Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, ordinary Ukrainians across the country have been driving the humanitarian response in their local communities, delivering food donations, checking on the elderly, and providing shelter for people fleeing the war. Ukrainian Volunteer Service (UVS)—a National Endowment for Democracy (NED) partner and 2022 NED Democracy Award honoree—is one prominent organization helping activate and coordinate citizen volunteers to maximize support for people in need.
“On February 24, right after the Russian invasion, we changed all of our activities and we became focused 100% on supporting the people who are in need,” said Anna Bondarenko, founder and chief executive officer of UVS. “Volunteering is still about helping people in need, but right now it’s also about defending everything that I was born on, defending the values that I believe in, defending the values our country was working so hard to establish.” [Watch the 2022 NED Democracy Award.]
For Bondarenko, volunteering is a personal passion that she wants to share with as many people as possible. She started volunteering as a teenager while studying abroad in California. The feeling of unity and doing good she experienced while volunteering got her hooked. But when she returned to her home city of Odesa, she found it difficult to find volunteer opportunities. There seemed to be a gap between people who wanted to help and the nonprofit organizations that needed volunteers.
To help bridge this gap, Bondarenko and a group of friends in Odesa founded Ukrainian Volunteer Service in 2017 to promote the culture of volunteering across the country. In addition to matching volunteers with a wide variety of causes, UVS also builds the capacity of young activists and provides volunteer management training for organizations.
UVS’ large network of trained volunteers and charitable organizations across Ukraine enabled them to mobilize quickly following the full-scale Russian invasion in February. With NED funding, the organization helped set up volunteer action centers to connect ordinary Ukrainians, including many who have never volunteered before, with relief efforts in their local communities.
“We’ve been able to mobilize more than 100,000 people to volunteer, and that’s the biggest amount of people that we as an organization have ever worked with,” Bondarenko said. “We’re seeing how people are united and how people, regardless of their age, race, different social status, place in which they’re living—they’re doing as much as they can to help. There’s so much beauty in how people help each other and how they are giving their time, giving their emotions, giving their talents, giving their skills to help Ukraine win.”
Right after the invasion, UVS also launched a chatbot on Telegram to streamline communication and a new online emergency response center, where trained volunteer managers respond to requests for help with evacuation, humanitarian support, food, medicine, or finding relatives. According to Bondarenko, in the last two and half months, UVS has processed more than 50,000 requests from all over the country.
“Ukrainian Volunteer Service’s work illuminates the spirit of the Ukrainian people and their insistence on active participation in shaping their country’s future,” said Tanja Dramac Jiries, associate director for Europe at NED. “The group has mobilized Ukraine’s most precious resource–its people–in responding to the enormous humanitarian crisis facing the country as millions face displacement and the consequences of Russia’s invasion.”
After the war ends, Bondarenko said volunteers will be needed to provide a quick humanitarian response and bolster reconstruction efforts across the country, as well as promote unity and healing in Ukraine.
“One thing that we as a team will be focused on after the victory will be working really hard with all those people who have experienced volunteering on a local level,” Bondarenko said. “And our main goal will be to help those people, not to volunteer only when it’s all bad, when it’s all war, but to volunteer as a part of their everyday life. And we will need those people. We will have a lot of work in order to rebuild.”