Peeling the onion of Russian philanthropy: reflections on the Russian Donors Forum annual conference


James Magowan


Underneath the skin of the mighty onion of philanthropy in Russia lies another layer, and another, and another, each adding freshness and zest of an essential ingredient of the goulash of civil society.

Proof of the progressiveness and¬†thoughtfulness within the field was provided in the topic ‘Philanthropy is more than money – non-financial resources of philanthropic activity’ that the Russian Donors Forum chose for its annual conference in Moscow last week.

Over 150 delegates and impressive array of local practitioners and experts including international contributors from UK, Germany, France, Switzerland and USA attended.

Having worked previously for a community foundation and currently with a ACF in the UK and DAFNE I am very familiar with the non grant-making roles of foundations and the work that national associations and donors forums do with their members to exploit that potential.

The opening session addressed the social capital of the philanthropic community.

The need to find an appropriate balance between bonding bridging and linking social capital, with whatever form of investment, was highlighted with reference to experience from Northern Ireland and the challenges of funding in a structurally divided society – where bonding social capital can on the one hand strengthen communities but also potentially perpetuate divisions.

The added value of philanthropy support organizations based on the 4Cs (Capacity, Capability, Connections, and Credibility) was presented and the relevance of social capital, being the primary currency within the support ecosystem, was also discussed. The development and maintenance of mutually beneficial and trusted relationships (formal and informal) horizontally between support organizations and between foundations and vertically between donors and charities / beneficiaries and other stakeholders, was described as being critical to the efficiency and effectiveness of the whole philanthropy field.

Examples of the foundation role as a, convenor, advocate, influencer/ shaper of policy and practice, leader, tester, implementer, orchestrator and catalyst were cited.

There were sessions delving into these in depth including non-monetary donations e.g. food, clothing, intellectual property, pro-bono work; symbolic capital and reputation; and human an intellectual capital.

In a lively session on employee engagement the panel cited impressive figures for corporate volunteering hours, opportunities for longer term sabbaticals / placements and pro-bono work. Some use sophisticated analyses LBG, SROI to assess the value of this – to communities, to the company, and to individuals. Interestingly the panel included a psychologist who touched on personal motivations for volunteering. A range of platforms that connect employees with charities were referred to – with respective pros and cons being discussed.

Big data as the basis for ‘technological capital’ was the topic of another session which considered how knowledge derived from analysis can inform the work of foundations.

Russia has a snazzy mapping app (Yandex) that shows colour-coded road traffic conditions and live public transport movements – it’s fun just watching it. With this ability to utilise big data, in a country where gathering data is second nature, the potential to analyse and map philanthropy is obvious.

We are still at the outer layers of the onion, Europe has so much more to share and learn from Russian Philanthropy and the Russian Donors Forum.

James Magowan is Co-ordinating Director at DAFNE

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