Final reflections from the EDGE Funders Conference from our three bloggers

Our three bloggers from Vietnam, South Africa and Palestine reflect on the EDGE conference, on engaging with corporations and on how community philanthropy offers an alternative path for sustainable development

Nora Lester Murad, writer and volunteer with Dalia Association, Palestine’s community foundation, Dana Doan, Adviser to the LIN Center for Community Development in Vietnam and Fulufhelo Netswera, Tswera Community Foundation attended the EdgeFunders’ Just Giving Social Philanthropy Conference in Berkeley, CA, where they participated in a session on community philanthropy. They will contributed a series of blogs over the course of the conference (find the others here). 

Dana Doan, LIN Center for Community Development: “A Just Transition Is Only Possible With(out) Companies?”

The second day of the conference plagued me with a constant, badgering question. How can we achieve a just transition if we do (not) involve companies in our efforts? 

The opening plenary for the day started with a calmly delivered speech on all that has gone wrong in our world by the articulate and seemingly disheartened Dr. Walden Bello.  His speech ended with a quote accompanied by a drawing of a man’s face being sucked by an enormous squid, which was intended to represent Goldman Sachs, or perhaps capitalism more generally, sucking the life out of humankind. Despite the recommendations he offered to overcome the gloomy situation that has befallen us all, there was little to be hopeful about when Dr. Bello returned to his seat.

Only one of the three plenary speakers that morning left room for engagement with companies in seeking social and economic justice for workers. Sarita Gupta of Jobs with Justice said, “…we will have to confront corporate power in new and creative ways while wrestling our economy back…”  She advised us to think about the power we have and how to leverage that power. Both Dr. Bello and Ms. Gupta advised that, while the power imbalance remains we must learn how to think ahead of the companies, strategically, “instead of reacting to what could happen, we need to plan around what we know will happen!”

In the afternoon, I participated in the second of three collective discussions where participants, in small groups, are asked to debrief on their experiences during the conference.   At my table, there were eight of us – interestingly, we were all female.  This collective discussion was one aspect of the conference that I particularly appreciated and I took the opportunity to raise questions, including the one that really bothered me on that second day: “Can a just transition ever happen if we do not include companies in the conversations that are taking place during this conference?” 

A couple of members of our group admitted to questioning whether it was better, or not, to go into the belly of the beast to make change.  Several others said that they like this conference specifically because it allows them to talk these issues through with like-minded individuals.  My initial reaction is that we should be talking about how to talk with companies. Following Dr. Bello and Ms. Gupta’s advice, we can use these opportunities to prepare our strategy so that we can be prepared and ready when we do find opportunities to engage with companies. 

After our collective discussion, I attended a breakout session that spoke directly to my question – The Role of the Private Sector in Financing for Social and Ecological Transformation.  The workshop addressed two of my burning questions: Is it possible to work with the private sector to ensure social and economic justice? Does engagement with companies necessarily limit our ability to achieve alternatives to the current system?  I was glad to finally hear form organizations whose strategies included opportunities to work with companies.

Through the breakout session, it became clear that most of the experiences these organizations shared demonstrated reactive and defensive tactics rather than planned strategies. Several nonprofits talked about how they worked with companies who approached them with a desire to work together. The decision to engage was based on the company’s track record and whether both sides’ expectations for the project were acceptable.  Another nonprofit talked about company projects that were causing so much damage to their community that the nonprofit was forced to engage with them. This organization had such a horrifying experience that they can no longer envision the possibility of working in partnership with companies.

On the third, and final day of the conference, I joined Fulufhelo Godfrey Netswela from South Africa and Nora Murad from Palestine in presenting innovations in community philanthropy.  Much of my presentation underscored the role of companies in contributing to local capacity building and empowerment and LIN’s role in facilitating such partnerships to ensure that the community, as a whole benefits.

In Ho Chi Minh City, since Doi Moi and WTO accession, companies have accumulated tremendous resources, which many prove willing to share. LIN Center for Community Development introduces programs that facilitate partnerships with such companies and local nonprofits for shared benefit to our community.  In our mind, if corporate HR Managers, IT Advisors, CPAs and PR Experts coach their counterparts at local nonprofit organizations, it not only helps to build the capacity of nonprofits to achieve their goals but it also helps to build understanding about the choices and challenges companies and nonprofits are asked to make. Such understanding is what I believe can lead to better problem solving.

