Funding Russian NGOs: opportunity in a crisis?


Russian NGOs have traditionally looked abroad for their funding, and are dismayed at recent legislation setting up new barriers to this practice. Almut Rochowanski argues, however, that this should be seen as a challenge to increase the involvement of the Russian public in the development of civil society.

Almut Rochowanski
13 February 2013

Russian civil society had not yet recovered from the upheaval caused by the notorious ‘foreign agent’ law (which requires organizations receiving funds from foreign donors and engaging in ‘political activities’ to declare themselves foreign agents), when the so-called Dima Yakovlev bill, signed into law by President Putin on December 28, delivered yet another blow: organizations receiving funding from the US and engaging in ‘political activities’ would simply have ‘their activities stopped’.

‘Stopped’ is, it seems, to be read as ‘temporarily halted’; the law has provision for an NGO to resume its work after it has discontinued its offending activities and renounced US funding. But even with this less than final threat, the spectre of months and years of frozen accounts, sealed offices and prolonged court battles is just about the worst-case scenario for the average Russian NGO. This newest law was adopted as a retaliatory measure for the US’s Magnitsky Act and, not surprisingly, reeks of mean-spirited hostility. It’s the same law that prohibits US adoptions of Russian children – the bill was named after a Russian child who died after adoption by an American couple.

Both NGO laws were tabled, loudly (but pointlessly) protested against by organisations big and small, passed after the required readings and signed into law with lightning speed. The Foreign Agent law was criticized for being vague and for initially lacking procedures and timelines for implementation. Even now, no one can say with any authority what ‘political activities’ really means, with several competing theories out there, based on analysis of other legislation. The day the Foreign Agent law entered into force, 21st November, one especially enterprising organization sued the Ministry of Justice for not providing adequate clarifications. Legal experts have argued that the notion of activists having to call themselves ‘foreign agents’ is not just absurd, but possibly illegal – because the government cannot force you to call yourself something you’re not.

Some of the most eminent Russian human rights leaders have expressed robust reactions, ranging from ‘well, then we won’t take any foreign grants anymore and just work for free, as we did in the dissident days’ to ‘we will simply refuse to comply and let them arrest us’. Litigation has been announced, all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. Predictably, the bulk of the debate has been about the new political era under Putin’s second presidency and dark hints about a return to Soviet-era repression. All that may well be a distraction. There is a much greater issue here, one that begs for a big, broad debate: why is it that so much of Russia’s civil society, and especially the human rights sector, is funded by foreign donors, and overwhelmingly or indeed exclusively so? Isn’t that somehow problematic? What does this mean for the authenticity, the rootedness of NGOs’ values and work, their relationship with the Russian public, the authority they can hope to have with their fellow citizens?

Agents – whose agents?

Let’s be quite clear. In reality, Russian NGOs that take grants from foreign donors (probably a majority of NGOs that have any funding at all) are not in any way, shape or form ‘agents’ of anyone. Their donors never tell them what to do. They really don’t. Anyone who has been on the inside of this process knows this. Plus, grant application processes are highly complicated and competitive, especially for the majority of smaller or local NGOs that are not in the exclusive club of established donor favourites. A foreign government looking to recruit agents would surely not force them to write dozens of pages, answer convoluted, jargon-heavy questions, let alone complete a log frame; and then, when reporting time comes around, make them submit every taxi receipt (try getting a receipt from a taxi driver in any Russian city…).

'Why is it that so much of Russia’s civil society, and especially the human rights sector, is funded by foreign donors? What does this mean for the authenticity, the rootedness of NGOs’ values and work, their relationship with the Russian public, the authority they can hope to have with their fellow citizens?'

Most donors active in Russia are neither governments nor the kind of huge, ambitious foundations (e.g. George Soros’s Open Society Foundations or the MacArthur Fund) that figure so prominently in cherished conspiracy theories. They are small Trusts, family foundations, religious charities, funds that raise their money painstakingly from ordinary citizens in countries like Italy or Sweden. And as is perfectly obvious to anyone who has spent time around the Russian activists who take these grants, these people are driven by their own ideas and dreams and are as stubborn as can be in their pursuit. They wouldn’t make good agents for anyone else’s agenda.

