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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Journalist Pioneers a New Kind Of Giving

MTAmbinder says proudly that he had a list of Kursk families before the government.
Santa Claus is too busy to help children in his hometown of Veliky Ustyug, and a teenage girl stricken with sclerosis in Novosibirsk needs $6,200 to pay for a life-saving operation, readers of last Friday's edition of Kommersant learned on page 8.

This may seem strangely sentimental from a business-oriented broadsheet, but such full-page appeals for the newspaper's Russian Help Foundation have appeared every month for the past seven years.

This year, for the first time, the foundation has raised more than $1 million in aid for these needy cases, a jump from 2002, when the figure was $716,000.

"We didn't set out to make a million, but all the same, it's great," Lev Ambinder, a former special regional correspondent and the project's director, wrote in his column on the special page.

Most but not all the money donated comes from Kommersant readers, Ambinder said. Domovoi, a glossy women's magazine, also dedicates a few pages to the Russian Help Foundation.

Ambinder posts letters online, at

Donors range from housewives who send a few hundred rubles to businessmen who send a few thousand dollars.

None of that money passes through Ambinder's hands, which he said helps build trust in a country where people are historically skeptical that nongovernmental organizations are nothing but money-laundering operations.

Instead, donors call in and he provides them with the bank account information of the people they want to help. Other callers ask for addresses and send care packages.

The hundreds of requests for help that pour in to the newsroom run a wide gamut. Most concern children -- coming from parents struggling to afford medical treatments, single mothers trying to make ends meet or teachers wanting to supplement meager school budgets.

Kommersant has even indicated a willingness to provide a second page every month, though, for now, Ambinder said, one page is all that he and his assistant can handle.

One full page of the paper has an advertising value of some $20,000, he said, an indication that Boris Berezovsky's Kommersant remains dedicated to a project that sprang to life in 1996 as the brainchild of then-owner Vladimir Yakovlev. Kommersant also covers the two staff salaries and foots their phone bill, their biggest expense, Ambinder said.

18 Kilograms of Fish

The project started with a bet. Yakovlev deposited several crates of letters asking Kommersant for help on Ambinder's desk and told the reporter to figure out what to do with them.

Ambinder bet that readers would not give money to help the elderly, the poor or the sick without getting some recognition in return.

"It turns out I was wrong," he said the other day over tea in his office. People want to give, but they want to do it anonymously, he said. Due to a combination of Orthodox and Soviet mentalities that cultivated suspicion of the rich, they shy away from public recognition.

Also, since Russia does not give tax breaks on charitable giving that are standard in the West, people donate without any financial or PR incentive to do so, Ambinder said. "Here, it's plain goodheartedness."

Losing the bet cost Ambinder 18 kilograms of vobla, or dried fish, which the wiry journalist hauled from a town on the Volga River in a sack and handed over to Yakovlev around New Year's in 1997. Ambinder said he expected to be fired, but instead Yakovlev gave him the full-time job of running the fledgling charity. Seven years later, "I've never gone back."

Ambinder said he gets two grants from Russian donor organizations on the condition that they, too, remain anonymous. He would say only that one is based in Moscow, the other in Novosibirsk, and neither are connected to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the embattled billionaire whose Open Russia foundation has been a major supporter of domestic charities.

Steven Solnick, the Moscow director for the Ford Foundation, a U.S. organization that has supported the Russian Help Foundation in past years, said the project was "a great innovation."

"Given the level of development of humanitarian charity in Russia, it's a needed thing," said Solnick, noting that there also are other organizations, like United Way Moscow and religious charities. "Yet demand [for those services] is still higher than supply."

Nongovernmental organizations that can provide support to families of victims of national catastrophes are particularly in short supply.

Operation Kursk

In August 2000, when 118 sailors perished on the submarine Kursk, Ambinder promptly dispatched his assistant to Murmansk. Within two days, he had a complete list of each sailors' next of kin and opened Sberbank accounts for each one.

President Vladimir Putin's government was still scrambling to confirm the next of kin when a special page ran listing each account number, Ambinder recalled proudly.

Valentina Matviyenko, then the deputy prime minister for social affairs, called him with a desperate request for his information. It turned out that she, too, needed to open Sberbank accounts for the families, as Putin had promised.

"I told her if she wanted the names, she could buy a copy of the paper in the morning," he said.

