Supporting Russian Civil Society

Lara Iglitzin
Lara Iglitzin

I recently had the opportunity to be part of an invitation-only discussion on supporting civil society in Russia.  The small conference under the auspices of the European Union Civil Society Forum was held in London, and featured European foundations and a few larger U.S. foundations.  The Jackson Foundation was invited given its 30 year role funding in Russia and promoting concerns of U.S.-Russian relations and rule of law.  It was very interesting to hear the European perspective on the ongoing civil society crisis in Russia – after all, they are next door to the Russian bear – and to share the thoughts of the Jackson Foundation with colleagues.

Given the crackdown on civil society in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, worsening since 2012, there is a dramatically smaller space for civil society in Russia today.  Funders discussed why they should keep funding in Russia, and how best to do it, given the risks to NGOs and the barriers placed on foreign funds.  Many of us felt that one goal of giving money to Russian NGOs has to be to try to retain and bolster that civic space to ensure it doesn’t shrink any further.  Yet with the Russian government’s demonizing of Western countries – especially the U.S., and particularly of Western money flowing to NGOs, how can a foundation do that effectively? The obstacles placed by the Russian government in terms of regulations, laws, and the threat of NGOs being labeled “foreign agents” – and faced with fines and organizational closure – has put a damper on the ability of Western foundations to be strategic and effective with their dollars.

"Foreign Agent"
“Foreign Agent” label on NGO building

Given the stakes, some reaffirmed their belief in “core support” for NGOs – i.e., basic, institutional grants given with the aim of paying salaries and rent and allowing work to continue.  Yet foundation staff are hearing from disillusioned Board members who wonder if the resources are being used strategically.  Donor fatigue and burnout, given the trajectory of Putin’s Russia, is impacting the field.

Smaller foundations such as the Jackson Foundation have to utilize different strategies to be effective in this climate, given the much reduced resources available for grants and programs.  I was heartened to see that some of the tactics we have used in the last several years were seen as useful, both by the Russian NGOs and by foundations with significantly more resources.  Specifically, we have been:

  • Supporting delegations of Russian civil society activists on study tours to the U.S., with in-depth training and peer-to-peer consultations. Last year we brought a delegation to the U.S. to learn from colleagues in U.S. nongovernmental organizations. Every person who has had an opportunity to experience a study tour returns and briefs others with what she has learned. It is hard to overstate the person-to-person value of such programs; and
  • Raising awareness through programs in Washington, DC and Seattle about what is going on in Russia today in domestic and foreign policy, the impact on U.S.-Russian relations, the state of civil society and the NGO community, the development of the next generation of civil sector leaders, and the like.  We plan more in the years ahead.
Seattle International Fountain
2014 Russian NGO Delegation

In my two decades at the Jackson Foundation, one of the oft-quoted phrases from those who knew Senator Jackson is his belief to “stay the course.”  The meaning is clear: when the going gets tough, you keep steady in what you believe in. In keeping with that tradition and with the Senator’s legacy of promoting democracy, Foundation will continue find strategic and effective means to make civil society in Russia a priority.

Lara Iglitzin, Executive Director

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