Philanthropy in a crisis: A year of war in Ukraine

16 March 2023

Written by Isabelle Hayhoe, Senior Philanthropy Adviser, Barclays Private Bank

Please note: This article does not constitute advice.

Shortly after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, we published an article exploring the role philanthropists can play during a rapidly unfolding crisis. Now 12 months on, we provide an update on the humanitarian response so far, and consider how philanthropists can refocus their efforts when the needs of impacted communities have shifted over time.

Despite the remarkable resilience of the Ukrainian people, the human toll has been heart-breaking. As of this month, the UN High Commission for Human Rights had recorded 13,734 civilian injuries and 8,231 deaths. Of those deaths, 494 were children.1  

“The war continues to cause death, destruction and displacement daily, and on a staggering scale,” said Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. “Nearly 18 million people – which is almost 40 per cent of the population within Ukraine – now need humanitarian assistance and protection.”2

A record-breaking aid effort 

As news of the invasion broke, members of the public and philanthropists around the world united in their support of the Ukrainian people.

On the first day of its Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal, the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) raised £55 million, which rose to £150 million in the first week. As the war enters its second year, this figure now stands at more than £400 million.3

Last month, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UN Refugee Agency also announced a fundraising target of a further £4.66 billion (US$5.6 billion).2

Few other crises have received anywhere near this volume of funding and the UK public’s level of donations to the DEC set a new Guinness World Record.3 As remarkable as that is, it would be an error to believe that the fundraising can now stop.

Historic data from previous disasters reveals that the level of donations from the public tends to diminish as a crisis continues. Research from philanthropy information service Candid has found that 72% of donations for the efforts in Ukraine were announced between February and June of 2022. Since then, however, contributions have dipped significantly.4 So, while the donations to the DEC are certainly impressive, the funding of future relief remains a concern.  

The power of philanthropy

When a humanitarian emergency creates the level of urgent need experienced in Ukraine, philanthropists’ donations are often the first to reach communities on the ground. Their ability to move private assets quickly, in comparison to governments and public funds which can face regulatory constraints, makes their contribution extremely valuable. 

And while the first instinct may be to send items such as food and clothing to disaster-hit regions, these donations can take weeks, or even months, to arrive at their destination. Once these donations have been received, aid workers will need to sort, clean, and distribute these items, taking them away from other vital work.

In contrast, financial donations – when deployed through the appropriate channels – can reach vulnerable communities within minutes and without unnecessary bureaucracy. During these initial stages of disaster recovery, philanthropic funds can help to restore much-needed emergency functions, which could include getting medical services up and running. 

Taking a long view of complex social issues

Unfortunately, the war in Ukraine continues at a brutal pace, which means the level and type of humanitarian support needed have evolved.  

As well as providing immediate support during an emergency, philanthropists are able to take a long-term view of the complex social issues that emerge following a crisis. 

If your goal is to have ongoing involvement in the relief efforts in Ukraine, it is important to remember that many of the most serious repercussions of the war may not yet be fully apparent. 

With conflict still underway, for instance, the extent of the construction that will eventually be needed to rebuild homes and community services is still unknown. And crucially, the true toll of the disaster’s impact on a society’s physical and mental health may not reveal itself for years, or even decades. 

Likewise, it is also interesting to note that war typically exacerbates existing socio-economic inequalities, and it is the poorest and marginalised communities that are worst hit.  

Bridging the gap between short- and long-term needs

One potential option for philanthropists wishing to support both urgent needs and ongoing societal problems is a split funding approach. 

Under this model, philanthropists can initially support those organisations responding to the immediate aftermath of a crisis. In parallel, they will also reserve a portion of their funding for when the longer-term needs of these communities become clearer.

With any humanitarian crisis, the ultimate goal of disaster relief is to support long-term recovery for impacted communities. Considering the United Nations’ definition of recovery may be useful here: 

“[Recovery is] the restoring or improving of livelihoods and health, as well as economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets, systems and activities, of a disaster-affected community or society, aligning with the principles of sustainable development and “build back better”, to avoid or reduce future disaster risk.”5

Providing your beneficiaries with the means to support themselves and prepare for future emergencies can be one of the most effective tools on the journey to recovery. In a war-torn region such as Ukraine, disaster preparedness could involve training first responders for future emergencies or developing evacuation programmes. 

An open, listening mindset

Indeed, one of a philanthropist’s most important responsibilities following a humanitarian disaster is to be patient and to listen to the needs of those on the ground. 

It is important not to make assumptions about what people may, or may not, need. Instead, adopting an open mindset and remembering that humanitarian support following a crisis of this magnitude can truly be life-changing – both for the people in need, and for the donors trying to help.

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