Thursday, March 5, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russians Remain Skeptical of Philanthropy, Volunteerism

Paul Goble

Oxford, March 4 – On the tenth anniversary of the creation of the Potanin Foundation, the first major private philanthropy of post-Soviet Russia, activists, scholars and officials assembled in Moscow earlier this week to assess the state of charitable giving and volunteerism in Russia. The findings reported at the meeting give both reason for hope and cause for concern.
On the one hand, Olga Alekseyeva, the director of the Charities Aid Foundation, said that Russia was several orders of magnitude ahead of the other post-Soviet states and East European countries and that its philanthropic organizations were “creative, very interesting and orderly” (
But on the other hand, she and other speakers at Monday’s meeting said that this sector faces some serious problems. First, the number of people involved in philanthropic and charitable work remains slow. A few big players dominate the sector, and consequently, a decision by any one of them to exit could have the most negative consequences.
Second, Russians as a community know little or nothing about charitable activities of these foundations. One recent poll, for example, discovered that the only charitable foundation most Russians could name was George Soros’s operation, even though it was closed down in Russia several years ago.
Third, most Russian philanthropy is conducted in non-transparent ways. Even those who want to know what such foundations are doing often have no way to do so. That might be all right if the amounts of money were very small, but in some cases, the funds involved are enormous and the population should know.
Fourth, Russians do not trust philanthropic groups to distribute money properly and consequently nearly half (49 percent in one poll cited) said that they were not prepared to contribute time and money to charitable groups but were prepared to give charity directly to those who most needed it.
And fifth, Russian philanthropic giving is highly concentrated. Four sectors get 99 percent of the money dispersed: education, culture, orphans and hospitals. Only one ruble in a 100 is spent on all other things. As a result, conference participants said, many critical needs are not being met.
Looming behind all these issues were concerns about the role of the Russian government and the Orthodox Church. Many participants “cursed the state,” arguing that its involvement in charitable activities was one of the major reasons that Russians were suspicious of philanthropy, but others said that “without government support,” nothing would happen..
Intriguingly, not one of the speakers at the conference mentioned the word “church,” but in response to questions, Alekseyeva said that the reason for that is the Orthodox Church is not a major player. Not only are there other faiths in the country, but relatively few Orthodox appear interested in volunteer work.

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