When Alona Shevchenko learned that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his troops might invade Ukraine, she was immediately panic-stricken.
A Ukrainian based in the U.K. with family members back home, Shevchenko, 28, first learned of the imminent invasion on Jan. 19 from a friend with connections to Ukrainian intelligence services, she told Fortune.
“I had a very tough time over the last few weeks prior to the invasion and suffered a major mental breakdown knowing that the invasion was going to happen and the world was largely oblivious to that,” said Shevchenko.
She spent weeks protesting outside the Russian embassy in London. On Feb. 21, she published a blog post on the war in Ukraine to educate others on what was happening.
But Shevchenko isn’t just anyone. She’s known within the crypto community as a key member of a number of well-known DAOs, or decentralized autonomous organizations, and she also has friends who are as well.
The same day she published her blog post, Shevchenko and two of her friends from Pleasr DAO, which collects art, created a group chat to discuss the potential of creating a DAO focused on helping Ukraine through fundraising.
In theory, a DAO is a blockchain-based collective that isn’t governed by one person or entity. Instead, its rules and governance are coded in smart contracts and cannot be changed unless voted upon by the DAO’s members. Each DAO has their own goals and missions. Imagine it as a group chat of friends with a shared bank account and democratized power.
Shevchenko’s group chat of three soon became the Ukraine DAO, which quickly drew thousands of members to its Discord, a popular messenger platform among the crypto community. In about a month’s time, the Ukraine DAO raised over $8 million for organizations and people aiding Ukrainians amid the war. And along the way, some prominent figures within the crypto community got involved, including Vitalik Buterin, the Russian-born co-founder of the blockchain powering the second most valuable cryptocurrency, Ethereum, and Buterin’s father, Dmitry.
“Beyond grateful to him for taking the time to speak to me and all the support and empathy he had,” she said of Buterin. “Never thought I’d speak to him.”
How it started
Ukraine DAO was born on Feb. 21, and “started self-organizing” on Feb. 24, Shevchenko said.
“I alerted the guys in the group chat that major Ukrainian cities were getting bombed, [and] they started pulling their friends into the group chat,” said Shevchenko.
Since the beginning, their mission has been the same: Stop the war, support Ukraine against a Russian invasion, provide support for Ukrainian victims of the war, and help rebuild when it’s over.
That mission has been enshrined in the DAO’s manifesto, which Dmitry Buterin, who goes by Dima, actually helped Shevchenko write, she said. Dima also confirmed this to Fortune: “I have been supporting Alona and contributing to various things in the DAO,” he told Fortune via a video message on Telegram.
To try and protect how its money is used, Ukraine DAO has a multi-sig, or multi-signature, wallet, which requires the permission of multiple DAO members to move funds out of the wallet. Currently, Shevchenko and four others are on the multi-sig, including Dima, according to Shevchenko. Dima confirmed this to Fortune.
But why create a DAO to do this? Why not start a GoFundMe campaign, or just donate to prominent aid organizations?
As very involved members of prominent DAOs like Pleasr and FreeRoss, Shevchenko and her friends believe in the potential positives of leveraging cryptocurrency and its network to help Ukrainians. They also weren’t scared of creating one, as they were already familiar with the process.
“In a situation where time is of the essence and every second matters, Web3 allows us to raise and distribute funds in an extremely efficient and transparent way that would’ve never been possible through traditional fundraising,” Shevchenko said. “In my view, this is what DAOs are for: Making a positive impact in the real world harnessing the power of blockchain. And Ukraine DAO on Ethereum is the embodiment of that vision.”
DAOs are not without pitfalls, though. There are big risks to creating a DAO and taking part in one, especially when money is involved. Not only are there a ton of legal unknowns, but there are also lingering questions about regulatory compliance.
To navigate these tricky waters, “we’ve been getting a lot of professional help,” Shevchenko said.
A little help from the Buterins
Around the first day of the invasion, Shevchenko says a mutual friend connected her and Vitalik Buterin.
“He called me. We spoke for about an hour. I told him what was happening in Ukraine and how horrifying it was. He was very empathetic,” Shevchenko said. “I’m extremely grateful for all his support.”
On Feb. 26, Buterin retweeted a post from the Ukraine DAO, saying, “An opportunity to support Ukrainians here! Proceeds go to civilian efforts helping Ukrainians suffering from the war.”
