How the Government Complicated the Work of Volunteers – the "What's Up with the Economy" podcast with Yurii Kubrushko

How the Government Complicated the Work of Volunteers – the “What’s Up with the Economy” podcast with Yurii Kubrushko

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / tostphoto
21 November 2023
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We are publishing a review of the conversation with Yurii Kubrushko, co-founder of Ukraine’s Leleka Foundation, in the “What’s Up with the Economy” podcast aired on Hromadske Radio and all streaming platforms. We discuss the state of volunteering in the country and the changes introduced by the new Government Resolution No. 953, which establishes a unified system for registering and distributing humanitarian aid.

You can listen to the full conversation at the following link 

Hosts: Yuliia Mincheva, Vox Ukraine, and Yurii Haidai, Center for Economic Strategy

About the ratio of donations from abroad and from Ukraine

(We’re talking about Leleka Foundation) Since 2014 up to the present, our most consistent support base abroad has certainly been the Ukrainian diaspora. It’s this community that donates regularly, does so knowingly, understands the situation, and doesn’t need special persuasion or calls to action. They are the backbone. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have held on all this time.

The maximum donations we received came in the first six months after the start of the full-scale invasion. During that time, we received many substantial donations from corporate sponsors—foreign banks, insurance companies, and IT companies. Those were significant amounts but mostly one-time contributions. 

The inflow of donations has significantly decreased this year. Because Ukraine is no longer in the headlines, many people assume by default that either our situation has improved or that their countries—NATO, the USA, and Europe—are supporting Ukraine so much that at least medical needs have been met. This isn’t the case. It’s possible to convey this in a one-on-one conversation, but unfortunately, we haven’t been able to do so on a large scale yet.

About moving towards institutionalization and diversification in volunteering

I strongly believe in specialization. I think when volunteer groups or foundations specialize in one or a few areas, it’s very effective because it allows you to learn, dive deep into a specific field, and increase the efficiency of your work.

Collaboration among volunteers does happen, but in my opinion, not on a large scale. This is simply because volunteers are often quite passionate individuals. When you gather many volunteers in one room, it’s not always easy to reach a consensus on common parameters and working principles. 

When there’s a defined enemy or a clear goal, and collective efforts need to be made, it works well, and everyone respects and supports each other. However, it can be quite challenging to sustain day-to-day operational work for an extended period. You can unite and hold together for six months or a year, but beyond that, you either need to build institutions like charitable foundations or civil organizations, or you must have a highly coordinated team that has worked together for many years, where everyone has adapted and understands the psychological and other aspects of working with each other.

Considering Ukraine’s numerous legislative, tax, and customs intricacies, we’re moving toward professionalizing charitable activities and establishing legal entities (foundations, NGOs). When you create a legal entity, you need to have an accountant, a lawyer, and a back office to keep an eye on everything and operate within the law. Therefore, this is already becoming a professional job.

I believe this pushes many volunteers out of the process. The more the state begins to emphasize rules, laws, and norms, the fewer volunteers can handle it. Many don’t have the resources, time, or ability to fully organize themselves, hire staff, and start processing all of this. That’s why they are “dropping out of the game” now and will continue to do so in the future. 

This is a problem because dozens of professional volunteer charitable foundations cannot address the tasks that thousands of organized groups and tens of thousands of individual volunteers are currently handling daily. It’s simply impossible. Mass volunteerism sustained us last year; it was very helpful. But unfortunately, I now see with sadness that this movement is diminishing. This is probably an evolutionary process, but I’m not particularly fond of this evolution.

About the volunteer ecosystem in Ukraine

At the top of the “pyramid,” there are well-established foundations like Come Back Alive or Prytula Foundation. Then, there are medium-sized foundations, small foundations, NGOs, volunteer groups, and individual volunteers. They are all needed because they work at different levels. Come Back Alive provides communication or vehicles for entire brigades, covering specific segments and having comprehensive, well-thought-out programs. Leleka Foundation currently works only with medics, specifically in military medicine. There are many other foundations that have their niches or established schemes. However, there are significant gaps in the models under which each of our foundations operates. For example, we help medical professionals but cannot deliver medical kits to a specific platoon stationed somewhere near Klishchiivka needing medical supplies.

To address these small, immediate problems, constant work from individual volunteers and small groups is crucial. It’s important because when a thousand or two thousand volunteers take on the task of providing for a specific platoon where their acquaintance or colleague serves, it will already have a systemic, overall effect. Without them, this wouldn’t happen. Large foundations won’t work with 10-30 service members and delve into their issues because foundations have dozens of people working for them, not hundreds or thousands.

