Interview – Irina Prokhorova

The Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation was established in 2004 to promote Russian culture and further its integration into the global context. It carries out national and international activities, but is very keen to stress the importance of its local approach, as its co-founder and CEO Irina Prokhorova explained to Olga Alexeeva. The era of modern philanthropy in Russia is still very young, she stressed, and not too much should be expected of donors or the public.

The ‘one way street’ of donor responsibility

When asked whether the issue of ethics in philanthropy is a topic worth discussing in emerging markets, Irina Prokhorova’s unexpected answer is a complaint that the conversation about ethics is in effect a one-way street. ‘Issues of ethics,’ she says, ‘are only seen through a prism of corporate social responsibility. Moreover, responsibility is only seen in terms of the responsibility of donors, companies, towards society. Donors themselves are not seen as part of society and the reverse responsibility – of the public towards donors – is never discussed.’

What does she mean by the responsibility of the public towards donors? In Russia today, she explains, ‘the public does not think of philanthropy as a voluntary act, an act of goodwill. Any private initiative, not “sanctioned” by the state is viewed with suspicion. In general, people see philanthropy either as a kind of bribe by which the philanthropist buys his or her way out of problems, or a way of, in effect, buying good PR. At the same time, it’s expected that a wealthy person must share their wealth, and engage in philanthropy.’

In Russia, she explains, ‘the public at large delegates responsibility to certain segments of society, in particular government and business. This attitude is a direct consequence of centuries of dictatorship and despotic rule, when society could in theory make its concerns known to the ruling elite but in practice there was no dialogue with the public on any issues.’

Prokhorova feels that society actually owes a debt of gratitude to philanthropists because it understands from past experience that ‘not everything can be sorted out by the state.’ A further legacy of the past, however, is that the public feels no responsibility for the state of society, and therefore does not feel grateful to philanthropists for helping to put it right.

Thinking three steps ahead

She does nevertheless feel strongly that donors have a responsibility to society. ‘People who reach a certain level of wealth, anywhere in the world, get engaged in philanthropy. It is normal practice, part of human nature. If people are planning to live in the country with their families, they should look at least three steps ahead and try to create the conditions for normal life. They might not see the results in their lifetime and will probably not be thanked for it, but they realize that if they don’t engage in philanthropy, their future and the future of their society will be problematic.’

When thinking three steps ahead, who defines the needs? Should donors ask the public what society needs, rather than just following their inclinations? In response, Prokhorova reminds us that modern philanthropy is very new in Russia. ‘The tradition of philanthropy was interrupted for nearly 100 years by the communist era, and the age of modern philanthropy is only about 15 years old. Donor culture takes time to grow and mature.’

The point of this slightly oblique response is that we shouldn’t judge harshly donors whose practice is less than ideal. ‘I think at this initial stage, if someone does something, helps somebody according to his or her understanding at that moment, it is still very good.’ But, she insists, this stage passes quickly and people then need to take philanthropy seriously. Ironically, this can happen as a result of a donor getting a negative result from their giving. ‘So they start analysing why their approach did not work, why the problem was not solved. This way, some serious philanthropic projects can grow.’

Adopting a local approach

She then addresses the question more directly. The Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation, she says, had the advantage of starting a bit later than some other private foundations in Russia ‘and we could learn from the experience of Russian private foundations and international foundations, first and foremost the Soros Foundation. From day one in our foundation,’ she says, ‘we decided to adopt a local approach, to start working in local communities. In any country as big and historically complex as Russia, it is very hard to design solutions that work everywhere and for everyone.’

But the imperative to work locally has deeper roots in the country’s history. ‘I would almost say that all problems in Russia stem from the drive towards centralization and unification that affected every aspect of life. We understood that we needed to take account of diversity and differences in Russia. We therefore consider a regional, community approach as the key principle of our activity.’

Underlying their programme is a belief that ‘what is missing in Russian society, owing to long years of isolation and dictatorship, is an ability to build horizontal links, horizontal networking. Russian people start building hierarchy everywhere; it starts from the family, the nursery, the primary school. We don’t even notice it. Our foundation tries to show that even in the most deprived communities, you can achieve a lot by working together and building horizontal links.’

