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It takes a village: how Ukrainians became a crowdfunding society in just 8 months of war

Daily habits. They make up the foundation of our lives. Brewing coffee, hugging your partner, lunch with your coworkers, turning on Netflix in the evening. For many Ukrainians, donating to support their country has become, without exaggeration, a routine habit. Their morning cup of joe is now accompanied by reading the news about Russian airstrikes, making preparations for power outages and crowdfunding for volunteers or Ukraine’s defenders.

In a country with the economy and people pressured by the terrible weight of war, this show of mental strength stands as a testament to how people can come together during a crisis. An individual Ukrainian feels a sense of gain rather than a sense of loss, when donating to medical or military crowdfunding instead of buying something nice for themselves. 

A charity bike ride in support of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Kyiv, August 2022.
Photo: State Emergency Service of Ukraine

To understand the phenomenon, we must abandon our preconceptions about fundraising. In Ukraine, crowdfunding initiatives have both stemmed from and contributed to a feeling of family and mutual empowerment. Ukrainians have learned to channel their worry, stress and anger into kindness, productivity, and support. It is a way for every civilian to not feel powerless in the face of overwhelming difficulty. A way to contribute even small efforts to achieve a great goal. To find meaning and humanity in war.

Case in point: while the obvious intent of Russia’s October 10  terror attacks on Ukraine was to break the Ukrainian spirit, it had the opposite effect on a united society. The Ukrainian response to more than 80 high-power missiles raining down on their cities was not to flee in fear and confusion but instead — to work, volunteer, sing in shelters… and donate more than 12 million UAH ($330,000) for anti-drone defense in less than ONE hour. The campaign reached 100 million UAH ($2,73 million) in just a couple of days. 

The crowdfunding campaign included bracelets made from the legendary Azovstal steel signed by Ukraine’s no less legendary Commander-in-Chief — General Zaluzhnyi.
Photo: United24

The most prominent volunteer and charity organizations conduct ongoing crowdfunding efforts that have stayed strong for months. The United24 initiative created by President Zelenskyy reaches both within and outside the country to sustain and renew Ukraine, Come Back Alive and Hospitaliers fund medical aid and various support for Ukrainian soldiers. Many other groups also work tirelessly within Ukraine’s crowdfunding community.

International support has also been inspired by Ukrainian societal unity: Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker in Star Wars and the voice of the Joker in Batman animations) has been a crowdfunding star in Ukraine, acting as an ambassador for the Army of Drones project. In collaboration with United24, Mark has helped purchase 500 drones to protect Ukrainian cities. “Ukraine needs drones. They define war outcomes, they protect their land, their people, they monitor the border, they’re eyes in the sky,” Hamill said in an interview to Bloomberg Radio.

Star Wars has been very popular in the media culture of Ukrainian resistance, as many people find the imagery
of Rebels (Ukraine) vs. The Empire (Russia) very symbolic of the current war.
Photo: Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg

Looking at this transformation of Ukrainian society, it’s impossible to not find some hope even in the face of inhuman violence. It’s not just the military that defends your home. It’s not just the government that holds the country together. It’s an entire nation, made up of regular people, united by a feeling of family and togetherness. It’s you, no matter how small you may feel, who can affect positive change. 

Ukrainian influencers, unexpected heroes

Blogger and stand-up comedian Serhii Prytula reporting to Ukrainians on the crowdsourced purchase of drones for the army.
Photo: Serhii Prytula’s Facebook page

When we say “grassroots initiatives”, we imagine local communities, activist movements or niche subcultures. Yet Ukrainians, under the pressure of war, have turned a country of 40 million (not counting millions of diaspora members abroad) into a grassroots civil society. That morning cup of coffee followed by your weekly or daily donation is a culture promoted and empowered by many Ukrainian media personalities. While it’s the regular Ukrainians that make it all possible, influencers have worked as amplifiers of public efforts.

“Influencers” is a term that has now gained a different emotional meaning in Ukraine. While many Ukrainians have mobilized into the army, the entire country has mobilized into a family-like community. Peacetime media personalities have stepped up to use their social reach for good: entertainer and stand-up comedian Serhii Prytula, tech blogger Ihor Lachenkov, political blogger Serhii Sternenko, and many others.

Ihor Lachenkov is just 23 years old, yet is already a major crowdfunding leader.
Photo: Kustdnipro.com, Dnipro city cultural news site

Ukrainians have shown how they can do great things with very few resources. Ihor Lachenkov, for example, was by no means a huge celebrity: before the war he wrote about AI, technology and memes. He currently has a team of only 3 people working on his telegram channel and Twitter, yet at only 23 years of age he has already helped crowdfund more than 600 million UAH ($ 16,4 million) together with other bloggers. In many ways, Ihor is the symbol of the coming generation of educated, socially active Ukrainians.

Blogger and stand-up comedian Serhii Prytula enjoyed a life of showbiz prominence, often appearing on TV shows and live concerts. Before the war, Prytula’s foundation provided limited non-military aid to Ukrainians. After the full-scale Russian invasion began, he turned into a legend of Ukrainian crowdfunding drives in support of Ukraine’s defenders. Using his built-in audience, Prytula organized truly impressive campaigns that purchased Bayraktar drones at the beginning of the Russian invasion. His peak achievement thus far has been to purchase an actual satellite to help the Ukrainian Army with reconnaissance.

