Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Helping Russia Help Itself

For Russian charitable groups, finding contributions and recruiting workers is a tall order these days, as a suspicious public often views volunteers as dupes and charities as scams.


Throw in politicians who are wary of acknowledging society's shortcomings, and it can be a frustrating situation for those trying to fill the ever-widening chasm left by a government unable to cope.


Just ask Ellen West, the head of United Way International's Moscow office. With a staff of six, her main mission is to help grassroots charities in Russia and other Commonwealth of Independent States countries organize, fund-raise and network with each other.


"The groups here need emotional support because their experience has been so negative," said West, 31, an American. "Half the time we are telling them, 'No, you are not crazy to want to start something.'"


The legacy of subbotniki -- days spent doing imposed "volunteer" work -- leaves a cloud over the very concept of volunteering. And the Soviet view of philanthropy, West said, had been of "something the wealthy classes used to keep people happy and diverted from the class struggle."


Nowadays, businesses in the guise of charities further complicate the work of genuine nonprofit groups, which range from those focusing on substance abuse to others helping veterans, the chronically overweight and local libraries.


Since the opening of the Moscow office in 1990, UWI has dealt with about 100 charitable groups directly, published a monthly newsletter and helped push for laws to clarify the murky tax status of groups and the donations they receive. This year, the office has a target budget of $300,000 and plans for the first time to make direct grants to Russian groups.


West, a youthful, articulate woman who has been with UWI for a year and a half, appears to relish the struggle of managing the office, advising beleaguered Russian charitable groups, organizing the UWI's mostly expatriate volunteers and wooing Western corporations for money.


It's far removed from her first job out of law school in 1986 -- with the New York investment firm Goldman Sachs in the mergers and acquisitions department at the height of the takeover frenzy.


"It was pretty amazing stuff to be working on buying and selling $3 billion companies when you were 24 years old," said West, the daughter of a New York City policeman. "It was easy to be quite impressed with yourself. But on the other hand, I learned a lot about being poised at a very young age."


After paying off her student loans, meeting her future husband and realizing she wanted to "have a greater impact on a personal level," West left Wall Street for Boston, where she became head of a legal advocacy unit of the local AIDS Action Committee.


"It was the real transforming experience of my life," said West. "I had never seen anyone on drugs in my life, and suddenly I had clients who were on heroin, dying of AIDS." However disparate, many of these experiences have found an outlet in Moscow, where she and her husband have lived since 1992.


"The skills I learned in the business environment make me much more effective in the nonprofit environment," she said. "If you go with your gut reaction, which is what a lot of people in social services do, you can alienate" businesses.


"They don't want to deal with the emotional side. You have to learn to play the game with them."


As for appealing to Russian businesses for help, West said she opts for subtlety, especially given the United Way's American origins.


"I'm really reluctant to approach a Russian business and say, 'You should do this.' So, instead, we invite them to do things," she said. "The low-key approach seems to work, but there is some conflict with the home office which would like to see something more concrete."


West's ultimate goal at UWI is to phase out expatriates and turn the operation over to an entirely Russian staff in a financially self-sufficient office. Partly with that in mind, the Moscow office is a low-budget operation, using, for example, one telephone line for the whole staff, a fax machine and computers.


After her stint in Russia, West expects to continue her work in the nonprofit sector, which she describes as more interesting and emotionally fulfilling.


"It's not just me being Mother Theresa. You get direct feedback you don't get in any other field," she said. "I think it goes back to my parents being from different religions. My mother always said your beliefs don't mean anything unless you put them into action."