LIN’s model does not make much sense in Palestine, where companies and their staff are currently less resourced in comparison with the nonprofit community.  In Palestine, it is the international NGOs, the multilateral and the bilateral aid agencies that hold the resources that are needed to build local capacity. But, is there any potential for facilitating true partnerships with international nonprofit organizations to empower local nonprofits and the people of Palestine?  Thus, could or should the wrongdoers in Palestine be engaged to help make things right?

Clearly there is deep frustration and mistrust for the companies and institutions that are perceived to be the perpetrators of what is wrong in our communities or in our world.  What is not clear is how we can solve the enormous challenges of today if we decide to generalize or stereotype companies and institutions and if we intentionally choose not to include them in important conversations about social and ecological transformation.  As Ms. Maria Poblet, from Causa Justa: Just Cause stated during the opening plenary on Day 1, “We need to build unity across differences.” And we will need creativity and imagination to design strategies that build connectivity in order to achieve a just transition.  

Fulu Netwswera, Tswera Community Foundation, South Africa: Lessons for international donors from the community philanthropy field

First of May 2014 was the last day of the EDGE Funders Alliance conference here in Berkeley, CA. There are two observations I make of serious co-incidence about this day and about this conference and they are; one – May Day Rallies will be staged in major cities of the world reminding governments and big capital about the unfairness of the labour system and the sad plight of workers, and two – the theme that ran throughout this conference was that capital and corporates have exploited this planet and humanity to unprecedented and intolerable levels.

Today there is no plenary but only a number of parallel sessions that run till the conference concludes after lunch time. I report specifically from the parallel session in which I participated titled; “Innovations in community philanthropy from Palestine, Southern Africa, and Vietnam: How international donors can help and how they can hurt”. The session presenters were Nora Lester Murad on Palestine, myself on Southern Africa and Dana Doan on Vietnam.

The brilliance of the session was in the facilitation style and skills of Nora who requested all participants through a practical exercise to identify a need and to later give whatever they could in the session room. It immediately became very clear that everyone has a need and everyone has something to offer in life. This, as she explained later, was unfortunately how life is projected at the level of interface between the first and the third world, between international and indigenous/local communities. What is often projected is that local communities have nothing to offer and international/western community has everything to offer. This ideological inclination paralyses the third world and turns it into a passive recipient of grants and donations. Unfortunately still the donated funds are mostly also repatriated back into the very same first world communities that donate through hiring of “expertise”, equipment thereby serving the donor than the recipient yielding minimal tangible outcome.

The three papers that were presented in this session highlighted the following important elements:


  • The third world needs less and less “charity” because history suggests that charity and donations (IMF, World Bank, etc.) have over the past failed drastically in alleviating the challenges of the third world;
  • It is important that a new and balanced approach be found and utilised in the interfacing between first and third world. Such an approach should appreciate that indigenous people are the only people who can improve their own conditions, appreciate the knowledge, skills and competence that these communities possess which are central to their livelihood;
  • There is growing distrust of the state and of the third sector, specifically big international NGOs in the third world. The state is distrusted mainly because it is perceived to be corrupt and colluding with big capital against local communities. Third sector players are distrusted because although most of these organisations have worked long in third world communities, local communities generally still do not understand their role nor can they point at their achievements;
  • While there is no state in Palestine, in South Africa and Vietnam the state is unfortunately responsible for pathologies of dependence that goes with welfarism. In the absence of a state in Palestine; big international NGOs have appropriated this role to themselves with negative disempowering consequences; 
  • International community should cease to think that there are homogeneous set of values and principles throughout the world regarding sub-elements of development and recognise that what is important is that which communities clamour to achieve collectively in their quest for self-reliance and self-determination;
  • Elements of commonality between Southern Africa and Palestine are the dispossession of the indigenous people of important livelihood instruments like land and access to clean water, among other things, on which development hinges;


The presenters reflected on some examples of “local philanthropy” from the various third world countries, examples which they encourage international funders to consider:


