Russian philanthropy’s changing landscape: Growth spurts and growing pains


Lauren Bradford


Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace, in association with Alliance and the Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support (WINGS), recently launched the second report in their Philanthropy Bridge Series – this time in partnership with CAF Russia – on the world’s largest country. Russia isn’t just large in geographical size, it’s also large in terms of complexity. It’s a country about which many of us feel we know little, yet find ourselves reading about on an almost daily basis, in turn creating curiosity and intrigue. So, what does the end of the Iron Curtain mean for philanthropy in Russia?

Russia to me is challenging to understand despite having travelled to its major cities and enjoyed its delightful culture and hospitality. Not surprisingly, this rings true for understanding philanthropy in Russia also. Philanthropy in Russia is a working paper rather than an attempt to describe the sector in its entirety; it begins to distil what is known to create meaning. Here are some of my takeaways.

You can’t understand Russian philanthropy without understanding its context

Despite the country’s long and chequered history, philanthropy in Russia is relatively young, both the sector itself and even the notion of giving. Whereas philanthropy is embedded in the cultural context of many other countries, its newness in Russia’s last three decades creates a distinction between a time in which philanthropy existed there and a time in which it did not. CAF’s 2017 World Giving Index, which measures individual giving in terms of money, time and helping a stranger (which I think is an awesome measure by the way), ranks the Russian Federation 124th out of 139 countries surveyed. In terms of giving money, Russia ranks 104th. As the report describes it, ‘Russia does not appear to be a nation of givers’. There are cultural and historical reasons for this, though. During the Communist era, public well-being was considered the responsibility of the state alone, so the Soviet Union did not permit organized charity or philanthropy. This has reinforced the notion that private charitable work should be considered a private affair, not to be talked openly about. This may be a difficult notion for many Western philanthropists to understand, given the often default position of self and organizational promotion. Think, for example, about the purpose of a ‘top funders list’ or the Giving Pledge page. Neither approach is right, good or bad – just different. Twenty-seven years later, though, this culture does appear to be changing in Russia.

Who’s giving, and how, are changing

Once thought of as a ‘demeaning, manipulative capitalist practice’ which was forbidden (Jamie Gambrell), attitudes to philanthropy seem to be becoming more positive. Oksana Oracheva, general director of the Vladmir Potanin Foundation, believes that people have more empathy with philanthropy now, particularly as they become more involved themselves through corporate volunteerism, community philanthropy and small individual donations. As was discovered also through the Philanthropy in India report, small donations by the middle class have led to significant increases in giving in both countries. Although the middle class often don’t give large sums of money, they can give smaller amounts more often (especially due to technology).

When did you last give by way of an SMS donation, particularly one that you were encouraged to make by an advertisement on television? For many of us, probably never. For a Russian, it may have been today. Numerous causes invest in storytelling through the media with a call to action to give any amount, which culturally makes philanthropy quite visible. Pretty cool.

In fact, in 2017 it was very cool: the most popular form of giving by individuals was SMS at 40 per cent. Take the Podari Zhizin Foundation, which televises the stories of the cancer patients it supports in order to encourage giving. Just under a third of its funds come from SMS donations. This mechanism enables ordinary people to give almost anonymously – creating a safe space for those only starting to embrace the cultural shift towards open discussion among peers about giving. This form of giving is also more trusted than other approaches because the most common source of information about NGOs is television, which is widely trusted by Russians. Although not widely practised in many countries, I see this form of fundraising from time to time through such examples as World Vision’s ‘sponsor a child’ campaigns or drives for donations by the Red Cross at times of disaster.

Not only does this demonstrate a cultural shift in Russia, a willingness to give by the middle class and a desire to embrace a diverse range of giving tools; it starts to pave the way for discussion on these topics and to build community around philanthropy. It shows people what can be achieved through philanthropy and the result of scale and critical mass when people come together.

