Combating donor fatigue
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, a massive incursion that would grow into an ongoing war, Salt Lake City-based Bruce Roberts had a fledgling nonprofit he realized would likely be able to help. After all, his organization, August Mission, launched in 2021 to provide aid in crises to people, as he says, “on their worst day.”
He wasn’t alone in this instinct to act. The Russia-Ukraine war brought images to television screens in the U.S. usually preserved for conflicts in the global south—places like Afghanistan, where Roberts had been deployed as an Army officer.
August Mission would become one of several groups in Utah attempting to gather and distribute aid to people affected by the war. American Fork-based Lion Energy, for example, reportedly sent $400,000 of portable energy equipment to the war zone in April 2022. The Larry H. Miller Company matched donations for refugees in March last year, then distributed the funds. Lifetime Products used its annual day of service in May 2022 to send 7,000 hygiene kits to those affected by the war.
While there have been headline-catching moments among Utah businesses and support for Ukrainians in spirit, Roberts says it has been challenging to convince people to donate.
National trends back up his view. Ukraine received far more media coverage than global south conflicts in U.S. media and was characterized as a war targeting “civilized” European citizens by Western journalists. A 2023 poll from the Brookings Institute found that nearly 70 percent of U.S. voters felt the U.S. was providing either the right amount or not enough support to Ukrainians, indicating strong moral support. At the same time, a majority counted the conflict as a very low priority among foreign policy issues and prioritized isolationism in global conflicts.
Roberts says bringing volunteers to see what was happening convinced people to help. And after several trips in the past two years, his organization completed the first-ever Utah delegation to Ukraine in May, helping solidify business connections into the future.
The May delegation brought 30 members of Utah’s political and business class to visit the Ukraine war zone. The trip started as a discussion between Roberts and World Trade Center Utah (WTC). WTC leveraged their contacts to receive an official invitation from the Ukrainian consul in the U.S.
Once on the ground, they managed to visit several officials in Ukraine, eventually orchestrating a meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“Success is us having this meeting for me because what I wanted to do was move the needle for Ukraine beyond what I could do,” Roberts says. “[The delegation] was hugely successful, and now, I have people at the state level that are saying, ‘Hey, we have to pay attention, we have to help.’”
Before managing to garner momentum from this trip, Roberts says there was a “steep learning curve” involved with creating a nonprofit, especially one focused on aid for crises.
Roberts started August Mission in 2021 as the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating due to the U.S. removing its military operations after 20 years of occupation. Having been deployed in Afghanistan, Roberts wanted to find a way to help people fleeing violence. He spoke with friends, including former military members, about how best to structure the organization.
One of August Mission’s early focuses was born after Roberts helped his former interpreter become a U.S. citizen and discovered that other members of the interpreter’s family faced immense legal hurdles as they tried to leave Afghanistan. August Mission would help process paperwork for visa and asylum applications.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, Roberts focused on ways the organization could help there, too. But the war in Ukraine presented a different problem: donated supplies were piling up at the Polish border because they had been organized and shipped without clear plans.
Roberts decided to use his logistics background to focus on delivering these supplies rather than just gathering them. His organization started to lead trips carrying materials from the border into affected areas of Ukraine for distribution.
"Success is us having this meeting for me because what I wanted to do was move the needle for Ukraine beyond what I could do. [The delegation] was hugely successful, and now, I have people at the state level that are saying, ‘Hey, we have to pay attention, we have to help.’"
Throughout the past 16 months, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed 6 million people from their homes to other parts of the country and 8 million to flee entirely, according to U.N. data. Nearly 10,000 Ukrainian civilians, including over 500 children, have been killed. At the same time, U.S. intelligence reports showed that hundreds of thousands of soldiers had been killed in the fighting.
According to news reports, the eastern portion of Ukraine has been leveled, with cities made “uninhabitable,” especially in the winter.
Meanwhile, European companies operating in Ukraine during the conflict—mainly those focused on supplying weapons—have managed to earn a major profit, according to investigative reports from the Kyiv Independent. As the war surged, dealers dramatically increased their prices.
It was in this environment that supplies began to pile up at the Polish border. Internationally, people began to send money or gather materials for Ukraine. But these efforts didn’t achieve their intended effect, according to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Ukraine. In 2022, Ukrainian civil society organizations wrote an open letter to the international NGO community accusing them of operating overly bureaucratic and mismanaged relief efforts.
During this time, Roberts was leading a trip of U.S. volunteers to bring supplies inside the war zone to reach hospitals and impacted communities. But he noticed another problem with the approach.
“The volunteers were great because they would become advocates for our organization,” he says. “But we could do it much cheaper by hiring local people … and they needed the work anyway.”
It’s precisely this balance that led Roberts to question the effectiveness of fundraising as a method of aid distribution.
“Coming from an operational background, I’m focused on doing the thing, whatever that is,” Roberts says, “but the accounting is equally important, and so is the marketing … you have to communicate effectively to your donors.”
This tension limited August Mission’s ability to provide relief. “It was killing me that we couldn’t respond,” he says.
The recent delegation for Roberts was a step in a new direction to deal with this tension. Making connections was the focus. Roberts built on his organization’s current contacts by leveraging political contacts from WTC and the state of Utah.
“I think we’re hitting donor fatigue. I think we’re hitting news cycle fatigue. It’s not as front on people’s minds,” Roberts says. “What we did with the trade delegation these last two weeks was an effort to re-energize the focus on Ukraine.”