  • Strengthening accountability of the third sector in the third world to and in communities in which the third sector operates. These feedback reports to local communities entrenches further moral support and restore confidence in the third sector; 
  • For purposes of instilling pride in local communities, it is important that communities raise their own funds no matter how small. “A shilling a day” Kenyan project was presented as an example that restores community pride and enables communities to demand accountability;
  • Examples of projects that have hallmarks of “economic sustenance” were provided to illustrate the importance of long term community driven and initiated interventions. The Ugandan charcoal project from Masindi Community Foundation was given as a useful and practical example of economic initiative with positive long term results and the LIN (Listen, Inspire, Nature) model for community participation initiative (CPI) for building financial sustainability for the NPOs was discussed.


Participants were requested to write on flipcharts important lessons that they take away from the session. These sessions would be typed and shared among the delegates who participated in this session to strengthen the ideology of continuous sharing which is the foundation of philanthropy.

The conference was a very big success. Many papers and practical examples of local and international philanthropy that matters were presented from all over the world. Feedback from interactions with participants suggests that the conference was a mixture of theoretical, philosophical, ideological and practical knowledge sharing. It was indeed one of the most beneficial philanthropic conferences I have attended. 

Nora Lester Murad, Dalia Association, Palestine – Valuable experiences no accident

I’ve been to tens of global meetings and I always find them energizing – both those that inspire and rejuvenate, and those that make be so angry I can’t help but act. I think I have enough experience to say without reservation that EdgeFunders’ Global Social Justice Philanthropy Conference was different than all the rest. For three intense days, funders critiqued the capitalist system from which their institutions emerged, and explored the incredibly inspiring work being done to address global inequality. Since I live and work in Palestine where hopelessness reigns, the mindfulness and intentionality of this group really struck me.

Now, at the airport on my way to return home to Palestine, I am organizing the many contacts I made into piles. I have a list of 19 people who joined a “dine-around” on the topic of Palestine. Few of them fund in Palestine, and a few more of them are exploring expanding their giving to Palestine. Most were just interested in hearing what it’s like to try to do social justice work in a place plagued by long-term oppression and crippling aid dependence.  I won’t be surprised if some of them visit.

I have a list of 13 participants from our workshop on “Local Innovations in Community Philanthropy: Lessons from Palestine, South Africa and Vietnam.” These folks shared their “take away” learning on flipcharts at the end of the workshop, which I will type up and send out. They hung around after the workshop, hugging and smiling, enthusiastic to figure out ways to value local resources through their work.

I have 24 business cards (though there could be some duplicates), most with notes written on them reminding me to send an article or to request more information about some fascinating innovation that I’m sure we can incorporate into our work. It will take days to follow up with them all, time very well spent.

But at the very top of the pile of folks I treasure meeting through EdgeFunders are two people I actually “met” before I came. Dana Doan and Fulu Netswera were speakers on the panel I organized. I was introduced to Dana by our mutual donor, Jenny Hodgson of the Global Fund for Community Foundations. Jenny believed that Dana’s LIN Center in Vietnam had done impressive work that could help Dalia Association’s efforts to expand local private sector philanthropy. She was right. Later, when the opportunity to present a panel came up, it made sense to build on the relationship we’d started with Dana. Fulu was introduced to me by Bhekinkosi Moyo, who was introduced to me by Neville Gabriel, who I met at a Synergos Institute meeting in Namibia several years ago.  Dana, Fulu and I had deep conversations about local philanthropy in preparation for our session. We co-created a format that let us focus on innovations in local philanthropy while recognizing the different contexts in which we work, and that helped us compare and contrast our experiences, leaving space for participants to share too.

It must be noted: Our really useful experience at EdgeFunders was not an accident. Once again, convening and networking funded by northern donors led to opportunities for meaningful collaboration among community philanthropy folks in the global south. I must also thank the Global Fund for Women for the travel grant that enabled Saeeda Mousa, Executive Director of Dalia Association and me to take part in the EdgeFunders conference, and for enabling the planting of seeds that, with our tending, will surely blossom into good things for our communities.

