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How tiny, volunteer group raised $57m for Ukraine

A small volunteer-led aid group’s humanitarian relief efforts can mean the difference between life and death for someone in Ukraine.

August 24, 2022
By Jim Rendon, The Chronicle of Philanthropy
24 August 2022

Kateryna Terekhova proudly shows off the new shelter she has created inside an abandoned schoolhouse in Zakarpattia, Ukraine, an area near the border with Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary. Over a video call, she points out the separate communal rooms for men, women and families. The dozens of beds have new mattresses and linens. The bathrooms and showers are new, too. She loves the kitchen, which churns out three free meals a day for residents.

People lounge on beds; a girl is scrunched up on a bench in the dining room, staring at her phone. Outside it’s quiet in this rural area — a relatively safe reprieve for people who have fled the terror of the Russian invasion.

Terekhova fled here herself with her extended family from Kyiv in the opening days of the war and almost immediately began working on ways to help. As soon as she saw the schoolhouse, she knew it would make a perfect shelter. But it would require work — it had been empty for four years and had no plumbing or central heating.

Volunteers unload supplies at a shelter in Zakarpattia that was built in an abandoned schoolhouse, in part with funds from Razom for Ukraine. (Kateryna Terekhova/via AP)

She was part of a chat group with IT Troops, a group of Ukrainian technology workers and entrepreneurs who help get supplies to troops and fund humanitarian work. They put Terekhova in charge of their humanitarian efforts. The group had been in contact with Razom for Ukraine, a US-based charity run by Ukrainian and Ukrainian American volunteers.

Over a video call with some of Razom’s board members, Terekhova explained the project and provided expected costs for materials — she had already raised the funds to cover the discounted labor and ongoing expenses like food. Three days later, she got a message from Razom congratulating her on her grant for $28,000, enough to cover all of the materials.

“This is our country and our people. We want to make sure that they’re alive and that there is a country to come back to and there’s a country for our children and our grandchildren.”

Razom president Dora Chomiak

“It was absolutely shocking,” Terekhova says. “It was happening so fast. It was easy because we absolutely understand each other.”

Razom has made more than $3 million in grants to 98 small humanitarian efforts like this one since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. The nonprofit’s deep ties to Ukraine have helped it connect with grassroots efforts that would likely be overlooked by big aid groups. The tiny, volunteer-led group is now working at a frantic pace. Every day, its leaders and volunteers know that the work they do can mean the difference between life and death for someone in Ukraine.

Relief efforts

For most of its eight-year history, Razom raised about $150,000 a year to help promote a free and prosperous Ukraine. Before the war, it had about 4000 donors. But in the months since the invasion, Razom has raised $57 million from more than 150,000 donors. It has already spent $38 million on humanitarian relief efforts. One of its major projects: buying supplies to assemble and ship tactical medical kits to Ukraine. The group has sent 62,000 kits so far — with more to come.

Razom has outraised some large, well-established humanitarian aid groups. Project Hope, an international nonprofit that is training medical professionals in Ukraine on trauma care, has received more than $21 million for the crisis.

“To raise $57 million for Ukraine and to be able to program such a large amount, that’s really fantastic,” says Project Hope chief executive Rabih Torbay.

While Russian troops were amassing on the border, Razom’s board decided that in the event of an invasion, it would focus on medical assistance. The group began buying supplies to create tactical first-aid kits that include important supplies like tourniquets.

Medical professionals volunteered to vet the supplies to make sure they were the right type and quality. Teams of volunteers put the kits together in a New Jersey warehouse. Volunteer software developers created a system to track the kits so the group knows where they are in the transit process and when they arrive at their destination in Ukraine. Corporations helped them find space on cargo planes for their supplies; a shipping company helped with logistics.

Shipments that might have taken months took just days. Slow shipments could be deadly, and volunteers were working around the clock.

“There’s a missile sticking out of their house, and they don’t have a roof over their heads, but that’s what they have left. They’re all traumatized.”

Razom board member Maryna Prykhodko

“This is our country and our people,” says Razom president Dora Chomiak. “We want to make sure that they’re alive and that there is a country to come back to and there’s a country for our children and our grandchildren.”

Handling the wave of donations has been as complicated as shipping supplies. When the group was founded, it tracked donations on an online spreadsheet. But it soon upgraded and put systems in place to process donations given online and through social-media channels. That made a big difference when Russia invaded and money poured in.

Maria Genkin, a board member who until this year mostly organized cultural events, took charge of the fundraising operation. She had worked in investment-banking technology at Goldman Sachs. In late February, the group started getting hundreds of emails a day asking how to give, about wire-transfer information, and other questions — far more than one person could handle.

Luckily, the group also got requests every day from people looking to volunteer. Genkin checked the backgrounds of some volunteers to create a trusted team to help potential donors, process incoming funds, and tackle the data entry required to track donors. She ended up with a team of six or so volunteers, including some Ukrainian students from nearby New York University.

Technology entrepreneur and former Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey donated $1 million to Razom. (Francois Mori/AP)

Razom has received some high-profile donations: Tipper Gore, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings, and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey each gave $1 million. The New York Jets donated $100,000.

This summer, 27-year-old Razom board member Maryna Prykhodko traveled to Kharkiv to evacuate her aunt and uncle and take them to the US. Each night, as missiles fell from the sky, they huddled in her aunt and uncle’s closet for safety.

“I saw the destruction with my own eyes. You crawl out of your hiding place in the morning. You go out into the street, and you see that a new building has been destroyed,” Prykhodko says. “I was experiencing what Ukrainians had been experiencing.”

She visited the warehouse where Razom stores supplies when they arrive in Ukraine. There, volunteers take requests from hospitals, first responders, and military units. About 20 drivers then take the supplies all over the country.

While there, she traveled with one of the groups Razom funds to deliver aid to small towns near the border with Russia that had been liberated only a few weeks earlier after months of occupation. The locals she met were mostly people who couldn’t easily flee: They were elderly or disabled or had young children. They didn’t even flinch at the nearby shelling, Prykhodko says. Some were living in homes that had been destroyed except for a single room and lacked a kitchen or bathroom.

“There’s a missile sticking out of their house, and they don’t have a roof over their heads, but that’s what they have left,” she says. “They’re all traumatized.”

Chomiak, Razom’s president, says the organization is already planning for the future. “Once the bombing stops, there is going to continue to be a lot of work to do.”

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