Community foundations gaining respect in Russia and Eastern Europe

Throughout Central and Eastern Europe and Russia (CEE/Russia) and Western Europe, the same two characteristics are often cited when leaders describe what first attracted them to community foundations — the institutions are non-political and they are owned by the communities they serve.

While community foundations are now operating in more than 15 countries in CEE/Russia, they didn’t start developing until the 1990s — first in Slovakia, Poland and elsewhere. Former Soviet states, including Russia, were moved to develop philanthropic organizations that could support the civil society sector after international donors pulled out.

A common characteristic of community foundations in the region is their operational transparency — something unthinkable during communist rule and still viewed with skepticism, says Natalya Kaminarskaya. She is CEO of the Russian Donors Forum, an organization that represents 128 of the nation’s about 300-plus grantmakers of all kinds, including community foundations. “People still have a lack of trust in their neighbors, businesses, government officials and even non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia,” Kaminarskaya said. “But things are slowly improving.”

In addition to residents’ opinions of NGOs moving “from negative to neutral,” she says, the Russian government is also changing the way it interacts with indigenous grantmakers. Five years ago the government made it easier for Russian foundations by allowing them to keep money in reserve from year-to-year for permanent endowments without having that money taxed, as had been done previously.Also, a new national law in Russia became effective in 2012 providing individuals with tax incentives for donations made to community foundations and other NGOs. While these same tax incentives are not yet available for businesses and corporations, Kaminarskaya says, she is hopeful that change also will come.

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