Ambinder, admittedly, had some experience in riding to the rescue. In 1997, when 60 miners died in Kuzbass, the fund opened bank accounts for readers to give to the families. It did the same in 1999 after the apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk.

Ambinder avoids giving a figure for how much money was given to these families in order to protect their safety, but "it's in the millions," he said.

New York Times Project

The project is not unprecedented. Nine decades ago, the publisher of The New York Times, Adolph Ochs, launched an annual Christmas season appeal for the poor, chronicling 100 specific cases in the pages of the newspaper.

The Neediest Cases Fund campaign runs November through January and has grown to support not individuals but social welfare agencies in the city. Last holiday season, 14,000 readers donated $9 million to the fund.

Ambinder says he hopes to travel to New York at some point to compare notes with the staff of the Times' fund, "but for now, there's no time or money for that."

The project has Russian counterparts, too.

Computer programmer Alexei Nalogin, 26, set up the site five years ago, in December 1998, to raise money for the patients of the Russian Children's Clinical Hospital on Leninsky Prospekt.

Nalogin, who is paralyzed but has use of his hands to type, said he has never been to the hospital himself. "I just wanted to help the children and bring their stories to people's attention."

People can make credit card donations directly through the site, which volunteers have translated into 10 languages, including English. "You can't say it's big money, but probably about $1,000 a month," Nalogin said.

Both Nalogin and Ambinder say they don't see any uptick in giving around the holidays.

A century ago, the situation was different, said Olga Alexeyeva, the head of Britain's Charities Aid Foundation branch in Moscow.

"In Russia, there was a tradition to give around Christmas before the Revolution, but then it disappeared," she said.

Nor does the Orthodox Church encourage charitable giving, a cornerstone of other denominations.

Nonetheless, Ambinder didn't miss the opportunity to play the Santa Claus card on last Friday's page.

In Veliky Ustyug, the director of an orphanage sent the Help Foundation a plea for money to replace dilapidated furniture and buy long-promised computers for her young charges "who don't believe in miracles," the article said.

Ambinder makes no apologies for sappiness in editing letters, giving them maximum pull on the heartstrings. "I have 37 years of journalism experience. I know what makes people react."

Help One, Help Many

Of dozens of similar letters, he selects not so much for greatest need but for the best story, rationalizing that a good story often raises enough money to help three or four other "less publishable" cases.

As he often does when medical treatments are concerned, he arranges to have people send money to the hospital, not an individual's private bank account, so that surplus donations can be directed toward other procedures, not kept as a profit by the person whose original request was publicized.

Under each letter, Ambinder includes testimony from doctors or social workers that the need is real, not invented. With the Novosibirsk mother's request for $6,200 to correct the curvature of her daughter Natasha's spine, he ran a note from Mikhail Mikhailovsky, an orthopedic trauma specialist in the city: "Natasha's body has begin to collapse. ... In another few months, no one will be able to help her."

One-fifth of those who write letters ultimately get assistance, Ambinder said. Some letters are scams, but the bigger problem is that most pleas are just too ordinary.

"A pensioner who says he has no money probably has no money, but there's nothing compelling about that story," he said. "We can only publish what readers will respond to. Morally, yes, it's tough, but no matter what, we can't help everyone.

"We help [people] to help," Ambinder said, echoing the Help Foundation's motto. "We're not just helping the unfortunate. We're helping readers help others. That's the main thing."

And Sew On

Donations don't always come in the form of money, Ambinder said, opening up an office cabinet to reveal a sewing machine.

It's the last of five that promptly arrived in 1997, when he published a request from a single mother in Ivanovo who had lost her job at a textile factory and wanted to support her three children while tending them at home.

Also, the more concrete the request, he said, the more people respond.

A paralyzed man in Krasnoyarsk asked for 53,500 rubles ($1,825), or about half the cost of a VAZ sedan outfitted with hand controls; friends and family had managed to save up the other half. Within a matter of days of printing the letter in November, Ambinder said, the sum had been collected.

Three years ago it took two months to collect a target amount, while this year the average request is met in 10 days, he said. "We could theoretically publish twice as often."

There's a lot of need in the country, Ambinder said philosophically, but there's a lot of money, too.

"The money is out there under our feet, like leaves on the ground. There's three times, five times, maybe 10 times more money waiting to be donated. We just haven't figured out how to tap it yet."