Interest in Philanthropy Growing Among Russian Billionaires

Although organized philanthropy in Russia is still in an embryonic stage, interest in charitable giving among the wealthiest Russians appears to be growing, Bloomberg News reports.

According to documentation requested by Bloomberg, between January 2010 and December 2012, fifteen Russian billionaires gave a total of $1.64 billion to philanthropic causes; eight others declined to provide information to the news agency. The fifteen billionaires — whose combined worth totals $155 billion, or about 8 percent of the Russian economy — gave about 1 percent of their aggregated fortunes to charitable causes over the three-year period and, according to Bloomberg, donated 40 percent more on average in 2012 than they did in 2010.

While impressive, the Russians' charitable largesse is modest compared with the mega-philanthropy of people like Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, who launched the Giving Pledge in 2010 to convince the world's wealthiest individuals and families to commit more than half of their wealth to charitable causes. In a December 2012 survey, the UK-based Charities Aid Foundation found charitable giving in Russia to be among the least developed in the world, placing it 127 out of 145 countries on the basis of its citizens' charitable contributions and commitment to volunteer work.

Vladimir Potanin, who in February became the first Russian to sign the Giving Pledge and who ranked sixth in contributions among the fifteen billionaires on the Bloomberg list, is looking to change that. "Potanin's promise puts Russian philanthropy on the world stage," said Maria Chertok, who heads CAF's Moscow office. "It may not lead to a radical change of attitude in Russia, but it will definitely encourage others" — as will planned tax breaks for individuals and corporations, said Chertok.

For such a shift to happen, however, charitable giving in Russia needs to evolve from a government-led, top-down system to one driven by individuals making their own decisions, said Irina Prokhorova, who runs the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation, which was established by her brother, self-made Russian billionaire and Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. "It is important to let people of wealth support what they want to support and not what they are obliged to do," she said. "We know of quite a lot of cases where rich people have to donate money to institutions because they are asked to do it."

For example, wealthy Russians have been called on by the government to contribute to any number of civic — as opposed to charitable — projects, including construction of facilities for the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 World Cup, both of which will be hosted by Russia. But the old ways seem to be changing. Alisher Usmanov, Russia's richest man and second on the list of fifteen billionaires in terms of charitable contributions, told Bloomberg he believes it is better to give his money away now than to pass it along to future generations. "It may happen that I won't leave any bequest at all," said Usmanov, who has no children. "I would prefer to do everything I can to make this world better myself and right now, rather than someone else doing it after me, as I don't know whether he will do it better than me."

Alex Sazonov. "Russia's Buffett-Gates Follower Charts a Path to Charity." Bloomberg News 08/11/2013.