Creating a Culture of Giving in the NIS

by Nathan Hamm on 4/9/2007 · 5 comments

At neweurasia, Marianna writes about NGO funding in the former Soviet Union. She points out that legislation and rhetoric in many of the newly independent states is directed against foreign funding of NGOs. Outside funding makes it easy for political elites to cultivate the impression that NGOs receiving it pursue goals alien, if not outright hostile, to the communities in which these organizations operate. Mariana proposes that NGOs work to create a culture of giving in their countries that will encourage corporate philanthropy.

Not only would such homegrown philanthropy break the civil society’s dependence on foreign funding, but it might also strengthen community ties and promote social stability by bridging the gap between the rich and the poor. Besides, local funding should be more responsive to, and supportive of, locally generated solutions to various problems that non-governmental organizations seek to alleviate. This is a positive factor as experience shows that solutions born within a society have a higher likelihood of being sustainable. Finally, national philanthropy may allay suspicions of those NIS leaders who are convinced that foreign donors have secretly conspired to subvert their regimes.

In the abstract, I think this is quite a good idea. The trick though, is in the execution, which I believe would vary greatly across the region. Marianna is trying to inspire discussion on this topic, and is interested in any ideas people may have about corporate philanthropy as a means to support civil society in Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.

How does one go about inspiring philanthropy in the NIS? In the comments to Marianna’s post, Leila says that NGOs should first do more to inform the business community about their work. In my fundraising days, this was our first step to a corporate donation, so I believe it to be a good place to start. The next step is convincing businesses that supporting the NGO’s programs is in the interests of the business. I would imagine that this might be a bit difficult in the part of the world we are discussing, but it can be done.

One of the nice things about the United States is that there is a widespread public belief that corporations should give back to the communities they do business in because it is the morally right thing to do. Speaking from the perspective of a fundraiser, this is a truly wonderful thing. The fundraiser can tap into this and make a donation, sponsorship, grant, etc. into something that truly is a gift. I view fundraising as the art of making people and businesses feel good about themselves by doing with their money what you think is important. At the end of the day with corporate giving though, it is a business transaction. To some extent businesses here are pressured into giving, so they often look for giving opportunities that make the company look good, provide a form of advertising, or help the company in some other way. (For example, Walmart has been a huge supporter of high school cheerleading squads across the United States, especially in communities without a Walmart. Why? Cheerleaders are more likely to stay and be more active in their communities after graduation, meaning that Walmart has a group of vocal supporters for their battles with local governments when they get around to building stores in these places.)

Of course, this would be quite different in the NIS, but it certainly could work in some form. Perhaps the generous salaries to foreign experts working in the civil society sector in the former Soviet Union should instead go to fundraising and marketing professionals…

Really, maybe they should. I strongly believe that local funding, when available, is far better than foreign funding. Not only is it less suspect, it is also more likely to be responsive to local needs and supportive of locally generated initiatives. Sometimes we here in the West manage to bungle things magnificently.

There are drawbacks though. Corporate giving goes to “safe” groups. Here in the US, corporations want to be seen as noncontroversial. In the NIS, they would want to avoid the ire of the government. Well, they would want to avoid it in those rare cases that they were not already intimately attached to it. Until there is enough wealth in the pockets of private citizens to support advocacy organizations, one should not expect a culture of giving in the NIS to fund too terribly broad a range of organizations.

Anyhow, as I mentioned, Marianna is interested in inspiring conversation on this topic, so be sure to read her post and leave any thoughts you might have.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Joshua Foust April 9, 2007 at 1:38 pm

This ties in nicely with Laurence Jarvik’s recent ORBIS article on the role of NGOs in the international system (he does not paint a flattering portrait). I’m also working on a larger thing (dunno if a blog post or a legit article) on the role of NGOs in nation-building, and where and how they can become counterproductive.

I like this idea of moving into corporate giving. Certainly the state corporations in the NIS have the resources to contribute to their own economies, yet the very term NGO has taken on such negative connotations, I doubt you’d be able to see much, at least without a lot of PR work. Part of the issue, too, is the endemic elitism of the ruling “class” – many of them just don’t want to give any of their money away.

I wonder, though. From what I’ve seen, in most of the Central Asian states, Islam is more cultural than ideological: much like the U.S. or (to a lesser extent) Europe, it is simply what one does, rather than some grand struggle against outsiders. (Though, now that I think about that, I’m given pause at how Islam in Europe and Christianity in America are slowly turning into each other.)

Anyway, I wonder if in the NIS fundraising could be done through an appeal to zakat the same way a lot of it is done in the U.S. through an appeal to “Christian compassion” or other forms of tithing. From a cultural perspective, it might be more effective than a general finger wagging.

Nathan April 9, 2007 at 2:34 pm

Actually, I was thinking about that (the appeal to zakat) as I was writing this, but didn’t really mention it. In Kyrgyzstan, I know that businessmen have sponsored the reconstruction and renovation of religious sites, and ulak teams get support. I’ve not really heard of this being expanded to include they types of sponsorship and support of NGOs that we are more familiar with in the West.

For the record though, I have nothing against foreign funding, nor do I think NGOs are all that bad. I do think that there needs to be more thorough-going examination of what works and what doesn’t.

Michael Andersen April 10, 2007 at 12:55 am

Interesting post, for a thorough analysis of the work of and pressure on NGOs in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, please see/listen at:

Nyura April 10, 2007 at 6:50 am

Fascinating. This connects to a post/article I’m writing on the business center in Uralsk, KZ, powered in part by Peace Corps business volunteers. The center is trying to model corporate philanthropy through a cooperative training program for teens in a local orphanage. I’d better get to writing.

Marianna Gurtovnik April 10, 2007 at 7:53 am


Thanks for the great link. I have to say, it really strikes the chord with some of the issues I raised in my post in New Eurasia so, in that sense, coming across the Freedolina website was very timely. Specifically, many NGO staffers interviewed by the program mentioned the need to diversify NGO funds and not to rely on foreign funds only (which is something I tried to make a point about in my post). Then another interesting thought was about the lucrative (by Central Asian standards) labor market created by foreign funding that brought many local NGOs to existence. The downside of that is that many NGOs workers in Central Asia view their projects as simply a way to earn a living whereas in developed nations people often (not always, of course) join NGOs to pursue a case/promote an issue they strongly believe in. I would think this is a phenomenon that is characteristic of many developing economies. Perhaps, there is nothing wrong with that as long as the “core” of the organization is composed of/sustained by the people who want to stay focused on the cause.

Another thing is the cut-throat competition some interviewees mentioned that is caused by the need to obtain limited funding as well as the need to survive in a government-controlled environment.

It would be interesting to get a transcribed version of the recording (In Russian or English)–do you happen to have such a file?

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