Finding donors who share your aims…

But still, there is a very real problem here. For anyone who has ever been faced with the desperate task of keeping an NGO funded, the term ‘donor-driven’ isn’t just an abstract concept that you can ignore. It’s what happens to some degree every time you sit down to tackle yet another application form (and that may be many times a year, because the competition is fierce and the grant amounts small). You need to come up with the rent to keep the place open, pay your accountant a little bit here and there so she doesn’t altogether abandon you and somehow find a way to meet your beneficiaries’ desperate needs.

In the back of your head, or saved on some battered flash drive, you have your dream project, exactly the kind that your neighbourhood needs – catch-up education for kids who have dropped out of school. But this donor won’t fund them. This donor, this year, wants to ‘empower marginalized youth through integrating them into global youth activism networks’. The donor wants social media, internet video, diversity among the beneficiaries. This year, LGBT youth would be great, the donor says (last year the donor wanted youth from Muslim minorities). All very nice ideas and not too far removed from what your organization does.

And so you and your colleagues think up a project idea, write 15 pages in answer to some 25 different questions and complete a complex budget spreadsheet, and after waiting for half a year you are thrilled to find out that you beat out the competition and will receive $16,794. That same year, a few more donors open calls for proposals that are heavy on video and social media (though none for those basic educational programs the kids in your neighbourhood could really use), and so you apply a few more times. You win one more grant. Victory! You have managed to keep the doors open and the lights on. The social media/video/marginalized youth projects actually turned out pretty good. You’re very proud of your beneficiaries and the earnest videos they produced, and you check their Youtube hits obsessively. The project netted you some keen young volunteers and an invitation to a workshop on internet hate speech in Ukraine, where you met other activists from all over the former Soviet Union. Your organization is getting quite good at this!

'Your dream project, exactly what your neighbourhood needs, is catch-up education for school drop-outs. The donor wants social media, internet video, diversity among the beneficiaries. This year, LGBT youth would be great…'

It’s pretty obvious what’s happening here. Organizations may be founded by dedicated, selfless, driven people who have identified a need in their community or country and will do what they can to address it. But institutional donors usually have their own ideas, based on their own analysis and sometimes, especially with private foundations, on whims or esoteric theories. Not that they’re necessarily wrong. They’re just looking at it from a different angle. Certainly not from within the community.

…or matching your aims to those of the donors

Some organizations are a perfect match for those donors from the start, because they happen to be of the same mind anyway. These organizations will grow and thrive, and their voices will become louder. But their increasing clout has not come from having their own community behind them and their cause. Some organizations are flexible (mercenary, others might grumble, but they’re just jealous…) and good at finding ways of extending themselves into where the money is, and so gradually their mission, beliefs, even their staff, change. Those organizations, however, whose missions happen not to coincide with the priorities of foreign donors and who are too stubborn or not savvy enough make them coincide - they get no funding, stay small or go under. No one’s being an agent of anyone, but even so, the influence of foreign donors on Russia’s civil society (and anywhere else where there are similar funding dynamics) is having a clearly distorting impact. Distorting in the sense that certain discourses, often developed outside Russia and of limited relevance to the Russian public, get amplified, while locally articulated priorities and opinions will often remain neglected and anaemic.

Organizations can lose sight of the mandate from their communities in this way. There is even a term for this, ‘constituency confusion’: giving more attention to the interests of the donors than to those of their fellow citizens around them. Some activists, of course, won’t lose the connection with the community no matter what, especially those that provide direct services and are daily confronted with the real needs of real people. But then again, providing services is not a favourite among international donors operating in Russia – not dynamic enough, doesn’t create the much-cited ‘change’, too pedestrian.

'The influence of foreign donors on Russia’s civil society is having a clearly distorting impact, in the sense that certain discourses, often developed outside Russia and of limited relevance to the Russian public, get amplified, while locally articulated priorities and opinions will often remain neglected.'

But what about those organizations that do not deliver services, that have no direct beneficiaries among the public, that engage in research, documentation, raising awareness about issues? When such an organization gets its funding in the form of a few large grants from major institutional donors, it can easily find itself in an echo chamber, surrounded by like-minded elites with whom it gradually develops a somewhat unhealthy symbiotic relationship: the grantee produces reports and documentation which the donor agency uses to inform its analysis of grant-making priorities.

