. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Growing Pains Hit Women's Charity

Anne Howley remembers the first meeting of what was then called the Welfare Group of the International Women's Club. It was 1991 and about 20 women, mostly diplomats' wives, showed up at an informal gathering to discuss starting a charity. Since charity had been illegal in the former Soviet Union, there was a lot of work to be done.

"There were more diplomatic people in the beginning," Howley said of the group, which was recently renamed Action for Russia's Children (ARC) and is now in the throes of a leadership battle that is a byproduct of the changing nature of expatriate women's groups in the new Russia.

"Now there are more business people. That's the way it is in the IWC as a whole. There's been a lot of growing," Howley said, "and there's always growing pains when you grow."

The organization expanded over the years into a 30-member group helping Moscow orphanages by raising funds and providing food, clothing, toys and essential medical supplies. Last year, the membership mushroomed to 120. And in its five years, the charity's operating budget has quadrupled, according to ARC spokeswoman Jane Hodgson.

Officers declined to give precise figures, but the total raised for the group at two major fund-raisers in the last few months, a Christmas bazaar and a Valentine's Ball, totaled almost $85,000.

And there is another change as well. This month, Jill Blonsky, who served as president of ARC for 3 1/2 years, resigned, saying there was no more room for her in the organization she helped build.

"I liked sorting out clothes in the street in the snow," Blonsky said, "and all of a sudden that kind of work wasn't needed of me anymore."

Divisions over a successor are serious enough that the organization is operating without a president until the end of April, when the 1,200-member IWC holds its annual elections for officers.

The seemingly uncharitable changes in one of Moscow's oldest expatriate charities reflect changes in the foreign population. Moscow was once a bastion of embassy personnel who came to the city accompanied by non-working spouses. But now, the influx of non-diplomatic foreigners increasingly includes spouses with careers of their own. In ARC, which is made up entirely of women, many volunteers now seem to want something solid to put on their resumes when they leave Moscow.

"ARC is a professional organization with 120 members. It's not just 30 women getting together to help," said Tina Nelson, a spokeswoman for ARC.

She added that one reason ARC needs a hierarchical structure is that it has begun to get corporate donations from companies like Chevron and Proctor and Gamble. "We're dealing with other people's money so we owe it to our sponsors to account for every penny," Nelson said.

Referring to Blonsky's resignation, Nelson said: "She definitely had a more hands-on role before. But there is as much work to do as you'd like to. And there is flexibility in the job structure to allow it. We're sorry that she left."

Nelson, who worked in the United States as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, said ARC today is an organization run on the same principles as a business "except that we're all unpaid. We have brochures, business cards, everything new. For women like me who are used to working, it's wonderful."

But for some women who have put years into the organization, the change is problematic: They feel that because they are not career women, they are being pushed aside.

One former ARC member who recently resigned from the organization said, "I think the dilemma with this group is the people who wanted to bring the professionals in didn't care about the others."

The woman, who declined to be identified, mentioned that several other members have resigned as well. "If you were a psychologist or a physical therapist, you could do something for people. But if you were just a person who wanted to help, you weren't as valued," she said.

She said ARC has always been an organization made up primarily of non-working spouses. And while she said the push for professionalism was good, she felt it hurt women who weren't interested in pursuing careers. "Those members who don't have a professional title are ignored," she said.

"I know the good that non-trained people do for the orphans. It's about rocking them and singing songs -- most women can do this -- it's very intuitive.

"It doesn't take a professional to help people. It takes someone with a heart like Jill's who has given three years of her life because she had this inner quest to help. Is there no space for her because she's not professional?

"They took a leap up in professionalism and it has been good for the organization. But I just can't say that it's all for the best. What was going on before wasn't wrong. The current powers that be are so black and white" in their approach, she said.

Others disagree. Louisa Vorosmarty has also been a member of ARC since the group's early history. She said she is happy with the way the organization is currently run and, though she doesn't consider herself a career person, she feels welcome and needed in the group.

"Over the summer we realized we needed to be run like a business so whenever someone leaves, there's a position that can be filled," Vorosmarty said. "Now there are departments -- budget, fund-raising, development. Slowly we've gotten women with medical backgrounds as members. We have a good team."

Vorosmarty is leaving Moscow after six years next month. She said she plans to start an ARC office in New York City.

Blonsky, who said she spent an average of 70 hours a week working in the volunteer position, also hopes to start a similar organization dealing with orphans.

"My thing is coming up with ideas," Blonsky said. "But once you've generated a bunch of ideas and people are busy working on them, well, sometimes that's it. I felt good working as a volunteer. It was my life," she said. "And it was hard to leave. But there were personal reasons too. I never was there to help my son with his homework."

-- Katy Daigle contributed to this report.