Written by Vanessa Swann.
My head was spinning at the end of an engrossing week in Moscow last month. I was visiting as part of a Peer Exchange UK-Russia organised by the Euclid Network supported by CAF Russia and British Embassy Moscow. The aim was to build entrepreneurial capacity of NGO leaders in Russia by drawing on experiences of UK organisations. I realised how much I had learnt from my Russian experience and wanted to action my learning. How could I do this?
During my exchange I had been invited by my host organisation, Blagosfera Center, to visit NGO and social enterprise initiatives in the Moscow region and had been taken by surprise at the extent of innovative practice I witnessed there.
I was trying to make sense of the potential for this innovation to effect the pace of change in the social sphere there. I also felt that the Russian examples deserved wider attention at an international level.
Understanding the different context in which my Russian hosts operate was at the heart of my learning. As in the UK, the struggle for sustainable financial support is the number one challenge for NGOs across Russia. Similarly, NGOs in Russia are embracing new business models to generate alternative sources of income. The major difference is that in Russia it’s mostly due to legal restrictions on accessing foreign funding as well as state funding limitations.
State funding through Russia’s ‘Presidential Grants’ involves restricted project grants rather than the sustainable development support that NGOs and social enterprises need. In addition, recent legislation has given more advantage to commercial businesses to extend corporate social responsibility. Social enterprise organisations aren’t formally recognised by the state, yet the number of small social enterprises is increasing.
Although the transition to new and additional sources of income is presenting many challenges, NGOs are nonetheless winning new independence and reshaping long neglected relations with the general public. They’re doing this by developing new strategies for marketing, fundraising and public engagement.
The focus for Russian NGOs is communicating to its citizens ways in which they can engage in philanthropy and charitable giving. Communication planning, digital technology, networking and activity in public spaces have become the means by which NGOs are driving their activities forward. As a result, individual giving and volunteering is on the rise.
Blagosfera Center in Moscow exemplifies this new era of individual giving. Describing itself as a public space that aims to encourage Russian citizens to engage in philanthropy and social change, it was established 2 years ago with funding from a private donor. Over 70 NGOs helped develop the concept and continue to be involved.
The Center provides support to NGOs through space for events; hot desking and communication training. It incorporates a media centre where NGOs can develop their own films and podcasts free of charge as well as interact and be supported by journalists who are members of a Club based there.
The building is open access and comprises a café, charity shop, a book swop area and an array of charity ‘pop ups’. One of the most successful public events is a ‘Speaker’s Corner’ held in a ginormous stairwell. Members of the public can propose topics and bring an audience with them. The Center is seen as a beacon in its field, organises a wide array of events and actively seeks international connections.
A new model in development is the Cities of the Futures initiated by the philanthropist and entrepreneur Vladimir Vainer of Gladway Foundation. Operating from vacant spaces in large buildings such as old factories in residential districts of Moscow, a series of Neighbourhood Centres are being rolled out as experimental models.
Local residents decide on the activities they would like to hold in the Neighbourhood Centres and pay for them to take place. The locals coalesce around common interests such as dog walkers hiring a dog trainer to run a masterclass and young people pooling funds to buy materials to make items to sell. The longer term aim is for similar centres to be incorporated in new developments and paid for by building owners and developers. Vladimir had just returned from a productive meeting with a developer in Siberia while I was there.
A more developed model I visited was the Museum of Traditions in Kolomna, a town in the Moscow region in the process of regeneration. This is a creative cluster of museums established by a group of creative entrepreneurs with funding from the Vladimir Potanin Foundation. The foundation is keen to pioneer long term social change through network development, rather than solely providing money.
The Kolomna museums present interactive events linked to various aspects of the town’s local heritage including bread making, blacksmithing, linen cloth making, soap making and Russian tea ceremonies. Revenue is generated from ticket and shop sales supplemented by profits from the manufacture and sale of traditional sweet Pastila marshmallow (a long forgotten local industry that was restarted by the entrepreneurs in 2014).
The Kolomna museums provide employment for local people and students from the local university who would otherwise leave the town to seek jobs elsewhere. They are an important tourist attraction and seen as a driver for inward investment.
Oksana Oracheva, Director of the Vladimir Potanin Foundation, highlighted the Kolomna initiative as a best practice example that is helping to guide its policy on social change. She commented, “The money is important, but now we know we want to do more to link like-minded people with leadership potential and enable them to develop networks and partnerships in communities, as this is equally important”.
Building on the exchange learning
These are but a small selection of the innovative examples of NGO and social enterprise activity that I witnessed during my week in Russia. Others can be found on websites such as The Calvert Journal, but otherwise they seem largely hidden from international view.
Following their visit to the UK my hosts from Blagosfera Center said how much they had benefited from knowledge gained during their visits with me to Toynbee Hall, The Foundry (Ethical Property Company), Free Word, Create Hub (for podcast production advice) and PwC’s The Fire Station. Conversely, what struck me was how intrigued the UK organisations had been to hear about Blagosfera Center and its role in civil society development. Generally the Russian context was little known about and the models in development were seen as intriguing and potentially transferable to the UK, if only in part.
As I was about to leave Moscow I couldn’t help but feel that we in the UK were learning from the Russian experience as much as the other way round. I applauded the Russian peers for their ingenuity. I hoped that their communication strategies and capacity building would continue to develop. But most of all I hoped that they, and those in a position of influence, would give much more prominence to the most innovative models and communicate them more widely – particularly on the international stage.
Perhaps giving more prominence to the more innovative will be inspiring and aspirational to Russian NGOs and social enterprise and might make what they are doing now appear to the public to be more ordinary, not so unusual and therefore public engagement might become more commonplace. Capacity building goals might then become easier to achieve.
I started this article with a question about actioning my learning from the Peer Exchange. For now, it feels enough that I’m able to impart information about some of the innovation I witnessed and help to bring Russian philanthropy and social change models to wider attention.
With thanks to Euclid Network, CAF Russia, British Embassy Moscow and UK and Moscow hosts: Elena Temicheva, Natalya Kaminarskaya and Vladimir Emelyanov, Blagosfera Center; Vladimir Jim Minton, Toynbee Hall; Roma Backhouse and Joanna Gooding, Free Word; Mike Butler, The Foundry; David Adair, PwC, Sam Fry, Create Hub; Vladimir Vainer, Cities of the Future; Oksana Oracheva, Vladimir Potanin Foundation; Ekaterina Oinas, Museum of Traditions, Kolomna and Eugenie Rappoport, Avoska.
The PeerEx methodology
While some aspects are guided – including introductory webinars and expert-led workshops or discussions – the emphasis is on allowing peers to work together in whatever way is most useful to them.
It’s also about building relationships, and sometimes that means not just talking about social enterprise but also politics, family life, and even celebrity gossip, according to Irina Makeeva. “This is what makes us closer – we are all people. I’m looking forward to people coming to Novosibirsk now. So the methodology works!”
If you would like to find out more about social innovation and change in Russia contact the Euclid team for more info