photo of someone waving a Ukrain flag

Crowdfunding key to defending and rebuilding Ukraine

27 February 2024
Ukraine second anniversary: crowdfunding on the front lines
Dr Olga Boichak, senior lecturer in Digital Cultures in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, explores how Ukrainians are innovating from the battlefield to the digital frontlines, to take the fight to a much better equipped and better funded enemy.

The second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been marked by Russia’s daily aerial attacks, obliterating residential neighbourhoods and killing whole families in their sleep.

As Ukraine continues to face severe ammunition shortages due to international military aid delays, Ukrainians have had to innovate in many ways, from the battlefield to the digital frontlines, to take the fight to a much better equipped and better funded enemy.

The cost of Russia’s invasion, in the early stages of the war, was running at an estimated USD$900 million a day. Pentagon officials claim that Russia has already spent as much as USD$210 billion on its invasion.

However, that figure does not include the decade-long war in the Ukrainian regions of Crimea and Donetsk occupied by Russia since 2014.

The Russian forces’ defence budget of around USD$101 billion dwarfs Ukraine’s defence budget, estimated at around USD$31 billion.

Yet despite this imbalance, for the past two years, Ukraine’s military has managed to push Russian forces from the outskirts of the capital Kyiv back to the south-east of the country.

One way to offset the ups and downs of foreign military aid has been the use of crowdfunding. 

This grassroots approach has helped shape the course of the war.

Crowdfunding on the front lines

Collective fundraising is not new, but online platforms have enabled a dramatic shift in its scale and scope. 

Since the mid-2000s, crowdfunding platforms have made it much easier to raise large amounts of money by soliciting small donations from many supporters.

Ukrainians have elevated crowdfunding’s significance to match the existential threat they face. 

Over the past decade, Ukrainians and their allies have aptly used this tool to co-fund major defence and national security priorities, including unmanned aerial vehicles, tactical medicine kits, veteran rehabilitation and even a reconnaissance satellite.

Contributors to crowdfunding campaigns often expect to yield certain benefits, such as equity in the venture.

 Now, imagine a venture the size of the second-largest country in Europe, backed by 80 percent of its citizens

In this country of more than 40 million people, up to 60 percent of the adult population claims to donate to Ukraine’s defence from every paycheque. Along with this, 46 percent have contributed various non-monetary items such as clothes, and 16 percent contribute in-kind through volunteering.

Ukrainians are not the only ones who understand what’s at stake in containing the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions: many of the campaigns have been organised by Ukraine’s friends around the world.

Crowdfunding Ukraine's defence

Crowdfunding Ukraine’s defence comes in various shapes and forms.

Many of the better-known crowdfunding platforms, such as Kickstarter and GoFundMe, were not built for this purpose — their terms and conditions explicitly prohibit purchase of military equipment. 

Those platforms are still being widely used to support a range of humanitarian, social and cultural initiatives to benefit Ukrainians, such as helping young authors publish their first book or delivering critical medical supplies to a child displaced by the war. According to GoFundMe, over USD$280 million was donated to projects supporting Ukrainians in the first year of the war.

Just days after Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, crowdfunding giant Patreon froze over USD$250,000 collected by the Come Back Alive nonprofit for the purpose of training Ukrainian military personnel and providing them with digital tablets and vehicles.

Considering the trail of destruction left by the Russian military, this decision could be considered neither ethical nor procedurally fair. 

Yet, regardless of where one stands on crowdfunding military support, it’s important to acknowledge the drastically different security landscape in the world at the time those platforms were created.

The future will tell whether crowdfunding tech policies will change in response to rising geopolitical tensions in many regions of the world. But for now, there are dedicated platforms operated by Ukrainian defence nonprofits. 

It may sound like a contradiction — defence and philanthropy are rarely close — but large volunteer-run organisations such as Come Back Alive and People’s Project have been major contributors to Ukraine’s defence since 2014, and both operate bespoke crowdfunding platforms.

Raising funds in conflict

People’s Project is currently raising funds for drones, satellite-powered communication centres and charging stations for the military. 

It also ran large targeted humanitarian initiatives, such as providing aid to those affected by the Kakhovka Dam explosion. 

In addition to providing drones and other tactical equipment, the Prytula Foundation, famous for crowdfunding a radar satellite for military intelligence, helps provide modular housing and runs a demining project on Ukraine’s recently liberated territories.

Dr Olga Boichak on ABC News.

Crowdfunding success has inspired the Ukrainian government to create United24 — Ukraine’s official crowdfunding platform launched by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

Celebrities such as Star Wars actor Mark Hamill are listed as United24 ambassadors, each spearheading a particular defence, humanitarian, educational and post-conflict reconstruction stream. 

Ukraine’s National Bank operates an official account to raise funds for Ukraine’s Armed Forces, which has already transferred more than USD$930 million to the beneficiaries.

Outside the realm of ‘traditional’ crowdfunding platforms, there is a whole ecosystem of micro-donations organised on social media by individuals. 

These are usually highly creative, interactive, vernacular forms that have emerged in opposition to strict platform policies. 

In this case, Facebook users might post original selfies with cryptic requests to help fund flying and gliding creatures.

Twitter users resort to a different tactic of sharing a fascinating life story like ‘Here’s why I hated piano lessons growing up’, which inadvertently ends with a donation request. 

YouTube and Twitch users organise entertaining and interactive live streams in which they give away creative prizes to their audience. 

Often, these campaigns are facilitated through Monobank — a decentralised blockchain-based technology that affords fast transfer of digital assets between users.

Defending Ukraine from Russian aggression, Ukrainians and their allies around the world will continue to #ragedonate, channelling their creative efforts into innovative technological solutions to resist Ukraine’s occupiers.

Dr Olga Boichak is a senior lecturer in Digital Cultures and Director of the Computational Social Science Lab at the University of Sydney.

This story was originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™. Top photo: Mathias Reding for Pexels CC by 4.0.

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