Weaving the threads, shaping the cloth: harnessing public assets for public good

A recent peer learning event organized by the African Grantmakers Network and the East Africa Association of Grantmakers focused on sustainability, a topic that has caused much heartache and angst among both civil society and donors since the very first grant was ever made, back whenever that was. One of the presenters, was Kgotso Schoeman of the Kagiso Trust in South Africa, an organization that reached the promised land of milk and honey (so, sustainability) when a rather unique set of funding circumstances presented themselves fifteen years ago. These were seized upon by Kagiso’s leadership who some bold steps and set up an investment company which now funds the Trust’s programmes. With the economies of Sub-Saharan Africa growth projected to grow at 5.5 % over the coming years, asked Kgotso, is African civil society ready to shift from its “programme – fundraising” mind-set to one of “finance and investment”? Or was the plan just to wait for money to be made by others, who may then set up their own charitable foundations – to which we can all apply for grants? The NGO sector in Africa, he lamented, has been slow to respond to the seismic shifts that have occurred in the global environment.

“Ah,” responded many in the room (silently, obviously), “It’s all very well for you to say that, sitting as you do in your comfortable, sustainable, position. But it’s not so easy for the rest of us.”

At a day-to-day working-in-the-office level this is probably true. When you live on a hand to mouth, project-based, existence it can be hard to find the time or energy to think about how to fundamentally re-design your business model. But times are changing, and as the scramble for Africa’s mineral wealth continues and as privatization processes continue with more momentum than ever all over the world, are there new opportunities to harness some of those resources for the public good?

Well, the good news is that there are a number of positive developments that are taking place in terms of this conversation which can perhaps help lay the groundwork for some big and bold thinking and action around how public or quasi-public assets can be harnessed for the public good, particularly in emerging markets and developing contexts.

Precedent: A recent study, “Philanthropication thru Privatization: Buiding Asset for Social Progress”, led by Lester Salamon at Johns Hopkins University concludes that  more than 500 endowed, independent charitable foundations have been created or enriched during privatizations, most of them since 1990 and that together they control assets of $128 billion (see this article in the Economist). The study takes an in-depth look at 22 such “P-t-P” foundations (in Europe – starting with the Italian “foundations of banking origin” whose assets amount to over 50 billion euros, the United States and New Zealand). It concludes that there is a hitherto undiscovered or unconnected “family” of public benefit foundations which, despite the fact that they emerged in complete isolation from each other, derive from the same gene pool and together constitute what one consider a “field”.

 The Philanthropication thru Privatization Team presenting the “Findings to Date”, Hanover, Sept 2013

How might the experiences of this newly discovered field serve, then, to inform the development of new charitable institutions in other parts of the world where privatization is happening but where the foundation sector is still weak? The study observes, for example, that if 10% of 2007’s sale of 40% of the stock in Kenya’s Safaricom mobile phone network to the U.K.’s Vodaphone company had been dedicated to the creation of a Kenya Community Foundation, the result would have been a charitable institution with nearly US $65 million in assets. Food for thought….

Opportunity: The report observes that privatization (whether one likes it or not) is continuing to take place around the world at an unprecedented rate (2009 and 2010 were particularly busy) so now is the time to act. Similarly, as extractive industries (also dealing in a nation’s “iffy” public assets) are increasingly required to demonstrate long-term benefits to the countries and communities in which they are operating, can the creation of charitable foundations provide one type of long-term solution for local social and economic development? In Ghana, for example, the Newmont Ahafo Development Foundation is one example of an effort by a mining company to create an endowed, community-owned development foundation with resources derived from mining in the region.

A growing field of indigenous philanthropy: Getting the governance right in these types of “philanthropication thru privatization” foundations is clearly a big issue. How to ensure that they ensure their multi-stakeholder quality and aren’t just another funding mechanism for government? Well, one place to look is to the growing field of local foundations around the world – public benefit foundations, community foundations etc. – whose very existence and ability to raise local money derives from the credibility of their governance and management functions. Although many of these might not be rich in terms of financial capital (it’s slow work building up a local donor base, particularly in context where international development aid has ruled the roost for a long time), they are often rich in social capital and public trust. So, while historic precedent and the institutional track record of established P-t-P institutions in the North can offer one source of influence and learning, so this new generation of local foundations in Africa, Asia or Latin America has a lot to offer in terms of practical advice.

