukraine humanitarian crisis has dropped far down on the list of active disasters, as other horrific crises demand immediate attention. The cycle of giving reflects the “typical boom and bust pattern of disaster philanthropy”.

The question is whether Ukraine’s NGO sector will come out strong and unified on the other side. Joseph Bednarek from Global Fund for Children, for one, is optimistic.

“The long term stuff is hard to talk about because we don't know when the conflict is going to end,” Bednarek says. “But when it does, there’s a real opportunity for Ukraine’s civil society. The more funding and support you give to grassroots organizations now, the stronger those communities are going to be in the long term. Ultimately you're lessening their dependence on Ukrainian government aid or international aid; it’s going to make them a lot more resilient in the future, and to further reinforce the practice of ‘we’re making our own decisions’. So building that local independence is a really important thing.”

Eshban Kwesiga is a leader with the Global Fund for Community Foundations, which signed onto and supported the NNLPD's open letter. Kwesiga argues that leaders ininternational aid need to get past the idea that those in crisis have nothing to offer.

"In humanitarian crises across the world, from Haiti to Turkey to Malawi, local communities are always the first responders," Kwesiga says. "But many times their contributions get erased or overshadowed by the logos of international organizations and their ability to organize international media attention. As INGOs respond to this and future crises, it's critical to acknowledge the contribution of local resources, networks and insights on how to respond to crises and be keen to identify and support what already exists."

In some ways, the important thing to do is to bring a human element to philanthropy. Yana says: “We don’t need capacity-building; we need an emotional support group. We have had to go through so much these past few years. We need support around mental health, around restoring ourselves from burnout.”

Anna Provozin makes a similar point. “I would really love people working in international organizations to just see us as humans, and see how tired we are; how much burnout is going on in the NGO field right now.” She tells the story of a donor who recently emailed her back after they sent in a report, with a personal note saying how great it was. “It’s so different than receiving a dry email, ‘We’ll get back to you in five days.’ So I just wish the field would recognize that we all need to take care of each other; I wish the field would become more human.”

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