What happens when you build an aid organization like a startup? Here’s what we found out supporting thousands of people affected by war.
“If anything, I hope that what People for People will do, beyond the immediate help, is to inspire people to do something. Even if you help just one person, that’s one less person who’s suffering.”Ali Niknam
The start of the Russian-Ukrainian war in February shocked the world, affecting everyone across generations and nationalities. While governments and global agencies grappled with the international implications of this tragic situation, a collective of entrepreneurs joined forces to get as many people affected by the war to safety as possible, marking the beginning of the journey of the People for People Foundation.
What started as a message on LinkedIn by Ali Niknam, CEO of bunq, has grown faster and wider than expected. Now, almost six months later, it’s time to reflect, reassess and regroup to prepare for what may lie ahead. There was no long-term plan at the start — instead we were focused on moving fast and addressing whatever needs we could with the resources and network we had.
But, unfortunately, the war is far from over. 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. As the Foundation continues to evolve and grow, we have gone through several pivots and collected key learnings that will help us make a stronger impact moving forward.
“We need to do something” – February 2022
- Target: Get aid, supplies and transportation to people fast, without admin or bureaucratic hurdles
- Opportunity: Tap into strong entrepreneurial network that know how to move fast and get things done
Born to Iranian parents, Ali Niknam experienced the tragedy that conflicts can bring first-hand during the Iran-Iraq War. After seeing the war in Ukraine break out in February 2022, he wrote a LinkedIn post offering to provide shelter and assistance to anyone escaping the conflict.
What Niknam hadn’t expected was the influx of requests and support his message would generate. In the long thread of comments and DMs he received over the following days, people not only voiced support, they wanted to know how they could help.
As the founder of one of the thriving scaleups in The Netherlands, Niknam realized he already had a strong network of entrepreneurial individuals who knew how to move fast. He was soon joined by the founders of two other major Dutch scaleups: Joris Beckers, co-founder of Picnic, and Robert Vis, CEO of MessageBird. Together, they created the People for People Foundation.
The objective from the start was to apply an entrepreneurial mindset to support all people affected by the war, regardless of their background, in any way possible. Many volunteers from the founding companies quickly joined the initiative and helped organize the first actions to bring people to safety.
With innovation studio Aimforthemoon joining as co-founding partner to build and grow the foundation, other entrepreneurial volunteers joined contributing their time and expertise. And a partnership with Open Embassy helped educate the team on how to build an organization to support people affected by war.
In the first month, our team focused on addressing any and all immediate needs, including: providing shelter and food to people escaping the conflict and helping obtain highly skilled migrant visas for individuals and their families.
“We want to reach as many people as possible” – March 2022
- Target: Add the best direct value to benefit the victims
- Opportunity: Where we cannot, leverage the unique value of the entrepreneurial network
For victims scrambling to figure out how to evade danger, with supplies becoming scarce and communications cut off, the most immediate daily needs become challenging. Through People for People, we were able to meet many of these needs by leveraging our network.
Unlike traditional aid organizations and government institutions that often have a great deal of bureaucracy and red tape holding them back, having a direct line to Niknam, Vis and Beckers, who could make decisions immediately, helped us take action at the speed of a startup. At the same time, we were able to benefit from the access to technology, resources, goods, money, and people these scaleups could provide, allowing us to quickly scale the Foundation’s activities.
For example, with a heavily regulated banking market and a lot of bureaucratic hurdles facing banks and municipalities, many new arrivals were unable to set up banking in the Netherlands leaving them without access to basic needs. Within the first few weeks, bunq jumped through the logistical and technical hurdles needed to give refugees access to free bank accounts.
MessageBird helped get SIM cards and power banks to people so they could contact their families.
Picnic managed to get multiple trucks across the border filled with baby food and diapers. Donations from individuals and organizations helped us ship crucial medicines, food and other goods with the help of our partners. “It all went very quickly, no politics, no bullshit, we just got it done,” Niknam said.
“We are not a United Nations or Red Cross” – April 2022
- Target: Reach as many people as possible by matching donations and volunteers to NGOs in need
- Opportunity: Use our platform as a connection and action center
While the first weeks consisted of donations from partners and sources whose work was familiar to the Foundation, the movement quickly blossomed into a flurry of wide-ranging projects. We soon found we needed to focus and structure our efforts. Our main question at this time was: how can we position ourselves to add the most value?
People wanted to do something, but didn’t always know how, where, what to do or who to talk to about what they might be able to offer. And while our team was willing to do everything we could, we realized we were not always the best placed or most experienced in certain areas.
To address this, People for People quickly saw the value of becoming a platform to match up those in need of assistance with those offering assistance.
First, we looked to help companies verbalize how they could help: “if you want to do something, we can have a call and explore different options: can you involve your employees in some way, your customers, or can you donate goods or services?”
Second, we started working with trusted foundations and built relationships with them. Instead of doing everything ourselves, we now have multiple partner foundations which are providing solutions in different areas such as transport, housing, and logistics, which the Foundation would have struggled to do alone.