In practice, the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation supports a variety of cultural initiatives, and through different instruments: grant competitions, their own large operating projects, master classes. Prokhorova defines art as ‘a description of the new through a language that people will understand today’.

‘We need to understand the dramatic history of each city we work in,’ she says, ‘and the level of readiness of local communities to accept ideas.’ In her view, trust is probably the main thing here: ‘People should understand what you do and why, that you are transparent and honest. Then they will trust you even with projects which at the start they do not fully understand.’

Measuring the impact

When asked how the impact of these activities is measured, she responds: ‘It is easy to feel, but hard to measure. Of course, we can draw nice graphs and put together statistics. For example, the number of people who attend our events or support our projects is growing year by year, as is the number of volunteers who participate in our programmes. But these are just statistics. What matters is the difference in the people of Norilsk’s understanding of contemporary art now and six years ago when I visited the city for the first time to design our programme. We see how people reacted to our first events and how they react today. Now we are seeing proposals from the community: why don’t we do that, they ask, or take that new approach?’

In her view, this is colossal progress, but the work is far from done. ‘We will need to work ten years more before we see most serious projects being initiated by people in the local community and not brought in from outside.’ Just as people should not expect too much from donors at first, so they should not expect too much from the public, recovering from ‘centuries of repression, centuries of isolation’.

Distancing from society

What donors particularly need to avoid, says Prokhorova, is the ‘deeply snobbish attitudes of professional elites in Russia, resulting from the hierarchical structure of society’. To illustrate this, she compares European documentaries showing societal ills such as alcoholism or drug abuse with Russian documentaries. In European documentaries, she says, ‘there is an element of personal involvement, a personal connection between the film makers and those they film. When our film makers make documentaries, they take the position of an external viewer, disgusted at the society they have to live in! Donors, as part of the intellectual elite of society, should remember that and reject that distancing from society, that disgust.’

Philanthropists must respect and work with local culture, even local stereotypes and prejudices, she stresses. ‘It is very simple to export contemporary art. Get a disk or an exhibition, bring it over, show it, laugh about local primitive attitudes and return to Moscow.’

Isn’t promoting cultural activities a luxury today when children are dying because of the lack of funding for medical care? Shouldn’t every donor focus on problems that critically affect people’s health, even threaten their lives? ‘I don’t see any contradiction between these two types of activity,’ says Prokhorova. ‘I think it is important to help in urgent situations, address urgent social problems, and also look beyond, address strategic issues. If we don’t improve education, if we don’t invest in culture, what will the next generation be like?’

Private social responsibility

Finally, what of the concept of ‘private social responsibility’? All too often, there are huge discrepancies between the values wealthy families espouse in their philanthropy and how they act in ordinary life. Should there be a link between a person’s philanthropy and the principles on which they build their business, their life, their relations with others?

As far as large donors are concerned, especially those with structured foundations and programmes, her view is that they do have ‘a clear understanding about ethics, social responsibility, personal and social relations’. She also feels that when people start getting involved in philanthropy practically, this helps them to formulate their values and views. ‘I don’t believe there are people who suddenly “fall from the moon”, open a foundation and have their eyes opened to a new understanding of life, but when you start getting engaged, your views, your understanding, evolve.’

The chamber of wishes

Irina Prokhorova ends by talking about Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, where there is a chamber of wishes. When a person enters it, it is not the wish he proclaims that is realized but the one that he really believes in in his soul. In the end, nobody wants to enter the room because they are not sure what wish will come true. ‘Maybe they think they wish happiness to everyone and in reality something very different is realized,’ she suggests. ‘I would say that philanthropy is the entering of this chamber of wishes, it is the moment of truth. You start giving and you test yourself: the level of your personal development, your understanding of society, the honesty of your intentions. Philanthropy is also an instrument for decreasing social infantilism and a lesson in democracy, a lesson about respect for people in your own land. I think in Russia today democracy is built not through political institutions, not through the public sphere, but through these understandings.’

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