Buterin did not return Fortune’s request for comment.
Due to the urgency of the situation, Shevchenko says the Ukraine DAO has had to figure out its mechanics, including how it would operate, its manifesto (which Dima Buterin contributed to), and other things, on a rolling basis.
“We are currently writing up Ukraine DAO documentation, fine-tuning our strategic goals and defining our onboarding processes,” Shevchenko said. “It’s been a challenge but the individual connections we’ve been making across [the] crypto [community] have helped us.”
Along with its manifesto, the DAO also released a “working draft” of its governance structure and flow after its launch, which is to be “adjusted as appropriate,” the document reads. It explains the process in which organizations and grants are proposed and approved to receive funds raised by the DAO, from beginning to end. It also includes their promise to conduct vetting of beneficiaries, a formal voting process and more.
Nonetheless, before giving money to any DAO, whether it be the Ukraine DAO or another, Shevchenko encourages “everyone to DYOR [do your own research] and vet organizations.”
How it’s going?
So far, the Ukraine DAO has raised around $8 million, Shevchenko said.
It has given away over $7 million, including to the Ukrainian government and organizations like Come Back Alive. Those transactions can be seen on Etherscan, which displays crypto wallet transactions. Currently, there’s about $383,000 in the Ukraine DAO wallet that has not been donated yet.
Overall, “I’m very happy with how things have been handled, in particular with regards to funds allocation [and] distribution,” Shevchenko said.
Some funds came from direct donations, but the DAO also raised $6.7 million in total contributions from selling portions of an NFT of the Ukrainian flag, according to PartyBid, a platform that allows people to pool capital together to buy non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, as a group. Those who contributed ETH to the winning bid of the NFT got a proportional amount of ownership of the NFT.
“It’s hard to be satisfied with any dollar amount now, given the amount of suffering on the ground, but we’re encouraged by our momentum,” Shevchenko said.
Buterin and Dima have also donated to the DAO, which Dima confirmed to Fortune. Neither have shared the exact amount that they’ve donated. According to Etherscan, Dima sent .23 ETH, or just under $600, to the DAO’s address about 20 days ago. But, both Buterin and Dima could have sent more from private addresses they haven’t disclosed to the public.
“Not something I can be emotionally removed from”
The entire experience has been “one big emotional rollercoaster,” Shevchenko said.
“From the very beginning, my main concern was my parents’ safety. To be honest, that concern was too overwhelming at the time to appreciate the amount of funds raised,” she said.
Her parents have moved to Western Ukraine where they are working to deliver humanitarian aid. It’s “critically important work, because there’s a lot of humanitarian aid sent but not enough trucks [or] logistics people,” Shevchenko said.
The situation has of course been all-consuming, “not something I can be emotionally removed from.”
After the war began and the Ukraine DAO launched, Shevchenko stopped all work she was doing that provided her with income. “I was completely focusing on evacuation [and] rescue requests we were receiving. Eventually, our co-founder [of the Ukraine DAO] realized I wasn’t getting paid by anyone anymore, which is something I should’ve thought about, but in my current headspace, money just doesn’t exist,” she said.
To help, the co-founder, who goes by the pseudonym Crypto Steve, submitted a proposal to the Ukraine DAO that was passed, which pays Shevchenko $5,000 USDC per month for six months.
“I didn’t sign any transactions for that,” she said. “Other contributors voted for me, assigned me a salary and executed the transactions,” she explains. The approved proposal meant that her income could come from the DAO’s funds.
Shevchenko puts about 14 hours a day, sometimes more, into her work surrounding Ukraine, she said. In fact, she barely leaves her house.
“The first four days after the invasion I didn’t sleep at all,” Shevchenko said. “The war in Ukraine is literally our fight to defend our right to exist, it’s a matter of life and death without any exaggeration.
For her, the Ukraine DAO is far more than only a vehicle for fundraising—it has also become a powerful tool to combat misinformation and support the messages of Ukrainian people. She says that the DAO has been using its social media platforms to counter Russian propaganda, and highlight the voices of Ukrainians on the ground.
“I always say that the best contribution that one can make for Ukraine is not monetary donations: It’s continuing to publicly voice their support for Ukraine.”
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com