In this interview, our general director Oksana Oracheva makes the case for philanthropy centers and the importance of developing the philanthropy support ecosystem through mappings, collaboration, and research.
The role of philanthropy infrastructure is gaining more and more weight on the global philanthropy agenda. How do you see its current state globally? How do you think these global trends resonate in the Russian context?
The role of philanthropy infrastructure has become a very hot topic: we are rethinking what philanthropy is today and what kind of support it needs. The philanthropy support ecosystem reflects the current status of philanthropy and its changing role. Traditionally, philanthropy used to be a privilege of big NGOs and foundations. However, today philanthropy has significantly evolved and has become something different. It still involves big actors, but has become much more complex and diverse, decentralized and technological, engaging more and more individuals, requiring partnerships and collaborations. It means that we need a strong philanthropy support ecosystem that would support these changes.This is one of the reasons why we are talking about infrastructure so much these days. So it is not surprising that philanthropy development is on the agenda globally, and Russia is not different. It is interesting to observe how the issue of philanthropy development is changing in those countries where philanthropy itself is a relatively new phenomenon and developing very quickly. Russian philanthropy is building concurrently different types of institutions: traditional institutions such as foundations for instance (private and corporate, endowment funds, fundraising foundations, etc.) and support organizations such as resource centers which provide various types of support to philanthropic and NGO activities. But at the forefront of change are different types of institutions that bring digital technologies into a philanthropic world and provide platforms for crowdfunding and crowdsourcing activities, bridging people and ideas together. That is why the philanthropic landscape in Russia, as well as in other countries, has so many different faces. Traditional definitions do not work any more.
Sustainability of infrastructure itself is a critical issue. The Vladimir Potanin Foundation is producing a mapping on the philanthropy infrastructure in Russia. What are possible approaches to this topic? Did the research highlight opportunities, and obstacles that can be shared so far?
We see that there is a huge need to develop the sustainability of the infrastructural institutions as well as NGOs and other elements that are part of our ecosystem. Russian foundations and resource centers have undertaken a number of attempts to picture our philanthropy landscape. For about 5 years, the Russian Donors’ Forum published an annual report on the state of institutional philanthropy the country. Even though the report covers only five types of foundations: private foundations, corporate foundations, community foundations, fundraising foundations and endowment funds, it was also a way to map those types of suopprt organizations on the Russian philanthropic agenda. NGO resource centers that have existed in Russia for 20+ years are also trying to define their role and to identify themselves in different areas in the country, as they do their own mapping.
Each attempt to classify our diverse sector raises a lot of debates – from definitions that badly reflect the work individual organizations are doing to doubting the need for any mapping or classification as such. How can we avoid over generalization? How can we reflect the variety of elements and complexity of ecosystem? Why we are spending so much time and effort on something that at the first glance does not have an effect on what we do? Why we need to apply Western classifications and terminology if our system is different? These are just few questions asked during research undertaken.
And this is exactly the reason why we decided to support another mapping exercise. We believe that mapping is one of the possible ways to answer the questions: where we are, who we are and what is our community doing today. In addition to sharing knowledge it could be a very useful practical tool for networking, creating partnerships, and increasing effectiveness of every dollar spent. We, in Russia, observe that many private and corporate donors are paying more and more attention and investing more money into NGO-building and sustainability, knowledge sharing and benchmarking. Mapping is one of the key elements of these activities.
Thus, the Center for the Philanthropy Development of the Vladimir Potanin Foundation has its roots in this tradition and builds its work and research on quite a solid basis. What we can already share is that it is very difficult to actually find the definition of an infrastructural organization that would work for everyone. Each of us has our own understanding of what an infrastructure organization is, starting from established institutions that conduct particular functions as a part of their daily routine and going to established practices that do not belong to one or another formal institution. The first stage of this research, and the first discussions that were organized, were focused on answering the questions; What are we? What is infrastructure in Russia?
I believe there are no definite answers, and the more we discuss and discover different angles, the better it would be for the development of the philanthropy itself. It will provoke us to think, to question, to reflect and sparkle new ideas.
