Why supporting Ukrainian grassroots leaders is critical ahead of the winter

Ukraine_Young Girl
Image by Misto Dobra
Elena Helmy
by Elena Helmy
16 September 2022
After more than six months of full-scale war in Ukraine, the local volunteers and non-profit organisations remain the primary contributors addressing its horrific consequences.

These aid providers comprise of over 150 national NGOs, local authorities, and more than 1,700 newly formed local aid groups (and counting). They have been utilising their own limited resources and volunteer support to deliver the country’s critical medical supplies and humanitarian aid, as well as evacuating people and rescuing abandoned animals.

Working alongside the government, Ukraine’s civil society has been shouldering much of the burden of wartime humanitarian needs. For example, the Ukrainian Ministry of Health has collaborated with over 20 non-profit groups that have provided an impressive 32.2 million units of essential medicines and a wide range of medical equipment to healthcare facilities since the beginning of the war.

Whilst the determination and resourcefulness has been incredible, in many ways results have been largely restricted to smaller, more nimble organisations – this due to their ability to move quicker than the larger aid organisations, and respond to urgent needs.

It's for this reason that a very significant amount of the money raised for Ukraine is still unused, and this situation is not changing at the pace so desperately needed. The staggering disparity between operational presence and allocation of funding is well illustrated in the June 2022 report, produced by the UK research consultancy, Humanitarian Outcomes.

Humanitarian Outcomes
Humanitarian Outcomes
Humanitarian Outcomes
Humanitarian Outcomes

As of the end of May this year, Ukrainian NGOs received only 0.0003% of overall humanitarian contributions. That's an incomprehensibly low figure – and is a product of how the stringent criteria placed around access to funding is getting in the way of urgent, life saving aid.

Svitlana Muzychenko, the Founder of UA Brokers Without Borders, a non-profit set up earlier this year to facilitate international aid for Ukrainian initiatives, has been a vocal advocate for easing access to resources for local players. She said: “Local organisations in Ukraine are strained – their personnel suffering from burnout caused by constant psychological stress. Most non-profit workers are underpaid (or not paid at all) and many are displaced, some having lost their houses. Many have lost relatives and friends and still continue to risk their lives to help others. And yet, despite all of this, they are unable to quickly tap into the resources they need to continue to carry out the vital work they do.”

All of this is especially awful given that winter is fast approaching. Experts agree that the coming winter will likely be the most difficult one in Ukraine’s recent history. Below you can see average temperature around Ukraine in December 2021 (note temperatures dropping all the way to negative 20 Celsius).


With prohibitively expensive gas and the destruction of infrastructure and civilian housing, millions of people in Ukraine are running the risk of not having access to adequate warmth during the winter. The situation is especially dire for the most vulnerable – the ones who have lost their houses and do not have resources to travel or rent alternative housing. They’re now staying in makeshift community centres (such as schools or summer camps), not fit to withstand the winter cold. It’s summer now, the time to prepare for winter – and if this doesn’t happen, it will be devastating.

Organisations on the ground are already busy repairing and insulating destroyed homes, procuring baby incubators, and power generators for hospitals (as well as providing thermal blankets, winter clothes, and all sorts of heating appliances). Our friends at the Global Empowerment Mission (GEM) are working with local contractors to rebuild and repair homes in Bucha and other ravaged places. The team at UA Brokers Without Borders are facilitating the delivery of baby incubators in partnership with the Alight Foundation and the Ukrainian Zdorovi Agency. They have also helped secure substantial funding for urgent expansion of a refuge for women and children, Misto Dobra (City of Goodness), and have launched their Winter Appeal to help more local organisations ensure people stay safe and warm this coming winter.

International aid organisations must find a way to lean in and provide the necessary support to these community-led solutions, by re-examining their processes to make funding more accessible to the frontline leaders.

In the meantime, private donors, who have significantly fewer constraints with how they go about their philanthropy, should step in and challenge themselves to play outside their comfort zone and identify high-impact local initiatives where smaller flexible grants can make a huge difference. One such example is BlueCheck, set up by actor Liev Schreiber and partners to fund grassroots Ukrainian organisations.

We at Virgin Unite are committed to supporting efforts led by the people of Ukraine that continue delivering last-mile aid in an entrepreneurial, act-now, agile way. The best thing we can do right now is to ensure these inspiring local leaders have the resources they need to get Ukraine through the winter and beyond.


Elena Helmy leads the global grants and impact investments portfolio at Virgin Unite. In March 2022, she helped to set up UA Brokers Without Borders, a non-profit dedicated to connecting the Ukrainian civil society with international donors, networks and resources, where she sits on the advisory board.