New donor interest in community philanthropy: A new donor collaborative, the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy, offers another potentially important addition to this discussion. One of the broad objectives of the Alliance (whose members include the Mott Foundation, Aga Khan Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Inter-American Foundation and USAID) is to demonstrate is that fostering local ownership and accountability in development processes (including the creation and stewardship of long-term local assets) leads to stronger communities and that this should be a key focus of development practitioners in their pursuit of sustainability.

Taking a stand while finding a position: Africa’s evolving philanthropic discourse

Africa, as we are often told, is rising. The continent has been dubbed the “next economic powerhouse”, its countries “lions on the move” which include six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies. With this growth has come the arrival of a new set of African foundations on the philanthropic scene, which is becoming both more vibrant and more diverse. New networks – such as the African Grantmakers Network and the African Philanthropy Forum – have also emerged to support the fast-growing sector.

The rapid changes in the African philanthropy scene were brought home to me recently when I attended the East Africa Grantmakers Association conference in Mombasa, Kenya. I had last attended an EAAG conference in 2010 in Nairobi. At the time I was struck by how the conference was something of a mixed bag of different, often un-connected, pieces, the product of an emerging philanthropic sector which was still finding its voice, identity – probably even its constituents. So there was a fundraising master class probably more suited to NGOs than grantmakers or foundations, for example. And most of the examples of African philanthropy that were highlighted were individual, community-level, acts of giving and kindness: all very heart-warming and a good reminder of Africa’s strong traditions of social solidarity, but hard to locate in the framework of a regional network of institutional grantmakers. Overall, with the exception of the inspiring story of the Kenyan Red Cross, which had come through a particularly dark chapter in its existence, marked by scandal and financial woes and had forged a new path to financial sustainability, there was very little discussion of the “big” strategic issues for African philanthropy and its potential to develop a collective voice, harness and deploy resources and exercise influence in the social and economic development spheres.

Fast forward three years and this year’s EAAG conference was back Kenya, this time Mombasa. The theme of the conference was “Philanthropy and Business: is it business unusual?” This time, the tenor of the conversation felt very different, with the emphasis firmly on business models and approaches – impact investing, venture philanthropy, corporate social investment etc. Certainly, there were some interesting questions raised about the need for new ways of thinking that marked a departure from the project-funding paradigm that has characterized the delivery of so much external development aid and which has forced Africa’s civil society to exist on a hand to mouth existence, constantly having to respond to the changing interests of external donors. The case of the Kagiso Trust (South Africa), for example, offered a powerful example of the bold and strategic reinvention of itself that it embarked on 15 years ago when it transformed from being a re-granting intermediary for international donors during the apartheid years to organization which funds its own programmes with dividends generated by its own investment company.

And yet, while I fully accept that there is always room for greater efficient, transparency in the philanthropic sector, I did begin to wonder whether, by focusing entirely on the business side of things, we were missing out on some big and important questions about the role and responsibilities of the African philanthropic sector in grappling with big issues around poverty, equity and rights and in empowering communities to act in in the face of conflicting government or corporate interests.

Philanthropy, or the use of private resources for public good, has and will always been fraught with tensions and contradictions. Can resources earned in regressive ways (low wages or even exploitation of its workers, deals cut in corrupt ways that bypass regulation or legislation etc.) ever really achieve progressive social change? Can corporate philanthropy ever really be more than an arm of a company’s marketing and public relations departments? Concerns about philanthropy as a strategy for corporate “greenwashing”, for example, are particularly pertinent in Africa right now because so much of its economic growth is commodity driven which means minerals extracted from ground under which people live, communities displaced and environmental impacts.

