Thoughts after talking to Sergei Zverev

Olga Alexeeva

Author’s note Sergei Zverev is a famous Russian fashion designer and socialite whose picture often adorns the covers of glossy magazines. However, there are other Sergei Zverevs in Russia …

I was recently invited to speak at a notable conference in Moscow. The conference was devoted to celebrating the first decade of private philanthropy in Russia. Why only ten years? What about those famous businessmen and philanthropists at the end of the 19th century, such as Pavel Tretyakov or Savva Morozov? What about the efforts of Pioneers, members of the children’s Communist League, in helping elderly ladies in tough Soviet times?

But, no, the start of the new era of private philanthropy is calculated from the creation of the first private foundation in Russia, the Vladimir Potanin Foundation. While Tretyakov and Morozov gave millions of roubles to charity before the communist revolution, they did not create trusts or foundations, so institutionalized philanthropy did not exist in Russia then. The merchants and industrialists of pre-revolutionary Russia built hospitals and schools, theatres and museums. In practice, they were the social safety net in a time when the government in Russia (and not only in Russia) was not thinking about massive provisions for all citizens. The US showed similar tendencies in the same historic period. The first billionaire philanthropists in the US – Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon – similarly focused on building basic social infrastructure: accessible housing for their workers, hospitals, libraries. However, a few years later in the US they created their famous private foundations. In Russia, as we all know, very different institutions were established after 1917, and the consequences of those changes we continue to face today.

Ten years – officially – of Russian philanthropy

Back to the conference. It was organized by the influential Russian business daily newspaper Vedomosti, and even though the issue that delegates found in their conference packs was full of headlines like ‘Blue chips continue to fall’ or ‘European markets show vulnerability’, the overall tone of the conference was surprisingly optimistic. In the past ten years, an entire new philanthropic sector was created, dozens of private foundations were established, both wealthy and middle class donors gave millions of dollars to charity. Every self-respecting oligarch at some point felt it was a necessary part of his status to organize a private foundation. However, a question many conference delegates asked themselves and each other was: what has the creation of dozens of private foundations changed in the country, especially for the millions of people who still suffer from poverty and social exclusion?

True, a lot has been done by private foundations in the past ten years. Many Russian universities have received much-needed funding, some of the Russian scientists who remained after the departure of the Soros Foundation did not jump on the bandwagon to the West and did not become shopkeepers in order to survive. Dozens of theatres and museums got support for new plays and exhibitions and new books were published. However, if we compare the achievements of the past ten years with what was done in the same time period before the 1917 revolution by similar industrialists, the picture looks much less perfect. Many Russian private foundations got entangled in internal restructuring, became very busy with writing fancy business plans and hiring corporate managers for programme officer positions, so the outcomes of their activities appeared to be much more modest than those of the less-educated and sophisticated merchants of 19th century Russia. And we should not forget: neither in the pre- nor post-communist eras did private philanthropists enjoy tax benefits or real support from the state.

The rise of ‘popular’ philanthropy

Another type of philanthropy that was actively discussed and promoted at the conference included the now numerous charities aimed at raising donations from the middle class, such as Life Line, Donate Life and the Russian Help Foundation. On the one hand, this is a great development, allowing ordinary people to contribute to important causes, and to save the lives of individuals in need by directing their donations to helping a specific person. I still remember that feeling of hopelessness I had when I met the parents of children dying from cancer who came to me to ask where could they get funding to pay for a life-saving operation. At that time, in the 1990s, the biggest donations came from US foundations and were mostly concerned with ‘building democracy’ in Russia.

Now, the situation has been reversed. Parents of seriously ill children and people in desperate need can choose from a whole list of charities and giving programmes that provide direct financial aid to individuals in dire situations. At the same time Memorial, a society that with its last remaining resources tries to preserve the memory of real Russian history of the past century, of repressions and dictatorship, struggles to attract any donations. The Mothers Rights Foundation, which provides free legal aid to soldiers abused in the Russian army and their families, hopelessly appeals for support on the internet. And it is not only human right groups that lack support: other charities focused on much less politically sensitive issues and providing long-term care also suffer from a nearly absolute lack of public interest.

An electronic ‘beggar’s hat’

Speaking at the conference, I described our new flow of mostly internet-based giving as a ‘beggar’s hat’, based on the principle of ‘one pill’. Nobody cares, for example, that your medical condition requires long-term care and rehabilitation; nobody notices that maybe the extreme poverty you face is a result of a long-term lack of skills and knowledge as well as short-term obstacles. Donors only wish to give you one pill: short-term emergency aid. Then, it is up to you; if you survive, OK; if not, they do not really care. This ‘one pill’ principle is widespread. Moreover, it is considered to be the most effective, mainly because it is ‘honest’ and does not require ‘intermediaries’ (ie charities). Unfortunately, most human or social problems cannot be cured by one, even magical and very honest, pill.

Ten years have passed since the founding the first private foundation in Russia. That ten years has seen the creation of private philanthropy for the ‘intellectual elite’: talented students, scientists, even business schools. The same ten years has also seen the birth of popular giving, the creation of an internet beggar’s hat where the ailing and the needy can appeal for money. But what Tretyakov and Morozov aspired to do a hundred years ago, what the Rockefellers and Mellons managed to do – the creation of an effective sustainable network of charities which provide long-term support and care, which address the root causes of poverty and exclusion, misery and disease – has not been done, nor even been attempted. You may argue that creating such systems is a function of the state and in general you would be right. But in every country with a developed philanthropic sector, that sector plays two key roles: it ‘corrects’ the mistakes the state makes in working with society, and it invests in new approaches and new solutions to complex social problems. Ten years on, Russian philanthropy still stands on church steps with a beggar’s hat in one hand and a leather folder of internal strategic plans and structures in the other.

The inspiring example of Sergei Zverev

I returned from the conference and before diving into my next tasks at work, went through my post. I suddenly noticed a small letter from Sergei Zverev. No, not the one whose photo you can see in pretty much every issue of the Russian Hello! magazine. Another Sergei Zverev, the chair of a small charity for deaf children in Severodvinsk, in the far north of Russia. He wrote that he met me ten years ago at CAF Russia. Inspired by the conversation we had then, he created a small charity for deaf children. Despite a nearly total lack of funds, lack of understanding from his neighbours and a permanent economic crisis in his town, he established a rehabilitation programme for deaf children, a social adaptation service which helps deaf young people to find jobs and access university education. He even opened a sign language theatre. In his letter, Sergei did not ask me for money, he told his story.

Reading that letter, I could not stop thinking: where in today’s so-developed private philanthropy sector can a tenacious and committed Sergei Zverev seek support, when the children and young people he helps will hardly qualify as ‘elite’ and their problems cannot be solved by that one magic pill? What do you think?

Olga Alexeeva is Head of CAF Global Trustees. Email

This article was first published in Russian in Snob magazine.

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