‘They want to save the world in 45 minutes’

This is a shorter version of an interview with Olga Alexeeva published by CAF Russia’s magazine Money and Charity on 25 May, less than two months before she died. Carried out by Matvei Masaltsev, this interview reflects the unique insights into philanthropy around the world that informed all of Olga’s work, and in particular her most recent venture, the Philanthropy Bridge Foundation. Alliance thanks Sue Rogers for translating this from the Russian original.

I get the impression that Olga Alexeeva knows the philanthropic inclinations of the oligarchs better than the oligarchs themselves. And no wonder: for 12 years she has been developing philanthropy in Russia; for the last six years she’s been doing it all over the world, initially as the Head of CAF Global Trustees, a division of the British charitable foundation, the Charities Aid Foundation; and now – heading up her own project – the Philanthropy Bridge Foundation.

By the time we met for our morning meeting in a Moscow cafe, Olga has already had a breakfast meeting with one of Russia’s wealthiest people. ‘They have 45 minutes to spare for philanthropy over breakfast,’ she says about her clients from the world of wealth. Her other clients are the not-so-rich: active representatives of community foundations and NGOs. She is trying to create a direct and unbroken link between the two. Olga is building bridges – as reflected in the title of the foundation she established in August 2010 – the Philanthropy Bridge Foundation. She is starting out with the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Spot the five differences

I have worked for many years with wealthy individuals from Russia, Brazil, India and China and I have noticed several characteristics common to developing economies. First, it’s the imbalance between the rapid development of business, status and wealth on the one hand and huge poverty on the other. In Russia things aren’t actually that bad – we should show somewhere like India on the TV every day as a sort of therapy to remind us that we Russians aren’t living in the worst country under the sun. After all we are part of the ‘golden billion’ and we shouldn’t forget that. I have seen things in other countries that didn’t even happen here during the reign of Ekaterina II, things we don’t even see in the poorest parts of central Russia.

Another characteristic is that in the BRIC countries philanthropy is developing quite rapidly, private philanthropy included: the newly wealthy give money willingly. However, as a rule, they don’t know how to give or which causes to support. Besides that, there is a huge gap between their charity and their lifestyle. One hand doesn’t know what the other is doing: with the right hand we steal and kill and with the left – we give to charity.

In other words their charitable activity has little influence on how they do business, how they behave and how they live their lives. In addition to this, all of these countries experience problems with the law, with the accountability of the authorities and with democracy. And that is why they are all united by one thing: the single constraint for a wealthy individual is their own set of values – not the law, not the state, not the law enforcement agencies.

Another characteristic is that the services available to donors around the world are not at all tailored to suit developing economies. The cultural peculiarities of these countries are not taken into account, there is no understanding of the day-to-day reality of life there.

Furthermore, the attitude towards poverty, to human misery and misfortune is completely different in all of these countries, including Russia, to that in the West. In wealthy, developed nations, people see it as ‘someone else’s problem’ – it’s not a part of their world. As a result the attitude towards poverty and misery is a little colonial. In developing economies people see it as their problem – their country, their people. For that reason, people are less judgemental about poverty … on the other hand, in India, for example, everyone passes by the thousands of homeless people who sleep on the pavements of Bombay and Bangalore. The employees of the IT industry, who earn good salaries by local standards, pass by without even a sideways glance at the homeless. At the same time, there is no patronizing attitude towards the poor, because we all come from the same place and there is no class distinction (especially in Russia and China). This is another nuance which influences the culture of charitable giving in the BRIC countries, but which hardly anyone takes into account.

They don’t have time

Olga Alexeeva continues to list the characteristics of the development of philanthropy in developing economies. I interject with an occasional question to clarify her comments.

Another thing which should be taken into account is that, with rare exceptions, wealth in the BRIC countries is first generation. It is not inherited wealth, it is not people living off the income earned on their investments, it is not people living in castles on the back of their share dividends. The majority of American and British programmes are tailored to suit ‘old money’, or for those who have made their money and are just beginning to get engaged in philanthropy.

