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Management in Practice

What Do Ukraine’s NGOs Need?

Nonprofits are stretched delivering services to vulnerable, underserved populations in the best of times. What do they do when they find themselves operating in a war zone where a quarter of the population is displaced? Jenny Malseed ’05 talked with Yale Insights about what NGOs on the ground in Ukraine are experiencing and what they need to continue their work. She is vice president of strategy and talent at GlobalGiving, a nonprofit that uses crowdfunding to support vetted partner organizations around the world.

Volunteers with internally displaced people at a humanitarian aid center in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, on March 31, 2022.

Volunteers with internally displaced people at a humanitarian aid center in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, on March 31, 2022.

Photo: Eduardo Leal/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Interview conducted on March 28, 2022

Q: What’s the scale of need in Ukraine?

It’s a difficult question to answer because it’s constantly evolving. We’ve seen homes, schools, orphanages, and hospitals coming under attack. The pictures from Mariupol are devastating. There’s nothing left. And it’s not the only city attacked that way; multiple cities have been completely razed.

UNICEF described it as one of the fastest large-scale displacements of children since World War II with about 4.3 million children displaced as of late March. The UN estimated that about a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people have left their homes because of the war. Many have fled for neighboring countries, but as of their last report, about 6.5 million were still within Ukraine.

Q: What is GlobalGiving hearing from those who are on the ground in Ukraine?

This crisis hit everyone in the country, but those who were in a vulnerable position before may be hit hardest. We have partners working with women, children, people with specific medical conditions, older adults, LGBTQ+—a range of vulnerable groups. A big message we hear from partners is a worry that those most affected by the crisis are forgotten, so they are doubling down on efforts to help vulnerable populations.

Our partners also shared that fuel prices have gone through the roof. Their costs to operate are going way up even as they are most needed and, sometimes, forced to work in a more mobile way themselves.

We’re hearing a lot of appreciation for the outreach and influx of funds from around the world.

Q: How are the groups managing to work within a war zone?

Maybe our partner organizations’ staff are not going to the office if it’s damaged, destroyed, or under attack, but if they’re still able to access funds, if their cell phone is still working, they’re finding ways to help others. We have stories of moving children at a hospital that was in danger to another safer location. They’re providing medical support, shelter, food, clean water, hygiene kits, and other basic supplies. We’ve seen so much resiliency.

Q: GlobalGiving’s model is to connect donors with local community-led organizations. How do you find the organizations to work when a crisis is moving so quickly?

GlobalGiving has vetted local partners in almost every country in the world. In Ukraine we’ve had ongoing relationships with dozens of partners for years.

“Our role at GlobalGiving is to listen to the needs of our partners, and then fundraise to meet those needs.”

We launched the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund weeks before Russia attacked because those partners conveyed the tension during the buildup and what they would need if an invasion happened. As of today our fund has raised over $20 million and it continues to grow.

Part of our role at GlobalGiving is to listen to the needs of our partners, and then fundraise to meet those needs. One of the things that we really try to do is offer flexible and unrestricted funding so that our nonprofit partners can focus on their lifesaving work and increase the impact of their activities by directing funds where they’re needed the most.

Q: Would you share some examples of what organizations are doing and how they are adapting?

The Dzherelo Centre, an organization in Lviv that works with children with disabilities as well as their families, normally had hundreds of people coming to the center every day. Those families are now staying in their homes or basements to be safe. The organization has shifted to getting basic necessities and medicines to the children they work with. They are also converting the center into a warehouse for humanitarian supplies and accommodations for refugees.

Fundatia ROLDA, a nonprofit that supports animal shelters, is still supporting shelters that are struggling to stay open. They’re also organizing rescue missions for abandoned dogs and a rehoming program facilitating adoption elsewhere in Europe and in the U.S.

The Way Home, a foundation in Odessa that normally provides a suite of social, psychological, and education support to young people in complicated circumstances, is now providing temporary food and shelter for fleeing families and coordinating evacuations to other countries.

We’re seeing partners in other countries responding. AO Katalyst, a nonprofit in Moldova, works with entrepreneurs and small producers to develop food businesses. They are now just feeding refugees.

The Italian nonprofit Fondazione La Stampa Specchio dei Tempi Onlus, which typically responds to natural disasters, has begun running buses from Ukraine’s border with Poland where refugees are waiting to cross and taking them to Italy. On the return trips, the buses carry medical supplies and food to those who are still in Ukraine.

Q: The best-known global relief organizations receive the vast majority of charitable giving during disasters. GlobalGiving focuses on local community-led groups. What’s the role for each in a crisis?

