The prospect of sending money to somehow help Ukraine deal with the mounting consequences of the Russian invasion can seem overwhelming. Where to donate? How to donate? Who to trust?
A new website that launched Friday morning called Pledge Ukraine, built with the help of tech workers in Seattle and beyond, aims to take some of the guesswork out of contributing to the worldwide relief effort directed at the war-torn nation.
Sophy Lee, an Austin, Texas-based tech executive, has assembled a volunteer team of 11 researchers, programmers and designers, alongside eight advisors, to quickly build the site and help money flow to more than 100 organizations inside and outside Ukraine.
Some of those helping have friends and family in Ukraine, and some are Ukrainian. Lee was inspired by her good friend Andrey Liscovich, a former Uber executive who was living in San Francisco before leaving to return to his home country to run a volunteer logistics operation.
Liscovich relayed to Lee how difficult it’s been to connect people doing good work in Ukraine with people willing to help from elsewhere in the world.
“The matching is really inefficient,” Lee said. “So I just literally scribbled something on a sheet of paper, texted it to Andrew and he said, ‘Hey, let’s build this.’ And that’s pretty much how it got started.”
Andrew is Andrew Lytvynov, a Seattle-based software engineer at the data warehousing company Snowflake. Originally from Lviv, Ukraine, Lytvynov moved to the Bay Area about eight years ago, and Seattle four years ago.
Up until a week ago when he started on the Pledge Ukraine site, Lytvynov was keeping in touch with friends and family in Ukraine via phone or social media, and he was sending money. But he was frustrated that he wasn’t doing enough.
“You do feel very helpless, you want to do something,” Lytvynov said. “When this idea came together, for me it was, ‘OK, I can put so much of this anxiety and anger and emotion into a useful medium and it’s something that’s actually going to help Ukraine more broadly than just my direct donations.”
Lytvynov and few other engineers had to build a website from scratch, including: the site’s backend; a way to store all the data about aid organizations in a structured way to enable query and filter processes; domain set-up; hosting; an email inbox for feedback; and more.
“The bulk of the time was spent building the frontend of the website, getting all of the UI parts of it consistent, usable on mobile, translating everything into a couple languages, because it’s going to hopefully reach a global audience,” Lytvynov said.
Lytvynov reached out to his friend Natasha Fedo to help with researching and vetting hundreds of organizations. Also a native of Lviv, Fedo has been in Seattle for 20 years and is currently a senior portfolio officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. On her own time, she put to use some of the skills and knowledge she’s developed.
“Having been in the world of nonprofits, in the world of donors, I definitely have a way to assess different nonprofits and try to understand what they’re doing, where they’re coming from,” Fedo said.
The research turned into a big part of the project, with about 100 hours invested in looking into each organization, communicating with them, and inputing information for the site.
Fedo’s mother, aunts, uncles and cousins all still live in Lviv. The city in the western part of the country has been part of a safe corridor to neighboring Poland and hadn’t been seeing heavy fighting — until Friday.
“They’re saying ‘This is our country,’” Fedo said of why her family has not fled. “Like my mom, I have been begging her to leave and she’s like, ‘No. This is my home. I’m going to stay here as long as I can.’”
That conviction has motivated Fedo to help and feel productive.
“It is incredibly difficult to feel powerless and helpless, and seeing all the suffering that’s happening and just constantly watching the news and worrying,” Fedo said. “I needed an outlet for doing more than transferring dollars … which I’m doing as well.”
Lee, seeing Fedo for the first time during a video chat with Lytvynov and GeekWire, said she’s inspired that a group of people who have mostly never met each other came together to get stuff done.
“We’re essentially strangers,” Lee said. “The thing that does unite us is that we care a lot.”
Lee’s hope is that Pledge Ukraine will provide a more trusted and uniform way for people to help beyond lists of organizations in news stories or tweeted pleas from celebrities. The site does not collect any money, and visitors can select which type of organization they might like to donate to, in categories such as food, medicine, refugees, children, animals, defense and more.
Lytvynov said tweaks and features may be added to help visitors better understand how bank transfers work. They’ll run data analytics on the site to learn how many people are visiting and clicking off to aid sites, but they won’t know how much money is pledged. They have a short term goal of attracting 100,000 people to the site, donating in an effective way.
“I think what we’ve built in a fairly short amount of time is an example of how you can use technology to kind of foster some coordination during chaos,” Lee said. “As the situation changes, and evolves, we want to make sure that we are as well and we’re helping people do what’s most impactful.”