The difference in developing economies is that making money and engaging in philanthropy are not separated by time but are happening simultaneously, while wealthy philanthropists are still relatively young. In the West it seems to be more a case of ‘I’ll make money until I’m 60 and then I’ll move away from business and pay my debt to society’. Even Bill Gates, with all due respect and bearing in mind he is not that old, followed precisely this path: at first he concentrated on business and then gradually moved away from his business to engage in philanthropic activities. The whole range of services on offer to donors is built around this approach. That is why there are laid-back training programmes for private donors, spread out over three weeks, like therapeutic consulting sessions…

People have a lot of time on their hands: grandmothers and grandfathers have nothing to do: they live on their pension and start to get involved in charity.

It is a totally different situation for my wealthy clients. They don’t have time – they can spare 45 minutes over breakfast for their philanthropy. And in those 45 minutes we must save the world. You could say that is their slogan – they all want to save the world in 45 minutes. What I want to do is to establish the first service in the world, the first international programme focusing on the development of private philanthropy in developing economies. It will be a programme which takes all of these issues into account – the cultural, business and personal environment of these people. In addition, I would like to see the course go beyond the limits of philanthropy, because that is not enough. I would allow for the programme to include the subject of social change.

I set myself ridiculously ambitious goals (everyone can laugh at me, but then faint heart never won fair lady!). I want to use philanthropy as a means of influencing the very lifestyle of the rich; to influence their attitude towards their employees, towards those who live on their land, towards their own domestic staff.

How do you influence people in an environment where the only constraint is morality? Our own history shows that even revolution doesn’t help: in these countries there is no civil society. But philanthropy is one interesting way of influencing values and morality. In fact there is little else. Everything else can be bought.

The majority of people share European values

So have we managed to change anything with the help of philanthropy? I ask. How much have wealthy Russians changed?

Of the wealthy Russians I know (and I know many personally), the majority share European values and want to see Russia as a free and democratic state; they completely share the values of a civil society and are not indifferent towards their country. At the same time, those among them whose right hand knows what the left is doing are still in the minority. Flirtations with the tsars, corruption, disregard for the rules and a quick profit still dominate.

However, something has changed in recent years – some have started to try to build transparent businesses. As we well know, one individual has suffered for that and some have left the country. Nevertheless, some are making attempts to apply the values they have learned through philanthropy to their business.

In England, when I explain the difference between British and Russian philanthropy I say this: if the British build their philanthropy on the foundation of their values, then in Russia it is the opposite. For that reason philanthropy has significantly more meaning than in the USA or England.

I know that for many wealthy Russians philanthropy is the only space in which they experience intellectual freedom. For some it is their only opportunity to feel human.

Charity and civil society

There is a perception that philanthropy is a part of normal civil society, I say to Olga. A civil society starts to take shape – and then the charitable sector will follow. ‘We cannot wait for that to happen,’ counters Olga.

Civil society will grow gradually, perhaps alongside philanthropy. There is no civil society in the BRIC countries, including India and Brazil where there has been no revolution.

Or perhaps there is a civil society (they will kill me if I don’t qualify this). But this civil society is not a constraint for the people with money and power. And here lies the key difference with the countries in the West.

But there are also community foundations, I add cautiously. How well developed are they in the BRIC countries?

Of course there are community foundations and they do a great deal. But again, at a serious level, they too are not the constraining factor for business and the state. Community foundations are a whole different story – they have their own problems. They also need training programmes – not in how to fundraise, but in negotiating cultural differences, in understanding the wealthy people who live in the same country and walk the same streets.

Community foundation activists don’t even understand the wealthy people living in the same town as them. The level of hatred, stereotyping, misunderstanding and mistrust is high, not only on the part of those with money but also on the part of those without.

But it’s impossible to fundraise when you don’t even like the people who you are asking to give money, and that is going on everywhere.

And that is one of the things I want to do – to try and create a level of mutual understanding and acceptance on both parts, to build bridges.

Olga will be much missed by Alliance and the philanthropy world. We have
set up a tribute page where you can read more about her and share your
thoughts and memories. Visit http://philanthropynews.alliancemagazine.org/olga-alexeeva/


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