What I learned from building a foundation at 10X speed for Ukraine

Most ventures have some time to develop their product and enter the market.

Some take a year.
Some two years.
Others even longer.
In my latest venture, we didn’t have this time.
We had no time.

The Russian-Ukraine conflict escalated in February 2022 and Ali Niknam, founder and CEO of bunq, decided to do something. Born in Iraq and having experienced war first-hand himself as a child, Ali wrote a LinkedIn post soon after Russia entered Ukraine. He stated that his company bunq was going to do its “utmost to help people get from Ukraine to The Netherlands safely”. Additionally, he called upon his network to offer shelter and support to these people.

The post generated over 600 reactions and Ali’s inbox filled up with messages from both people seeking help and organizations (mostly companies) that wanted to offer help.

Ali knew he nor Bunq could handle this themselves and needed to get organized fast. So he got his friends Joris Beckers (co-founder of Picnic) and Robert Vis (founder of Messagebird) on board, and together they founded the People for People Foundation.

One week later, Ali called me asking if we as Aimforthemoon could help to quickly expand the foundation’s impact. Sometimes you have those moments where everything clicks, and you have no doubt what to do. This was one of these moments. I had just transferred most of my operational responsibilities at Aimforthemoon to other colleagues to explore what my new role in the company should be. I knew I wanted to do something which was related to my long-term vision for the company, which is “enabling collective entrepreneurship as the main driver towards a positive and sustainable future”.

People for People was the opportunity to bring my vision to life and get hands-on experience in a context that was unusual for me.

After shortly discussing it with my co-founder Niek we realized we could make a contribution too. So we decided I would step in to lead People for People together with Pieter Jan van Krevel despite all the open questions:

  • How can we build and effectively organize the best team of volunteers?
  • How can we make the most meaningful impact as soon as possible?
  • How can we scale up our impact effectively?
  • What should be our role in relation to other stakeholders?
  • What partners do we need?
  • How can we learn and pivot fast as an organization?

We didn’t have all the answers. But the fact that there were thousands of people in need of help urgently got us going. There was no time to waste.
We quickly generated a team of 30+ volunteers, of which 10-15 were available on a daily basis, so this was our core team. We worked in-person from the Aimforthemoon offices and remotely via Slack, Google Hangout and Google Drive.

To bring focus and structure to all our (decentralized) activities, I implemented the Scaling Up methodology that we use at Aimforthemoon based on these four pillars:

People: we defined teams, subteams with clear processes, roles and responsibilities
Strategy: we defined which type of support we would and wouldn’t provide
Execution: we defined KPIs, created a dashboard and held daily and weekly meeting rhythms with prepared discussion points to track and steer progress and get things done
Cash: we focused on impact, not on cash: we counted how many people we could bring one step further to safety through our actions

“We need to do something.”

By using this framework, we had a well-functioning team even before having a clear scope. With this clear structure, we could learn and pivot fast. Because the need for help was so big, and we desperately wanted to help create immediate impact, the first thing we did was provide humanitarian aid, such as food, medicines, baby items, bed frames, mattresses and sleeping bags for communal tents. We shipped the supplies to the Polish-Ukraine border and through our network we worked with partners in Ukraine with trucks and vans who could bring the supplies to communities in need.

“We are not the Red Cross”

Obviously, there were more efficient ways to do this and after a few weeks we asked ourselves questions like:

“What should be our scope?”
“What are we good at?”
“What should we do ourselves and what should partner organizations do?”

What helped a lot was the ‘customer journey’ we made. It visualizes the different needs of a war-affected person in the different phases of their displacement, allowing us to focus our activities and connect with the right partners.

At this point, we realized we shouldn’t be the one sending actual supplies. With the growing number of Dutch companies (Picnic, Tony’s Chocolonely, Pastaficio, Bertolli, etc.) offering help, we knew we could make more impact if we would position ourselves as a platform organization, connecting assets that these companies could provide to the needs of aid organizations that already had people and processes in place in specific areas.

Take our partnership with Vodafone Foundation as an example. Together we managed to create a Wi-Fi connection at an orphanage for 121 Ukrainian children, run by Movement On The Ground. By doing these types of projects, we were connecting supply to demand in ways that weren’t happening before. There were so many ways in which we were able to support communities and positively affect thousands of lives and bring people one step further to safety. If you’re interested to read more about the foundation’s learnings and key milestones, read the in-depth reflection here.

Fast-forward to today. There was no long-term plan at the start — instead, we focused on moving fast and helping wherever we could use the resources and network we had. Here, I learned that the smallest things can have the biggest impact: the sheer happiness of people receiving a SIM card, sanitary products, or even a bar of chocolate.

Unfortunately, the war is far from over as I write this article. Based on feedback from the Foundation’s participating volunteers, partners and our own experience with victims of this tragedy, it’s clear that agile, fast-moving volunteer groups are essential to address the ongoing needs of victims and close the gaps through collective action. When entrepreneurial people come together, many things are possible. So it is my personal mission to make sure we can continue our efforts as an entrepreneurial aid organization and rather than staying fixed in the projects we do, we aim to change and adapt with the needs of those we serve.

That’s why I am extremely grateful that we found Marcella Simons as my successor to lead the foundation in its next phases. I will continue to support Marcella in an advisory role. I also want to thank the entrepreneurs from our Aimforthemoon community who joined the foundation as volunteers.

Collective entrepreneurship
Looking back, the learnings from this rollercoaster deepened my understanding about collective entrepreneurship and I think many can be applied in other crises too. Any crisis requires quick action, decision-making and continuous innovation and reinvention to adapt to the changing circumstances. Collective entrepreneurship provides many big opportunities for making progress.

I learned:

  1. When the urgency is high and there’s a greater good, people are willing to help, move quickly and collaborate despite having conflicts of interest, because the shared objective is greater than individual goals.
  2. To keep the momentum going, it’s essential to continuously adapt to the changing needs of the people you’re serving and to motivate contributing stakeholders, so it requires an entrepreneurial and flexible organization.
  3. A fast-moving environment with many stakeholders requires clear structure and processes. Thanks to the Scaling Up methodology, new team members and partners were onboarded within an hour.
  4. Dealing directly with decision-makers enabled us to start projects quickly, without administrative or bureaucratic constraint, and with the possibility to scale up fast.
  5. Being a first mover in complex systems is challenging, but also essential to initiate ripple effects which can lead to systematic changes if others are inspired to change as well.

That said, I want to take these learnings with me in my next (ad)venture to co-create tomorrow’s ventures through collective entrepreneurship.

My name is Jesse van der Meulen, co-founder of Aimforthemoon and previously co-director of People for People Foundation. Please reach out to me if you want to talk about making impact by creating tomorrow’s ventures.