In February, researcher Dr. Jonathan Newman spent a week at our Dignity Centre in Chisinau to explore our impact, both on the people who use our services and on our volunteers and partners. Here’s a summary of his findings:
– The Dignity Centre is appreciated by volunteers, members and partner organisations. It is a well-organised project with a widely respected model of service delivery that has user-choice as a core function.
– The choice-model allows users to choose not just what they need but also what they want. In contrast to warehouse distribution of pre-packed food parcels, the Dignity Centre turns aid delivery into a normal shopping experience.
– The Dignity Centre offers users a safe space, with physical and emotional warmth, where members feel a sense of their own agency and can make their own choices, thus facilitating self-prioritisation and self-care. The provisions for children —a creche, milk, nappies—are also greatly appreciated by many members.
– Volunteering gives people a sense of purpose and a way to do some good in the world within the integrity of a robust and professional model of service delivery. Volunteers report that their experience at the Dignity Centre has nurtured and heightened their sense of compassion and kindness. For some volunteers, their experiences at the Dignity Centre have been life changing and they are now more involved in this sort of work.
– For partner organisations, the Dignity Centre is good to work with and a fully functioning, tried and tested model that fits in well with other parts of the relief effort in Moldova. The Dignity Centre responds quickly to communications and has a robust reporting system. Some of these partners now would like the Dignity Centre to develop more partnerships, expand and perhaps be part of the solution to reach the most vulnerable people.
– The central location and open-plan design of the Dignity Centre supports good safeguarding practices. There is public less signalling vulnerability and less private spaces for exploitation to take place.A separate, supplementary report details questions, which arose during the research, that could be reflected on to further improve the organisation, however, these mostly address wider issues e.g. how does an organisation based on equal access address the specific needs of the most vulnerable?
– The views of the Dignity Centre collected during the research were over-whelming positive. Most people were given the space to be critical but said nothing that contradicted the above conclusions. Rather than complain about the ways the Dignity Centre was getting it wrong, they spoke about their desire for the Dignity Centre to be able to do more.
– In short, the central research finding is that the Dignity Centre has a strong and respected foundation for service delivery and volunteering experience from which to move forward and, potentially, widen their reach.
The Dignity Centre model
Members’ selection of items reveals how the choice model works.
The Dignity Centre superimposes the experience of shopping over what is really an aid distribution process.
Shopping is a journey where consumers are incited to desire, action and participation.
1. A taste of normality
In daily shopping behaviours around the world, consumers opt for a blend of goods—from basic necessities to a couple of treats. The treat is important, it is how people invest in small measures of self-care. The top five chosen items demonstrate how the choice model reflects a return to normal living amid crisis (and in the context of standard NGO crisis response packages).
The most popular items chosen by members reflect goods that are important for shoppers in Ukraine. These are (in order of preference) : Milk; Tuna; Oil; Buckwheat (kasha) and Coffee. Honey and pickles, which are relatively new additions to the shelves, are quickly gaining popularity.
Members say that the milk is often for their children, a can of tuna is something they usually bought back home for celebrations (like birthdays) and that they enjoy a coffee in the day. Unlike the oil and the buckwheat, these items are not ‘basic staples’ included in the food packages from Moldova Film. Instead, the milk is an overlooked necessity for their children, the coffee (like honey and pickles) is a ‘nice to have’ item and the tuna is a small but meaningful ‘treat’.
The slow sellers provide a more mixed picture. These include: Maize/Polenta; Water; Dog Food (expensive); and Canned Pate (‘doesn’t taste good’).
– They might not be that sought after by consumers in Ukraine
– Unless there is a problem with the water supply, bottled water is an (unnecessary) luxury more than a treat
– The can of pate is not tasty, at least for some shoppers
– It is unclear how many members have pets, where they would normally get the pet food or how they prioritise the pet food among the family shopping budget
Nevertheless, even though these items are chosen more slowly should not lead to conclusions that they are not worth stocking. Slower selling items provide a background picture of business as usual and help the shopper become aware of their agency and the importance in their own lives of the other goods that they did decide to get. The very presence of these less chosen items on the shelves further exemplifies the shop as a normal shop rather than an aid distribution centre.