At an excellent panel on social justice philanthropy which was, alas, relegated to a break-out session, Kaari Murungi (co-founder of the Urgent Action Fund for Women – Africa) raised important questions that offered rather a stark counter-narrative to tone of the larger plenary discussions around the need for grantmakers to “step up” to the standards of business in their work. “What shapes in justice and what perpetuates it?” she asked. “In order to understand social injustice, we need to understand power, how it is acquired, how it is used and who stands to benefit.” She lamented the lack of resources and research to enable social justice activists to engage corporates, particularly extractive industries, around issues such as land ownership (and by implication urged an essential role for philanthropy in supporting such efforts). And she highlighted the worrying “democratic deficit” across much of Africa, which created a culture of impunity and allowed those with resources to do anything and get away with it. This was particularly true in the corporate sector, where levels of accountability and good governance were often very low. And yet, in the context of the overall conference, this “side-conversation” (of, it has to be said, the already converted) seemed both extremely important and yet out of kilter with the overall narrative of the conference.

As the African philanthropy sector enters a period of rapid growth, with new players and new resources emerging, some level of tension and contradiction is inevitable – and healthy – not least because different kinds of philanthropic money come shaped by different visions and theories of change.

Kingsley Mucheke, Jane Weru The Akiba Mashinani Trust, Kenya

I very much believe in the power of networks, associations and philanthropy support organizations in helping to advance and shape both the philanthropic discourse and strengthen the capacities of constituents. This is a collective task for all of us who are engaged in the philanthropy field wherever we are. Some closing thoughts on how we do this.

Take a stand: While we wait for the benefits of Africa’s economic growth to trickle down beyond a handful of elites and a growing middle class, issues of poverty and inequity are ever-present. Philanthropy offers a unique position from which to take risks, seed innovation and ensure the voice of a vibrant civil society to hold governments and big corporates to account. Yes, there are new opportunities for African foundations and NGOs to rethink their business model and models like the Kagiso Trust offer great learning, but business solutions in terms of how development is actually done may not always be the most effective. While civil society may want to look for lessons from the business sector, new business-oriented foundations can also look to the work of the African Women’s Development Fund or the Kenya Community Development Foundation for examples of years of good and effective community and economic development work.

Engage in and encourage debates around language so that it helps to connect dots, denote concrete meaning and move us beyond the abstract or the vague: Over the last couple of years, a group of donor organizations have been engaged in a consultation and reflection process aimed at building up a case for community philanthropy as a practice that could enhance development outcomes. The definition of community philanthropy that has emerged out of this process rests on three cornerstones: assets, capacities and trust. In July, two Kenyans became the first winners of the Olga Alexeeva Memorial Prize: in awarding the prize, the judges were all impressed by the explicit focus of Jane (Weru) and Kingsley (Mucheke) of the Akiba Mashinani Trust on the most marginalized community in Kenya – landless slum dwellers – and “by the way they have developed a philanthropic mechanism to support transformational efforts by that community”. Jane and Kingsley (who, by the way, wrote the most wonderful blog about his experience) did not nominate themselves: in fact, before they travelled to St Petersburg, Russia, to collect their prize at the Emerging Societies, Emerging Philanthropies Forum, it did not seem that they had ever seen their own work in the context of “doing philanthropy”, so much as “receiving philanthropy” (from foundations that had invested in their work). And yet it so clearly conforms to a form of community philanthropy that is all about building up local assets, capacities and trust. (I’d also be interested to know more about the definition of “community philanthropy” that was used in the EAAG Philanthropy Prize process).

Jenny Hodgson

Rubtsovsk community foundation: building philanthropy and civic engagement in one of Russia’s “dying cities”

Philanthropy in Russia today is no longer just about big private Moscow-based foundations or humanitarian aid organizations. Editor of Philanthropy (an online portal on all matters philanthropic run by Charities Aid Foundation Russia), Matthew Masal’tsev, went to Siberia, to find for himself out how local philanthropy is changing lives at the community level. He began his journey in Rubtsovsk, in the Altai region of Russia.

In many ways, Rubtsovsk can be regarded as the birthplace of a new kind of local philanthropy which is as much about civic participation as it about money. Eight years ago, the local community foundation (known in Russian as City Charitable Fund, “Development”) produced its first “charity show”, an adaptation of the children’s story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The performers included prominent businessmen as well as local officials and deputies, and proceeds from ticket sales went towards a community grantmaking programme. The show was an instant hit: it has been performed every year since and has raised over 1.2 million rubles, or around US $36,000. (It has also inspired similar types of charitable / theatrical productions in other parts of Russia).