For example, a supply chain that could send goods from The Netherlands to war zones in Ukraine within one week was established through a collaboration with Lifeline Ukraine, founded by Dutch entrepreneur Jeroen Ketting. Ketting, who had multiple businesses in Russia and Ukraine that were affected by the war decided to focus full-time on getting humanitarian aid directly to Ukraine through his network.
This collaboration resulted in a volunteer logistical organization sending a truck every week from the Netherlands to Lviv, and from there to warzones via minivans. Ketting has become a main partner in supporting Ukraine locally. We also work with other organizations such as Movement On The Ground and Moldova for Peace, who are providing support in countries neighboring Ukraine, such as Poland and Moldova.
Another learning from this period was that really any donation can have a much greater impact than we may realize. When Tony’s Chocolonely offered to donate chocolate, at first we weren’t sure if there would be a real need or priority for this kind of good, but our foundation partners responded positively. After sending 10 pallets of chocolate to children in the warzone and in orphanages in Poland, we received messages of gratitude from partners explaining that this donation had been the most positive thing many of the children had experienced over the last few months.
“Needs change as the war develops” – May 2022
- Target: Providing a longer-term impact for victims of the war
- Opportunity: Helping new arrivals to the Netherlands integrate and get back on their feet
As the war continues and with global organizations better equipped to manage humanitarian aid strategically in place, we realized that the needs of victims don’t stop after reaching the safety of host countries. Many continue to face challenges in migrating and integrating including finding jobs, getting children back in school, opening bank accounts and so many other day-to-day things people need to get back on their feet.
In conversations with UNHCR, Lifeline Ukraine, Open Embassy and people who have migrated to The Netherlands during the conflict, we learned that we could help create a longer-term impact by supporting the growing Ukrainian and Russian community in the Netherlands.
To meet this need, we announced People for People Jobs — a platform for people affected by the Ukrainian war looking for employment in the Netherlands. After signing up, subscribers receive new jobs from trusted partners (like bunq, Picnic and Messagebird) in their email and invitations to offline matchmaking events.
A great example is Anna Tian from Kyiv, who arrived in The Netherlands looking for a temporary job in communications. One week later she became the Foundation’s first hire. She has helped us to connect with a larger community of Ukrainians allowing us to better understand their needs and help them settle into their new environment. Three months later her former Ukrainian employer relocated to Lisbon, at which time she was able to return to her former position. To this day she continues to remain involved as a volunteer on the team.
For many Ukrainian and Russian speaking children now arriving in the Netherlands, the biggest concern is how we can help get them back into school and provide daycare services for younger kids. Picnic decided to transform part of their office into a school for 50+ children. The students are taught by volunteers from Ukraine until they can participate in local Dutch education.
We also collaborated with an initiative of the municipality of Eindhoven (SILFO and SKPO) that opened a school where students can be taught in their native language. We helped the school by providing a teacher in mathematics and recruiting additional teachers (both full-time and volunteers). We also bring games, toys and treats to brighten the children’s day.
“Creating the momentum ourselves” – June 2022
- Target: Keep the momentum going
- Opportunity: Wealth of heartwarming stories to share to counter news fatigue
Throughout time, people have thought wars would be short-lived. As the initial attention wains and even the news cycles decrease, people settle back into their daily lives.
During the first months, everyone wanted to help. Now we hear more and more, “we already did something.” Or “life goes on here, we can’t endlessly donate goods.”
In the first month, our partners received a few trucks with supplies every day. Now they might receive one a day. For us the key challenges are: how can we keep the momentum going? And how can we transition the Foundation to activities that have long-term value for both victims and donors, such as providing jobs and boosting local entrepreneurship in Ukraine.
To keep the momentum going, we identified several key events to highlight our work and showcase our beneficiaries. For example, the TNW Conference invited us and 20 Ukrainian entrepreneurs to join the event. There we were given a booth and were able to gain more visibility for People for People across the tech community, attracting more partners.
In addition to highlighting the existence and activities of People for People, we continue to promote our job search services by adding more companies looking to hire talented individuals.
Recently, a Ukrainian-Russian family living in Russia had to flee the country to Turkey with their two children. With the help of the Foundation, their resumes were shared with potential employers and one of them was able to obtain a job at Picnic and visas for her family to come to the Netherlands. Wanting to continue helping others like them, the family have now joined the People for People Foundation as volunteers, coming full circle.
“It all starts with finding the right people” – July 2022
- Target: Reassess, regroup and redirect based on current immediate needs
- Opportunities: Plans can be backed with solid entrepreneurial network and professional staffing
One of the biggest findings in the journey of People for People is the power of collective entrepreneurship. Collective entrepreneurship is a driver to solve the biggest global problems and a big opportunity in conflicts like these as they require quick action, decision-making and continuous innovation and reinvention to adapt to changing circumstances.