Russian NGOs: estranged from the Russian public?

A significant segment of Russian civil society, including many of the ‘classic’ human rights organizations, has become locked into such an ivory tower of its own making, because for 20 years generous foreign funding allowed them to pursue programming for which there was little or no demand from the community, little or no understanding, even, in much of the public and quite often indeed hostility. This programming had clear merit, was even essential in many ways, and was informed by unimpeachable moral principles. But because it never had to be paid for by the public it also never had to be ‘sold’ to them – except through ‘awareness-raising programs’, which tend to consist mostly of stacks of brochures that gather dust on the shelves of other NGOs.

Of course, the Russian public is a less gushing constituency than those NGOs’ donors and other assorted cheerleaders abroad. Your donors and the people they like to show you off to - diplomats, parliamentarians, journalists and think tankers - always welcome you, even adore you, although many of them have only the vaguest idea of what you really do. At their receptions, there is a lot of talk of how brave and how brilliant you are, and eager agreement with everything you say and do. There are the perky conferences, fellowships and award ceremonies, but best of all, all those friendly foreigners who share your ideas and have nothing but admiration and respect for your work. It’s all quite different from the harassment by the security services at home, the smear campaigns on local TV, the hateful graffiti on your building, the indifference of your old classmates to your life’s work, the sour look on your mother’s face when she tells you about her neighbour’s son’s new Mercedes, and the general hardship of being an activist in Russia.  

It has been somewhat uncomfortable watching Russia’s most eminent human rights activists flapping helplessly in the wake of the ‘foreign agents’ law and the September 2012 announcement that USAID would have to stop making grants in Russia. Their reactions betray not only their degree of estrangement from their supposed constituents, but also just how comfortable they have become with an arrangement in which large grants from major foreign donors have been available to them with little or no competition. They defend themselves, sullenly, against the well-meant suggestion that they should try to raise funds from Russian donors, by griping that ever since the imprisonment of Khodorkovsky, no other wealthy donors or businesses would dare support an independent human rights organization.

‘We never even asked people for donations’

This only goes to show how warped their perception of civil society financing has become. Where is it written that all funding has to be in the form of big, five- or six-figure (and that’s in dollars or Euros) grants, from oligarch types? What about ‘nickel and diming’ it from the man (and woman) on the street – which is how the West’s most successful NGOs raise the fastest-growing of their funds. Until quite recently, most of the websites of Russia’s superstar human rights NGOs didn’t even feature a “click here to donate” button, let alone the insistent messages asking for support that are so ubiquitous on Western NGOs’ websites, their social media platforms and all-too frequent email appeals (the highly effective ‘fundraising by attrition’ approach).

Russia’s major human rights NGOs have lately put those ‘donate here’ buttons on their website, but grudgingly, with the passive-aggressive appearance of ‘we’re being forced to do this, but it won’t work, you’ll see’. There is no culture of individual philanthropy in Russia, they complain. Isn’t that at least in part the fault of the very organizations who should have been building such a culture over the last 20 years? Yes, they admit, Russians will probably spare some cash for big-eyed orphans and similarly attractive feel-good causes, but never for controversial, misunderstood work like defending victims of torture, let alone if they’re bearded men from the North Caucasus. This is a common enough problem all over the world. There is a much-repeated statistic that in the US there are more than twice as many shelters for abandoned pets than for battered women. Fundraisers for controversial causes have to speak louder, work harder, hone their arguments, win those man-and- woman-on-the-street donors over, one by one, and then make sure they stay loyal.

'There has been no concerted effort to turn the protesters into donors, or card-carrying members of Memorial or the Moscow Helsinki Group, perhaps for 500 roubles a month ($15), the price of a latte and a muffin at Starbucks in Moscow.'

Much was made of the demographic composition of the protest movement that emerged in Russia in autumn 2011 and which brought such impressive numbers to the streets of Moscow: young professionals with a good education and careers in Russia’s new boom industries, earning salaries that wouldn’t look too shabby even in the West. And yet, although Russia’s human rights movement shared the streets with this new class of politically mobilized urbanites, no one seems to have tried to tap them for their disposable income. 100,000 or more of them braved Moscow winters - and worse! - for hours of demonstrating, yet there has been no concerted effort to turn them into donors, or card-carrying members of Memorial or the Moscow Helsinki Group, perhaps for 500 roubles a month ($15), the price of a latte and a muffin at Starbucks in Moscow.

Even beyond Moscow’s urban elites, Russians have money to spend these days. According to the World Bank, Russia’s 2011 per capita GDP was more than $21,000, about the same as those of the Baltic States, Poland and Hungary. A better indication of ordinary Russians’ finances is median income, and today that’s approaching $1,000 a month. And according to a recent article in the New York Times, Russians’ income is truly ‘disposable’ – 60% of it is spent on retail shopping, the highest rate anywhere in Europe by a large margin. At the same time, there is a burst of informal philanthropy happening all over Russian society. Much of it is old-fashioned, ‘widows-and-orphans’ stuff: pictures of children with cancer on newspaper websites, people donating food packages for flood victims. But there are signs that society is moving faster than civil society when it comes to more strategic, civic-minded philanthropy. The same enterprising human rights NGO that sued the Ministry of Justice recently had a local man walk into its office in one of Russia’s provincial cities, offering them $1,000 a month so they could keep up their work. The equally enterprising young man at the helm of the organization told me this with a mixture of bewilderment and a giddy realization that this is their future. ‘We never even asked people for donations’, he said.

Putin may be to thank for waking up the NGOs

It looks as if the moment has come. Unwittingly, President Putin and his docile Duma may have forced the hand of Russia’s human rights community and much of the rest of Russian civil society. In a way, it’s a much-needed wake-up call. Funding from Western sources had been getting less and less every year anyway. Eventually, it will come to an end. Western donor countries are quite good at upping the volume on talk about human rights and the democracy deficit in Russia while simultaneously winding down their grant programmes there (most of them, unlike USAID, without even being forced to do so). But like the proverbial boiling frog, Russian NGOs could have gone on ignoring the signs until it was finally too late.

'Russia is quick to pick up on the habits of consumer societies: expect soon to run into those annoying charity muggers as you exit from the Moscow metro.'

Now, they might just get serious about raising money from their fellow citizens, their neighbours, the man and woman on the street. This is going to be a tough slog and some will fall by the wayside. It will be all about clever communications with the public and will require a massive effort to educate citizens about the meaning of citizen philanthropy. About why it may be a better investment to give your 100 roubles to a vocal public health advocacy outfit than to donate them to a kid with cancer. About the pride and pleasure of being a card-carrying member of an environmental movement or a network that fights against police abuse. About taking responsibility for your community and country. The work of a generation, perhaps, but then again, it’s about time, because one post-Soviet generation, the one that grew old during the past 20 years, has already been lost to this task. Russia is quick to pick up on the habits of consumer societies: expect soon to run into those annoying charity muggers as you exit from the Moscow metro.

A human rights movement that fundamentally trusts that the people are with them in their belief in human rights, justice and democracy can survive these new laws. Of course, some corners of Russia’s human rights movement are more prone instead to suspicion of the people and contempt for their unenlightened state….But those organizations that are open to revamping the way they operate will weather this storm and come out stronger on the other side. They will have learned to listen to the people and the full range of their concerns, and not just to continue preaching at them. They will be more authentic voices of their communities, and carry more authority among them at the same time. It will be much harder to marginalize and vilify human rights defenders, to exclude them from public discourse and to dismiss them as somehow ‘the other’, if behind them stand thousands of card-carrying, paying members of the Russian public.

The legislators and policy-makers who authored the Foreign Agent and Dima Yakovlev laws neither intended nor foresaw this. They seem genuinely convinced that critical civil society voices, and especially human rights activists, are indeed ‘agents’ – hired hands who will fall silent the moment the funding runs dry; fraudulent institutions that will deflate like popped balloons without their precious foreign grants. But if Russian civil society rises to this new challenge, these politicians are in for a rude awakening of their own.

Photo: Creative Commons / US AID

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