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"An ear to listen, a shoulder to lean on"

By: Kimberly Stefancik, Deputy Editor in Chief

Why to donate to small size charities operating at the Front line of the War on Ukraine

Living through what the people are going through is oftentimes the best way to be in service to them.  Emotionally, physically, mentally, Stavros with CanadaLovesMykolaiv, is right in it with the people of Kherson and Mykolaiv.  

Individuals, organizations, and charities came to support Ukraine at the onset of the full-scale invasion.  There is a myriad of causes to choose from which are impacting the besieged country.  Ranging from fundraising to procure supplies for soldiers, feeding people, rebuilding efforts, animal welfare groups, and supporting infants and children, there is no shortage of individuals or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to donate money, time, or goods to.  This article will explore the merits and challenges of donating to small size aid groups operating near the Front line of the War.

First, why do people donate to charities?  Bonterra, one of the world’s largest social good software platforms, says giving is driven by a number of reasons.  According to a survey Bonterra conducted, donors site knowing there is a need, an altruistic belief the contribution will be used for good, receiving positive feedback reinforcement via social media and newsletters, or the donor wanting the tax deduction.  Studies like the one conducted by Park et al. in 2017, demonstrate there is a cellular link between donating and happiness, when researchers found a neural link between generosity and perceived happiness.

When it comes to deciding which Ukrainian charity, non-profit, or NGO to donate one’s hard-earned money to, it may seem overwhelming at first.  Some folks may donate spontaneously, because they saw something in the news that spurred them to action. Others may utilize planned charitable giving on a monthly basis.  While both large and small organizations are working to benefit Ukraine’s vast and seemingly never-ending needs, let’s look at why giving to small organizations has a much deeper impact on the communities they serve.

Because of the danger associated with operating in a war-zone, small, local charities are most adept at maneuvering in this environment.  While larger charities may not be able to acquire the necessary insurance policies or approval from their Board of Directors to go to these dangerous areas, small organizations may reach specific, localized populations in need.  This is because they have the freedom, desire, or simply the guts to go to be in service and volunteer at the front line.

An example of a small group operating exclusively at the front line of the War is CanadaLovesMykolaiv, which is run by a single man called Stavros.  Coming from Toronto, Canada, he felt called to Ukraine while he was traveling abroad.  Volunteers come to Ukraine for different reasons, but many come because they have gone through a personal hardship or a significant loss in life, and they come to find purpose.  Stavros is one of those people and arrived in Ukraine at the beginning of the full-scale invasion and hasn’t left since.  Setting up shop as a one-man organization in Kherson, he serves homemade style barbeque food and hosts small parties for at-risk children living in the Front line villages of Mykolaiv, Kherson, and surrounding areas. His ethnicity is Greek and he’s had cooking in his veins for most of life, learning from his family.

One of the reasons his organization works well is he buys regionally sourced food, further benefiting the local economy, and mitigating import costs of not having food and goods shipped into Ukraine like other organizations.  In turn, he visits war-torn villages within a couple of kilometers from the russian occupiers, who oftentimes are without electricity, water, and services.  He serves barbeque food like kielbasa, sausage, and chicken, which he prepares himself on a homemade American/Canadian style grill.  He makes Greek or Italian salads with local meats added, and also offers chocolate bars, local fruits or veggies- whatever is in season.

The villages he visits are under constant shelling by bombs and drones, the people are often traumatized and war-weary, and CanadaLovesMykolaiv sets up in true renegade style on a street corner or in the center of a village, without any notice.  But sure enough, the babushka grapevine is strong, and word gets out immediately.  Lines will form down the street, around the block, and the people are eager and appreciative to receive his barbequed food.  Stavros says the groups he feeds range in size from 100 - 1200 hungry souls.  He estimates he has fed more than 170,000 people since the War on Ukraine started.

