More than two decades since the fall of communism, Russia’s charity sector continues to struggle. Underfunded and under-recognized, most groups can only dream of the support that major charity organizations receive in the West.
Russian generosity is not specifically the problem. According to the Charities Aid Foundation – a British organization that supports and promotes philanthropy worldwide – 8 percent of Russians donated as much as 2 percent of their income to charity in 2014.
These numbers are an enormous success compared to the Soviet era. But despite the advances, philanthropy still faces many challenges in Russia, including the current financial crisis and the generally low level of trust toward charitable organizations.
The ideas of corporate and private philanthropy have not yet taken root in the public mind as an integral part of life. Many prominent charities still need to find their feet on Russian soil.
Now, though, an organization aimed at helping Russian charities is set on recruiting top professionals to help charitable groups boom.
In 2014, successful Russian businessmen and philanthropists Yan Yanovskiy, Gor Nakhapetyan and Dmitry Yampolsky gathered the directors of Russia’s top charitable foundations together in Yerevan, Armenia. They wanted charity leaders to get to know one other and discuss their challenges and needs.
The talks ultimately led to a new idea: the creation of a foundation devoted exclusively to helping other charities, one that would become part of the charity infrastructure.
“We held discussions for two days. That meeting helped us come up with a philosophy for the new foundation,” says Yampolsky. “We understood that sometimes we need to look at the work of charities not through the eyes of their founders, but as businessmen.”
The Druzya (Friends) foundation came to fruition two years later. As an organization, it knows only too well that good intentions or even money is not enough for a charity to succeed. Instead, it has taken on the difficult mission of training and searching for professional staff for the charity sector.
The lack of trained professionals is a real unseen hurdle for Russian charities, says Grigory Mazmanyants, CEO of the Podari Zhizn (Give Life) children’s cancer charity.
“Russia does not offer any basic education in the field of charity,” he says. “People come to this line of work through promptings of the spirit, or else by chance. But charitable foundations need professionals, access to fundraisers and other sources of professional information.”
Having a professional manager can elevate a charitable foundation to a whole new level, says Druzya managing director Oxana Razumova, an activist with a background primarily in business. She points to the work of the Khabensky Foundation, a charity that assists children with severe neurological diseases.
After five years with very limited funding and media support, its situation changed dramatically when professional charity director and manager Alyona Meshkova took over.
“She achieved amazing results in just two years,” says Razumova. “She put together a team and developed a strategy. Now the Khabensky Foundation is very well-known, cooperates with a huge number of institutions and runs several ongoing projects with different companies, including some banks and Russia’s largest mobile phone operator, MTS,” she adds.
Podari Zhizn also works directly with banks to promote its projects. Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, has been issuing a Podari Zhizn Visa bank card for several years. A small percentage of every transaction made with the card is donated to the charity, with Sberbank matching each donation.
For now, this is just one isolated success story. But the Druzya foundation hopes to make such projects the rule rather than the exception.
“We have long understood that it is more effective to attract professional staff than to simply raise money for foundations,” says Nakhapetyan. “Fundraising netted seven times more for the Khabensky Foundation after Meshkova took over, and 10 times more for Podari Zhizn when Mazmanyants came on board.
“We are prepared to bring in 10 successful managers to charities we are working with and pay their salaries for the first two years,” he adds. “During that time, they should be creating and implementing development strategies that will enable those foundations to cover the cost of their work.”
Educating Rita and Pyotr
Yet rather than just bringing in new managers, the foundation wants to create its own educational venue where staff from various charities can attend seminars and training sessions conducted by leading Western and Russian experts.
Recently, it sent students to a three-week seminar at the Skolkovo School of Management and Business, where Nakhapetyan heads the Alumni Council. He believes that Skolkovo and the future Druzya educational venue will pursue similar objectives.
“Both organizations want to create professional vocational training in countries where the level of economic uncertainty is much higher than in developed countries,” says Nakhapetyan.
The Druzya foundation will also connect professionals wanting to volunteer with charitable organizations in need of their particular skills. “Our business partners will offer needed services pro bono, essentially contributing time instead of money,” says Yampolsky.
Progress is expected to be slow. Many people have still never heard of any charitable organizations, and those that have can usually only name one or two of the largest and best-known.
Yet the true tipping point for Russia’s charity sector may well be out of the groups’ control. Even Ivan Urgant, the Russian talk-show host who heads Druzya’s advisory board, admits that “the turning point for charities, their work, and for people’s attitudes toward them will come when company directors, government officials and lawmakers realize that having well-developed charities is not a sign of weak government, but of a strong society.”
For now at least, the people behind Druzya refuse to be deterred. “My dream is that within the next few years, the average person on the street will be able to name at least 10 charitable foundations,” says Nakhapetyan. “To achieve that, we must help those foundations become larger, well-known, systematic and transparent – just like businesses.”
This article first appeared in Russian weekly The Moscow Times.