Building a Prosperous Ukraine Together: Razom for Ukraine

An Interview with Dora Chomiak, CEO of Razom for Ukraine

This Feature appears in Vol. 75, No. 2, "War in Ukraine: The World Responds" (Spring/Summer 2023).

The organization Razom for Ukraine has been responding to humanitarian need and community-building in Ukraine since 2014. Dora Chomiak, chief executive officer of Razom for Ukraine, spoke to the Journal about the organization’s journey from volunteer-run non-profit to recipient of tens of millions of dollars in donations, its partnering work with local institutions and its grant-making capabilities within Ukraine, and how their work across borders and languages and cultures is sustained by hope for the future of the country.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): What was it like when Razom for Ukraine first got involved with the war effort?

Dora Chomiak (DC): It’s funny when you ask what was it like when it began. We started when this phase of all of this started, and that means 2014. Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, and Russia has continued to invade Ukraine. Even recently, a couple of hours ago, there was a bunch of missiles. Razom came together as an all-volunteer organization, in Ukraine, outside of Ukraine, but really on Facebook, back before Facebook throttled distribution of information.

Razom came together at the end of 2013, the beginning of 2014, to support people: pro-democracy, pro-human rights advocates in Ukraine. Since then, we have done a wide variety of things, and a lot of stuff has changed. But a lot of stuff has stayed the same. And what stayed the same was our focus on Ukraine, our focus on the future for a sovereign, successful Ukraine and our outward focus community-building collaboration approach to move very, very quickly to whatever the demands are at that moment. We’re very agile. Because of that, if you were to look through all our annual reports, which you can do online, you’ll see a wide variety of activities, ranging from medical support and veteran support to entrepreneur engagement and culture, films, very diverse activities, but all focused on Ukraine, all focused on community, all focused on figuring out how Ukraine can be a net contributor to the global community. How can that talent that’s in Ukraine be recognized? How can we unlock that potential and put it into the world’s community more effectively?

When February 24th happened, we had already, about a week and a half before that, opened up a fundraiser with a few other organizations to raise money in case things went south. We were thinking, “Well, maybe we should work with some of the people we worked with through COVID and for some of our veteran workers to train people in tactical medicine.” That very quickly went from training people in tactical medicine to procuring tactical medical supplies and distributing them.

Just a quick history of our organization. From 2014 to 2022, we were an all-volunteer organization, fueled by very targeted fundraisers, mostly crowdfunded—and a few grants of a few thousand dollars. Over that time span from 2014 to 2022, we had developed relationships with almost 4,000 donors. 4,000 people would donate, and each year we received and spent about $200,000 a year. With that, I did a wide variety of projects. As of 2022, we now have over 170,000 donors and have raised over $75 million. We’ve spent most of it and also raised an additional $1 million in in-kind donations that we have also deployed—very rapid growth. We went from an all-volunteer organization to starting to transform to be a hybrid organization over 2022, where we started being able to, and needing to, compensate people to implement programs. And now, in 2023, we’re continuing to implement programs, we’re continuing to respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the genocidal war against Ukraine. We’re continuing to respond to that, while at the same time shoring up our infrastructure so that we can be an effective instrument in continuing to serve our existing mission, which is unlocking the potential of Ukraine to contribute to the global community. We do this by strengthening civil society in Ukraine, by supporting human rights in Ukraine, by all of those things that we do.

I have yet to find a case study that parallels our set of growth and ability to continue to deliver like we’re still delivering. We’re transforming our governance structure, we’re responding to trends, we’re right-sizing and shoring up our operations and implementation, and we’re now actively recruiting for additional kind of roles in order to be able to fulfill our mission.

JIA: That is tremendous growth in just one year.

DC: Good thing I have an MBA from Columbia.

JIA: Where does that institutional motivation and capacity come from? How do you simultaneously manage significant response and rapid scaling-up—or is there synergy, where the need demands growth that responds to need and it becomes a feedback loop?