“In any given crisis, historically about 98 percent of the resources go to large global entities.We’re trying to shift that balance. Local partners know what’s needed where they are.”

Our perspective generally is that there is a place for all of the groups, but the balance has been tilted far too much toward fly-in support, not enough to the community-based support. In any given crisis, historically about 98% of the resources are going to large global entities.We’re trying to shift that balance. Local partners know what’s needed where they are and are able to act both immediately and in a sustained way long after a crisis.

We recognize the value of and work with highly trained humanitarian workers who fly in and provide support. They’ve been through other crises before, they know what to do, and they’re not experiencing the crisis in the same way as someone who is both trying to help others while also protecting their family and experiencing the emotional ramifications of seeing such devastation and realizing, “This is happening in my country right now.”

International Medical Corps is a great example because they do both. They are a GlobalGiving partner that works all over the world. They have also been responding in Ukraine since the invasion of Crimea in 2014, so they’ve got a local presence, local knowledge, and an understanding of the context

Q: What goes into effective crisis response?

One of the most crucial parts of effective crisis response is listening to our partners. Not just lending an empathetic ear but saying, “That’s really tough. And because of that I’m going to change what I’m doing to make it easier for you, because you’re the one responding to the crisis.” I think a lot of organizations struggle with that, but it’s one of the ways GlobalGiving really tries to be different.

We’re also emphasizing with donors that cash is what lets our partners be flexible. It’s really nice to say, “People are cold. I want to knit socks. I want to send sweaters.” But it’s actually a poor use of resources. It’s expensive and diverts focus.

Cash, cash, cash is a really important message for folks. People do need supplies but give a humanitarian organization the cash and they’ll source it, do the procurement, and get it to the people.

Finally, in a crisis we must attend to immediate relief and response efforts but also prepare for the future. It takes years for communities to recover and rebuild. Even as the crisis is happening, GlobalGiving is thinking about and planning for long-term recovery, rebuilding, and strengthening community resilience. It’s hard to do both simultaneously, but it’s important.

Q: GlobalGiving is designed to be a lean organization. What has the response to the crisis in Ukraine looked like internally?

GlobalGiving has about 80 staff in the U.S. and UK. We have really low operating costs because we trust our local partners to know what is best for their communities, and how to get there.

When I talked about adapting—we’re doing it too. Our social team has responded to more than 10,000 messages on social media since February 24. Our PR specialist has been in contact with 700 journalists worldwide. We’ve been receiving so many checks that we held a check entry “party” the other night where several staff members volunteered to stay late to process checks while eating pizza. We processed over $2 million in donations in three hours.

We’ve had operational questions of how to actually get money to our partner organizations. The logistics of disbursements have gotten complicated because of sanctions, especially if organizations had a Russian bank or the transfer of funds was supposed to be routed through Russia. You have to be flexible and adjust, and we’ve found ways to do thatt.

It’s a lot, but our staff talk about how they are just grateful to be part of this and able to help in some way.

Q: You have a family connection to Ukraine. Has that shaped your experience of this crisis?

My mother-in-law was born in Ukraine in 1943. Her family fled life under Stalin. They became part of a train of refugees that made their way to Poland. After four years in various refugee camps a relative was able to sponsor them to come to the United States. Thinking about my mother-in-law’s story while watching it all happen again, it feels very personal, so I’m grateful that the world is paying so much attention.

At the same time, everyone working at GlobalGiving has connections, relationships, deep love and respect for people in many different countries whose crises don’t get the same attention. That’s difficult for me, for our staff, and above all for the people in other parts of the world who are overlooked. It has been incredibly challenging to come to terms with the racial bias that’s at work. Syrian refugees have largely been forgotten. People in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya are already suffering one of the worst droughts that we’ve seen in decades—there’s been an underfunded humanitarian response there. Some countries in the Horn of Africa import up to 90% of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia. Rising prices and reduced access to staples will only make it worse.

Q: How does GlobalGiving vet potential partners?

We perform rigorous due diligence on every organization in the GlobalGiving community. We want to make sure that they’re performing charitable work in a transparent and accountable way, that they are meeting local requirements for registration with their local government. We review legal documentation, financial records, program materials, lists of senior staff and board members. We look at their compliance with antiterror guidelines and international guidelines for philanthropy.

It’s rigorous, but we also want to be careful not to exclude. In fact, we’re redesigning our welcome process and approach to onboarding new partners right now. We’re co-creating it through engaging current and potential partners from all around the world. We’re asking, “How could we make this process more equitable, more fair, more open, and get a lot more organizations on board?”