This question was posed to me and other panelists at the recent Future of Private Philanthropy conference at the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO. As a guest of the Vladimir Potanin Foundation, one of Russia’s first private foundations, I was at Skolkovo’s Wealth Transformation Centre* with an audience of private philanthropists, family foundation program officers, and academics to share the lessons from the case study we developed for the Potanin Foundation, and also comment on what the experience of developing the case had taught us about the potential for giving in Russia.
The morning session of the conference was devoted to exploring the expectations of private philanthropists. In the afternoon, we discussed operational excellence. My presentation was a summary of the case study we had recently completed which documented the successes and challenges faced by the Potanin Foundation as they work to build the philanthropic sector in Russia. As a bit of background, The Vladimir Potanin Foundation gives away an average of US$10 million annually. Vladimir Potanin’s example and the Foundation’s work to improve the legal framework for giving over the years have spurred other high-net-worth business people to become more philanthropic. In 2013, for example, Russian-based donors (including corporations) contributed more than US$1 billion in million-dollar-plus donations. Compared to the US$16.9 billion similarly donated in the US, or even the US$2.6 billion in China, Russian giving remains relatively modest. But considering that Russia’s charitable activities were supplanted by the Soviet system during much of the 20th century, local philanthropy is rapidly expanding its capacity to be a potent force for good.
Overall, the foundation is having an impact. Successes include a willingness to be courageous—to encourage leaders to be critical thinkers, they strongly embrace community and make key decisions once they gain input from all affected partners. The Foundation is also a lean organization willing to partner with others to achieve results. Finally, leadership and staff encourage open and honest feedback from all groups involved in their processes and activities, and they act on that feedback to continuously improve their work.
Yet the case study uncovered areas for improvement. Specifically, since one of the areas of focus for the Potanin Foundation is building philanthropy in Russia, is the foundation doing all that it can to share its lessons learned with the field? Are there other non-traditional organizations, or individuals, that the Foundation can reach out to to explore new ways of approaching problems? And how can the Foundation help its grantees beyond awarding financial support?
At the end of my presentation, I was asked by Centre Director Veronika Misyutina what I felt were the three main themes that the audience should take away as they begin to implement their own philanthropic programs. My message to the audience was simple. If they only can focus on three things, they need to learn to:
Collaborate: Virtually everyone in the room was beginning to address their own set of “wicked problems,” those big, messy problems that defy a simple solution. Individuals and organizations entering the philanthropic space sometimes have a tendency to think they have the “right” answer and to dismiss what other organizations are doing or have done. This is a mistake. Instead, funders and social investors should seek out other groups and learn from their experiences. Also, they should actively look for opportunities to work together. Wicked problems are big and messy. There is a greater chance of making progress if several groups work together instead of each working on their own.
Embrace candor: Organizations need to accept the fact that not everything they try will achieve the desired results. And that’s okay. It is equally important to learn from what didn’t work as it is to learn from what did. The key is to create a culture where it is acceptable to talk about, and even celebrate, “failures” as a way to keep the organization moving towards it goals.
Have patience: Philanthropy is just starting to gain traction in Russia. The issues and the scale are huge. It is unrealistic to expect to see substantial, quantifiable progress in three to five years. Instead, organizations need to understand both qualitative as well as quantitative measures of progress, and they need to recognize momentum—good things are happening, but they are not quite measurable yet.
I think it is an exciting time for Russian philanthropy. The conference attendees demonstrated a real desire to take advantage of the opportunities ahead, while recognizing that they will face severe challenges as they attempt to achieve their goals.
*The Center for Wealth Transformation, launched in 2013, is dedicated to creating an educational and research platform for stakeholders in Russian and CIS markets addressing questions of wealth management, succession, and philanthropy.