Updated Apr 9, 2022 - Economy & Business

How governments are multiplying aid to Ukraine

Illustration of a paper heart overlaid with the Ukrainian flag.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The humanitarian emergency in Ukraine has led to a global outpouring of support. In times of crisis, the feeling that you're looking on helplessly at atrocities is partially assuaged when there are actually ways to help, at least a little.

Why it matters: That impulse is a philanthropic one. All philanthropies are constantly on the hunt for government funding — and in this case the government funding is already there, to the tune of many billions of dollars. That can change the calculus of where to give.

How it works: Broadly speaking, there are two different ways that individuals are helping Ukraine.

  1. Go small: Buy from Amazon wish lists. Send packages. Donate bitcoin. Book Airbnbs. Transfer money directly to individuals. Help teams find shelter in Poland for grandma.
  2. Go big: Find an organization committed to helping millions of Ukrainians, not just a few, and give to them. If in doubt, look for alphabet soup: ICRC, IFRC, WFP, IRC, UNICEF.

Going small has the advantage that it's much easier to see or imagine the way in which your donation can help a specific individual. It feels real and concrete.

Going big means economies of scale, and a higher probability of reaching groups who don't have online connections. Often the neediest individuals can be the hardest to find. Large organizations like IRC also give out cash directly.

The big picture: The vast majority of aid to Ukraine is coming from governments, not individuals. They have mobilized sums that would be impossible to raise from the private sector.

  • By the numbers: Congress approved $13.6 billion in aid for Ukraine in mid-March, and more money has been unlocked since then. Other countries are also contributing aid measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars, with the EU alone giving billions.

Be smart: When individuals donate to a large international organization, they're not only supporting efforts on the ground. They're also supporting those organizations' efforts to raise money from governments around the world — efforts which, in the case of Ukraine, have already raised billions of dollars and are likely to raise billions more.

  • Ask yourself this: Would you rather spend $100,000 on the needy in Ukraine, or spend $100,000 persuading the US government to authorize another $100 million for the needy in Ukraine? With donations to places like WFP or IRC, your money gets used in both ways, wherever it can be put to best use.

How it works: Consider WFP USA, the U.S. fundraising arm of the UN's World Food Programme. About 62% of the money it raises gets passed through to the WFP, which currently has an ambitious plan to provide food and cash to more than 3 million people inside Ukraine. There are also two other parts to its mission:

  • The communications function is aimed at trying to "expand U.S. government and private sector support for solving global hunger."
  • The policy function is designed to educate "members of Congress and other officials about international hunger issues."

What's happening: The U.S. government has already given the WFP more than $50 million for its Ukraine efforts, easily eclipsing all the private-sector donations to WFP USA combined. In total, the U.S. government gave $3.8 billion to the WFP in 2021, more than 60 times the amount raised by WFP USA that year.

Between the lines: Sometimes it can feel as though high-profile ad campaigns from places like IRC are costing money that could otherwise be spent directly on refugees. But those campaigns don't just raise money, they raise support at grassroots level — support that can end up being worth billions when trying to extract money from Congress.

The bottom line: If you want to maximize the amount of humanitarian aid being delivered to Ukraine and the rest of the world, one very good way to achieve that is to get the U.S. government to match your donation 60-to-1.

Editor's note: This article was first published on April 7.

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