Ukraine Philanthropy Part I – How You Can Help A Lean Scrappy Group

I wrote recently about what would be on the bottom of my list of philanthropic priorities. 

What is on the top of my list? I have only just begun to act on it, but the short answer is Ukraine, my geopolitical obsession for a little over a year.

My main honest thought in February 2022, during the first week of the invasion, is that I would have fled the fight. I fully expected Ukrainians to do the same. Their resistance to the Russian invasion, and their relative success in not being rolled over by the successor to the feared Red Army, astonishes me. 

ukraine_war_map
Ukraine key locations

The conflict may last many more awful years. One of my main questions over the past year is how can I, and by extension how can Texans equally obsessed as me, support Ukraine?

Official Channels

Two official sites exist to gather international private support for Ukraine’s resistance. As a first response to my question I think people could and should consider these. 

Ukrainian President Zelensky created United24,

which solicits donations for one of three purposes: 

  1. Defense and Demining,
  2. Medical Aid, and 
  3. To Rebuild Ukraine

Mark Hamill, who portrayed rebel Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars epic about scrappy resistors fighting an evil empire against all the odds, has signed on to this official effort to support Ukraine. They accept credit and debit cards online. As of April 2023, Ukraine24 says they have raised $321 million this way.

In addition, the National Bank of Ukraine created a site for private direct donations to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

The National Bank of Ukraine claims that as of April 2023, it has raised the equivalent of $677 million (25 billion Ukrainian Hryvnia) through direct donations. 

Unofficial Channels

One of the unique features of this invasion is how technology – through social media, and on-the-front-lines communications for example – enables individuals to offer material support in a less official capacity. There are likely thousands of small-scale efforts that have sprung up since February 2022 to support Ukraine.

Austin-based television director Dax Martinez-Vargas met fellow advertising director Mykola while shooting television commercials in Ukraine. Following the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, Mykola’s television work dried up. As Martinez-Vargas tells it, Mykola over time built a discussion group on the social media platform Discord to call attention to Ukraine’s situation. When Russia invaded in February 2022, US-based members of that Discord group asked Mykola how they could help get supplies to where they were needed most. The discussion widened to others interested in Ukraine’s plight on the social media platform Reddit, where Mykola continues to build his international audience using the alias “JesterBoyd.”

jester_boyd
JesterBoyd

Dallas-based entrepreneur Steve Watford joined with Martinez-Vargas and a Nevada-based entrepreneur Anders Boyd to found Ukraine Front Line, Inc. 

Their original common bond was Mykola’s Discord group, and a desire to help as directly as possible. Boyd built the group’s website. Watford became President and got the organization recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) charity, eligible for tax-advantaged giving from US citizens. 

Since then, Watford reports, about $50 thousand from 200 individuals and two trusts have been sent to support Mykola’s efforts to deliver needed supplies to the soldiers and medical personnel at the front. As their man on the ground in Ukraine, Mykola arranges purchase and pickup of materials, often in Poland, and sees their delivery by himself, or via couriers. They’ve purchased and delivered supplies such as combat medical supplies, cold weather uniforms, and reconnaissance drones.

It’s all very scrappy, lean, unofficial, and grass-roots. Watford, Martinez-Vargasa, and a third board member Robin Rohrback with whom I spoke, all prefer the efficiency of direct support to Ukrainians over more official charities or big established international charities. 

Compared to larger organizations, the material delivered by Ukraine Front Lines, Inc is tiny. But as the volunteers see it, with no overhead and volunteers who cover their own administrative costs, 100 percent of donations go to where it’s most needed in Ukraine.

The risks

The New York Times reported last month on Ukraine charities that have popped up since the invasion began 14 months ago that have raised eyebrows.

Accusations include lying about the biographies of key members, claiming official registration or pending registrations as an official charity when that wasn’t true, or exaggerating accomplishments or deliveries of supplies. A year ago I sent a small amount of money via PayPal to a Ukraine-based American with an active Twitter presence who represented just such a grassroots organization. He was mentioned as a controversial figure in that recent New York Times article, and he has since gone dark on Twitter. For small organizations, one should always maintain some level of skepticism. 

For what it’s worth, Ukraine Front Lines is a registered 501(c)(3) organization. Mykola and his in-country couriers do an admirable job of photographing and documenting their deliveries, posting on the Ukraine Front Lines blog and Reddit. 

One upside of supporting small organizations is efficiency. Another is that supporting small increases the chance of engaging in a philanthropy that is emotionally satisfying, through a narrative and personal connection. 

My donations

I am of the opinion that the US government and our NATO should support Ukraine generously with government funds. As of this writing, official US government support is above $75 billion, a combination of military, financial, and humanitarian aid. But I also hope and think Americans – who give close to $500 billion dollars in philanthropy per year – could make a difference as well.

Last week, I was successfully able to donate a small amount of money to Zelensky’s United24 for “defense and demining” through my credit card. 

Then I tried to donate a small amount using my credit card to the National Bank of Ukraine, but the payments didn’t go through. After three failures I tried to communicate via online chat, but the site’s chat function was in Ukrainian, so I was not able to complete that donation. 

Zelenskyy
Zelenskyy as civilian leader and leader of a country at war

Finally, I gave a small amount to Ukraine Front Line, Inc after speaking directly with three of their members, and after viewing Mykola’s very specific communications online. 

As we grind into the second year of a brutal invasion and defense, I hope and think the philanthropic power of Americans should and could be a force multiplier. 

Watford brings a very Texas attitude toward his support for Ukraine through Ukraine Front Line, Inc.

