We, Ukrainians, thought that we showed our volunteer peak back in 2014, with the beginning of Russian aggression and the annexation of part of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and Crimea. At that time, the combined efforts of the movements to help the army and displaced persons, often situational and not institutionalised, seemed unprecedented. Until the Russian full-scale invasion happened. And we surpassed ourselves of previous years. The number, quality, and level of institutionalisation of charity organisations (COs) have increased. Volunteers learned how to fundraise, formed a strategic vision for the development of their projects, and made serious transformational changes in their initiatives.
All this, directly or indirectly, is a sign of the growth of civic consciousness in Ukrainian society. Ukraine gave a new impetus to the fashion for the consolidation of citizens, the fashion for targeted volunteering, and also the fashion for self-awareness of one’s involvement in Ukrainianness – a powerful force that opposes the aggressor. Volunteering is definitely our superpower from now on.
According to the study “Ukrainian Civil Society under the War – 2022” conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology within the project “Ukraine Civil Society Sectoral Support Activity,” the number of registered charity organisations in Ukraine increased almost eight-fold (6,367 new COs) in 2022. In one way or another, 77% of the surveyed organisations help the Armed Forces of Ukraine, that is, they provide exclusive assistance to the military as the main or one of the areas of activity. Ninety percent of COs work in the area of humanitarian aid, and 70% – informational. Fifty percent of respondents “practice” situational, individual fundraising campaigns for the needs of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Despite one of the most traumatic experiences since World War II, the degree of adaptability of our civil society is impressive. We accept challenges and know how to work in extremely difficult conditions. “Eighty percent of organisations did not stop their work in the main areas of activity at all. Thanks to this, the affected people, the Armed Forces of Ukraine and society felt constant support,” says Natalia Kharchenko, executive director of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, presenting the study.
The activity of NGO Promote Ukraine can serve as an example of adaptation to the needs and challenges of the time. Founded as the media, non-governmental, and advocacy organisation being a bridge between the EU and Ukraine, it has added new areas to its activities since 24 February 2022. We have handed over humanitarian aid to Ukraine worth more than EUR 300,000 and supported more than 5,000 Ukrainian refugees in Belgium. And this is in addition to more than 70 rallies, and more than 50 closed meetings with leading politicians during the nine months of full-scale war. Our volunteering coordination centre now operates as a full-fledged hub – Promote Ukraine Ukraine Hub. Communication, humanitarian, volunteer. One of the latest Promote Ukraine fundraising campaigns was also for the military – FPV drones for the Centre of Special Operations “A” and drones sent to the front via well-known volunteer Yulia (“Taira”) Payevska at the Invictus Games in Düsseldorf this year.
Then, in 2014, after the victory of Euromaidan and the beginning of Russian aggression against Ukraine, civil society proved to be more effective than the state. Volunteers became one of the decisive factors of the resistance, managed to replace (and in some cases create non-existent) state mechanisms in supply and security chains, evacuation, and medical assistance.
“It is thanks to volunteers that our army has become what it is now. And this is not only about food or bulletproof vests, which were massively delivered on the front lines in 2014-2015. It is primarily about the morale of the army. Volunteers, who became a connecting mechanism between the front and the rear and a real testimony that ‘we do not abandon our people,’ supported the soldiers’ understanding of what they were fighting for, while the people saw they were under reliable protection. And this is probably their most important mission. I hope we will never forget this,” says Natalka Pozniak-Khomenko, the author of the book “Volunteers: Power of those who care,” an employee of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. She collected 28 vivid stories about various volunteer initiatives, 28 stories showing that we are not indifferent and what we are capable of. Despite the widespread claims of Russian propaganda about our failed state and immature society.
Along with the evolution of the volunteer movement that meets the needs from cleaning parks to helping children with cancer, from helping victims of the explosion at the Kakhovka HPP to the highly consolidated campaign “donate for Bayraktar in three days,” the state is also evolving. “After 24 February, the situation changed again, but now radically. After the full-scale Russian military invasion, the state and society cannot exist by themselves. Both of them are in mortal danger. Without their cooperation and mutual trust, they will not survive alone. The ruling elite finally stopped serving itself. It works not to maintain its own financial flows, but to solve the issue of the safety of the entire population. In response, the majority of Ukrainians stopped treating the government with skepticism and mistrust,” historian Yaroslav Hrytsak reflects on the power of uniting these two polar worlds in his essay “War and new social contract.”
We hope that we will return to permanent volunteering in the areas of culture, sports, tourism, ecology, development of entrepreneurship, and strengthening of historical memory after the Victory. Although these are not priority areas of activity for NGOs, many initiatives care about what is sometimes presented in the “out of date” category.
Mentions in the mass media (a ten-fold increase compared to the period before 24 February 2023) and the evaluation of the volunteer movement by the authorities speak of the high appreciation of the work of volunteers as a result of the consolidation of civil society. Thus, in his speech on International Volunteer Day, enumerating at least 50 volunteer communities of various directions and degrees of institutionalisation, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky said, “Today volunteers are the most powerful part of Ukrainian civil society. This is a movement that unites all cities and communities of our country and all social groups. And this is an idea that attracts millions of people from different countries of the world to the Ukrainian struggle for freedom.” In particular, UNITED24 state platform “uses” the face of the President for the collection and accumulation of humanitarian aid. Their work architecture is to raise funds and transfer them to ministries, departments, and organisations that make purchases.
We are waging our own war. The war we did not start. But this is our war. For identity, the future, the content of basic concepts, and democracy. We are at the forefront of the world, but not alone, the world stands with us. The support for Ukraine from Western partners is all-time colossal. As well as the gratitude of the Ukrainian people. In his lecture on the Ukrainian resistance, famous historian Timothy Snyder directly says that “Ukrainians defined themselves as a European nation based on individual responsibility and cooperation of individuals – civil society.”
“Ukrainians are fighting for the right to make their own choices, and this is something that is deeply rooted in Ukrainian culture. The resistance of Ukrainians is also important for the future of democracy in the world – it is being tested whether an authoritarian state can destroy a neighbouring democratic country by force. Resistance is very important in this case. Because the consequences of this war, which are already felt all over the world, will have an impact on the future development of the world civilisation of democratic countries.” Not only Professor Snyder of Yale University thinks so, but almost every Ukrainian.
Ukrainians have a very wide choice of what and where to donate or where to invest their strength and resources. And the main thing is that we do not compete, volunteers or COs do not compete. As Taras Chmut, the head of one of the largest foundations, Come Back Alive, said in an interview with Radio Kultura, “The task of Come Back Alive is not to provide for every service member but to help Ukraine win the war. A year ago, I was asked who I should donate to – large foundations or small fundraising campaigns, I said: ‘whoever you want, everyone needs everything.’ Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, this foundation has collected more than UAH 7 billion for Ukraine’s victory in the war. Indeed, it should be noted that the work of large foundations is more systematic. In general, according to the data of the study “Ukrainian Civil Society under the War – 2022,” Ukrainians and foreigners transferred more than UAH 33.96 billion (nearly $1 billion) only to the accounts of the NBU and three largest charity foundations (United24, Come Back Alive, Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation) in 2022.
So, our action is small and, at the same time, vitally important – to donate, volunteer, and bring Victory closer. “Because if Ukraine stops fighting, there is no independent country. If Russia stops fighting, there is no war,” U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said the truest words.