‘It’s Not Like Anything I’ve Ever Seen': Aid Groups Report Overwhelming Donor Response for Ukraine
Gideon Herscher, a senior fundraiser with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, is stunned by what’s happening in Ukraine — and by how donors are responding. Eight days after the Russian invasion began, the organization had raised $17.5 million for its operations on the ground. Offers of support are still rolling in, many of them unsolicited. His calendar for one day alone included seven hours of back-to-back calls with more than a dozen supporters.
“It’s not like anything I have ever seen,” says Herscher, who has worked at the JDC for 21 years and managed aid appeals during crises such as India’s Covid-19 surge and this summer’s earthquake in Haiti. Disaster aid typically attracts a subset of the organization’s supporters, he says, but donations for Ukraine efforts are coming in from all quarters. “This crisis has brought down all the walls.”
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Gideon Herscher, a senior fundraiser with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, is stunned by what’s happening in Ukraine — and by how donors are responding. A week after the Russian invasion began, the organization had raised $17.5 million for its operations on the ground. Offers of support are still rolling in, many of them unsolicited. His calendar for one day alone included seven hours of back-to-back calls with more than a dozen supporters.
“It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen,” says Herscher, who has worked at the JDC for 21 years and managed aid appeals during crises such as India’s Covid-19 surge and this summer’s earthquake in Haiti. Disaster aid typically attracts a subset of the organization’s supporters, he says, but donations for Ukraine efforts are coming in from all quarters. “This crisis has brought down all the walls.”
This is not the only tale of an overwhelming outpouring of generosity for Ukraine. One week after Russian troops first advanced, groups working on the ground in Ukraine report a groundswell of charitable giving that’s unusual for its breadth and depth.
Most recently, aid agencies saw waves of support following the earthquake in Haiti as well as the crisis in Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal. “This feels bigger right now,” says Mary Stata, interim vice president of development at Mercy Corps. The Ukraine conflict has captured the hearts of many beyond those who reliably give to disaster relief, she says.
Support has materialized across the organization’s entire donor portfolio, from $5 contributions to major gifts and corporate donations. Some big donors who give exclusively to the organization’s development work have stepped forward, and Stata recently heard from a six-figure annual contributor who previously had limited her gifts to the organization’s domestic work.
“It’s unusual to see the full suite of donors from our portfolio be mobilized,” Stata says.
Save the Children has raised $11.7 million, with giving across all its channels outperforming the response from the first days of past emergencies, according to Amanda Morgan, the group’s director of emergency fundraising. One big surprise: An Instagram campaign has raised $930,000. A similar campaign during the Afghanistan crisis netted just $30,000, the previous Instagram high for the group.
The organization has raised an unusually robust $4 million from corporations, including some that haven’t previously supported Save the Children. “The number of corporations we’re talking to is massive,” Morgan says. “We don’t typically see this much support from corporations when the disaster is political in nature.”
The corporate response — which includes cash donations, in-kind gifts, and contributions from customer campaigns — is also much quicker than in past emergencies. Several businesses have launched workplace-giving efforts. “Employees are really leading the charge and telling their companies they want to give,” Morgan says.
The International Medical Corps, which began operations in Ukraine in 2014 after Russia’s takeover of Crimea, raised more than $4 million in six days from individuals, foundations, and corporate supporters. “This really seems to be hitting everyone really hard,” says Rebecca Milner, chief advancement officer. “There are lots of connections between the people of Ukraine and the rest of the world. Plus, it’s on the doorstep of Europe.”
All but roughly 1,000 of the 8,000 individual donors are new to the organization, many having come upon the group in internet searches or via lists of recommended charities on Charity Navigator and in media outlets such as the New York Times and Elle.
