Mott’s grantmaking in Ukraine: Prioritizing local resilience and community voice in a time of war

A woman sits at a radio station's broadcasting booth with a Ukrainian flag behind her and a microphone and headphone at the fingertips.
A paralegal from the legal aid center Kolomyia in the Ivano-Frankivsk region of Ukraine tells listeners on the local radio station Siaivo about free legal assistance. Paralegals play an important role in helping to educate the public about the legal aid available to Ukrainians experiencing the loss of property and other consequences of Russia’s invasion of the country. Photo: Courtesy of Ukrainian Legal Aid Foundation

In the following Q&A, Nick Deychakiwsky and Ross Maclaren of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s Civil Society program share reflections on Mott’s three decades of grantmaking in Ukraine. They describe Mott’s initial response to the war and how its funding has evolved since the invasion began in February 2022. To help grantseekers, Deychakiwsky and Maclaren provide advice to those interested in funding from Mott for work in Ukraine. They also call on other funders to help support Ukraine’s civil society as the conflict continues.

Mott: What is at stake with the war in Ukraine? Why does it matter for philanthropy?

Ross Maclaren: The immediate answer is everything is at stake. The fate of democracy in Ukraine and around the world. Dignity for Ukrainians. The ability of a country to decide its own fate. And much more. There is injustice around the world, but what is unique about the war in Ukraine is that we’re on the cusp of a larger fight between authoritarianism and freedom. Foundations like our own have, at their heart, values of justice, empowerment and democracy that necessitate a response to tyranny and repression. Foundations cannot just stand on the sidelines and watch while the principles of freedom and human dignity are trampled on. It’s a bad signal for the world.

There is injustice around the world, but what is unique about the war in Ukraine is that we’re on the cusp of a larger fight between authoritarianism and freedom.”
Portrait of Ross Maclaren, Civil Society Program Officer at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation Ross Maclaren, Civil Society program officer

Mott: What is Mott’s history of grantmaking in Ukraine?

Maclaren: We started working in Ukraine in the mid-to-late 1990s after it gained independence with the Soviet Union’s collapse. We initially funded civil society organizations and CSO-support organizations, helping them build their capacity. Then we changed to a community-engagement focus. We concentrated on the community level in Ukraine, looking at how citizens contribute to change through collective action. We shifted our emphasis in 2014 after the separatist conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine. Armed fighting in the region resulted in large numbers of internally displaced persons. Many IDPs asked: How do I restart my life? What do I do with property left behind? How do I secure benefits put in place by the government? To help Ukrainians answer these questions, the Mott Foundation identified organizations already working with IDPs on their legal and justice needs. Little did we know at the time how important these, and similar organizations, would become after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Situated in the center of Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, Independence Square features a large golden statue of a woman that has a wing-like cape and a golden wreath of wheat arching above her head.
Independence Square in Kyiv, which has been largely untouched by the conflict, remains an important symbol of freedom and resilience for many Ukrainians. Photo: Glib Albovsky / Unsplash

Mott: Why did Mott deepen its grantmaking in Ukraine after the war began in 2022?

Maclaren: The needs suddenly became so vast amidst war. Many of our grantees were in a state of emergency, having to move offices for safety, while also finding new ways to support more people than ever before who needed their services. With 10 million refugees and IDPs from a country of 40 million, legal advice centers were inundated with requests for assistance with everything from identification documents to property rights. The number of people the legal advice centers were serving more than quadrupled. They needed more resources. We couldn’t ignore that. The country had been turned upside down. The fact that Mott could help in some small way is important.

Open Government Partnership, a Mott grantee, highlighted the importance of transparency and social accountability for Ukraine’s democratic resilience and reconstruction at its 2023 summit in Tallinn, Estonia. Photo: Courtesy of Open Government Partnership

Mott: How has Mott’s funding in Ukraine changed since the war started?

Nick Deychakiwsky: Mott’s funding in Ukraine has changed as the war has changed. After Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, we made grants in areas where we were already working — namely to community foundations and legal advice centers — as well as to adjacent, new areas of work. We wanted to be as responsive as possible. As the war has carried on, we continue to support people-centered justice needs in Ukraine and locally embedded community foundations, who best know the needs of their communities in a time of war. Focusing on the community level and civic engagement is where we believe we can make a difference given our existing connections and experience. And we believe resident voice and citizen participation in recovery is the next important frontier for Ukraine as it begins planning for reconstruction. Even if it feels hard to talk about recovery with missiles and bombs still hitting Ukraine, we must remember that millions of people are still living in the country. Ukrainians want to move forward and create a better tomorrow. Ukrainians are resilient and want to be involved in the future of their country. We want to help with that.

We believe resident voice and citizen participation in recovery is the next important frontier for Ukraine as it begins planning for reconstruction.”
Nick Deychakiwsky, Civil Society senior program officer

Mott: What is your advice for prospective grantees seeking Mott funding for work in Ukraine?

Deychakiwsky: Many of the grantseeker inquiries we receive are around humanitarian assistance, governmental accountability and corruption, war crimes, sanctions, mental health support or physical infrastructure rebuilding. These are all critical areas of focus. However, we don’t have a history of addressing these areas and, hence, are not well equipped to do so. Instead, we want to focus on longer-term local recovery needs and community involvement. We’ve learned that we work best at the community level. So, we’re looking for projects that integrate citizen participation or help build civil society’s resilience.

For example, we would not fund the rebuilding of a school. However, we could support civil society organizations that want to make sure community members have a role to play in deciding whether, where and how — among other things — that school might be rebuilt. We are in the people business and not the bricks-and-mortar business. Our focus is on community voice and local problem-solving.

Mott Senior Program Officer Nick Deychakiwsky (center) participates in a May 2024 event organized by the Podilska Hromada Community Foundation in Vinnytsia, Ukraine. The event brought together nonprofit leaders and local government officials to get to know each other through pottery making. Photo: Olena Danilova

Mott: What more could the global philanthropic sector do to support Ukraine?

Deychakiwsky: Despite the ongoing conflict, I encourage philanthropy to see a country it can help to rebuild — and to rebuild in new ways. For environmental funders, it’s an opportunity to support energy sustainability and climate resilience, embedding it in the core of reconstruction. For democracy funders, it’s a way to make government institutions more responsive and accountable to citizens and to minimize corruption. There are plenty of opportunities. We want funders to see not just a specific geography and its challenges, but the very real prospects for making lasting change that could serve as models for other parts of the world.

For that reason, we’re here to help funders who are interested in supporting Ukraine. We are aware of interest in creating a funder group to help coordinate financial support to Ukraine to enhance its impact. Hopefully, the group can also bring additional funders into the space. No matter the starting point, the most important thing funders can do right now is to help Ukrainian society be resilient during and in the aftermath of conflict. We hope they’ll join us in this work.