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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #314

As anyone who has ever tried it will tell you, fundraising for philanthropic causes is extremely hard work and very frustrating and indeed boring. It involves writing a lot of letters to a lot of people and being extremely nice to them, often only to obtain small amounts of money but occasionally you hit big. You need to present competence, reliability, efficiency and effectiveness, and you need a simple message. Every donor is different, of course. There are small donors who might give a modest amount each week or month; and there are large donors who will imbue a foundation or a fund with a substantial sum and see what results they get from it. Attracting and retaining these different sorts of donors is a different sort of skill and I suppose that from my background experience I know a lot more about how to get small numbers of wealthy people to contribute larger sums than I do about how to get large numbers of regular people to contribute smaller sums. That’s why we have a team, because a single person can’t have all the skills in the world: we all have different ideas and backgrounds and we bring those skills together to achieve a common result using lots of different methods.

Anyway today so far for me has been a day of paperwork and meetings about fundraising. I had lunch with a lady from Odessa who has popped up in my diaries before and it turns out that she’s a very pleasant person and sophisticated and educated and she speaks multiple languages. I’ve explained a very simple project proposal to her: I go to Odessa, speak to a series of Odessa’s wealthiest businessmen (for I believe they are all men), get letters of support from them for my fundraising activities, take these to western businessmen, and solicit their donations. The funds received are then held in trust to look after internally displaced persons and the poor who are suffering from the Russian military aggression. It all sounds straightforward in principle and it ought to be. But in practice it involves writing endless letters and smiling and keep good natured when your computer screen hangs or your email software has over 40,000 unread emails. It is an exercise in learning calm and patience.

I’ve taken a break from the military kitchen today where I work to do this sort of thing, because it has to be done and I’m the one to do it, I suppose; I have the right skill set; and also because the kitchen by all accounts is furiously busy. The lipstick’s melted after a weekend of running around with pretty girls, smoking shisha pipes and other crazy nonsense, and it’s back to work on a Monday, much like anybody else. The hours are long and gruelling, and there’s a sense in which you need to get a reputation in the NGO world, just like you do in any other walk of life. People need to have heard your name enough times and sufficiently many people need to be talking about you and saying positive things about you. Which I think and hope I have earned. A lot of the learning curve of my early days and weeks in Ukraine has edged away and now we’re back to plain hard work in raising funds and ensuring they are wisely spent. Because that’s the most important thing I think I can do in this gruelling war: ensure that the scarce money available to support the military and civilians alike in Ukraine’s dark hour of need is spent efficiently. I see so much money thrown away: people spending donor funds on unnecessary drives across Europe with vehicles perfectly well available in Ukraine; people importing food to give away when food in Ukraine is so cheap and the country is in agricultural surplus; and so on and so forth.

Where there is cash available, there are two things that should really be done with it. One is just to spend it in Ukraine: to keep the economy going because it has ground to a halt during wartime and the purchase of military equipment aside, there isn’t really any economic activity. Money needs to keep moving around, and one way of doing that is to spend it - in Ukraine. There’s no point raising money outside Ukraine only to spend it on trustees’ salaries outside Ukraine or other expenses such as auto parts or gasoline or food outside Ukraine. That doesn’t help anyone in Ukraine. The only things that donor funds should be spent on outside Ukraine are things that Ukraine has shortages of - and Ukraine doesn’t have shortages of many things right now. It is not a scarcity economy; it is a moribund economy. Even high-end medical kit, that the front line soldiers desperately need to keep themselves alive in case they are unlucky enough to be the targets of strikes, is available in Ukraine. The problem is not the absence of kit but the absence of money to pay for it. So it’s a matter of exporting money to Ukraine; that is what the NGO donor business, for me, is really all about.

It’s also about coordination, brining order and principles to the chaos of NGO operations. Because one thing NGO’s are very bad at is coordinating with each other or falling under any sort of umbrella principles. They tend to compete with one-another for donor funds and this creates a lot of bad behaviour as they seek to undermine or belittle one-another’s causes in order to achieve diversion of donor funds to their pet projects. This is all terribly inefficient and a waste of time and extremely petty, but it does happen and regrettably there are some bad eggs out there who keep acting in this way and they have to be squeezed more or less firmly out of the system. Because I am determined in my time here to bring rigour to the way that NGO’s work, and that’s because it seems to me that the NGO community is all that the international community in the West has to work with. There is nothing else, because governments are hamstrung in their capacity for development projects by the security restraints they impose upon themselves when working in a war zone. In short governments are limited to skeleton diplomatic missions and they won’t do anything else. So we have to find a way to make this work, given that we’ve got at least another year of this hell in Ukraine.


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