“We [Texans] bleed freedom, that’s our nature, and God help anyone that threatens it,” says Watford. “This same trait has been heroically demonstrated by the people of Ukraine. They were backed into a corner staring straight down the barrel of a loaded gun and said, ‘do it.’ They have and will continue to fight to preserve their freedom, and they’ll die before they give it up. That’s about as Texan as it gets.”

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.

Please see related post: Ukraine Philanthropy II – Using Miles for Refugees

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Backed The Wrong SPAC

Bubble

Nominations are still open for the craziest frothy finance stories of 2021. Strong cases can be made (and I have made them!) for bitcoin and RedditBro GameStop short-squeezes. But maybe the uber example of frothy finances this year are SPACs.

Bubble
Picture of South Sea Bubble or really any SPAC you’d like it to be

Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPACs) existed before this current era, but really on the fringy margins of Wall Street. Now they are front and center.

SPACs are known as “blank-check” companies. You buy shares in a company that is just an empty shell. The shell sells 100 million shares for, say $10, raising a billion dollars. In the future – specifically, typically by next year – the managers of the SPAC promise to purchase a private company. At that point you find out what you, the shareholder, own! 

Now, owning shares in a pile of cash worth approximately the pile of cash is ok, I guess. 

You’re really trusting in the SPAC management’s private-company-purchasing skill. For that reason, SPAC managers like to put famous people on their team to build this trust. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan recently joined the management team of a SPAC run by Mitt Romney’s son. I have strong feelings about the trustworthiness of Paul Ryan, but that’s an earlier column.

paul_ryan_workout
Your favorite SPACbro, former House Speaker Paul Ryan

The weird thing that’s been happening sometimes lately is the fact that shares go up when they are just a pile of cash, without any company purchased yet. Sometimes they go up a little, which is ok if you really believe in the Paul Ryans of the world and their ability to buy undervalued private companies. 

But sometimes they go up a lot. Which is nuts. A SPAC that just bought an electric vehicle startup Lucid Motors in mid-February – a company that incidentally has never delivered a single vehicle to a customer – briefly climbed from $10 a share to above $50 a share. The Venn diagram of overlapping investors who like speculative electric vehicle startups and blank check companies apparently produced this briefly delightful mad rush to own the SPAC at $50 per share, when the cash value of the empty shell was still $10 per share. (They should have put the name bitcoin in there somewhere so that shares would reach $90.)

For historians reviewing the South Sea Bubble era, a classic headslapper description of a proposed venture was that it was “an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.”  Haha that’s always a great laugh for financial historians – and the description is possibly apocryphal – but it is also a true and precise definition of exactly what is a SPAC.

While SPACs are not entirely new, they are definitely the new new hotness on Wall Street this year. SPACInsider.com reports a total of 226 SPAC transactions in the eleven years between 2009 and 2019. It’s been a slow build, with the years 2016 to 2019 seeing upticks of 13, 34, 46, and 59 SPAC transactions per year, respectively. 

In 2020, we saw 255 SPACs announced. 

2021 is shaping up as the year of the SPAC, with 348 total announced in just the first two months of the year.

SPAC

On February 26 2021, the final trading day of the month, 13 SPACs launched. That’s as many in one day last week as we saw in all of 2016. In 2021, everybody loves backing blank check companies, undertakings of great advantage but nobody to know what they are! 

The interesting feature of the South Sea Bubbles of 1720 was that the English press of the time understood that many of the new speculative schemes were somewhere between frauds and lottery tickets. The investing crowd in its wisdom did not seem to care what the press thought. Can you blame them? There was too much money to be made.

From 2004 to 2007 a lot of smart guys enjoyed buying condos in Florida “on spec.” Not to live in, but to flip to another buyer. Sometimes these condos hadn’t even been built or finished yet, so a $25 thousand deposit got you the right to pay $400 thousand for the finished condo. But then those smart guys would flip their purchase option rights for $75 thousand and keep the quick profit because the end price of the unbuilt condo was upped to $450 thousand, and there was no need to wait for the condo to be built in order to cash in. Anyway, some people made money doing this for a while.

In the dotcom bubble of 2000 or the housing bubble of 2008 it is simply not true that people did not find the market ridiculous. On the contrary, people thought that Pets.com was stupid in 2000, as was flipping unbuilt Florida spec condos in early 2008. It doesn’t matter. Other people were making money on it. Up until the point when they didn’t make money anymore.

Now, some froth at the creative end of capitalism is arguably good. If we collectively torch $1 trillion in investment capital on electric vehicles but end up also igniting a technological revolution that slows climate change, that’s maybe fine, even if it is painful for the folks who backed the wrong SPAC. (Incidentally, “Backed The Wrong SPAC” is the title of the first poem in my new book of financial slam poetry/rap that I just started working on right now, today.)

The internet boom of 1999 and 2000 ended in tears for many, including backers of Pets.com and Webvan, but overall that episode of financial frothiness probably helped raise buckets of useful capital for scrappy startups like Amazon and Google.

The same capital obliterated by telecom failures WorldCom and Global Crossing may have helped spur a lot of excessive investment in fiber optic cable. That bandwidth is essential to watching the massive volume of cute cat videos on Reddit that we all now consume.

SPACs are ridiculous investments, but sometimes you have to wait and see whether some financial ridiculousness and tragedy for speculators ends up with a silver lining for the broader economy and society.

And by the way, please do not misinterpret me. Do I mean you should sell your stocks because everything is going to crash? Of course not, never sell. Take the multi-decade view.

But also, please, please don’t buy stupid things.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News.

Please see related posts:

RobinHood is not your friend

Bitcoin (hopefully for the last time)

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