Next Door Neighbours Half Way Round the World: from Minnesota to Perm

Nancy Straw, President of the West Central Initiative in Minnesota, U.S., reports on her recent visit to a community foundations conference in Russia

As much as I enjoy travelling, why would I travel to the last city on the way to Siberia in mid-November?  Perm is 683 miles east of Moscow, the easternmost city in Europe: during Soviet times, the city was closed to foreigners, due to the munitions factories located there.  I did not go just to see a wonderful performance of the ballet “La Sylphide” and tour the museum of unique wooden religious sculptures, although they were delightful.  I was there at the invitation of CAF Russia to attend a conference for foundations and funds based in smaller communities and rural areas in Russia.

Community foundation (CF) work started in Russia in the mid-1990s, with work in more rural areas starting a few years later.  Community Foundations and Funds now exist in many areas and in a wide variety of forms.  Our discussions were centered on topics of interest to the people attending the conference and included fundraising in a rural area, types of projects funded in rural areas, working with others (including local authorities), and what to do when you have very little or no money.

All of my presentations were based on the concepts of Rural Development Philanthropy (RDP). RDP is a community-led approach, developed by a group of U.S. community foundations and community foundation hybrids, which creates locally controlled assets and invests them to strengthen rural places.

Different language, same issues

While the language is different, the issues we deal with are the same.  We have a hard time getting people to volunteer.  We work on social issues such as meeting emergency needs, alleviating poverty, caring for children and improving education.  There are cross generational programmes, environmental programmes, support for the arts and programmes for people with disabilities. We deal with outside influences that are beyond our control.  Companies downsize and we lose jobs in our communities.  Our youth leave smaller communities for more urban areas and do not return.  Incentives for new technology development and its use in cleaning up environmental concerns are supported.  Some schools no longer offer courses in the arts; only the basics of an education due to cost cutting measures.

One of the local presenters commented that government would like to stop paying for some things and rely on philanthropic money in CFs to pay for those services.  Sounds very familiar! We talked about the historic role of CFs in the U.S. and our ability to take more risks than government to try out new service models and programmes.  Once proven, we would ask the government to step in and support those successful programmes over the longer term.  While this may have worked in the past, it happens infrequently today in the U.S. as government funding levels for all services have declined.  Our colleagues in Russia are starting at a time when funding is not available for government to take over support for successful projects, so they may not have the opportunity to do the more risky pilot project work in the same way we have done it here in the past.

There were many operational similarities, too.  Competitive grant rounds with submission deadlines are common.  There are programmes offered which charge fees to help generate income for a fund or CF, and much interest in social venture fund models.  Some funds receive support that cannot be used to pay staff salaries; they deal with a lack of financial support for their organization’s infrastructure and general operations because just like in the U.S.,  some donors want every dollar to go directly to helping people in need.  Several funds have grown organically within their communities, and others have been formed with more of a “top down” approach, with community and government leaders establishing the funds.  Some funds have buildings that house their programmes and also are used for various community activities, others are provided space free of charge, and many of them rent space from others.

Rural areas and urban areas in Russia experience the same sort of tensions that we do in the U.S.  Smaller communities do not have enough human or financial resources to work only within their own community but need to partner with neighboring towns and villages.  Rural infrastructure is not kept up as well as it is in urban areas, and there were comments about roads that are in poor condition in some rural areas.  Rural communities lose their youth to more urban areas for education and more job opportunities, and communities recognize that as a major challenge to their continued viability.  The number of nonprofit organizations can be very low in rural areas, and is more concentrated in cities and urban areas

Key differences

There are some key differences between CFs in Russia and in the U.S.  Frequent changes in local government structure and local leadership can make partnering difficult.  As CFs navigate those changes, they often must deal with the perception that local government controls the funds because the roles of government and CFs are not clearly defined.  If government leaders misunderstand or disagree with work a fund is trying to do they can make things very difficult for them.  Government officials do not always understand how the funds work or the purpose of the funds, which also happens here.

When it comes to fundraising, there are many stories in Russia that tug at the heartstrings.  Programmes that benefit schools, education and children are popular.  Donors everywhere give for a variety of reasons – passion, desire to help, tax savings, or to improve their image in the community. Businesses do not like too many different organizations asking them for donations, and some businesses in Russia are anxious to donate to their local fund to help improve their image.  People are reluctant to ask others to give when they are face-to-face.  There is competition with other organizations that also raise money.

Extractive industries are numerous in Russia: gold mines, diamond mines, oil fields.  Not many of the CFs benefit from those industries unless the companies extracting the resources provide donations to them.  I did not hear of any taxes or other government plans to keep some of the wealth in the local communities after those assets are depleted, and once that wealth is gone to an urban area, it is very unlikely any of it will ever return to the rural area.  There are examples here in Minnesota that could be helpful to those communities, like the Iron Range Resources Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) that receives financial support from taxes on mining.

Due to the extreme distances between communities in Russia, several of the funds have developed in isolation without much influence from other funds or foundations.  This provides a certain level of freedom to develop into the type of fund that is most needed in their area, and they may not be told what they are not “supposed” to do according to traditional CF work.

Learning from each other

There are many areas we could learn from and with our friends in Russia.  How can we all do a better job of telling our stories about our work?  What are the ways we can increase transparency and increase our credibility to obtain and retain the trust of our local people?  How do we decide what NOT to do when there are so many good things happening in our communities?  What can we really impact in a meaningful way with our limited human and financial resources?  How can we overcome turf issues that keep people from working together?  Are our young people receiving the right type of education to prepare them for a career?  How do we deal with the tension between environmental issues and development issues?  What are the most meaningful outcome measures and who pays to gather in information?  What techniques help to assure that your CF is not used like a bank – money in and money out – without strategy and planning?  What are the best ways to hold grant recipients accountable for the use of funds?   What are the most effective ways to engage our partners (businesses, local government, individual donors, nonprofit organizations, schools and universities)?

Working in philanthropy, no matter where it happens, we have significantly more in common than we have differences.  The human desire to help others and to make life better for those who come after us is universal and the hope inherent in our work feels the same everywhere.

While it was cold and snowing outside, the people at the conference surrounded us with a warm, welcoming atmosphere.  I hope my new friends in Russia will continue our communications and I would love to host them on a visit Minnesota.

West Central Initiative is a regional community foundation serving the nine west central Minnesota counties of Becker, Clay, Douglas, Grant, Otter Tail, Pope, Stevens, Traverse and Wilkin. WCI invests resources in our communities for regional success, using the tools of economic development and community development, and by promoting philanthropy. Learn more at

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