2. Catering for a range of needs
The choice-based model also respects the different circumstances of members.
This point is highlighted by reception centre residents. In this type of accommodation, residents do not cook their own meals, so have no use for pasta, buckwheat or oil. But they might want a packet of biscuits, their own jar of coffee or diapers for their children.
3. Offering emotional support
The Dignity Centre is more than a shop, it is a place to feel supported. It is a clean and warm environment where members are welcomed with empathy and warmth. Interaction is professional – members are neither befriended or provided with the support to resolve many of their problems. The operation procedure is tight but delivered with kindness and understanding, which members really do appreciate.
4. Where children are welcome
There is a creche area for children to play which is great for members with children. Some sit down and drink a coffee while their children play. I was told that when some people left the Ukraine they could not bring lots of their children’s toys. The creche is also featured with positive reviews in members feedback on the centre.
Views on the Dignity Centre were always positive (many are included below) but the choice-based model and warm welcome are at the heart of service impact
‘‘….100% it [the Dignity Centre] makes a difference. People prefer this place because they can make a choice and there is the most essential stuff….they choose not only what they need but also what they want’
‘We come to the Dignity Centre for more than food we want the communication. I feel the warm attitude from the people here…. it is a meeting point for little conversations between Ukrainians…The attitude and feeling is a primary experience for users – it is not secondary to the food…A warm attitude is important because it is a family attitude’
Towards the end of February 2023, the Dignity Centre starting giving members notice that the centre would close temporarily. The Dignity Centre would concentrate on serving the Moldovans for a while and then re-open again for the Ukrainian refugees.
These views were unsolicited by the Dignity Centre and they also supported the data already collected during the research from translators and volunteers – members really do appreciate the centre. Almost all refer to the choice-model and many also mention the well-organised, warm atmosphere, and the creche:
‘We are very grateful to this organization for their work, such necessary positiveness, kindness. This is one of the few places where we always go with a good mood and know that we will get the necessary goods. You are incredible!’
‘The best help centre, very pleasant, polite and always smiling staff, you can choose everything you need. The child is always happy to come to you, as you also thought for the children.’
‘You simply the best, greatest attitude, your smiles, point system. Thanks a lot for your help, your team will be always in our hearts!!!’
‘The centre is very necessary for us as refugees from Ukraine. Its advantage is that you can choose exactly what the family needs in the first place. Thank you for your kindness to us😍😍🌷🌷💖🤗’
‘I want to express my gratitude to the workers and organizers of this humanitarian centre for their work and responsiveness in this difficult time. You are helping us a lot.’
‘Thank you very much for your help for us, a very convenient system is organized, the choice is by points, you can choose exactly what you need at the moment. Very friendly volunteers, with smiles on their faces, with warmth, in my presence helped an elderly woman open the door and go down the stairs, a corner with toys for the children, and sweets in a vase, you can drink tea, it would seem like small things, but life is made up of these small things! And this is exactly what is remembered!💙💛 Thank you again!!!!’
Why do people volunteer and what does it do for them?
Volunteers are motivated by practical compassion for others, a connection with the humanity in other people and finding a better purpose for themselves. Yet, by volunteering, these attributes grow stronger. Moreover, the responses of the members reinforces that they are doing the right thing.
The voices of volunteers at the Dignity Centre highlight how action, motivated from a place of empathy, compassion and giving, strengthens their personal sense of purpose.
Judging by the reaction of the members, they also make an important difference in the lives of people fleeing from a war.
‘I think that I am open hearted and open minded and the other volunteers seem the same…. The underlying kindness doesn’t change. I’m amazed about that especially in this work. It makes me want to be better and kinder’
‘I try to do good in my life, and here I can actually see that I am doing good’
‘Care is compassion, here we all feel for people… I want to die happy that I’ve done my bit for others’
‘This work is fulfilling…When I wake up I want to do it, I never had that feeling in any other job I’ve done’
‘All the people here care… I can’t really change the political situation but I can do a bit to help… If you have a bit of human compassion in you, then you will find a cause’’
‘I have found that the best approach for volunteering is expect nothing. I mean nothing! It is not what you want to get out of it, instead it is just give, give, give….I’ve found a passion for what I am meant to do’
Refugee Support is structured by a professional, resilience-based strategy, which is integrated alongside other relief operations. Through this model, the volunteers’ compassion brings positive outcomes.
