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Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
It can feel helpless when bad things happen in the world and you wish there was more you could do. Many of us have had this feeling in the wake of Russia's occupation of Ukraine, especially given Printful has offices in Latvia, not far from the war.
That's why we were intrigued to interview NAFO, the North Atlantic Fella Organization. They’re dedicated to supporting the defenders of Ukraine, and have found an unconventional way to counter Russia’s efforts by fundraising through merch and memes.
“The mission of NAFO is to support the people of Ukraine. And we do that through fundraising and through countering disinformation that’s published on social media by the Russian government and the Russian government’s agents, meaning people who act on behalf of the Russian government, through whatever interest.”
While NAFO’s tactics might appear light-hearted on the surface—they’re represented by doge meme avatars, after all—they do serious work. They’ve empowered regular people on the internet to support Ukraine and counter propaganda. To date, they’ve donated nearly $100,000.00 to organizations and defenders of Ukraine.
I spoke to Matthew, a founding member of NAFO, about the work they do and why they chose print-on-demand to help them do it.
NAFO is made up of people online known as “fellas,” who distinguish themselves with personalized avatars inspired by the doge meme.
It started organically, by a group of “friends and associates who had a deep interest in politics, and world affairs, particularly as it relates to Russia, and Russia’s attempts to exert influence over what they believe is territory that they’ve lost.”
NAFO members would edit the fella in photos and memes related to the war in Ukraine, and as these memes spread in online spaces, the joke caught on. People were interested in getting their own avatars, becoming fellas, and joining in on the action.
That’s when the founding members of NAFO understood they could do some good with these memeable avatars, inviting anybody to become a fella in exchange for proof of donation to an organization in Ukraine. Once you share your proof of donation, NAFO will create a personalized avatar.
“I don’t think that there’s really a leadership organization to it. This is something that was organic, and anybody can log in at their leisure through a donation or just by making their own avatar they can become a fella. What my friends and I do is provide an organization for fundraising through merchandise and I'd say coordinating donations towards causes.”
Through memes and goodwill, NAFO was born. It didn’t take long for founding members to think of new ways to make donations and keep support for Ukraine going strong.
The initial mechanism to organize donations was through “forging” fellas, or having volunteers make fellas in exchange for proof of donation. NAFO decided to add merch as an additional donation stream in case they hit a ceiling for interest in these fellas. They wanted to make sure they could keep up momentum and interest in supporting Ukraine.
“We thought we would eventually reach the limit of how many people would be interested in doing that. But we were thinking, ‘Okay, how do we keep this going?’ What’s the plan to continue to have an impact? Because we saw that it was working, people really liked this, and we were able to coordinate hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations through just really asking people and directing them towards these causes. So instead of letting that dry up, we thought, okay, what’s the next step? What else could we do to keep people engaged and keep them supporting folks in Ukraine? So that’s where the idea of the merchandise came up.”
They chose print-on-demand for their merch because it just made sense. It would let them set up their shop quickly and easily without having to handle manufacturing or shipping. This, in turn, would let them send donations to Ukraine faster.
“Instead of trying to build a company from the ground up and handling shipping and manufacturing and trying to work out all these agreements with a lot of different companies, it made better sense to say okay, let’s partner with an on-demand provider, and partner with Printful. It’s actually deliberately who we sought out.”
They chose Printful because they were aware of our reputation and knew that we have the global scale they were looking for. Most of the fellas don’t live in the United States, so it was important to be inclusive of customers all over the world.
When it comes to the products themselves, NAFO’s in-house designer creates 90% of their product designs. They also do collaborations with artists, some of which are from Ukraine.
So far, they’ve been able to donate almost $100,000 through their merch store.
Besides organizing donations, a key element to the NAFO agenda is to counter propaganda being spread by Russia and its supporters. But they don’t go about it in a traditional way.
“A lot of thought has been given to, how do you interact with propaganda and how do you defeat it? Traditionally, what has been done is to try to actually engage with the arguments that are being made and defeat them on merit, whether something is true or whether something is false, and that has not been particularly successful. In fact, one of the primary strategies of Russian propaganda is to take advantage of that.”
Matthew goes on: “The issue is that we’re not talking about rational debate and we’re not talking about people who have the same agenda and the same interest, right? The Russian government is not approaching this from the perspective of winning support through rational argument and genuine discussion. What they’re doing is trying to overwhelm the information space by putting out so many arguments that we’re unable to respond to them effectively. And in that sense, they have had a lot of success because people are sort of stumped with how to respond to this.”
NAFO recognizes that spreading disinformation is part of Russia’s strategy to sway public opinion about this war. And they also recognize that they can do something to counteract it.
“NAFO’s strategy is different. Instead of trying to engage with this and saying ‘No, this isn’t exactly true,’ what we’re doing is making fun of the arguments that are being offered and also making fun of the people who were making the arguments to begin with. Because if you step back and look at it, it’s comical to have somebody who is a government employee just say ridiculous, absurd things with no humility or recognition of the fact that what they are saying is not true—and that it has no attachment to a coherent argument.”
It isn't productive to engage with the arguments at face value when the person you're debating doesn't care to arrive at the truth. What NAFO does instead is draw attention to the absurdity of what's being said.
“If you step back from trying to debate this and say, the entire situation is absurd, we find that that resonates with people. If you can get people to say wait a minute, this is stupid. What is this person even talking about? What a ridiculous argument. What a silly thing to say. . . that’s effective. And getting people to notice that what they’re looking at isn’t a news story is important. It isn’t a government statement in the sense that we’re used to seeing them, but to recognize it as propaganda. Once you see that, that makes it easier to defeat the power of it.”
NAFO gives people the opportunity to act, to help defend Ukraine. Through humor, they flag propaganda, delegitimize arguments being made by Russian officials, and waste officials’ time arguing online.
The entire point of NAFO—their merch and community—is to take action and support Ukraine.
“NAFO has never been about empty support. It has always been connected to concrete action, whether it’s donation, wasting the Russian government’s time, having them argue with cartoon dogs online, it’s all meaningful.”
They’ve been recognized by politicians for their contributions, even being awarded the Lithuanian Star of Diplomacy and receiving a plaque from U24 and President Zelensky.
At the end of the day, the appreciation from regular people is what is most impactful for Matthew—knowing that NAFO is supporting real people in a real way.
“I think that what is most meaningful to me is seeing the sentiment expressed by regular folks, just everyday Ukrainians. We see posts, videos posted by soldiers thanking us for our support, thanking us for supplies that they were able to purchase for equipment, food, whatever it is. And Ukrainian civilians, you know saying thank you for sending the things that we needed for our parents, our brothers, our sisters to fight and to do what they need to do to ensure the freedom of Ukraine.”
Matthew observes that support for Ukraine hasn’t wavered. People are continuing to engage online, buy merch, and make donations.
“I think that with this war, it is just so unmissably wrong versus right, and I think that’s part of what’s keeping people’s attention—what Russia is doing, what Russia’s government has done, is evil. And I think that the fellas give a way for the average person, anywhere in the world, regardless of their means, to fight back and say, this is wrong and we’re not going to stay quiet. I think that’s had a real impact. And I say that pointing to the government of Ukraine coming out and then thanking not just NAFO, but all fellas, thank you to all fellas for the work that you’ve done.”
NAFO's approach is a reminder that anyone can take a stand for what's right.
Nora has been part of the Printful team since 2015. She has spent the last several years writing content, coordinating communications projects, and helping customers learn about ecommerce. Now as Printful's Brand Manager, she gets to use her experience and knowledge in new and challenging ways.
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