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How SMEs are getting creative to help Ukrainian evacuees

While big corporations donate millions of pounds to humanitarian aid agencies, firms with fewer resources are finding other effective ways to contribute to the relief effort

SMEs are showing how innovative thinking, speed and agility can be just as helpful as big corporate donations in tackling the refugee crisis caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Software developer Chili Piper, for instance, has not only raised more than £170,000 in funding for NGOs on the ground; it has also built Bridge, a digital platform that helps aid agencies to connect with organisations offering resources.

The company has gone even further by publishing an online directory of resources to serve as a relocation guide for evacuees. The document, which includes procedures for entering new countries and methods of applying for asylum, has been viewed by more than 10,000 Ukrainians to date. 

Chili Piper’s co-founder and chief experience officer is Alina Vandenberghe. Now based in New York, she grew up in Romania when it was under the control of a brutal Communist dictatorship led by Nicolae Ceausescu. With well over 500,000 Ukrainians having fled here across the border since the Russians invaded their country at the end of February, she has felt compelled to activate all the resources at her disposal to assist them. The company is also supporting employees in Romania who are sheltering refugees.

“This is very personal for me. Having grown up in Romania, I know what it’s like to go to bed fearing bullets flying overhead as you sleep,” Vandenberghe explains. “With hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees travelling to and through Romania, we have mobilised considerable resources to help, partnering with local authorities and NGOs to protect displaced citizens. I will continue using my local connections and knowledge to maximise the aid we provide.” 

Boosting financial support for Ukrainian refugees

Recruitment platforms Growmotely and hackajob both employ people in Romania who have taken in refugees. The companies have given them not only financial support but also leave and flexibility with their workloads to help them adjust to life with their new house guests.

Hackajob’s co-founder and CEO, Mark Chaffey, has set aside a £10,000 fund that can be tapped by any team member incurring extra costs on vital resources such as food, medicine and transport in assisting evacuees. He reports that one worker used part of this to help 30 children who had been evacuated from a Ukrainian orphanage, for instance. The fund has also proved crucial for the five employees based in the city of Iasi, eastern Romania, who have taken in refugees.

There has been a lot of fear about how the situation could escalate

“We’re not asking people to follow seven steps of compliance to access the money or even for proof that they need it. We want to make the process frictionless and deploy these funds as quickly as possible to the people who need them,” he explains. “Trust is one of our core values as a company, so this is one example that demonstrates how we trust our people.”

Chaffey adds that it’s almost as important that hackajob is offering extra leave to anyone who’s providing a haven for refugees.

“We have to be so empathetic to our team members. What has made this feel closer to home for us is that some of them are based near the Ukrainian border,” he says. “There has been a lot of fear about how the situation could escalate.”

Long-term thinking 

But just how long the company can keep bankrolling their efforts is an issue of concern to Chaffey, which is why he’s sought internal suggestions on how to offer them more sustainable assistance.

“Unlike Apple and Google, we’re not sitting on billions in cash, so we can’t just keep donating money forever,” he says. “So what is the ongoing support that we can offer as well as just providing money? Fundamentally, the people here will have a much better sense of what’s feasible – we’re really open to their ideas.” 

Chaffey continues: “This is also about using the business. We’re experts in tech recruitment, so the other thing we’ve been able to help with is getting new jobs for people who’ve been displaced by the war by matching them up with relevant employers.”

Unlike Apple and Google, we’re not sitting on billions in cash, so we can’t just keep donating money forever 

This longer-term view is shared by Growmotely, which is supporting staff based in Romania’s capital, Bucharest, who have taken in evacuees. The company also wants to expand its candidate pool to include those Ukrainian refugees and help them apply for the numerous remote jobs it’s advertising, in the hope that such work can create new livelihoods for them. 

“There are many super-experienced people from Ukraine working in marketing, operations and finance. What if they had access to remote opportunities that match that experience?” says Growmotely’s co-founder and brand and marketing manager, Theodora Gatin. “As a long-term solution to create large-scale impact, this has us really fired up about what we’re doing.” 

Based in Bucharest herself, Gatin took four Ukrainian families into her home within three weeks of the invasion. She credits her firm’s flexibility in enabling her to help her new guests settle in without having to worry too much about work.

To ensure that dedicated resources are available whenever a crisis strikes, Growmotely has even established what it calls a global emergencies initiative. Last year, for instance, it used money from this fund to enable the safe and rapid relocation of one of its employees in South Africa after rioting broke out near her home. 

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