Community foundations and rural funds are springing up

The focus on community foundations throughout the world is increasing as people realize that community foundations can do what many others cannot – understand and work closely with the community on local issues. There are now 70 known community foundations in Russia, mostly located in small towns and non-industrial rural areas or – as Maria Chertok, director of CAF Russia, refers to them – ‘places with no hope’. These community foundations have come about largely because of isolation and unmet needs. They have never had any foreign donations and are totally self-sufficient. They are bringing hope.
The Togliatti Community Foundation was the first, established in 1998, followed by the Foundation for Development of Tyumen in 1999. Togliatti Community Foundation now serves 720,000 inhabitants and has 20 different programmes. Its main focus is grantmaking. The fact that all money is raised locally brings a sense of ownership for and by the community. This approach also helps to temper the concern that ‘western ideas and ideals’ are taking over. As Jenny Hodgson, executive director of the Global Fund for Community Foundations and one of the key actors in raising the profile of community philanthropy and shifting the power, describes, ‘the identity of the Russian community foundation has been clear from the start and it has not carried the same definitional baggage as has occurred in other parts of the world, where the concept has sometimes been perceived as a foreign “import”.’

Most rural community foundations work in areas with small populations ranging from 3,500 to 14,000 people; they are sustained and supported by those in the community, with big business and Russian NGOs often contributing funds. Interestingly, through our own work on, we know that the Togliatti Community Foundation is also home to a YouthBank, a participatory grantmaking programme in which young people in the community make funding decisions that influence progress on needs as they see them.

New ways of distributing funds are developing

Grant competitions are on the rise, supporting a range of initiatives and spotlighting local projects that may not have had the visibility required to obtain a grant otherwise. This stand-out point highlights one of the reasons that I love working in global philanthropy – what may be tried and tested in one context may be new, with its own spin on it, in another context. Grant competitions have been used by numerous organizations for years. In Russia this is a relatively new concept that is able to bring greater visibility both to the philanthropy sector and the good work it does, and to the local community. Most importantly, it is a mechanism for distributing funds that generally works when used appropriately.

Trust in NGOs is growing

The community foundations have also been able to start to build trust and shift cultural values at the grassroots level. They are the most networked community in Russia, according to Chertok, proactively exchanging knowledge in order to better their work. Although it is claimed throughout the report that there is a lack of trust in NGOs, particularly due to a perceived lack of accountability and transparency, Arina Gaba, fundraising director of the Podari Zhizn Foundation, also mentions that trust is growing. ‘In the past five years people have started to realize that if [NGOs] don’t solve their problems no one else will,’ she says – a reminder that for people relying on outside help, it’s important to have faith in these organizations even if they do not fully trust them. Data collection, monitoring, and storytelling about NGOs would go a long way to help overcome this lack of trust. Chertok points out that confidence can be developed in the sector by NGOs being clear on how they will use donations and ensuring money is used for the purpose for which it was given. Although confidence and trust are not exactly the same, building confidence can lead to building trust.

Final thoughts

This report highlights a plethora of important topics that deserve attention if you want to understand philanthropy in Russia, including the Foreign Agent Law and other state-related activities. My lack of focus on these areas was not an oversight but a deliberate choice to focus on other important topics that we hear less about day to day and that leverage each other to change the landscape. For more on the Foreign Agent Law and other ways the state is working, please read the report.

The report also refers to the need for evaluation. This seems to me an opportunity to help solve issues and build trust, as well as an opportunity to raise money from the public, which may help to give Russian human rights organizations greater legitimacy. It is also worth noting that multisector stakeholder partnerships (including with government) are actually a real thing; that setting up a corporate foundation does not bring with it any tax benefits; and that the number of fundraising foundations is increasing. At the end of the day, though, the greatest asset the community has is its local people.

For Russian philanthropy, I see growth spurts and growing pains, both of which are natural in the evolution of any philanthropy sector. Trust and relationships are the basis for a successfully functioning society and for a successfully functioning development ecosystem. Through new ways of giving, distributing, understanding and working together, I am confident that Russian philanthropy will continue to advance in leaps and bounds even if perplexing us from time to time – building new norms and creating an exciting cultural shift both for the sector and for the people of Russia. This learning reinforces my own approach to global philanthropy in my role as director of global partnerships at Foundation Center: everything starts with trust and relationships, and all work MUST take into account local people and local context.

Lauren Bradford is the Director of Global Partnerships at the Foundation Center.

This article originally appeared on the Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace website on 21 March 2018. The original article can be found here.

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *