Supporting Russian CSOs in the pandemic

Flexibility, coalitions and trust: What the pandemic has taught CSOs; where CSOs looked for funding during the 2020 Covid crisis and why donor partnerships are needed


In March 2020, the Potanin Foundation set aside one billion roubles to support CSOs adversely affected by the pandemic.

“At the time, it was difficult to know where and what specific support was needed. We don’t normally specialise in targeted assistance so decided to do what we do best, which was to help CSOs working on the front line. The Foundation organised three anti-crisis competitions for charities”, said Oksana Oracheva at the Forbes Philanthropists and Patrons Forum held on 2 March at the Marriott Royal Aurora Hotel.

In the first competition, organisations were able to receive money “just to survive”. The Potanin Foundation funded the salaries of CSO staff and paid for rental space as well as taking care of other pressing needs. “At the same time, we allowed 100% redistribution of funds at the CSO’s discretion because we realised that decisions about where money should be spent could change”, Oracheva explained.

The second contest was aimed at supporting sector leaders “who also provide help and effect systemic change”. The third was to support systemic projects.

“A lot of people asked for money to set up an endowment, i.e. a trust fund to be used by organisations for non-profit purposes, as it was clear that having a safety net in a time of crisis was advisable in order to ensure there was enough money to pay staff salaries”, she added.

Don’t allow art to wither on the vine

Fatima Mukhomedzhan, CEO of the Art, Science and Sport Foundation, told the forum that her organisation had invested more than $160 million to deal with problems requiring immediate action, including purchasing PPE. However, the Foundation has not changed nor abandoned its core remit and is continuing to support major cultural leaders and collectives on a regular basis.

“For the arts to flourish at any given time, patrons are needed who will support them. With our help, many organisations have been able to continue with their projects online, e.g. the Mariinsky Theatre, the Theatre on Malaya Bronnaya, the “Moscow Virtuosi” Orchestra, the “Garage” Museum and others”, said Fatima.

Flexibility and trust

“We have seen that private donors can act more quickly than the State. We need to have more trust in those who receive grants as this will lead to greater accountability. We have to be more flexible in responding to circumstances as they arise”, Oracheva stressed.

A lack of donor partnerships

“We don’t have any real partnerships among donors”, said Maria Chertok, CEO of the Charities Aid Foundation. There is an extensive, operational coalition in the West. For example, the Association of British Insurers in Great Britain has created a rapid response fund (around £100 million) in order to support CSOs. This is a huge resource for the sector where help can be accessed instead of them having to chase donors”, Maria added.

Maria stated that a few donors had shown flexibility by simplifying reporting procedures for CSOs already overwhelmed in fighting the pandemic. “I think it’s a big mistake not to have any statistics on the sector’s contribution to the Covid crisis. Each CSO knows how much it has spent but an overall figure is still needed as this will tell us more about the value and scale of what we are achieving”, she said.

Communication problems

Despite all the previous experience that CSOs and the State have had in working together, there has been too little communication, understanding and involvement of CSOs in conflict resolution, said Kseniya Frank, Chair of the Timchenko Foundation’s Supervisory Board.

“There have been too many occasions where it has been impossible to receive any official response for help from government agencies when it has clearly been needed. CSOs are not always represented in operational hubs despite often being the first to identify and resolve problems. This is particularly true at regional level where there are few CSOs that have trusted relationships with government”, said Frank.

Kseniya also noted the importance of horizontal communication in the sector which could make collective effort more effective. “People who can resolve similar problems in different cities are generally able to work well in supporting one another”


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