We cannot rely solely on governments and large NGOs. There are and will always be more crises and conflicts, so we need collective entrepreneurship to play a key role. As the Guardian shared recently, the extreme importance of smaller volunteer initiatives cannot be underestimated. We need to do it together. Big changes are an accumulation of many smaller parts.
It all starts with finding the right people. We worked with many volunteers over the past few months. In total 60+ were involved via Slack, including our partners. On average 10-15 people were actively involved on a daily basis. Together, we’ve executed 50+ projects since we started in February.
To grow our impact, a full time core team will continue to be essential to guide the many projects and people forward. We are very grateful that Marcella Simons joined People for People as director to guide the foundation to the next phase and grow a sustainable organization.
“On a mission to continue our efforts and inspire others to do the same” – Long-term vision
At People for People we vow to focus on what unites us, regardless of people’s background. We believe that we, as entrepreneurs, can adapt quickly to changing circumstances, take action on behalf of those escaping conflict and use our resources where, when and as long as they are needed.
As wars continue to evolve, so do the needs of their victims. As an organization, People for People was created in the entrepreneurial spirit. Rather than staying fixed, we aim to change and adapt along with those needs.
The feedback from our partners and the people we’ve helped is heartwarming and motivates us to continue our efforts. We should be really proud of all the effort everyone involved has put forward and the positive impact we are making on thousands of lives, both in warzones and in the Netherlands.
🙏 💙 Special thanks to the countless people supporting people: Adriaan Mol, Alasdair MacLean, Ali Niknam, Alina Andresiuk, Allard Luchsinger, Amber LouLou, Anatoliy Babic, Andrea Hak, Anna Tian, Annelies Putman Cramer, Arjen Michiels, Bianca Zwart, Boudewijn Wijnands, Camille Joyandet, Charlot Ellis, Daniël Eisinger, Daria Toth, Diederick Schiermeier, Dieuwer Deenik, Elise Hofman, 🧚♀️ Eva Bandelj, Flávio Fonseca, Frans Somers, Guido Braam, Hassina Bahar, Henk Jan Beltman, Hidde Stokvis, Holly Whittaker, Humphrey Valenbreder, Idzard Van Eeghen, Ilse Kamps, Irene de Bot, Jago Verzuu, Jeroen Ketting, Jesse Johnson, Jesse van der Meulen, Joe Wilson, Joris Beckers, Julia de Fuentes Hergueta, Leonard Breitkopf, Lonneke Noteboom, Lucien Burm, Luciën Groenewegen, Maciej Turek, Mahsa Sajedi, Marcella Simons, Marine Liesenhoff, Marjolein van den Blink, Mark Borst, Martijn Beenen, Martijn Pannevis, Martine Vissers, Mayke Nagtegaal, Michelle Loh, Mirthe Dankelman, Naomi Koster, Nikita Andriyanov, Olga Golubova, Pelle Keulen, Perry Oostdam, Pieter Slöetjes, Pieter Jan van Krevel, Quentin Hausser, Renée Frissen, Richard Norbruis, Robert Vis, Robert-Jan Mahieu, Ruben Hijl, Sergey Erlikh, Siemon van den Berg, Silke Arets, Slava Todavchich, Sofiia Bezuhla, Sophie Dopheide, Stephanie Rios, Toni Rose Padua, Viktor Lesyk, Wouter Schoonhoven, Yulia Nikitina, Yoeki de Bree, Zach Butler.
Thanks to our business partners: bunq, Picnic Technologies, MessageBird, Aimforthemoon, TNW, Van Doorne, Kennis Transport & Logistics BV, iPermit.nl, Tony’s Chocolonely, Pastaficio, Bertolli, Vodafone Foundation, Ron Gastrobars, wagamama benelux, Mooie Boules, de Kop van Oost, Tempo-Team, Enrico | Roots in Good Food, Helloprint, Mollie, team.blue, Yacht, Booking.com, NewBees NL, BridgeFund, GoDataDriven | Part of Xebia, Salesforce, Recruitee, Norbruis Clement Advocaten, Dutch Startup Association, Venu, U adviseurs, InnovationQuarter, and many more.
Thanks to all the great people from our foundation partners: LifeLine Ukraine.org, Breath Care For Kids, BeKind, U AID foundation, Movement On The Ground, Moldova for Peace, FastlaneUkraine, On My Way UA, Netherlands for Ukraine, Takecarebnb, OpenEmbassy, Society College, and many more.
“I never believed this would happen, but on the 24th of February I woke up to the sound of explosions. Since then I, like many Ukrainians, live in a world where horrible news comes every day. Best friends dying, cities are bombed and destroyed every day, families are separated, businesses stopped functioning and we don’t know when this nightmare will end. I know that it’s very hard to feel what we are feeling. And I know that this war is far from you. But it means so much to us that you find the time and desire to help us (Ukrainians) in such hard times like this! You can’t even imagine how important it is right now. Thank you!”Anna Tian, communications at People for People, speaking on behalf of her fellow Ukrainians