Turkish-made Bayraktar drones painted with Ukrainian folk embroidery, crowdfunded to protect Ukrainian skies and land.
Photo: Serhii Prytula’s Facebook page

Jars of unity, donations in a digital society

The Ukrainian digital-only bank  — Monobank has been one of the instruments of the Ukrainian crowdfunding society that mobilized against Russian aggression. Communicating with millennial and Gen Z consumers with cute illustrated cats, memes, and video-game-like achievement badges, it’s one of the prominent illustrations of Ukraine being one of the most active digital societies and cashless consumer economies in Europe. After the start of the war, Ukrainians used their existing digitalization to push crowdfunding to new heights.

Phone screenshot of a crowdfunding jar created by Ukrainian blogger Serhii Sternenko. In just 2 days, Ukrainians
donated almost 2,5 million Hryvnias ($68,500) for 5 reconnaissance drones for the army.

“Jars” were introduced by Monobank before the war as a way for friends to pool money for trips, joint purchases, or even pay restaurant bills. As they are created with a simple click in your banking app, in war they have become a lightning-fast tool to create charity and crowdfunding campaigns. One tap on your phone, one post of the link to your social media, and voilà — you’re gathering funds for bulletproof vests that save lives!

And it’s not just a method used by influencers or media personalities. The strength of the jars is that regular Ukrainians set up mini-charity campaigns through their bank apps all the time. The author of the article, yours truly, recently made a jar for a wounded soldier from my mother’s hometown, gathering and transferring 35,000 UAH (nearly a thousand dollars) for medicine and clothes in a few hours from friends and colleagues. This is a common story of Ukrainian everyday life that shows people’s willingness to pitch in and answer a call for help in an instant.

A pin created by TerPINnya to crowdfund for the UAnimals organization that rescues pets and strays during the war.
Photo: TerPINnya Instagram

Hundreds of small digital businesses also live in the daily culture of crowdfunding support. It has become commonplace for companies in Ukraine to donate a percentage of their profits to keep the country and army going. In fact, it’s quite rare to find a business that doesn’t allocate part of its sales to fundraising or volunteer projects. One should keep in mind that this is sustained in the face of Ukraine’s current serious economic hardship.

An inspiring yet typical example is TerPINnya (a play on the Ukrainian word for “patience” and the English word “pin”) – a small Instagram shop that produces beautiful Ukraine-themed pins, donating 65% (!) of its profits to the country’s defense. It was founded by a young officer of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. He still manages to conduct a digital business with the help of friends while training in boot camp.

Beautiful poster designed by Anna Marchenko (@annamarchenko.art on Instagram) to crowdfund to support
Ukraine’s Armed Forces and medical volunteers.
Photo: Pictone Instagram

Many brands and companies also create specific products for fundraising purposes. An example that is mirrored by dozens of other local businesses is Pictone, a small shop that prints movie-themed posters for home decor. The beautiful poster of Ukraine shown above now hangs in my own Kyiv office as well. Part of its sales profits goes to charity fundraising. On a larger scale, the Made with Bravery platform unites amazing brands from all over the country (hand-crafted clothes, accessories, art, and more) to raise money for Ukraine’s renewal and support its economy.

Bracelet from the last available samples of Azovstal steel.
Photo: Thepage.ua

Among the special items manufactured for the purposes of crowdfunding to support Ukraine were the now-famous Azovsteel bracelets. Both the items themselves and the campaign around them held special emotional meaning for Ukrainians. Made from the last available samples of the legendary factory’s steel, they not only drove a massive fundraising effort but were also a symbol of the bravery of Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol. Created by the major Ukrainian jewelry brand SOVA, the 10 thousand bracelets sold out in mere hours.

Humor and the crowdfunding culture of Ukraine

The Ukrainian meme forces laugh at economic difficulties, while still donating to good causes.

Humor and hope in the face of hardship have always been distinct features of the Ukrainian mentality. We’ve already covered how Ukraine’s internet meme culture helps the nation preserve its sanity and keep its spirits high. In terms of crowdfunding, jokes, threads, memes, and discussions help charity efforts remain a nationwide endeavor. Influencers may help organize and spread the word, but it’s the everyday civil culture, activism, and non-stop national communication of Ukrainians that drive the fundraising efforts.

Ukrainian people have a strong sense of home and identity which enables them to resist Russia’s brutal aggression. Part of that identity is rooted in centuries of history, art, and literature. Yet Ukrainians are creating their modern culture now as well. It is embodied both in modern art that speaks of the struggles of war and in Ukraine’s newfound ability of nationwide collaboration and communication.

Sometimes, a silly meme is what helps you get through a day ruined by air sirens and explosions.

If you take away anything from this story, let it be this: great things are possible through small efforts and there’s always light in the darkness. If Ukrainians can stand strong and support each other, so can the world. Peace is achieved through resilience and bravery. Kindness triumphs over violence in the end, as long as we work towards our goals.