At the same time, there’s a motivation factor at play. The closer you are to a specific service member, the more motivation you have to do something to help. There’s a certain level of trust regarding fundraising because when it’s a volunteer who lives in the same city, and people know that they’ve been doing good work for many years, people automatically trust them with their money. 

If these volunteers leave their work because they can no longer handle it and don’t want to establish an NGO or foundation, there’s a good chance that the people who supported them will not automatically transition to another organization like Leleka, Birds, or Come Back Alive. Even if this volunteer calls them to do so, people may listen once, but then they will likely return to their own lives, and everything will come to a halt.

It may seem like small losses. For example, one volunteer leaves, and one or two platoons are left without assistance. Another volunteer goes, and perhaps they were raising 100-120 thousand hryvnias monthly. It may not be noticeable to you and me, but over time, the cumulative effect will become apparent on a national scale. 

About the ways of regulating volunteering

There are two paths. The first path is to create a simplified system to allow those who are not legal entities to continue working but within the legal framework.

The second path, which personally appeals to me more, is complete liberalization. Whenever I hear that the government is trying to regulate this, I ask, what is the goal, and why is it being done? Why all these rules about declaration, accounting, and reporting? They say it’s to prevent these opportunities from being used for smuggling, stealing, or diverting aid to the market, etc. In my opinion, these risks are significantly lower than the advantages that a liberalized system would create. Let me explain why.

Let’s take a simple example – tourniquets. High-quality CAT tourniquets are manufactured in the United States, and you can buy them wholesale there, say, for $23 each. Currently, we’re buying them at retail on Amazon for around $30 each. In Ukraine, if you import them officially and go through customs, they cost around $40-50 each.

Now, imagine that some smuggler wants to import 100,000 CAT tourniquets and uses a liberalized procedure as a registered volunteer, bringing them in without paying customs duties and VAT. On the one hand, the state will lose customs payments and VAT on this. On the other hand, and this is much more important, the country will receive 100,000 CATs it doesn’t have right now.

Over the years, Ukraine has had no more than a few thousand of them. We tried once to buy up everything that was available because we had a shortage, and we couldn’t wait for the next batch from the USA. We bought about one and a half thousand CAT tourniquets in all Ukrainian stores. We couldn’t find anything more at any price.

Suppose our hypothetical smuggler starts selling these 100,000 CAT tourniquets at a Ukrainian market price ($40 or $50) and makes a whopping 100% profit margin. Is this bad for the army’s combat readiness? No, it’s not bad. Because in Ukraine, soldiers, their relatives, Ukrainian volunteers, and small foundations that cannot import these from the USA will have the opportunity to buy them locally.

The same applies to drones and everything else. So, I view it as saturating the country with all the necessary resources. And I believe the more they import what’s needed for the army, the better.

Perhaps it’s about other, more commercially oriented goods. But it looks like a shifting of responsibility when state authorities cannot effectively control what’s being imported; complications can arise, such as introducing a new system for processing humanitarian aid.

About the communication failure from the Ministry of Social Policy and the situation around the resolution

Currently, there’s a certain system that’s been in operation for the last one and a half years. It’s partially outlined in legislation and partially not outlined at all, meaning it operates in a gray area – but it works.

On September 5, the Cabinet of Ministers adopted a new resolution, 953. The problem is that Resolution 953 contains numerous references to the old procedure (Resolution 927 from 2020), which no one has changed. Only in mid-October did the Ministry of Social Policy publish the proposed amendments to this resolution on its website.

When volunteers and foundations learned about the new procedure, they began to read Resolution 953 and noticed that it referred to the old Resolution 927. They start reading the old resolution and are shocked because working under the old system is impossible.

Only after a week of mutual accusations did it become clear that the Ministry of Social Policy had also planned to change Resolution 927 but a couple of months later. So, the new system was supposed to start working on December 1, but testing began only on November 1, and the working group was established then. Discussions about the changes with the public and the government ministries are still ongoing.

So, we don’t know at all how this system will work because it’ll be based on legal regulations, not just on beautiful presentations and explanations from the people leading the Ministry of Social Policy. When the procedure is adopted, it will be possible to open it up and assess its ease and adequacy.

We have many thousands of volunteers, and they have just as many questions. Ideally, time is needed to analyze these questions, examine how relevant resolutions and procedures are, and make the necessary changes.

The implementation of the proposed system should be postponed. Not all system users (including thousands of charitable foundations and NGOs) are like Come Back Alive. Not everyone has nine years of experience, professional directors, accountants, and lawyers. They can learn to use the system, but it takes time, full access to information, methodological recommendations, and approved regulations to achieve this over a few months and restructure their activities to meet the new system’s requirements.

There may be things that the state deems important to regulate. However, there definitely has to be a dialogue on how to do this effectively.

Authors

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