A debate on corporate charity once again reveals a shocking gap between Russian and Western businesses.by Galina Stolyarova 28 June 2012
“If you have to explain, it means this is something you should not have to explain.”
That line from the Russian Silver Age poet Zinaida Gippius kept buzzing around my head over the course of a debate about attitudes to charity in Russia during last week’s international economic forum in St. Petersburg.
The purpose and benefits of charity were explained to the business moguls at the session again and again, but on the whole, they just didn’t get it.
The discussion turned into a performance that was embarrassing, heartbreaking, and funny all at once. Foreign chief executives tried to convince their Russian colleagues that engaging in charity actually pays – but not in the straightforward sense that the Russians are used to.
What Gippius meant with her line about the need for explanation was that there are certain things that everyone should be delicate enough to understand without them having to be spelled out. However, real life sometimes doesn’t fit into the neat Gippius formula.
The debate at the economic forum brought together prominent artists, managers of charitable foundations, and successful entrepreneurs and tycoons from Russia and abroad. Western businessmen at the meeting brought to bear all their persuasive skills, employing a blend of logic, eloquence, and anecdote, to try and recruit their Russian counterparts into the camp of charitable donors, sponsors, and patrons.
It was like a parent trying to persuade a child to take a nasty-tasting pill: “Yes, it may smell weird, and I know you don’t want to take it, but it will do you a lot of good!”
Profits may be shooting up at many Russian businesses, but their bosses have shown little inclination to share their companies’ new wealth with the country’s poorest and most vulnerable.
Ruben Vardanyan, president of the Troika Dialog financial group, even named the government’s campaign to increase corporate charitable giving as the “No. 1 challenge for entrepreneurs.”
“It makes businessmen a bit uneasy. After all, they pay taxes, and the issue is, do they really owe anything else?” he wondered.
It is still difficult for most Russian business people to stop looking at charity as something that might bring a profit. But, like an anxious child twisting a Rubik’s cube, sometimes the solution comes from changing your angle: the reward for charity can’t be measured in terms of profit or revenue.
To accept that view, Russian entrepreneurs have to make a long mental journey.
“At present, doing charity is not profitable. The government needs to make it attractive for companies, if it wants them to be seriously involved,” Sberbank senior vice president Stanislav Kuznetsov said.
The foreign panelists showed visible sympathy for their Russian counterparts. In their presentations they tried to give them a way out.
“Doing good is part of your image, the impression that you produce,” said David Jones, the chief executive of the Havas communications group and co-founder of the One Young World foundation, in an attempt to explain the practical advantages of sharing.
The adman quickly stressed that the intention to do good needs to be genuine. “In the West, you have to prove that you are sincere about helping others, that it is not the front page of The Wall Street Journal that you are really after.”
Kamran Elahian, the chairman of the venture capital firm Global Catalyst Partners, recalled visiting a refugee family in Palestine and expressed his fascination for people there who were capable of sharing and being generous.
“There were about 25 people living in one room, and their poverty was shocking. But their smiles were genuine, their enthusiasm for overcoming hardships was admirable, and their desire to offer me a meal a most touching experience,” he recalled.
It is hard to explain to some Russian business people that generosity can actually feel good. Many of them constantly feel worried, uncomfortable, suspicious, even cheated. What might help them is a course of action that led them to being admired for their kindness and generosity. Some of them can see charity as nothing more than an investment in their image, and, as with every investment, they want it to pay off.
“You have got to stop looking at it that way. You need to stop seeing it as an obligation,” Jones, of Havas, insisted. Russian entrepreneurs on the panel were adamant that the government needs to offer incentives for charitable giving. A natural reaction perhaps, given that they didn’t go into business out of wanting to do good. And the enthusiasm shown by the foreign business leaders was clearly not infectious.
The cynicism of Russian businessmen is nothing new. After the downfall of the USSR, the excuse for not giving to charity was that it was hard to change the Soviet mentality. In the Soviet Union, the line went, each person received what he or she needed – so there was no need for charity.
During the economic chaos of the 1990s the reason for being tight was that the legislation on charity was riddled with gaps and that swindlers were exploiting the situation to steal the money and get rich. In 2000s the excuse was that business people’s trust in charity had been undermined by the many dishonest deals.
Now the get-out for inaction appears to be that the government is pressuring businessmen too hard to get them engaged in charity. There will always be an excuse.
The culture of charity and patronage that existed in Russia before the Bolshevik revolution died out long ago. And, let’s face it, attempts to revive that age of philanthropy have failed. The gulf between the mentality of the Russian participants in the charity debate and that of the Westerners was shocking.
Perhaps we should just admit that at least one generation of Russian entrepreneurs is more or less a lost cause. And the Russian government should maybe wake up to the idea that sowing the seeds of charitable giving should, for now, focus less on companies and more on individuals.
Imposing charity on business people creates resistance but perhaps introducing volunteer programs in our schools would foster a better attitude in future generations.
A recent “reform” saw music lessons eliminated and literature classes trimmed in high schools, with priority placed instead on mathematics, biology, and physical training. In the government’s rush to cut the education budget, the arts and humanities were seen as secondary, something that the parents would arrange and pay for if they wanted to.
But it is these “soft subjects” that give young people some noble examples to follow. And these courses can be of help in bringing up children in the spirit of tolerance, sharing, and generosity.
The huge changes in our society in the last quarter of a century have not killed off these qualities in individuals. But among our business people and political leaders they are indeed close to dead. We need a new approach if humanity and philanthropy are to be revived among those who have the greatest power to give.