GlobalGiving, which raises money from around the world for international relief projects and focuses on local, community-led charities, has received $4.1 million for its Ukraine emergency-response fund. That includes nearly $1 million from donors outside the United States. The total, the largest for any of its previous funds in the first days after a crisis, is more than three times the $1.3 million it has collected for its Afghanistan emergency effort in the months since the U.S. withdrawal.
Ukrainian groups seeking project support on GlobalGiving have received an additional $500,000.
Corporations typically provide half of the donations to GlobalGiving’s emergency funds, but individual donations make up 60 percent of the contributions for Ukraine so far. “This one has really been driven by individuals,” says Sandrina da Cruz, the group’s director of disaster response. “You’re seeing it on social media; people really care.”
Driving the Response
Some of the organizations responding to the crisis have a long history in Ukraine. That track record means their donors trust them to manage the work, fundraisers say.
“There are not many international nonprofit organizations that have existing operations in Ukraine,” says Morgan of Save the Children. The group, which has been working in the country since 2014, has nine local partners. “Generally, people want to give locally and through locally based organizations.”
The JDC, which has been in Ukraine for three decades working with tens of thousands of Jews there, increased its care and services as Russian troops massed along the border in November and inflation pressures drove up prices for basic goods. “We were seeing economic suffocation take place,” Herscher says.
To address that immediate need, the organization raised $1.5 million from November 1 to the start of the invasion. It tapped board members but also donors with an affinity for Ukraine. They included individuals who had contributed directly to Ukraine operations and, importantly, people who had traveled to the country with JDC programs. “They have celebrated Shabbat with the Jewish communities in Odessa and Kiev and many other places,” Herscher says. “And the experience of that interaction remained with them.”
Project Kesher, a support and advocacy group for Jewish women and girls, has worked in Ukraine since 1989. Now, it’s using its contacts and knowledge of the country to funnel money to women in need and help them find safe shelter or passage across the border. With men leaving their families to fight, many of these women are caring for their children and sometimes elderly parents by themselves. “We start every phone call with women in tears,” CEO Karyn Gershon says.
The organization, which has a $1.5 million budget, has raised $400,000 in the past week. Volunteer support from in-country Ukrainians connected to the organization has been “amazing,” Gershon says. Giving by donors and volunteers in the United States shows a deep affinity for Ukraine and its people.
“Our roots are so deep in that country and our relationships are so strong that people are coming through for us,” Gershon says. “I have donors calling and saying, ‘Here’s my first check. You let me know what you need. There’s a lot more to come behind that. We are with you.’”
Wall-to-wall news coverage of Ukraine and accompanying social-media saturation has helped drive donations to groups. Unlike a region hit by a hurricane or an earthquake, which television news crews leave after just a few days, Ukraine is an ongoing crisis likely to last weeks or longer.
Reports about the devastation of Russian attacks make clear the need for aid, but donors also are moved by stories of the heroism and resilience of the Ukrainian people. “We’re seeing so much on-the-ground imagery and hearing so many stories and narratives,” says Daryl Cameron, a Pennsylvania State University associate professor of psychology and an expert on the science of empathy. “And narratives and imagery can be quite powerful for empathy.”
The media has been criticized for racial bias in its coverage and its characterization of Ukraine’s conflict as altogether different from other wars and disasters. “The implication for anyone reading or watching ... is clear: It’s much worse when White Europeans suffer than when it’s Arabs or other non-White people. Yemenis, Iraqis, Nigerians, Libyans, Afghans, Palestinians, Syrians, Hondurans — well, they are used to it,” wrote H.A. Hellyer, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar, in the Washington Post.
Such a narrative may ultimately engender more empathy for Ukrainians and boost donations, but it’s harmful and irresponsible, says da Cruz of GlobalGiving, who’s a veteran of relief operations in Africa.
“It’s mostly white, Western individuals who are affected,” she says. “So how it’s being covered in the media and how people are appreciating what’s happening is very different as opposed to what’s happening on the African continent or in the Middle East, where there’s this perception that this kind of conflict is constantly happening.”