Building on this success, the community foundation went on to hold other community-oriented charitable events, including a talent show and, most recently, a music contest called, “Together Through Song” where the musically talented – and the less musically talented – all have an opportunity to perform.

Talent competition organized by the community foundation

Igor Levin, director of a local metals factory, is a newly inspired bass guitarist, having picked a guitar for the first time only a few months ago to join one of the bands playing in the competition. This isn’t Igor’s first foray into the activities of the community foundation – he’s starred as the heroic lover in five of the charitable productions, competed in the talent show, and been a key member of the team in a charitable football tournament.

Rubtsovsk is in the Altai region, near the border with Kazakhstan and a 300 kilometres from the nearest airport in Barnaul. Although the city (pop. 150,000) was founded 120 years ago, it began to grow significantly during the Second World War when two large factories were relocated there away from the front lines. These two factories – one producing tractors the other agricultural machinery – formed the pillars of the city’s economy during the Soviet era, bringing jobs and infrastructure. In fact, during Soviet times, Rubtsovsk was one of the largest employers in the manufacturing industry across the Union.

However, in the early 1990s with the demise of the Soviet Union, industrial production ground to a halt and Rubtsovsk went through a very difficult period as state salaries and pensions went unpaid.  Although things improved after 2000, Rubtsovsk is still categorised as one of Russia’s “dying cities”. (Even in the last year the city has seen more job losses with the abolition of customs controls between Russia and Kazakhstan).

As times got more and more difficult, local businesses found themselves frequently approached with requests for assistance. Businessmen like Alexander Varatanov and his partners felt strongly that it was their responsibility to do what they could to help. “But then I became concerned that we were starting to see the emergence of a ‘professional beggar’ mentality. It’s impossible to help everyone. And it’s hard to make decisions when people turn up at your office,” says Vartanov. “At the same time, you need to have systems in place to ensure that money is spent properly and for the intended purpose. A few of decided that we needed some kind of structure which could help address some of these problems.”

Tatiana Bukanovich, director of the foundation (on right)

The idea of introducing such a mechanism took root and the foundation was established in 2000, under the charismatic leadership of Tatiana Bukanovich and with support from local business leaders. Over the last twelve years the foundation has organized charity performances, grants programmes, social projects, public campaigns and, more recently, it has been the driving force behind the alliance of Altai community foundations. It has also created a stronger links within the local business sector and the conversation these days is much more about the development of civil society and of active citizens than about charity.

For one of the donors to the foundation, the aspiring bass guitarist and head of a local factory, Igor Levin, the relationship with the community foundation has been an interesting journey. Levin believes in “doing” and had always been rather sceptical about the idea of “charity” as something that perpetuates passivity and inertia. So it was only in 2003, when he decided to run for political office and was advised that he needed to improve his image in the community, that he approached Tatiana and her colleagues at the community foundation – and promptly received an instant and thorough education about the role and importance of philanthropy.

For Levin, the community foundation goes beyond mere charity to community development and innovation. He describes receiving requests from two kindergartens: one was for a television and video recorder and the other was to purchase materials to decorate a room that they had turned into a children’s theatre. “Of course, I supported the second: after all, how many children will pass through that children’s theatre. You never know, some of them might turn out to be great artists in the future!” (He adds with a sly smile, “And by the way, one of the community foundation projects has actually brought me business”. His company was commissioned to construct 10 play structures with the funds raised through the charity show).

Marat Yelagin, a former radio journalist turned furniture entrepreneur and a board member of the community foundation, harbours a rather sceptical view of the local community whom he sees as often disengaged and distrustful. Despite this he has established his own designated fund within the community foundation and is exploring the idea of creating a system of legal aid for citizens to support them in asserting their rights in their dealings with government. Whether people would appreciate such an effort, he muses, is another thing altogether.  So why engage in philanthropy at all? “In my own way, I’m just trying to make sure that everything I’m involved in is at least transparent and effective.”

And it is around that last sentiment, it seems, that the Rubtsovsk Community Foundation continues to strike a chord: that in a broader environment of inertia, corruption and distrust it is still possible for individuals to come together to engage in philanthropic giving in ways that are both transparent and effective.

 Translated and adapted from an article originally published on the “филантроп” website published by CAF Russia