“My main goal is to put a smile on people’s faces,” says Stavros.  “I’ve always been different in life,” he continued on.  Being different has helped set his small operation up to make a big difference in the life of Ukrainians living at the front line.  Kherson is under daily shelling and he says he does not see other aid groups operating where he goes and that is why he stays put.  

Small aid groups like this can be nimble and go to villages who are underserved, they have relationships with village leaders and necessary officials to go through restrictive checkpoints en route, and go where the need is greatest. The villages at the front line of the war have mostly either been entirely destroyed or have suffered massive losses to their infrastructure, making it nearly impossible to serve their local community.  This is why small aid groups are critical to going to these high-risk areas. 

CanadaLovesMykolaiv provides a huge portion of food to the people so they may take some home for their families and if people are too afraid or traumatized to come out from their homes, Stavros will deliver the food right to their door.  His favorite is receiving big hugs from the babushkas and children.  At first they were leery of him as a foreigner, but now he is seen as part of the community, because he lives in Kherson and goes through the same struggles.  Some of the most notable things he has organized are Halloween and Christmas parties for the local children, making pizzas for kids, buying flowers to give out on the streets to the babushkas, or giving out Freeze popsicles on the hot summer days.  

Another reason to donate to small NGOs or groups is that many working at the front-line of the war are run by volunteers or perhaps the directors have lower salaries compared to their counterparts at larger organizations.  While personnel is oftentimes the highest expense for groups, and of course people need to be compensated, those working or volunteering at these groups are doing so because they are driven to give-back and have a true passion or love for being in service to the Ukrainians.  They work selflessly and make personal sacrifices, forgoing many creature comforts like having water or electricity at times, or staying in four or five star accommodations used by many large International aid groups in much safer environments.  Stavros lives in a humble flat and in true fashion, is always helping his neighbors in any way he can.

In ideal circumstances, forthcoming formalized organizations will provide their operating budgets to prospective donors via their website or upon request.  But for small groups, another way to see how they are spending their donations is to take a look at their social media presence.  When donating to aid groups, people ought to research the background of the organization, who is running it, and review their social-media accounts when available.  

It is equally important to evaluate the challenges small aid groups face while working at the front line of the War in Ukraine.  Most small aid groups are run by individuals who possess a lot of heart and passion and sometimes they may not have the necessary business acumen to plan long-term to keep the doors open.  Many groups don’t have deep reserves to operate and therefore may not sustain themselves for the long-term if donations dry up.  Now that the War is grinding on into the end of the second year, international donations have decreased by an estimated ninety percent.  Unfortunately the exuberance that many felt in giving at the beginning of the war, has slowed to a trickle and this has caused many groups to shutter and cease operations.  

Lastly, a big challenge to be mindful of is that there is a relatively low oversight on how the donated funds are actually spent.  In future articles, we will delve deeper into the darker side of charity work, where funds are misused or mis-managed, where the majority of donations go to paying for fancy dinners, alcohol bills, expensive hotels, or travel.  Another huge variable to be aware of is the potential salaries of trustees and directors, therefore mitigating the overall effectiveness of donated funds.  If directors are receiving a high salary compared to donated funds, then this can lead to things being out of alignment.  

There are a plethora of aid groups and organizations who are worthy of donations and charitable contributions in Ukraine.  Donations can be made one time, on a monthly basis with a set date, or through planned giving via estate planning and final wishes upon one’s passing.  The charitable landscape of Ukraine is seemingly vast and neverending, with many causes, and for individuals or companies making donations, it is crucial to continue giving to ensure the victory for Ukraine.  

For worthy recipients like CanadaLovesMykolaiv, he insists he’s in it for the long-haul.  “I’m an ear to listen to the people, and a shoulder to lean on,” says Stavros.  But most importantly, he’s there to give hugs and show the people he truly cares.  Somewhat of a local celebrity in Kherson, Stavros is truly connected to the people and they trust him.  He says at the end of the day, he enjoys seeing the people smile and this is what drives him forward on his mission.

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