Ukraine war sparks Volt’s business with purpose

With staff in Ukraine and Poland affected by the conflict, the instant payment provider set up a channel to send donations to charities and institutions instantly and without fees, setting the ball rolling to adopt a business model that included purpose with profit, writes Sophy Buckley

When the war in Ukraine suddenly escalated in February 2022, the founders of instant payment provider Volt were concerned about their staff based not only in Ukraine, but also in neighbouring Poland.

“It became obvious we needed to act. We had people in Ukraine and our entire tech and product organisation is in Warsaw and Krakow. We had a duty of care to them. It was all about their safety,” explains Jordan Lawrence, chief growth officer at Volt.

Initial plans involved evacuation of staff based in Ukraine, but thoughts quickly turned to fundraising to help those being displaced by the conflict. “Since we launched in 2020, our whole reason for existence is seamless payments, from bank account to bank account across the world in real time. It occurred to us we could leverage our tech and networks to allow people to donate instantly to organisations supporting people on the ground.”

The rationale was clear. Charities and aid organisations needed funds quickly, but traditional card networks took three to five days to settle a donation – possibly longer in Eastern Europe. Volt offered to cut that down to seconds. It also decided to forgo any fees.

“We call ourselves a network of networks because we facilitate payments through third-party connectivity providers. In addition to our own bank connections, we utilise connectivity providers such as Yapily and Token, who both agreed to partner on this project, too,” he explains.

Having two connectivity partners improves resilience – something Volt was keen to maximise given the precarious situation. If a transaction failed, the other could complete it.

“This is hugely important in open banking. The quality of bank APIs [the software plugs that allow different programs and systems to work together] varies hugely and this is often what leads to payments failing. Our resilience is a huge selling point for us,” says Lawrence.

With the connectivity agreements in place, Volt turned to which charities and institutions to support. It chose three: UNICEF, with its campaign to help children affected by the conflict; the Polish Center for International Aid, which helps resettle refugees, many of whom were flooding into Poland from Ukraine; and the National Bank of Ukraine, which was collecting money to help fund the national government’s response.

“This was a new but important challenge for us. We adapted our checkout to include a user flow that allowed donors to select which partner they wanted to support, the currency they wished to donate in, the amount they wanted to donate and a means for them to confirm their name and email address. From an implementation and compliance perspective, it worked extremely well,” says Lawrence.

The fundraising platform was launched in March 2022 and to date, Volt has collected more than £15,000 for the three charities, most of which was donated in the first few months of the conflict. It has also waived around £750 in fees. But the benefits of its decision to help Ukraine have the potential to stretch much further. According to Lawrence, the project has proven a helpful use case for open-banking payments and charities.

“The charity sector has always been one we’ve been interested in. We now have something to demonstrate how we can do the same for them and help them collect more of the money donated to them,” he explains.

It’s still early days, but already it has led to work from the Sporting Chance Prize Draw. Set up during Covid to help charities whose income streams were closed down by restrictions on social activity, it organises draws with sports-related prizes.

“For their draw last March, we were their only alternative payment method to cards and won an award for that. We’re now working with them again for their next prize draw in March 2024,” he says.

Meanwhile, it has started working with, a carbon-tracking and offsetting specialist. “When someone selects their payment method, beneath the Volt checkout badge is a line that explains that by choosing us, one plastic bottle is removed from the ocean,” says Lawrence. It’s been gamified, with a real-time ticker tallying the number of bottles removed. “This ties into doing business with purpose and fits with our real-time philosophy,” he adds.

It’s also led Volt to re-examine its own business model. Historically, it has charged a fee on every transaction it completes. This varies according to the client and the volume of transactions involved. Lawrence admits that adding more charities to its roster requires the company to weigh up the impact on resources and revenue. “These things have got to be worked out,” he says.

This is critical not least because the company is growing fast. Not only has it doubled its headcount since January 2022, but in June this year it also secured $60 million Series B funding to help implement expansion plans, build more tech and win more clients. “All that takes a lot of resource. It can be challenging in terms of not becoming too thinly spread,” he explains.

While the finer details have yet to be decided, Lawrence is clear on one thing. Volt will embed more purpose into its activities over time. “Charities are so used to card payments and charges, taking a hit in terms of a portion of the donation. We’ve proved it doesn’t have to be like that.”