One volunteer, with many years’ experience in different relief organisations, said:
‘Refugee Support gets it right. It delivers. If there is a transaction [between volunteers and the refugees who come to the [Dignity Centre], it is one of mutual respect’
Views from Other Organisations
Moldova for Peace
In a series of interviews, Moldova For Peace explained the context of working with the Dignity Centre:
– When the war started there were lots of people and organisations wanting to help but there was no centralised support or coordination – which is why they developed the dopomoha website.
– At first, local people and organisations really helped but as time moves on the support and resources are fading away. Currently, they are finding it hard to find donors for the Moldova Film warehouses.
Staff at Moldova for Peace shared a similar sense of common humanity found in the Dignity Centre volunteers. One Moldovan worker described how, during the past year, their perspective had changed:
‘At the beginning I was motivated by the thought that they [the people from Ukraine] would do the same for us and, then as time passed, I could see that they are our brothers and sisters, we are so alike…we have a common language, similar mentality and way of life…it becomes like a family thing’
For Moldova for Peace the strengths of the Dignity Centre are:
– Offer people choice.
– Provide items not accessible in warehouse packages e.g. milk, honey and pet food.
– Integrate smoothly with existing services while offering something different and useful.
– A good central location which is warm and welcoming with friendly staff and a creche
‘They don’t just offer choice, people feel less vulnerable when they visit the Dignity Centre’
Action against Hunger (AcF)
Action against Hunger is an international NGO that has been operating in Moldova since 2022 who see their main purpose as providing expertise and funding. Wherever they operate in the world, they have a policy of providing 30% of their support to local populations (which also helps reduce political tensions caused by refugees getting support while locals live in poverty). Since autumn 2022, once the situation in Moldova has stabilised, Action against Hunger partnered with the Dignity Centre becoming an important funder.
One of their key operating principles in localisation. that is, they prefer to work with local rather than international partners
– The Dignity Centre is not a local organisation (unlike Moldova for Peace) but Action against Hunger worked with them because they were on the ground, had a good, established model and were highly competent.
– When asked why they decided to work with the Dignity Centre despite it being outside their usual remit, Action against Hunger said, ‘We make partnerships working on strengths’
– The choice-based model works extremely well
– The Dignity Centre is a successful operation that did not have to start from scratch – they came in with knowledge and experience
– Unlike other partners, who need capacity building support, the Dignity Centre demonstrated independence and self-sufficiency
– The Dignity Centre reporting systems were well-defined and did not need additional reporting templates
– During monitoring visits to the Dignity Centre they observed that, ‘Everything was going like clockwork”
– The Dignity Centre provides a rapid response to Action against Hunger requests for information and other communications
– They normally reply within five minutes
‘It is a pleasure to work with them’
For the full-time experienced coordinators of Action against Hunger in Moldova, the two-week Refugee Support Europe volunteer placement also provides another advantage over long-term work contracts. They explained one of the personal challenges doing relief work:
‘You come with huge enthusiasm, but your own resilience is consumed in time. I always see emails about this ongoing crisis but I can do little about much of it. …so the question as a humanitarian worker is am I doing enough’
– Little by little, workers burn out and cannot give so much.
– They then pointed out that the Dignity Centre has a fresh, warm atmosphere because the volunteers keep their enthusiasm for the two-weeks. The level of motivation and commitment at the Dignity Centre remains high at all times.
– Moreover, they thought that working at the Dignity Centre was an excellent way to introduce people to humanitarian work.
Download the full report, and explore more impact stories from Moldova in these articles:
- When is a Shop Not a Shop?
- Building Compassion Through Volunteering
- The Warmth and Solidarity of a Family