United Ukraine Appeal’s mission extends beyond the end of the war

Diana Hodgetts Fri, 3 Feb 2023

Almost a year has passed since Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, daily media reports have detailed falling missiles, destroyed schools and harrowing stories of traumatised civilians. For most of us in Australia, it’s hard to fathom the scale of destruction. However, Alex Vynokur, the CEO of Betashares and founder of the United Ukraine Appeal understands it acutely and personally.

“What’s clear is that the innocent civilian population is being affected more and more,” he says from his Sydney office over Zoom.

“It’s also clear that critical infrastructure is being damaged on a catastrophic scale. There is a deliberate destruction of the energy and power network in the country. Many cities don’t have reliable access to food and water and of course, almost half of the population doesn’t have stable source of energy or warm water.”

Alex isn’t talking about the fate of a foreign country and the circumstances of a faceless, unknown population. Rather, he is describing the situation his childhood friends find themselves in, and when he speaks of the future, the responsibility he feels to the country of his birth is evident.

“I also believe that every war will have an end…and I’m looking forward to the day when we can say this about Ukraine.

Image courtesy of United Ukraine Appeal. One of the first projects the United Ukraine Appeal undertook was supplying ambulances to Ukraine. Ambulances were transported into Ukraine via Poland.

Responding to an evolving situation

However, with reconstruction costs estimated to approach $350 billion, the end of conflict will not mark the end of the United Ukraine Appeal’s work. Instead, when the time comes, Alex and his team will turn their attention to rebuilding.

“The reconstruction work is only going to begin in earnest once [the war is over]. So I feel that our mission is not going to be accomplished when the war finishes,” says Alex.

In the meantime, the organisation remains focussed on delivering non-military humanitarian aid to Ukrainians on the ground.

“The work unfortunately for our organisation is only increasing as this war continues. So, what really keeps me going is that the fact that the job’s not done,” he says. 

The resolve to press on as the scope of work expands seems a far cry from the initial sense of paralysis Alex told the AFR he felt when the invasion began. When Philanthropy Weekly asks how he overcame this feeling, he is extraordinarily practical.

“I just came to a realisation that the only way to meaningfully help is to start doing things,” he says.

“Those emotions are of course explainable and understandable, but at the same time there’s no use being angry.” 

“People on the ground are not going to be helped by an extra person being worried but they can be helped by an extra person being motivated to do something meaningful.”

In the beginning, something meaningful meant buying ambulances and transporting them into Ukraine, but as the war progressed, the scale of the crisis expanded, and so did the scope of the United Ukraine Appeal’s mission.

“I certainly would not envisage for instance in the early parts of the war in 2022 when the war started, that we would be facing a big energy crisis in Ukraine and people are going to be at risk of freezing, or not being able to have lights on,” says Alex.

“We expanded our focus and really shifted gears very quickly,” he said. “We started looking into procuring electricity generators and batteries and thermal blankets, we didn’t think about that before.”

Philanthropy’s role in international aid efforts

The scope of the appeal’s work has expanded so far as to include funding rescue missions to get vulnerable people, including blind children to safety. Alex says that this type of mission is an example of a gap that philanthropists are better positioned to fill than foreign governments. 

“It’s obviously a very important cause and there’s nothing worse than imagining vulnerable children who cannot access the care they need,” he says.

“I think that’s just an example of something that we could do and something that we will continue doing and I think it would be very difficult for governments to assist like that.”

While Alex sees distinct differences between the roles for philanthropists and foreign governments to assist in Ukraine, he is enthusiastic in his appreciation for the support Australian Government has already given to Ukraine in the last twelve months.

“I think our government is doing a lot, which I think is fantastic and it makes me very, very proud as an Australian.”

“There are certain things that our government is doing, which is providing military equipment, including bushmasters, which I personally feel, it’s not our place and it’s not our mission,” he says.

“I think where philanthropic endeavours really come into their own is their ability to focus on areas which might be overlooked and execute quickly,” he says. “It’s a combination of [government and philanthropy] that works really well.”

Appeal’s likeness to a startup key to its success

Alex also points to his organisation’s ability to adapt to an evolving situation faster than a government. He sees its nimble structure as critical to the success of its mission, likening it to a start-up.

“One of the reasons why start-ups are really interesting and grow into real businesses is because of that ability to be close to the situation, be able to make decisions and be able to execute effectively,” he says.

“I’m thinking about that as we enter 2023, I’ll want to make sure that we retain that.”

While Alex says he has learnt a lot in the last twelve months, what really stands out to him how much goodwill there is in our society.

“I have been approached by so many great people offering financial help for the foundation but also actual practical help in getting things done,” he says. “We are now relying on a very significant network of volunteers who have put up their hand.”

“I’ve been absolutely blown away.”

The United Ukraine Appeal is dedicated to delivering vital support to the people of Ukraine. To learn more and donate please visit its website.