Foundation Sector in Russia Burgeons, But Challenges Remain

Charitable giving and philanthropy in Russia is only slightly more than 20 years old. The first steps came in corporate philanthropy when in the early 1990s, a number of newly-established companies began giving to all sorts of causes on an ad hoc basis. A few years later, in 1997, CAF (Charities Aid Foundation) Russia, the organization I now lead, helped to establish the first corporate giving program in the country. In the years since, Russian-based companies have become a lot more thoughtful and strategic in their philanthropy, adopting corporate sustainability ideas from the West and developing longer-term approaches to their social investments.

The second wave of philanthropic institutions to appear in Russia were community foundations, the first of which was founded in 1998 in the city of Togliatti. Although it was based on the U.S./U.K. model of community foundations, Togliatti Community Foundation was founded without a dollar of foreign money, which at that time was quite amazing. Today, there are almost 60 community foundations across the country, in both big cities and remote rural areas, and a report issued by CAF Russia in 2014 found that over the last 10 years, these foundations have invested more than $16.5 million in their communities.

The third stage of philanthropy’s development in Russia involved the appearance of private and family foundations. The most prominent of them include: the Potanin Foundation, founded in 1999 by Vladimir Potanin, the first Russian to join the Giving Pledge; Volnoe Delo Foundation, founded in 1998 by industrialist Oleg Deropaska; and the more recently established Timtchenko Foundation, formed in 2010 by Elena and Gennady Timchenko after years of informal individual giving.

There is no question that over the past two decades organized philanthropy in Russia has come a long way. Nevertheless, asset and giving totals are still relatively modest. The 50 Russian foundations that shared their data for a report recently published by the Russian Donors Forum, including the largest private and corporate foundations in the country, had an overall budget of 5.5 billion rubles ($140 million), showing the average annual foundation’s budget to be in the region of 100 million rubles ($2.8 million) — hardly an impressive figure compared to foundation grantmaking budgets in other large countries. Of the aforementioned prominent foundations listed above, the largest spends slightly over $10 million annually.

Despite the relatively modest giving totals, the recent growth of Russian foundations is still impressive. This growth is in many ways a result of persistent long-term outreach and awareness efforts of Russian NGOs that realized early on that one of the key cultural challenges in building a more robust philanthropic sector in Russia is public trust, or the lack thereof. In the case of Russia, this lack of trust is a double-edged sword — the public tends not to trust NGOs, while foundations, lacking confidence in the effectiveness and transparency of civil society organizations, tend to operate their own programs rather than support such organizations with grants. NGOs have made great progress to counter this, but changing this entrenched ethos of skepticism remains an ongoing challenge.

Mistrust is also augmented by the Russian government’s policies that aim to divide the sector into “good” organizations — service-providing social welfare NGOs that help the government to implement their social obligations — and “bad” ones — human rights and watchdog groups whose work, in the view of the government, constitutes “political activities.” Paired with rocketing hostility towards foreign funding that traditionally went towards this part of the sector, this attitude of the government does not help to overcome public suspicion and build a stronger civil society sector.

It’s important to note, as well, that Russian society traditionally has been suspicious of people with wealth, which has direct implications for the foundations that have been set up by the so-called oligarchs. In Russia, as in many other countries, philanthropy is often viewed as a way to justify and excuse extreme wealth.

In addition to this cultural barrier of mistrust, the growing presence of organized philanthropy in Russia must overcome several other challenges to be more effective. One specific challenge is that philanthropy in Russia is quite disconnected from civil society at large and favors help over change. Community-based philanthropic institutions, most of which fund informal groups of citizens instead of organized NGOs, are an exception. But private and corporate foundations tend to favor “helping the needy” or “supporting young leaders,” and rarely think strategically about bringing about social change that might involve, for example, empowering disadvantaged groups or strengthening the voices of those on the margins of society.

Compounding this, one consequence of Russian foundations’ modest grantmaking budgets is an inability to follow up on and support initiatives that emerge from the grassroots. Instead of listening to and learning from grassroots organizations, Russian funders often prefer to create top-down programs that reflect their own ideas and tactics, and then pay NGOs to implement them.

My organization, CAF Russia, takes these challenges seriously and is constantly looking for strategies with which to address them. At the same time, we understand that philanthropic cultures are not built overnight and that donors in Russia will not change their ways after a conversation or two. Still, meeting people where they live and engaging with them around issues they care about will help to influence their thinking in the long term, and may even set them on a journey that ends in the kinds of changes that Russia so needs.

This post is part of an occasional series on the CEP Blog providing international perspectives on philanthropy and foundation effectiveness. Other posts in the series can be found here.

Maria Chertok is director of CAF Russia. She also serves as Chair of WINGS (Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support) and is a member of the editorial board of Alliance magazine. She can be reached at

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