DC: The core driver is the people doing this. How could you not do this? People in Ukraine can’t defend their right to exist, and that’s what we’re doing. All of us on the leadership team have some very strong connection to Ukraine. Either we’re physically located in Ukraine—at this moment, I’m not, but many of my colleagues are—or we have colleagues or friends or family that are there, and that’s always served as fuel. Now we’re able to marry that with collaborating with people who are just now discovering Ukraine, who are new to Ukraine, but who see the tremendous potential and the magic of it, and we’re able to create spaces where these people meet each other and do stuff together for the good of the cause. We’re operating in a space where short-term traction meets long-term direction. I won’t lie: it’s incredibly challenging. But we keep our focus on what it always has been, which is what is happening in Ukraine right now and what can we do to make it better.

On February 24, a group call started that a bunch of people were on. That was a constant overnight group call, and then we slowed things down to having group calls every two hours, 24/7. Every two hours all the way through the night. That’s the kind of pace we were at, February through the summer. Then, in the summer, you could start thinking in terms of days, and then, later in the summer, you could start thinking in terms of weeks and then months. Now we’re at the point where we can start thinking in terms of years. But it’s very much this sort of very real driver. When we’re having a conversation, what if suddenly your electricity gets knocked out, because a substation got hit? That’s how we’re working with this drive.

This is why Ukraine is so cool. There are still people creating all the time: the art on the wall behind me is made in Ukraine. We’re setting up a place to create and collaborating with the Creators Market later this month, where designers from Ukraine are going to come and show their stuff, and people will be able to buy it retail. We’re setting up a place where retailers will be able to pick it up so we’re not waiting for the bombs to stop being thrown to already be strengthening the economy of Ukraine. When we’re delivering aid to various local communities in Ukraine, we’re buying locally-made stuff wherever we can. We have wood-burning stoves made in Ukraine. We have these mobile shower and laundry complexes that are made in Ukraine that we’re delivering to places that don’t have the infrastructure for that. Wherever we can, we want to buy local and support the economy, because underlying that engine of jobs is, as you well know, a private sector that has to be functioning. The public sector government structures need to be functioning as well, and the third sector, the non-profits and NGOs, need to be functioning too. We’ve given grants to over 120 very local organizations in Ukraine that are delivering aid primarily in Kharkiv, even Kherson, in the south and in the east, and we’re helping them build a network to collaborate among themselves and to raise the level of their game so they can be in better positions to take in what they’re given. What they’re doing now, for example, is the World Food Program comes in with their giant semi trucks, and that truck can’t get to the small villages, so our partners that can get there distribute that stuff into the small villages and be those connector points. This is rebuilding the fabric of the civil society and of the country.

We’re not waiting for the Russians to stop invading. We’re already doing the rebuilding, because that’s what we’ve been about. That’s what we are about, and that’s what we’re going to continue to be about.

JIA: Early on, what was the organization’s presence on the ground, and then how did that change? How did you go about sourcing, for example, those locally-made wood-burning stoves?

DC: Early on in 2014, and then from 2014 through to 2022, we are constantly working side-by-side with people in Ukraine and outside of Ukraine. We’re not a one-directional paid distribution outfit: we literally have people all over the country working side-by-side and in communication on group chats. We’re able to do this because we were founded that way. From the get-go, it was the people who were standing in the freezing cold in the center of Kyiv Maidan, and it was people here in New York City not just protesting but raising money and doing fundraisers. If you can donate money to a U.S. account, for example, and you get your 501(c)(3) tax implications, then you’re able to hand that to someone you trust, turn it into something that someone hands over. That in the small is what we’ve been doing in the large, so we know what’s going on because we’re literally there and we see things shift and we’re able to quickly find out. We’re able to hear what the needs are, and we’re able to find the suppliers.

For example, we had set up a system where you write an email of what you need. Then, we had a team of people who took in all these requests and classified them. We built some software to be able to do that in a more scalable way. We’re all constantly iterating and finding ways to be able to do things more efficiently at scale. Because we’re there, both in Ukraine and outside of Ukraine, we’ve set up all these different ways to donate. We have people here who know how to set up Facebook and Paypal. By working with people who have the expertise, we’re able to be so effective and so fast.

JIA: Is that how the organization was able to process both the dramatic increase in contributions as well as the distribution of those funds?

DC: How that was even possible in the first place was a lot of chats. But basically, a constant focus on how we don’t know how much time we have. If we slow down, how many people die? That’s the calculus. It is brutal, but that’s the calculus. I got to push this thing through, because if I can get that first aid kit there a day faster, that’s X number of people who might not bleed out. That’s the mindset.

