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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Being Here: An Oxford Academic Put to Task

Mary McAuley, 57, left the safe walls of Oxford University and a lifetime of academia in January to come to the chaos of Moscow. McAuley's task: to start up the first office in Moscow of the U.S.-based Ford Foundation, a grant-funding resource for philanthropic projects.


"Ford needed a Russianist, someone who was going to know the way Russia worked, and who could work here and live through all the madness," said the ex-professor of politics from Oxford, who is a newcomer to the philanthropic scene. "I was looking for something different to do for the next 10 years of my life. I wanted to come to Russia and apply what I had learned throughout my life."


Since it was founded in 1936 as a local, Michigan-based philanthropic group, the Ford Foundation has grown into an international organization which has given over $7 billion in grants and loans to governments, organizations and charities.


While it has worked in Russia since the 1950s -- funding projects to increase the West's understanding of the formerly closed region -- the foundation's focus here, under McAuley's direction, is now changing. In the past, funds went to Western individuals and groups doing charitable work in Russia. But now, McAuley said, the majority of funds will be given to Russian groups and individuals.


"It's time to give that money directly to Russians and help create organizations and structures that will empower people to better their lives and society in ways they think are most appropriate."


Some of the groups that McAuley is currently considering funding include the Russian Science Foundation, a group of young academics who give aid to scholars, and Internews, a philanthropic news agency which has written a proposal to produce several public service announcements for broadcast throughout Russia.


But she said her new job passing out Ford's money, which comes from the endowment's private investments, is often uncomfortable. McAuley is authorized to approve grants of up to $75,000. Larger grants must be approved by the foundation's headquarters in New York City.


"I don't like being in a position of power over others," said McAuley. "I am making decisions on people's livelihood and it's not a decision I like to be making.


"In 1989, what human rights meant was straight forward," she said. "But even that is changing. And there is question about the best way to define and explain it in Russia. Does it include the right of the consumer, as well as children's access to health?" McAuley asked.


"The task of Ford is to ... put our resources where they are most needed. But I don't pretend to know any easy answers."


For now, McAuley is focusing on setting up shop -- from opening a bank account to finding a new office. "This is awful," McAuley said of the one-room office on the seventh floor of the Moscow Renaissance Hotel, where she said the group conducts meetings in the hallways amid the racket of weekend jet-setters and the roar of vacuum cleaners. In a few months McAuley and her staff of 12 will move to a new office.