Communities of war. How civil society defended Ukraine

03 April 2023
Communities of war. How civil society defended Ukraine
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“On February 24, the full-scale war started. On February 25, I already had 70 people with children under my roof. There was my second cousin, then her godmother, then her cousin, and they were all fleeing the war. It was -14 degrees outside. The snow was piled up high above the fences. They all came here, poor things. It was 3 in the morning,” — Natalia, owner of a private house in Zakarpattia. 

“On the second day, we gathered in the room at our dormitory and started thinking about creating a volunteer movement in Ostroh,” — Mykhailo, university lecturer, Rivne oblast. 

“During the first few days of the full-scale war, I was sitting without a job, I lost all my projects, and had nothing to do. I wanted to do something, to feel useful, like everyone now during the war,” — Anna, organizer of charity concerts in Cherkasy. 


The first days of the full-scale war looked like that for many Ukrainians. During those days, the routine consisted of dozens of online chats where two types of requests were published: “please help” and “please tell me whom I can help.” These days were spent in lines at the fronts of enlistment offices, in basements where caring people had already begun to bring things for displaced persons, and in improvised kitchens where food was cooked for everyone who needed it. 

On February 23, 2022, many of these people did not yet even believe in the reality of a full-scale war. However, after it started, they immediately began to unite and create volunteer projects and civic initiatives, as if they had been working on them in advance as a team. 

How were these processes established so quickly throughout all regions of Ukraine?

NGO Centre of United Actions tried to find answers to this question. To do this, the organization conducted qualitative in-depth research of grassroots initiatives in 24 communities in 14 oblasts of Ukraine. The research is based on 193 interviews with representatives of NGOs, local businesses, local government, clergy, and citizens who are not a part of any of these groups. All these people were founders or participants of civic initiatives or got help from them. 

Authors of the research examined why people became volunteers, how they launched their initiatives, where they got resources, and why they eventually stopped or continued their work. The study explains the phenomenon of the Ukrainian volunteer movement during the war. 

Civil society supported the state 

“Every day during the first week of the full-scale war, I woke up feeling guilty that I was going to sleep in a warm home, that I could eat, that I did not hear the sound of sirens. That I was not running with my family to a bomb shelter. That we were just living a normal life, except that we were watching the news and observing how terrible events were unwinding in our country. I constantly wanted to do something, to dedicate myself to something, to help people.” 

That is how Larysa from the small village of Vyshnivets, Ternopil region, describes her feelings at the beginning of the full-scale war. At the end of February, 2022, she didn’t know what to do with herself, but by the beginning of March, she was managing a volunteer center that was helping internally displaced people on a regular basis. 

Before the invasion, Larysa worked as a school principal. She had never dealt with logistics, registration, or distribution of humanitarian aid before, but she took the job when it was needed. 

Larysa is a representative of civil society that has long existed in Ukraine and manifests itself in times of great crisis — such as full-scale war. The story of this woman from Vyshnivets is not unique. In every community covered by the research, regardless of its size and location, people could not sit idly but instead united into humanitarian centers or initiated other volunteer projects. 

It is important that these were not just local activists that we usually think of as members of civil society. Civic initiatives were launched by entrepreneurs, local councilors, educators, clergy, and representatives of other groups. Successful projects were born out of their collaboration. 

The secret of a successful civil movement is cooperation 

One of the important nationwide projects of 2022 was the Gardens of Victory. The idea of the program is to plant as many vegetables as possible in order to mitigate the blow that Russia has dealt to Ukrainian agriculture. Communities participating in the project get seeds and equipment from partners. Exemplary results were achieved by the Buky community, Cherkasy oblast. 

“The results of the Gardens of Victory were extraordinary, even unexpected. No one expected such a large quantity of vegetables. We managed to provide 80% of the food required by our kindergartens and schools. Today we also have the opportunity to provide our soldiers and internally displaced persons with vegetables and other products,” — says the head of the community, Serhii Zalizniak. 

To achieve such results, it is not enough just to have seeds. To implement the project, the community grew food on land plots that had not been used for decades. Local residents also participated in the program by growing additional vegetables on their private land plots. 

“All our educational establishments and the entire executive committee worked on the Gardens of Victory. And everyone is glad that they were able to join this project and help. Even those people who were previously dissatisfied, perhaps dissatisfied with the authorities, they all worked together and continue to work for victory today. So, you know, this great misfortune has united all people,” — says Zalizniak. 