JIA: What were some of the lessons or best practices that the organization took away from those few of years of COVID?

DC: We learned a ton about procurement, including global procurement, and we learned a ton about distributing in Ukraine. Our partnerships with patients in Ukraine, for example, came straight out of that COVID response. Our ability to quickly stand up teams of procurement volunteers came out of that.

JIA: Do you also have partner organizations or other individuals on the ground that support your work?

DC: Yes. We try to work with other organizations, wherever we can, on very tangible activities. That’s part of our ethos, part of our cultural DNA. If we can partner to get a specific thing done, let’s come together and do that thing. Take, as an example, distribution of in-kind donations of medical equipment. There are big organizations like Americares and Direct Relief that have stuff. But they didn’t have a footprint in Ukraine, so we’re able assemble the stuff. We transport it, and we either deliver it straight through our own network to medical institutions that we have or to one of two organizations that we worked with very closely during the COVID response. This is one example of big organizations outside of Ukraine that have stuff and big organizations inside Ukraine that can distribute the stuff. We’ve been connectors between the two.

Aside from that, we have several partner organizations that we’ve worked with for several years, such as Building Ukraine Together, which is similar to Habitat for Humanity. In Ukraine, we have had a multi-year relationship with them. We know what they’re about. We know how they work. We already had Paypal fundraising set up for them, so once they started doing refugee support, we were able to support them very quickly because they were vetted. We have a very rigorous process of grant-making, who then become our partners. Grantees are people who get funds from us, and we partner wherever we can. Here in the United States, we stood up a whole advocacy group, which educates decision-makers in Washington and voters across the country on the importance of supporting Ukraine and continuing to support Ukraine.

Just as an example: for U.S. national security and our partners there, we helped organize the Ukraine Action Summit last year. There’s another one coming up in April, during which over 40 organizations across the United States all come together to make it easier for constituents to meet their representatives and advocate on behalf of continued support of Ukraine. Wherever possible, we partner on various events—even at Columbia. We try to work with academics, with other nonprofits, and with the private sector to get stuff done.

JIA: Walk us through the basics of Razom’s grantee program.

DC: The recipients are local organizations, some of which are NGOs, others of which are socially-responsible businesses or businesses that pivoted into humanitarian support because they needed to. My favorite is a taxi company in Kharkiv that was evacuating people and now distributes food. They had a whole call center set up already, including a CRM system— a customer relationship management system. They have amazing tracking: Who’s requesting what? What’s been delivered? That’s just a great example of Ukrainian innovation.

Our grantees are people in Ukraine who know what the needs are and are able to shift with it very quickly. We set up a very rigorous process where we have a precise mandate and a way you can apply. We have a group of people who utilize an eight-step process to vet each of these grantees, and then there’s still an added check where you get a small-ish grant and we see how that goes and the reporting. If it’s good, then there’s another one—a very rapid way to do something like that. As someone who used to work at a large foundation (I used to work at Open Society Foundations) I know how what a huge load that can be. We were able to implement it by keeping it hyper-focused and really driven by what the needs are on the ground.

There was a phase of quickly getting humanitarian assistance to where it needed to go, and we’re still doing that. But simultaneously, we’re moving beyond that by helping these organizations build a network among themselves so that they can really be part of the civil society, gain access to even larger sources of funds, and be able to advocate for themselves, so that as Ukraine continues to develop, they’re part of an industry group representing the third sector. That’s our grant work.

Parallel to that, but mostly focused in the United States, is our advocacy group. The advocacy team is focused on government affairs in Washington: on the Hill, as well as the White House and the Pentagon, to advocate and educate why supporting Ukraine is good for the United States. Adjacent to that is a community engagement team that’s working across the states with local organizations to make sure that constituents there understand what tools or information they need to advocate on their behalf.

Here, I just want to be very clear. Our client is not the government of Ukraine. We’re educating people on why support for Ukraine is good for the United States.

JIA: What’s next?

DC: What’s next is to continue to be focused on Ukraine and continue to be focused on the future of Ukraine and connecting Ukraine to the global community in the very short term. What’s next is to continue to deliver the programs we’re delivering now and shore up our ability to be an effective instrument to implement those programs.