Philanthropy in Russia may have great potential in spite of concerns

Russia Giving, philanthropy, Future World Giving

As Russia modernises, its young people are starting to give – image by Ilya Dobrioglo via Flickr

New research published by CAF Russia suggests cause for cautious optimism about the prospects for creating a culture of philanthropy.


Amidst the pessimism of economic sanctions and restrictions on funds from abroad for Russian not-for-profit organisations, the casual observer of Russian civil society could be forgiven for casting a grim prognosis for the future of civil society in Russia. But Russia Giving, published in October by CAF Russia provides compelling evidence for an alternative reading in which the growing generosity of ordinary Russians could bring about a flowering of a distinctly Russian civil society.


On first glance, one could be forgiven for seeing Russia’s placing of 123rd out of 135 in the 2013 World Giving Index – and 130th in terms of the proportion of people claiming to have given money to a charitable organisation in the past month – as a sign that Russian society has failed to develop a culture of charitable giving since the fall of the iron curtain. However, such a conclusion may well be premature.


Russia Giving, a research publication published in October by CAF Russia, reveals that only 20% of Russian had not engaged in any form of charitable giving in the past year while 41% had given money to an “NGO or foundation” over the same period. So although the World Giving Index clearly shows that Russian donors are not necessarily giving frequently – Russia Giving csuggests that just 17% give once a month or more – giving money to not-for-profit organisations is becoming an increasingly mainstream activity.


Russia Giving, Future World Giving

Russia Giving Info-graphic (Click to enlarge)

Whether analysts are optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for charitable giving in Russia may well depend on the extent to which the historical context is taken into account to the same degree as recent developments. Because whilst it may be true that Russians are less likely to be regular donors than many countries with lower levels of wealth, there can be few countries that have constructed a culture of giving within a single generation.


As Maria Chertok, Director of CAF Russia pointed out in an article she wrote for WINGS, philanthropy did not exist in any formal sense until the late 1990’s. In the start of that decade some of Russia’s newly established corporations began giving to a number of causes on an ad-hoc basis. Corporate giving slowly became more strategic and even began to foster a culture of giving amongst their employees towards the end of the decade through payroll giving programmes. In 1997, CAF Russia helped Rosbank establish the first corporate giving program in the country.


The next phase of the development of philanthropy in Russia saw the development of community foundations, the first of which appeared in 1998. Today there are forty-five such institutions which distribute US$16.5 million to their communities. The first few years of the millennium saw the creation of private family foundations such as the Potanin Foundation and Dmitri Zimin’s Dynasty Foundation.


All of these developments have helped to popularise the notion that those who can should give to help those less fortunate than themselves in a nation that had once been defined by the primacy of the state in meeting the needs of all citizens. Given the newness of philanthropy in Russia, the fact that so many ordinary Russians are engaging in giving to causes that they care about should be seen as a triumph of human generosity.


Encouragingly, there are signs that engagement in philanthropy in Russia might continue to grow. Unlike many other countries, where older people are often the most generous due to their relative affluence and their desire to use accumulated wealth for good within their lifetime, the most generous age group in Russia is 35-44. Indeed, 18-24 year-olds, typically less likely to give in most countries due to their relative lack of resources, are more likely to have given money to charity in the past 12 months (43%) than the over 55s (31%). All of the above supports the notion that younger people who have grown up outside of communism are increasingly likely to give money for good causes.


But if the overriding message of Russia Giving is one of optimism, it should not be one of complacency. Though wealthy Russian philanthropists gave US$555 million in donations valuing US$1 million or more in 2013 – according to research conducted by CAF Russia for the Coutts Million Dollar Donor Report 2014 the value of the average donation in Russia remains low. Only 19% of Russians who reported making a donation in the past 12 months in Russia Giving reported giving more than RUB 12,000 (about US$300) in that period.


Also of some concern is the lack of diversity in causes for which Russian donors give. Whilst 88% of donors gave money to children’s causes in the past year, only 49% gave to disaster relief causes, the second most popular cause. Tied to this is the fact that 82% of gifts are spontaneous reactions to need rather than part of a strategic approach to giving. A lack of trust in not-for-profit organisations, perhaps understandable given their relative newness, may well explain why Russian donors are conservative in their choice of cause. In the absence of trust in not-for-profits many donors may feel that they want to support beneficiaries as directly as possible, favouring organisations that utilise resources in a way which is easily understood by the donor. The development of a more sophisticated and strategic view of philanthropy – where donors feel confident in supporting organisations that fund research, deal with complex problems that require a multi-stakeholder approach or engage in rights based or environmental advocacy – will require improvements in public trust.


It is certainly true that the so called Foreign Agents Law requiring not-for-profits receiving foreign funding and conducting “political” activities to register as “foreign agents” is damaging for the image of not-for-profits and the range of activities in which they engage. Such barriers to foreign funding of advocacy organisations is part of a worrying global trend that has been described as one of the key issues of his mandate by Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. However, it should also be recognised that perhaps the best way to challenge such a policy in Russia is to allow not-for-profits to build a level of credibility with the Russian public on which they could justify demands for greater civic freedoms.


To that extent, Russia Giving sets out some compelling recommendations that if implemented could help Russian not-for-profit organisations build legitimacy and improve public trust. The report calls for donors to be provided with high quality information on the activities of not-for-profits and the outcomes of their work that come from trusted sources. It also recommends that leaders of not-for-profits should be more visible as Russian’s are more likely to associate with and trust an accountable individual than a faceless organisation.


The clear message to be taken from Russia Giving is that there is room for cautious optimism about the prospects for creating a culture of philanthropy in Russia but that there is much work to be done to make that future a reality. Raising the profile of not-for-profit organisations and the work that they do and opening up more ways for people to give will be key to building the capacity of the sector and the good will of citizens towards it. Once the flame of generosity has been lit, international experience shows that the flames of civil society cannot easily be quelled.


Adam Pickering



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