Ukrainians Scale Up Crowdfunding to Help the War Effort

Earlier this year, Daria Chervona, a photo retoucher from Kyiv, was busy trying to raise 78 million Ukrainian hryvnia, about $2 million, for Ukraine’s army, posting daily on social media to urge friends and acquaintances to chip in. That was a high bar, but after a few weeks she announced she had cleared it, reaching her target.

“You did it,” she told her followers on Instagram in late January, in a post displaying the eight-figure sum raised in large black characters.

Ms. Chervona attributes her success to a system she adopted last summer: dividing the work among dozens of people, each tasked with collecting money from friends, in a process that she said can yield large sums. Each fund-raiser is then highlighted in a social media post with their picture, tapping into civilians’ desire to be recognized as active participants in the war effort.

“They need to be able to tell themselves, ‘I’m doing something, I’m helping,’” Ms. Chervona, 28, said in a recent interview. “I simply understood that any reasonably active person on Instagram could pull in 50K,” she added, referring to 50,000 Ukrainian hryvnias, about $1,300.

Since the early days of the war, thousands of volunteers have led crowdfunding efforts that have been crucial in supplying the Ukrainian military with critical equipment. They have become part of Ukraine’s social fabric, with nearly 80 percent of the population now donating, according to a recent survey.

But as the conflict drags on, and with momentum on the battlefield shifting to Russia, fund-raisers say it has become harder to raise money. That has prompted people like Ms. Chervona to borrow heavily from sales and marketing techniques to keep donations flowing. They have held auctions, organized raffles and invited influencers to participate in promotional clips.

Though sophisticated weaponry donated by the West gets much of the attention, the items raised through Ukrainian crowdfunding — like warm clothing, bulletproof vests and drones — are things soldiers need and help lift morale.

The most ambitious crowdfunding campaigns have raised enough money to buy not just small items like gloves but heavy battlefield equipment as well. Ms. Chervona’s latest operation, for instance, was devoted to securing money to give to the military brigade to buy five armored personnel carriers. The Ukrainian government said in September that crowdfunding had accounted for 3 percent of Ukraine’s total military spending since the war began.

The key, said Oleg Gorokhovskyi, the co-founder of Monobank, Ukraine’s largest online bank, is to adopt techniques that have worked in other fields. “You should do it like a business,” he said, adding that his bank has processed nearly $1 billion in donations since the start of the war.

He and Ms. Chervona provided copies of financial documents to The New York Times that they said showed their fund-raising totals.

People have embraced the broader approaches they use, which Ukrainians call “team fund-raising,” for its potential to scale up operations and reach untapped donors. In December alone, nearly $115 million was donated through campaigns using that system, according to data from Monobank — about as much as Germany’s latest short-term military aid package to Ukraine.

Ukrainian crowdfunding for the army dates to 2014, when civilians began raising money to help an outgunned military fight off Russian proxies who had instigated a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine.

But it dramatically took off after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, and has since become “by far the most popular way of participating in civic resistance,” among Ukrainian civilians, said Kateryna Zarembo, an associate fellow at the Kyiv-based New Europe Center.

Today, any Ukrainian with a social media account comes across daily calls to help buy a pickup, walkie-talkies of some other necessity for a brigade fighting on the frontline. Unit commanders sometimes reach out directly to their followers, urging them to help them buy new attack drones.

“You scroll your news feed and you see your friends collecting money and you think, ‘OK, I’ll donate. OK, I’ll donate a second time. Well, I can donate a third time as well,’” said Illia Pavlovych, a 28-year-old designer.

Simply tapping into Ukrainian spirit and patriotism — and anger at President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia — worked at the beginning of the war because of the wave of solidarity that swept over the country. But as the fighting continued, fatigue set in and people’s ability to donate has decreased.

“I was trying to raise money using the classical methods,” said Valeriy Tkalich, a product manager who recently organized a crowdfunding effort to buy a jeep for the army. “And it was giving me smaller and smaller results.”

Trying to circumvent the issue, fund-raisers got creative: a famous Ukrainian performer adapted the song “Just the Two of Us,” changing the chorus to “Just Drop the Donation.” A former Kyiv City Council member opened a raffle, with his Porsche as the top prize.

But perhaps no initiative has been as successful as the one that creates a ladder of giving by friends and acquaintances.

Ms. Chervona, who leads fund-raising efforts while pursuing jobs as a retoucher, said she and some friends decided to try the system while looking for a way to expand the donor base, so that they could continue to raise large sums through smaller donations.

Last July, she published a post on Instagram saying she was looking to assemble a team of 100 people, each tasked with raising about $1,300 among their friends to buy drones for the 12th Special Forces Brigade Azov, a unit that is part of the Ukrainian National Guard and has a nationalist heritage — aiming for a total of $130,000.

Team members were called “Azov’s rear people,” their photos were published on social media, and they were promised a token resembling a military plate upon completion of the crowdfunding.

Within a month, the operation far exceeded its target, raising a total of $860,000, Ms. Chervona said.

“So effective,” Mr. Tkalich, who participated in Ms. Chervona’s crowdfunding, said of the method. “I wondered why we hadn’t done it sooner.”

Mr. Tkalich said the process mimicked the marketing techniques he uses in his job in the gaming industry: the “virality” that pushes participants to enroll others; the “social approval” that people seek when buying popular products; the desire to emulate your friends.

Soon, multiple crowdfunding campaigns applying the same techniques appeared in Ukraine. Data from Monobank shows that individual donations more than doubled between July and December 2023.

By highlighting participants on social media, the crowdfunding operations have played on a growing sentiment in Ukraine: the desire to be recognized as active actors in the war effort, amid calls for civil society to become more involved.

“Donating is a social etiquette now,” Ms. Zarembo said. “It’s about highlighting one’s reputation.”

Ms. Chervona has created stickers with pictures of the participants, highlighting them as contributors, along with a QR code that can be scanned to make a donation. On a recent afternoon, several stickers could be found in a trendy neighborhood of central Kyiv, plastered in cafes. Participants sometimes post photos of their stickers on social media.

She said that many Ukrainians now wonder, “After two years of war, am I still a volunteer?”

Mr. Tkalich, who has launched dozens of crowdfunding campaigns since the war began, said the donations “act as small life buoys” to cope with the guilt of not fighting in the army.

“Although I don’t participate in direct combat, I engage in these other meaningful actions,” he said in a recent interview, wearing around his neck the token he had received from Ms. Chervona. “You’re either fighting in the war, or you’re helping end the war.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *