Ukraine Philanthropy Part II – Using Airline Miles

I wrote recently that helping Ukrainian people survive and resist the Russian invasion is the most philanthropically worthy project I can think of right now. But a key question remains: How can I help?

I found a surprisingly easy and satisfying way last week, through an organization called Safe Passage 4 Ukraine

They accept donations of hotel miles, credit card reward points, and airline miles. If you only have a small number of saved miles, the organization can aggregate donations from many people to purchase travel or hotel stays for refugees from the war zone.

Their online form is very easy to use.

For small amounts of miles in airlines I rarely fly, I filled out their form with my pledge, then clicked a button, and the website took me to my own airline miles account. From there, once logged in, I clicked the charity to complete the transfer of miles. The charity then sent me a confirmation email, asking me to click once more to confirm the transfer. Less than 5 minutes of “work” at my desk. Easy peasy.

SP4U

JetBlue’s minimum donation is 500 miles. I really can’t use my roughly 2,000 miles with them so I donated them. United Airlines’ minimum is 1 thousand miles. I pledged the roughly 2,500 miles I had. 

The Most Satisfying Thing

Then I did an even cooler thing. Although I only had a few JetBlue and United Airline points, I travel American Airlines more frequently. I had accumulated a little over 50 thousand miles at the beginning of last week.

Shortly after I pledged to donate at least 30 thousand of those points, a travel specialist from Safe Passage 4 Ukraine requested over email for me to stand by, as he’d be sending me further details shortly.

With at least 30 thousand American Airlines to pledge I became eligible to purchase a transatlantic flight for an individual Ukrainian refugee.

Two days later, on a Friday afternoon, my assigned travel specialist sent me an individual’s profile, just as promised. It was a Ukrainian woman’s name, her birthdate, and a specific multi-city flight plan – Warsaw to London (Heathrow) to Philadelphia to Orlando, with flight numbers and times. The specialist had already worked out that this one-way transatlantic flight could be purchased with my 30,000 miles, plus $96.15 from me. Very affordable. By the time this column goes to print, she will have arrived in Orlando.

Incidentally, I don’t know about you, but whenever I try to book my own travel with my miles I find I never have quite enough. If I have 25 thousand miles, my flight requires 50 thousand. If I have 50 thousand, my flight needs 90 thousand. I feel like it costs 50 thousand miles just to go from San Antonio to Dallas and back, whenever I search for it myself. To my delight, booking this ticket for a stranger to fly out of Warsaw to Orlando actually cost exactly what the Safe Passage 4 Ukraine travel specialist told me it would cost. Somehow, they found a 4-city transatlantic flight for 30 thousand miles, plus $96.15. 

Actually, initially I had a problem when I went to book it and I found I couldn’t get the flights for less than 79 thousand miles. Then I realized that I’d mistakenly searched for a round trip ticket. I’d forgotten to book just the one-way flight. Right. The Ukrainian refugee just needs to get away right now. She isn’t looking for the round trip yet. 

So Who Gets Safe Passage?

I spoke last week with Rachel Jamison, the founder and Director of Safe Passage 4 Ukraine. Jamison says her organization has flown 505 Ukrainians overseas, fleeing the war. They have flown or housed (with hotel points) 41 injured volunteers. They have flown 39 wounded soldiers receiving prosthetics.

Rachel_Jamison
Rachel Jamison, SP4U founder

They have aggregated 17 million airline miles and approximately 2 million hotel points. Because they mostly work with points and miles, their actual financial donations have remained small, an estimated $350 thousand to date.

By day, Jamison is a law professor working for New York University based in the United Arab Emirates. We spoke by Zoom despite the 10 hour time difference. With an all-volunteer organization, she retains her full time job. “I’ve been in a lot of tough places,” she says, “but [Ukraine] is the hardest environment.”

“I come in as an atypical person, not from Ukraine. But this is what I’m most proud of, professionally. Safe Passage 4 Ukraine is also atypical, in that it involves Ukrainians working in partnership with foreigners, and military folks working with civilians. That’s very rare.”

Because they have many more people trying to flee the war than they can serve, their partners on the ground in Ukraine asses criteria for safe passage flights, which are a combination of 

1. A safe landing destination, 

2. Legality, and

3. Need

To determine a safe destination, Jamison says the “most common thing is people have family in the US or Canada, and they need to be reunited with them.” This is especially true as most people they help are women, and women with children.

Ukraine_refugees
SP4U mostly helps women and women with children

Next, their partners on the ground in Ukraine do assessment of their legal status.

“Every person we help move to the United States or Canada has a documented legal right to move, and has a sponsor when they arrive, usually a family member,” explains Jamison.

And then finally, there’s the prioritization of the most needy. “There’s an overall needs assessment that starts with: ‘if we don’t help this person, what will happen?’ All of them have been through things that you and I have never experienced,” Jamison continued. “So we are drawing the line at who really needs our help.” 

That often means the recipients of the flights are ill and in need of treatment, or they are people traumatized by bombing or Russian occupation. In the next phase of the war – which may mean towns newly liberated from the Russian army – Jamison expects a huge uptick in people desperate for help. 

“Right after Kharkiv was liberated [in September 2022] there were suddenly many people with serious needs. We are going to need everything we can get.”

An SP4U volunteer

Chris Schools is an ex-marine with operations experience who lives north of Dallas (Celina, TX). He has known Jamison from before she went to law school. Schools deployed to Afghanistan 2010-2011 with the marines as an ordinance specialist but has been out of the military since 2011. When Russia invaded Ukraine, he knew he wanted to help, but asked himself how? 

I asked him whether he considered going to Ukraine? “It runs through your head, but with a 6 and a 3 year-old now, my life is different. I can’t be going into combat zones.”

Instead, when he heard about what Jamison was doing, he reached out online and asked he how he could help. As he told me, “nobody is more action-oriented than Rachel, in everything she does. It was very easy for me to get bought in and know we were on a worthy mission.”

In April 2022 he volunteered to work on partnership outreach, and then extended his work to helping, along with others, to set up their financial systems, managing their PayPal account for incoming donations, as well as making disbursements for example to reimburse partners inside of Ukraine. 

As a logistics guy with a background in working in a complicated war zone, Schools was effusive in praising what Jamison created in a short time. “The organization is unique in that they found a way to give back that hadn’t been done. Anybody can say they need money, but they put together a complicated system in a manageable way, to be innovative and move quickly.”

The Appeal

This charity really appeals to me. I had an extra spare resource – airline miles – that I’ve traditionally found difficult to use. Safe Passage 4 Ukraine did the hard work to find and vet the person from a war zone who most needed them. They found the exact flight on the exact day that could serve her needs. All I had to do was book it with my miles under her name and personal information. They did the rest. 

I don’t know any of the back story of the woman whose ticket I purchased with my airline miles, only that she was from Mykolaiv, a previously Russian-occupied but now Ukrainian-liberated city. That’s all I need to know. 

Without this organization as a matchmaker, I would have virtually no way to personally help an individual in the Ukrainian war zone. I found it very emotionally satisfying doing my small part to help remove one person, desperate to get out of a war, to a safer place in the United States.

Here’s the link again to pledge miles.

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

Please see related post

Ukraine Philanthropy I – A Scrappy Group

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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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Where Are The Fiscal Conservatives On War Costs?

Where is the fiscal conservative voice to cut federal defense spending?

war_costsI’m on the fiscal conservative team. By that, I mean that I believe responsible government expenditure includes a plan for paying government obligations. Sometimes that means cutting spending. Sometimes that means raising taxes.

If you’re a fiscal conservative in Congress and you voted this month to increase the federal debt by “only” $1 trillion over the next ten years through tax cuts targeted to business owners, you’re not playing for my team this year. You’re benched.

But more importantly, if you cut taxes to increase the deficit and you don’t even consider cutting our massive defense spending, then I’m sorry, you’re not a fiscal conservative. You’re off my team permanently. Hit the showers. Just leave your uniform by your locker, you won’t need it anymore.

The problem is nobody even shows up for my team anymore, Democrat or Republican.

Ryan_McConnell
You guys are off the team, hit the showers.

Where is the anti defense-spending wing of Congress? Does it even exist? Ever since 9/11, Democrats and Republicans have fallen all over themselves to shovel money at our military. I wrote recently about the waste, fraud, and abuse of our unending commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan. The bigger fiscal issue is our extraordinary commitment to wars since 9/11.

Here are some facts that matter for a discussion on federal fiscal responsibility.

Net federal debt stands at about $14.8 trillion.

Only 3 big areas really count when it comes to controlling federal spending. One is “discretionary,” and two are “non-discretionary,” otherwise known as “entitlements.” These two latter categories are made up largely of Social Security/Welfare and Medicare/Health Care costs.

The US spends roughly $600 billion per year directly on our Department of Defense, a larger amount than the next 8 countries combined: China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, UK, India, France, Japan, and Germany.

The Department of Defense budget makes up 54 percent of “discretionary” spending in the federal budget, meaning Congress has a choice of what to spend each year. If fiscal conservatives aren’t talking about this spending, they’re not addressing the single biggest use of resources over which Congress has control.

Some of you paying very close attention now want to talk to me about entitlements spending. Fine. Just gimme a second to finish some thoughts on defense spending and I’ll get back to entitlements in a moment. I promise.

Leaders in our discussion about the impending tax breaks like to talk about the theoretical average savings for a middle class family after tax cuts. We hear a number like $1,182 (from House Speaker Paul Ryan). While overly simple, perhaps we should understand our wars since 2001 in such basic per-household terms as well.

There’s both the narrow view and there’s the more complete view of what these wars cost each household.

The Department of Defense (DoD) takes a narrow view of accounting for the cost of spending on Iraq/Syria and Afghanistan/Pakistan – what are called Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). This cost totals $1.75 trillion between 2001 and 2018, according to the DoD. The DoD then breaks down that $1.75 trillion into “cost per taxpayer,” at $7,740.

We don’t normally think of reducing military expenses as the way to make every taxpayer $7,740 richer, but it’s a legitimate a way to think of it, in my view.

Probably, however, the DoD’s estimates of war-cost-per-taxpayer come in way too low, according to Boston University professor Neta Crawford, author of the recently updated article “The Costs of War.”

Taking into fuller consideration the increased State, Homeland Security, and Veteran Administration’s costs, plus the increase in a baseline budget for the DoD on a war footing, Crawford estimates the Global War on Terror since 2001 has cost the country approximately $5 trillion.

As Crawford argues, this $5 trillion price tag actually skews conservative, as it does not include huge categories of costs such as state and local expenditures, many non-federal forms of veteran’s care, and costs externalized to families. Crawford’s conservative estimate means the wars since 9/11 have cost $23,386 per taxpayer. Personally, I’d like to be $23,386 richer.

I’m not mentioning the even more important human costs of war like death and injury and misery, since this is a financial column, but yes, those are even more important than the dollars and cents. I’m also not saying, obviously, that we need to eliminate the military. I’m saying that if you’re a real fiscal conservative, you have to be talking about winding down the wars and cutting military spending to a more sustainable level.


Now you want to talk about entitlements spending on Social Security, welfare, Medicare. Ok fine, let’s do that.

“Entitlements” is an apparently confusing word that sounds either moralistic, or somehow immoral, depending on if you like entitlements-spending or not. But that’s missing what the technical term means. It means instead that the federal government adopts a certain set of criteria for payments, and that it is then obligated to make those payments, regardless of budgetary decision-making by Congress. It means we essentially don’t budget for entitlements. The payments get made according to pre-set criteria and we deal with the financial consequences once payments are made.

War_costsAnd sure, we shouldn’t forget about entitlements spending either. But these issues are already part of active political debate daily: ACA repeal, Medicaid cuts, Social Security reform. As a fiscal conservative, I am quite confident that a significant group of powerful people is working to limit two of the three big expenses of government: healthcare and Social Security. Entitlements spending isn’t likely to get out of control with such hawk-eyed defenders of our financial situation. But I keep looking and I can’t find a fiscal conservative wing fighting to limit the one thing Congress can control each year – our war spending.

Can we end these wars and balance our budget? I don’t need my tax break as badly as I want my peace dividend.

 

Please see related post:
SIGAR and Afghanistan Waste

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SIGAR And The Afghanistan War Costs

SIGARThis month we debated tax reform and upcoming tax cuts, and a logical follow-up thought to the tax-reform debate is “why does the federal government cost so much to run?” Each of us will answer that question differently – possibly depending on our political persuasion – but everyone likes to agree in a bipartisan way on the need to reduce “waste, fraud and abuse.”

Which is why we should all applaud the work of internal government groups like the Special Inspector General For Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), dedicated to reporting on waste, fraud and abuse in our nation’s longest war. SIGAR makes quarterly reports to Congress on where our money went, and conducts investigations on fraud and enforcement, all with respect to the Afghanistan conflict.

If you think like me, you might have this vague gnawing sense that pursuing a perpetual war against a shadowy non-state enemy with no end in sight is the surest way to blow our nation’s budget. When you read a SIGAR report, that vague gnawing becomes very specific, with cold hard numbers attached to it.

Here’s just one example of $70 billion in waste. A recent report by SIGAR  studied the cost of building up the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). The money appears mostly wasted.

In 2005, officials estimated a total $7.2 billion price tag for building up the ANDSF. Bolstering internal police and security forces is an important and logical step toward reducing the US military presence there. As the SIGAR report describes in excruciating detail, 15 years and $70 billion later our efforts at capacity-building have utterly failed. Afghanistan cannot keep its own peace, and the local security forces are wholly dependent on US support, both financially and militarily.

soldier_afghanistanThe devil of this failure is in the details of the report, but the waste, fraud, and abuse is nothing short of mind-boggling.

There’s the obvious, like the $500 million for second-hand Italian transport planes that couldn’t operate in Afghanistan’s harsh conditions.

Or like the unspecified cost of what are believed to be thousands of “ghost” soldiers on the payroll of the Afghan army, basically paid for by us. One estimate in 2015 put that cost at $300 million in phantom payments.

The Afghan Ministry of Defense Headquarters, originally budgeted at $48.7 million, ended up costing $154.7 million, and took five more years to build than expected.

Oddly, given the amount of money we spent, the history of training the ANDSF is often one of equipment shortages. In the early years of US rebuilding efforts, Afghan units would attempt to seize Taliban weapons caches because they were better quality than what they could get from us. Afghanis preferred former Soviet-era weapons because they broke down less easily than the higher-tech US weaponry. We provided high-tech solutions, but we built the wrong level of military and security technology for local conditions.

An estimated 70 percent of Afghanistan’s population is illiterate. What that means is that after we deliver state-of-the art military electronics equipment, and then something goes wrong, the equipment can’t be fixed, using local expertise. So the US military ends up resuming control of the abandoned high-tech equipment. According to SIGAR, the ANDSF remains totally dependent on our high-tech close air support and reconnaissance technology to be effective.

This mismatched technology problem is in fact both a cause and a giant metaphor for wasted expenditures in Afghanistan. We continue to build expensive high-tech solutions unsustainable in the Afghan context.

SIGAR estimated in July 2017 the total cost of the war effort to the United States, so far, as $714 billion. An academic study by Professor Neta Crawford of Boston University, a specialist in tallying war costs, estimates an even higher cost to the Afghanistan war, at $877 billion.

That cost can only increase from here, because the ongoing problem is that we can’t seem to walk away financially, without a fiscal collapse in the country. The Afghanistan government, according to SIGAR’s July 2017 quarterly report, is on total financial life-support from the US government.

How do we know about this dependency? Here are the numbers: The Afghanistan government raised $2.1 billion in total revenues in 2016. The cost of the ANDSF alone will be $4.9 billion, while their government as a whole costs an estimated $7.3 billion. Who pays the difference of roughly $5 billion each year? That would be you and me, with some help from international donors.

SIGARIt’s as if we built a $50,000 Habitat-For-Humanity house for someone who badly needed a home, but then burdened the house with technology, utilities and taxes appropriate for a $2 million mansion. The “lucky” recipient now has an unsustainably expensive albatross of a house. He can’t afford to live there. The Afganistan people cannot afford the armed forces, and government, that we’ve built for them.

There’s no foreseeable path to fiscal sustainability for the Afghanistan government. So, we’re stuck there.

There’s very little to celebrate over the blown $70 billion in rebuilding Afghan security forces, or even the between $714 and $877 billion spent to conduct the war since 2001.

If you’re worried about the rising cost of our government, check out SIGAR’s reports and the progress made in our perpetual war, with ill-defined goals, against a shadowy enemy that can’t be defeated.

 

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