Having attended a conference in China in November and two weeks ago in Russia, I have gotten a somewhat unique glimpse into a couple of completely different worlds from our own. In China, Jet Li used his star power and influence to bring together many nonprofit leaders from around the world, as well as high level Chinese business and government leaders. A 500 person, shiny new auditorium could hardly hold the attendees and the media was swarming the place. Jet Li has set as his goal to spur philanthropy in China and worldwide with his one dollar a month donation from every person on the planet. Jet's high profile, pragmatism and dynamism mixed with humility, appear to be getting things moving in spite of the challenges of the Chinese political system.
In Russia, there were no celebrities, only 5 international representatives, no one from the Russian government and very limited business representation. I think there may have been a couple of reporters. About 100 people showed up and sat in an old and somewhat worn out looking auditorium. The primary goal announced at the conference was to spur the development of a countrywide media campaign called, "It's That Simple." The message: Giving is a very simple thing to do.
In all of this, you can see the difference in culture and energy. Whereas China seems to be taking steps forward (albeit still in the early stages), Russia is still at the starting gate. In China, they are talking about how to give, in Russia they are talking about the idea of giving. The symbol for the Russian campaign is a heart that you make with your hands. I remember thinking how ironic it was that the heart was empty inside. The problem that was noted at the conference is that many of the Russian people are very cynical and skeptical about the nonprofit sector. They believe that it has lots of corruption and that it is more the role of government to take care of things (at least on an organized level) rather than nonprofits. The campaign is meant to begin to push back against that attitude.
From what I heard at the conference, there really is a significant problem with bad apples in the nonprofit barrel. Since there is so little regulation, there are no clear guidelines on what can and can not be done. Therefore, some people have created charities as their own personal money tree (sound familiar?). At the same time, the government has a pretty adversarial relationship with the sector. What little regulation there is discourages growth of the sector. The seminal moment in all of this came for me when one of the participants from a human rights organization said that, "Transparency of nonprofits" (which was the main topic of the conference), "is not a good idea when it can be used for social control by the police state." Wow! That really blew my mind. I realized I was on the other side of the world in more ways than one.
My impression is that the Russian nonprofits are ambivalent (to say the least) in relating to their government. Some of the speakers countered the human rights advocate by saying, "Tell us how the government will use transparency of nonprofits against us?" However, the fact that they were even debating this point is a real nonstarter for development of the sector! I understand that on day two in one break out meeting, participants almost came to blows during the debate. On the one hand, they need government policy and regulation to foster and encourage the development of the nonprofit sector. To achieve this, the nonprofit leadership would need to work closely to advise and guide the government to get to the right result.
On the other hand, do they want to get all cozy with a "police state"? Can they do so even if they want to? I was told privately that the government is wary of them because of the risk of an independent voice on issues related to human rights and all things political. What an irony that the theme of the conference was transparency in a country that has so little of it. I suspect that Russia's nonprofits will be lumbering along at slow speed for quite a long time to come, short of major political change. How sad for the people who need their help. Once again the trip deepened my awe at the breadth and depth of the nonprofit sector in the USA.