What is the role of big players in supporting infrastructure development? How do non-profit sector needs correlate with the existing infrastructure?
Normally big foundations play a significant role supporting infrastructural and NGO development. There is an ongoing debate in the world and Russia is not excluded – should we support particular projects or should we invest in institutions that run these projects? And there is no simple answer. It is much easier to say that we want to support the project that will help us work towards resolving the cause but without the institution, and without the infrastructural support this project cannot be run effectively. And in Russia, this debate has been going on for all 20 years since the early beginning of the new philanthropy tradition. Project support is more common while now more and more big players are coming to understanding that without particular infrastructural institutions, you cannot actually run projects successfully. And we can see that both the state and private organizations (business and private funders) are giving funds not only to the cause but also to the institutions that work towards the cause. This is particularly the case when we look at the digitalization of philanthropy – online platforms, CRM and GMS systems, open data, etc. This trend cannot be developed without specialized infrastructural support.
Even though we have clear indicators of the need of infrastructural organizations, the support they receive is rather limited. I think Russian donors should have similar discussions and initiatives as donors in other countries have – how to establish such rules and regulations (at least as a common practice) to ensure that the grant money we provide works towards the benefit of the organizations and people that run the project. Should we invest more in people working in those organizations, should we invest more in institutions’ building and not only in project building? Should we join our efforts in infrastructure building and in changing traditional grant making?
There are at least 45 philanthropy centers worldwide, including the Center for Philanthropy Development that you established this year. What makes this center unique? Why are they needed? How does it impact what they do and achieve?
The Center for the Philanthropy Development that was established by the Vladimir Potanin Foundation almost a year ago is the answer to the need to support philanthropy and NGO development in Russia and beyond. There are very few specialized centers in Russia and most of them are functioning within higher educational institutions, within the universities like Higher School of Economics or, if you think about corporate social responsibility, it is Saint Petersburg State University, etc. Those Centers work on different topics from history of philanthropy in Russia to sociology of the today NGO sector. At the same time, we believe that there is a need for more such centers.
There is a history of building centers internationally by a number of foundations, but there is still a little understanding how we assess the effectiveness of the work the centers do and what they produce. It is pure research that helps our understanding or there is some unique value that helps the NGO sector and philanthropy itself to grow. How does the Center assist with the critical needs the NGO and philanthropy sector has and how can we focus the Centers’ research to ensure that the topics this research and other activities cover are relevant for the development of the field?
We believe that we do need to have centers as part of the infrastructural ecosystem. When we established the Center within the Vladimir Potanin Foundation, our primary idea was to support the development and integration of the sector and to improve our own work through evidence-based decision-making. We hope that with the creation of the Center we would be able to produce or re-design our understanding how such research and other activities that are usually associated with the centers for the philanthropy in the world would be linked to the sectors’ development itself.
In what ways do you think the Center for Philanthropy addresses the challenges of strengthening infrastructure for philanthropy in Russia and Eastern Europe? How do you expect the interaction with other centers around the world?
The critical difference that we hope to see is that we want our center to be part of the philanthropy landscape in Russia and to ensure that the research results, as well as fellowships, exchanges, debates are really relevant and important for all stakeholders and, first of all, to the beneficiaries of the products of the center. We hope that the Center for the Philanthropy Development at the Vladimir Potanin Foundation would be part of a bigger world-picture and would be integrated with other centers working in different parts of the world. One can observe that new centers have started to appear in countries where traditionally there were no such forms or reflections on philanthropy and NGO development was very limited. For example in Africa, Turkey, and Russia. There is a clear trend in countries with emerging markets and emerging philanthropies where such centers now grow and work with the first-hand knowledge.
They have a huge potential to bridge old and new philanthropies, if we may say that. Analyzing what is going in the field in those countries with new philanthropies by conducting local research puts it into a global perspective, bridging it with global trends in philanthropy. I am convinced this can narrow down the division between old and new, between traditional models and new models and creating new knowledge that would be useful everywhere in the world.
We decided to spend the first year of the Center experimenting with ideas and formats to get the first hand evidence on what the sector needs and to build our further activities on these initial explorations.