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Oksana Oracheva: Exec Director of Vladimir Potanin Foundation on the rise of Russian philanthropy.
Russia and philanthropy are not words that are usually go together by any means. International tensions at the moment express a resonant discord between many social, cultural and political ideas held in Russia and by other parts of the world. Charitable organizations are on the rise but they are struggling to be accepted into society and establish themselves as a local source of support. The introduction of the “foreign agents” legislation in 2012 has meant the withdrawal of many international donors – a space that needs to be filled, and is increasingly being filled by Russian donors. Oksana Oracheva is determined to ensure that this rise in the growth of Russian philanthropy is something that continues.
“It is more important to be transparent nowadays to build trust in the society for what we do,” she explains.
Transparency is a difficult concept to come to terms with in parts of Russia, but Oracheva, Executive Director of the Vladimir Potanin Foundation, is not afraid to meet that challenge.
“From the very beginning we decided we wanted to be transparent; we have transparent competition mechanisms and they are clearly explained. We have very clear, transparent procedures for selecting guarantors and how we help the people. And this is not something that has just started right now, but something that has been there from the beginning because we believe it is the only way to be a truly philanthropic organization.”
Oracheva hesitates as she reflects on the progress of the sector in Russia. It is booming compared to two decades ago, but she readily accepts that there remains a great deal of change that needs to be instigated. Philanthropy has at least now started to carve a place on the national agenda. “There is an increase, an expansion, in visibility, because what is important is without visibility you can’t build trust, because people can’t see what you are doing and see if it is really good.”
The Vladimir Potanin Foundation is among the oldest continuous organizations of its kind in Russia, and its focus on internal development has generated a great web of support.
“We just started our new approaches to educational programs, concentrating on master degree students and master degree lecturers. They are improving the quality of education and the quality of teaching and making sure they are bringing the best quality of student and teacher [together]. And we are working on our museums program again in a 10-year program.
“As part of the education and culture program, we believe it is important to support philanthropy in Russia and we will do it in different ways and continue to work on different philanthropy development. We have a program that aims to promote endowments in Russia so NGOs have a sustainable source of incomes and can work on their future through establishing endowments.”
This is all new in Russia explains Oracheva. Philanthropy is still in its infancy and is testing the waters, which means that it is still unsure as to the potential power it has for change and how far it can serve that change. Without a proper infrastructure with regards to philanthropy, there is a concern that many promising enterprises could fall flat.
“There is still a need to develop institutional philanthropy, say in the form of foundations, and in strategic things to do because there is still a lot of ad hoc development going on. Booming is nice but how many of them [philanthropic organizations] survive? There needs to be a step-by-step approach.”
Oracheva pauses to consider the best route for progress in Russia. There is no single path to success for the industry, but recommendations have already been made in order to learn from other philanthropic cultures. She explains “the more strategic philanthropy we have the better it will be for the country. Three years ago now, the Russia Donors’ Forum initiated the annual report for institutional philanthropy in Russia, trying to demonstrate the results we are having, how good it is to have a proper philanthropic organization that works on different areas, and the impact that has where you can develop your own organization or partner with someone if you want to achieve the same goal.”
This alignment of goals is a difficult field to negotiate in Russia. Whilst developing Russian society is something of high importance, the government has strict guidelines on how development can be implemented. Living donors, too, always try to exercise a great level of importance over areas for development.
“It is a concern,” admits Oracheva. The philosophy that money talks is certainly a powerful one in Russia, and overcoming restrictions is something that has to be tackled from the start.
“From the very beginning, the foundation establishes certain rules, where the donor [consents] to certain rules. That is how our foundation works: there is a founder and he set areas where he would like to work – like education and culture, or endowments – but [he] does not intervene in the process, because to work on the process you need professionals.”
Autonomy on projects has caused philanthropic crises in the area in the past. There have been ventures that have been unsustainable, as Oracheva reflects: “There aren’t many international organizations or foundations left in Russia. They left for one reason or another, some of them before changes in Russian legislation, some of them more recently.”
However, she firmly believes that this only heightens the onus of Russian responsibility to make progress in the area. “We believe it is really important to develop Russian philanthropy and its role to become greater. It was different when we were new and ‘babies’ and we needed foreigners. Now we need to be part of a bigger community.”
Salzburg Global’s philanthropy session then provides an excellent framework in which to discuss and collaborate in this way. “There is the right atmosphere for exchange of ideas, and bringing really interesting people from all over the world, and if you want to learn and share – and we do want to learn and share – then it is a good place to come. It is an interesting agenda, with interesting people and a way to be part of the philanthropic world.”
International philanthropy, however, is still not part of the Russian philosophy and Oracheva believes that development in this sphere would foster a better potential not just for national charity work, but for global interaction. “We need to be part of a community, sharing practices, learning from each other, and that is a two-way street and always about interaction and achieving better results.”
The elephant in the room is always the role of the government in restricting these practices. The question regarding philanthropic efforts is: can there even be true independence? With a wry smile, Oracheva concludes, “Philanthropy doesn’t support or depend on political issues – it’s different”.
Alex Jackson, writer at Salzburg Global Seminar.