Interview: Finding a way with the National Guard

In August a novel new public fundraising effort began to collect cash for the Zemessardze, Latvia's volunteer National Guard. Primarily aimed at providing night vision equipment they currently lack, the initiative was supported by many leading figures and attracted widespread publicity.

The target was to raise €130,000, but with the end of the initial campaign approaching on Latvian Independence Day (November 18), around €20,000 has been found so far.

LSM asked Juris Ulmanis, one of the initiators of the campaign, for an update.

LSM: You've raised €20,000. That's a lot less than your target figure. How do you feel about that? Do you think you were too optimistic with your initial target?

JU: We will reach the €133,000 euro target, as we will continue even after November 18th. This initial campaign is to outfit the Training Center in Dobele, so as to have the maximum number of Guardsmen benefit from the equipment at this point in time. There are 8,000 National Guard volunteers, within 18 battalions, and the need for night visions goggles, scopes, medical kits, and other equipment are all there.

This is an ongoing civic initiative, all-volunteer, which provides an opportunity for everyone to thank and support the folks that protect us. We gave ourselves an initial 18th November benchmark because it is Latvian Independence Day, and the citizens of Latvia will give a gift to the National Guard on its 97th birthday. The gift will encompass the amount donated at that moment, but the initiative will continue.

 We also need to understand that this is a first. A volunteer, civic ''crowdfunding'' campaign for the Latvian National Guard has never been undertaken. I was very much involved in the restoration of the Freedom Monument national campaign in 2001, whereby we collected 540,000 lati over two years. There, we were using ''traditional'' fundraising methods - the bulk of the money came from the municipality and larger donors. In this case, a grassroots approach - we are all learning - both the organizers and the potential donors. We are learning on how to do it, what the questions and issues are, what people respond to, what works, what doesn't, etc. We are working step-by-step.

What to me is absolutely, unequivocally clear is that the cause is right and noble.

This is what drives me, our team, and those that support us. Every day, we have more and more people talking, discussing, giving money for the cause. And as you know, it is not only about the equipment - it is about saying ''yes'' for a wonderful, democratic, free and independent Latvia.

 

What sort of feedback and support have you had?

The support has been phenomenal. From the economic support point of view, we have received hundreds of donations, form all over Latvia and the diaspora, anywhere from 1 euro to a donor ''purchasing'' a scope for 2640 euro. Some have ''bought'' the medical kits, compasses, and night vision goggles.

If one looks at www.zemessargam.lv, one can see opinion leaders, organizations, and media mentioned - each one having been personally asked by myself and they have agreed to disburse information periodically about this initiative. The personal contact is very important for me, as I value the time and resources spent from all of our supporters. I would like to especially mention ziedot.lv, with Ruta Dimante, whose support and advice has been invaluable for us. Evita, from LATO, and myself go to her as to a ''wise owl'', which as you know is our mascot. 

There are a number of unusual tales. One happened yesterday, where we met with journalist Atis Klimovičs, who has many years of experience covering war zones in Iraq, Ukraine, Afghanistan. He is finishing up a documentary on the lives of 5 people in our military (3 in the National Guard). We will team up for the premiere on November 9th, and subsequently travel throughout Latvia to visit the 18 battallions to show the film and talk about the campaign.

Another one is that there is a musical group ''Vilki'' who are finishing up a video and will mention the campaign. One of my students, Anna Holsta, is doing her internship within the auspices of the campaign and will use her experience to write her masters thesis on crowdfunding. The donation of time is very evident with Liene Grizāne, (Cido), and Jānis Borbals, a lawyer, and Katja Zilpauša (Riga Love Letters), who consistently who are working on the social media. The student fraternities (both men's and women's) have informal competitions on who will donate the most money. 

The US company Raytheon has committed to donating two thermal binoculars. This was through the activity of the American Chamber of Commerce.


We have also garnered the interest of international auditing companies, whom I have contacted, to oversee the purchase of the equipment, to show the public that everything was done in a correct, and transparent manner.

 What we have not yet fully utilized is use of the owl. I would like to encourage folks to make photos of owls within the theme of National Guard, seeing in the dark, etc...and publish them in social media to foster awareness of the campaign.


What exactly will the €20,000 be used to buy and when might the purchase/handover take place?

A few donations were targeted for certain equipment, so those of course will be purchased. For the rest, we will consult with the National Guard, to set the immediate priorities. Also, everything will be overseen by an international auditing company. I assume that a symbolic handover will take place up and around November 18th, with the actual handover taking place soon thereafter.

Will that be the end of the campaign or are you going to move on to something else? What lessons have you learned?

We will continue. For anything that is new, one has to gain credibility and trust. That is what we are working on and slowly developing with our direct stakeholders: the public, opinion leaders, media, partner organizations, and the National Guard. We are building the foundation to continue ''crowdfunding'' for the National Guard.

What I have found during my private and professional life is that once you start doing something, opportunities start popping up everywhere. This is great and wonderful. Yet, the few of us who are focusing on this are strictly volunteers, have ''day jobs'', and have only so much ''bandwidth''. I would encourage and love to see people taking their wonderful ideas and going out and collecting money for the National Guard themselves, for example locally. Some of this is already occurring, and this is great, and I am sure that we will see more.


Apart from the cash do you think you have been effective in highlighting the role played by the Zemessardze?

I think we have. The reality is that many people do not know much about the Zemessardze, or have a stereotypical impression of them. Our campaign, regardless of the fundraising aspect, does build awareness of our volunteer army and for those mostly young men and women, who are doing something tangible and real for our country. I am very proud of them and that we can make them stand out.

By the way, in our website, www.zemessargam.lv, we have something that we call Zemessargu stories, where we have gone out and asked mostly new recruits: why have you joined, why is this important for you? For me, many of the answers bring a proud tear to my eye. Hence, I have no doubt that a free and democratic Latvia will be around for a VERY long time.
 

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