The research demonstrated that cooperation is important not only for increasing the number of people engaged. It also allows different groups to exchange resources: human, material, financial, administrative, and infrastructural. 

For example, an NGO that knows how to write grant applications can help a local government to attract funding for the community. In return, the local government will help volunteers to find storage for humanitarian aid. Alternatively, different groups can use these resources to launch a joint initiative. 

This is how, for example, a shelter for displaced women with children was launched in Khotyn, Chernivtsi oblast. It was born out of cooperation between the charity organization Eleos-Ukraine and the Church of Saints Borys and Hlib of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. 

“When I moved to Chernivtsi myself, I saw that both the city and oblast governments, as well as civil society, respond to problems very quickly. They are doing a fantastic job: they have set up many shelters where you can spend the night or stay for some time. The only downside I noticed is that it is hardly possible to stay in such places for long. One day, two days, or a week tops. These are mainly dormitories offering not much when it comes to sanitary and hygienic needs. This doesn’t mean that someone is doing a bad job. On the contrary, it is a firefighter’s reaction who sees a fire and must quickly extinguish it. Our vision is different in that we think a little more ahead. Because people stay in such places for some time, and then many of them go abroad,” — says Olena Tanasiichuk, program director of the Eleos-Ukraine. 

The Orthodox Church in Khotyn liked this idea. The priest of the church, Father Dmytro Shora, was deeply touched by it. In the summer of 2022, the shelter opened for its first residents in the former church refectory. It is a bright, cozy house that, thanks to the cooperation between different groups, has become a new home for Ukrainian women who have lost their homes due to the war. 

Resilience or adaptability? 

The vast majority of the analyzed initiatives turned out to be long-term. 81% of them continue to work to this day. At the same time, half of the initiatives have transformed. 

Some volunteers registered official charity funds, others switched to working on more relevant needs. Some initiatives at the beginning of the full-scale war dealt with an extremely broad spectrum of issues and tried to cover as many requests as possible. Over time, the need became apparent to bring order in these chaotic activities to be able to work long-term. Some teams abandoned a multi-vector approach and chose their niche. 

“When Kyiv oblast was liberated, we started thinking about what should be our main focus. There was no need to distribute humanitarian aid to that many people anymore. There were organizations that had been doing this longer than us and doing it more professionally. We focused on what we did best among all other funds: Tactical Combat Casualty Care training and providing help to combat engineers,” — says Kseniia Semenova, co-founder of the Kyiv charity fund Solomianski Kotyky. 

Thanks to this approach, volunteers began to build partnerships instead of extending their efforts — in particular, with the Ministry of Health and demining units. They started to work more efficiently towards these goals. 

Not only large funds from the capital transformed in the course of their work but also small organizations and centers in various localities. For example, the volunteer center in Ostroh, Rivne oblast, was actively engaged in cargo logistics and assistance to the military at the beginning of March. Over time, volunteers realized that their help was needed not only for people on the frontlines but also for those who were forced to move to their city. 

“We had the idea that it would be great to provide these people not just with food and clothing, but also to give them something warm: coffee, tea, and communication. Because they did not have that in Ostroh at the time. And they started coming, communicating with each other, getting acquainted, building contacts, social connections. Then we, volunteers, had the idea that helping the military is a good one but there were already many others who were helping the military. That we could help those people who were here. Because they also needed it,” — recalls Nikita Bieliaiev, volunteer at the humanitarian center. 

There are countless similar examples in other communities. Some civic initiatives during the first months of the full-scale war met the needs they were supposed to meet. They gave time for the government bodies to adapt to working in the new reality. Later some of them returned to their previous day jobs while others could not stop volunteering: they found new goals and needs that have to be met. 


Regardless of whether an initiative existed for only a month, half a year, or more than a year, its participants managed to do an important job: to support the state at the most critical moment in our modern history. This experience confirmed that there is a powerful civil society in Ukraine. After the beginning of the full-scale war, it became active and launched a wave of important civic initiatives. On top of that, it gained invaluable skills in crisis management, teamwork, fundraising, cooperation with various stakeholders, and building partnerships. Most importantly, these people realized that they are capable of launching successful projects even under the most critical conditions. 

Civil society has reached a new level: it will never again agree to live as before. Ukrainians have realized that they can find housing for hundreds of evacuated families in a short time, prepare tons of hot food, raise hundreds of thousands of hryvnias for military equipment, find this equipment, and deliver it to the front. Therefore, they will be just as able to influence various spheres of social life at the local and national levels in the future.