Airbnb and its independent charitable arm, Airbnb.org, are no strangers to charity. The accommodations platform launched its Help Ukraine landing page on March 2, and announced it would offer free, temporary housing to up to 100,000 refugees fleeing the war. Nearly 30,000 hosts signed up to help from 160 countries around the world, and nearly 14,000 people have directly donated more than $1.2 million in aid. Airbnb.org also partnered with the UN Migration agency International Organization for Migration to help provide free, short-term housing in Poland, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia.
Outside of the company initiatives, one host from Utah, Sarah Brown, has inspired people to go even further by booking Airbnbs in Ukraine. There’s no intention of visiting, of course, but instead the bookings are being made to send money directly to the Ukrainians who need it.
In all, according to NPR, the bookings have led to nearly $2 million in revenue to hosts in Ukraine, and Airbnb has waived all host and guest fees.
We caught up with Brown to learn more about her inspiration and the impact her movement has had.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Matador Network: Can you explain how you first came up with the idea to send money through Airbnb bookings?
Sarah Brown: My co-worker, Kelli, and I were talking about how hopeless we felt about the situation in the Ukraine; how we wished we could give everyone a hug and tell them that it would be ok. A couple of hours later, I was communicating with some of our guests on the Airbnb platform and it was like a light bulb went off. We CAN give some of these people a virtual hug…..and monetary support. We immediately booked an Airbnb and told the host that we were sending love their way, (But weren’t actually staying.)
Have you connected with any people you’ve inspired to help, or anyone in Ukraine?
The response has been incredible. One host that we booked with said, “Thank you sooo much for your support and everything you’re doing for us. It does matter and it does help us to survive these hardest days. It gives us strength and motivation. We’re staying in Kyiv, hoping and believing in our Victory soon.” Someone stateside reached out to say they were inspired by our efforts and donated $50,000 to Ukraine through a humanitarian fund.
Are you surprised by the response at all, or did you have a feeling this would connect with people?
I am blown away by the response!! I thought it was a lovely way to connect with people just like me going through something I can’t imagine. As I shared my efforts with other hosts through forums, I thought some people would be inspired to do the same, but never in my imagination did I expect the movement to grow like it did.
How do you think this fits into the wider conversation of how people can donate to Ukrainians in need?
I think it’s important to remember that this is a small way to connect with individuals and show solidarity to the Ukrainian people. It does not take the place of “boots on the ground” humanitarian efforts such as CORE, or the International Rescue Committee. And don’t forget, Airbnb.org is doing amazing things to help place refugees in the countries surrounding the Ukraine.
What makes Airbnb an ideal platform for something like this?
On a micro level, Airbnb gives us a direct channel to communicate with individuals directly, which is amazing. Last week, I knew no one in Ukraine. Now I have had conversations with someone living through this and I care about what happens to her, her family, and her community. It’s made this war much more personal.
On a macro level, I trust Airbnb.org completely to honor its commitments to partner with organizations and house refugees.
Who did you have in mind as the people who would donate? Do you think you’ve reached that intended audience, or even exceeded it?
I thought a few hosts would donate. In reality, the whole world is jumping in. My mother-in-law and all her friends called me to ask, “how do we do this whole Airbnb thing?” “How does it work?” It’s been neat to see that people from all walks of life want to connect with each other at a personal level.
What would you say to people who argue that monetary donations are better sent to an organization like the Red Cross?
I don’t disagree with that statement. I think there must be a multi-pronged approach to giving. An Airbnb booking is a small way to connect and offer solidarity, but it does NOT take the place of experienced organizations who know how to help and give relief. That said, once someone has connected with a real person experiencing the horror of war, I believe they will be inspired to give to these organizations as well.
Were there any Airbnb hosts in Ukraine that particularly caught your eye or inspired you?
I’m inspired by every single Ukrainian. I can’t imagine what it’s like to watch your world come apart. They are making unbelievable decisions daily. Their strength amazes me.
When did you first realize that your idea was really starting to take off?
It took a couple of days, but all of a sudden, I was getting emails and messages from people that I didn’t know all over the US. The world needs some good news right now, and I’m thrilled that this has connected and empowered so many people. Airbnb hosts might have the smallest part in this defense of democracy, but I am proud that we didn’t just stand on the sidelines.