Fragments from a War Diary, Part #165
Yesterday and today have both been frustrating, hard working days. As the regular reader of these diaries will be aware, I decided to undertake a recruitment drive for the military kitchen providing food to the front line where I work, by turning one of my diary entries into an “advertorial” for volunteers from across Ukraine and the world. I hope it works. There have been some difficulties in the way that Ukrainian and foreign volunteers interact in pursuing their common goals in the past, and one of the things I hope to be able to do, through my own brand of rough-and-ready diplomacy, is to mend the fissures that have arisen - often when foreigners have blundered into Ukraine like wild, unbridled horses, engaging in activities without proper coordination with their Ukrainian counterparts or with the authorities.
For example I am often distressed to hear about foreign NGO missions heading to the front line to do all sorts of things, without proper coordination with the Ukrainian Armed Forces and even without elementary military training. I have never served in the military but I have been fortunate enough to train with the military courtesy of my government. Therefore I know how to work with military people and I understand the risks involved in going to the front line and how to mitigate them - if you can. I know of the advantages and disadvantages of body armour, although I am also still learning. Last night I learned that you should never wear a back plate on a kevlar vest, because if a bullet or piece of shrapnel goes in from the side then with two plates - front and back - it will bounce around between them and shred your innards. Therefore only wear a front plate, if at all. And ask yourself whether a kevlar vest is really worth much if you take a hit from an artillery round. It won’t save you.
So now having done some advertising for volunteers, I am very cautiously embarking on the question of how to fundraise for Ukrainian NGO’s from abroad while retaining the full confidence of the Ukrainian NGO’s and their managers. It is important that NGO’s stick to their mandates and funds are not raised under the auspices of their names for collateral or expanding purposes. This might cause problems for the Ukrainian authorities and it might cause problems with foreign regulators as well. Just because an organisation is operating as an NGO in Ukraine does not mean that it can operate outside the law. Meticulous accounts must be kept and every penny spent must be recorded and accounted for.
That is because donations to NGO’s are typically tied funds, given by the public or by specific private individuals or organisations under relationships of trust. Unlike charging for commercial services, NGO’s are taking the money of others provided voluntarily with no expectation of reward on the part of the recipient (except perhaps a tax break) and therefore the trustees holding this money are both morally and legally bound to spend the funds in accordance with the precepts of their charter and their representations to donors. If they do not spend the money in accordance with their legal obligations, then persons collecting donors’ money will be guilty of a crime often known as “theft in breach of trust” and in most jurisdictions this crime carries a heavy prison sentence as misdirecting funds intended for charitable purposes is regarded as a grave sin.
Hence I am treading into the world of NGO fundraising with great care. One thing I do know is that you can’t raise money for one purpose - such as feeding soldiers and civilians on the front line - and then spend that money on some pet project of your own - such as providing military equipment, for example. That may breach all sorts of different laws. At the very least, if you are to have wide discretion in how you spend the money you raise then you must make that clear to donors in documentation that you ask them to sign: something that in practice seldom happens except for larger donations from wealthy philanthropists specifically courted. “Crowdfunding” - putting advertisements on the internet inviting everyone to pay US$10 or what have you - seems largely unregulated and it isn’t always clear what the money being used is to be spent on. There is another issue which compounds and confounds NGO fundraising in Ukraine and that is that it is extremely difficult to wire money into the country using the regular international SWIFT payment system of money transfers. I tried with a reputable international bank and the answer I was given was “no way”. Ukraine is apparently de facto off limits for the SWIFT system of international financial transfers, and this means that a lot of donor funds are basically entering the country in cash which is intrinsically undesirable for accounting purposes.
Another issue is overheads - by which I mean salaries, travel expenses, entertainment expenses, and money spent on professional advisors which is often necessary. Where are the boundaries here? Any NGO needs such boundaries setting and, most importantly, the donors need to be made aware of what they are. It is typical and even desirable for NGO’s to pay a number of staff members salaries and not rely entirely on volunteers, and there is nothing wrong with that. But donors may want reassurance that not less than 85% of their donations, for example, will be spent directly on assistance and overheads will be 15% or less. And “overheads” must be defined. Suddenly the lawyers get involved. And that’s where I come in.
Today I have been feeling rather down and depressed, if not downright ill. It is not a pleasant experience to feel sick such a long way from home and on your own, but thankfully I have a very supportive and wonderful family and I also have a number of fine-hearted friends and companions around me here in Lviv. Last night I went to an English language comedy event, which was mostly jokes about Serbs and Bulgarians and genitals. It was all rather silly. I then went back to my favourite bar and listened to two wonderful young ladies sing a selection of traditional English and American pop songs in fluent English (see the photograph accompanying this picture). Behind them are a series of portraits of Ukrainian intellectuals, hanging loosely on the wall. It was a lot of fun and some of my favourite people in Lviv were there. Each day we all plough on, doing our best for the people of Ukraine notwithstanding the gargantuan challenges that face us.