About the Project
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. Success Builder Project features graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
In this world, at any given moment there is always someone who needs help, and there are people who know how to ask for it on another’s behalf and do so professionally. Katya Bermant has made gathering donations her job and even into a business which saves people’s lives every week. As part of Success Builder Project, she talks about the right way to ask for money, the main problem for Russian charities, and why it can be hard to get through to celebrities.
Can we see charity as business with an ethical and practical slant?
Definitely. The business model is the only model that works at all, and there’s no contradiction between business and charity. We sell amazingly expensive goods, and people buy them. These goods are self-respect, meaningfulness, and a clear conscience. That’s not just hot air – it’s something tangible. People who get involved in charity work tend to become addicted to it, and that’s what keeps our organisations’ projects going. I mainly find these people on Facebook, because we speak the same language. Obviously, I should start learning other ways of communicating, but I still can’t make myself join, say, VKontakte, even though the whole country uses it, never mind Odnoklassniki.
children were saved by the Detskiye Serdtsa foundation between January and September 2014. Over 21 million roubles were spent on operations.
I take it Moscow is the only place where there’s any point looking for donors?
Our donors more or less coincide with the Facebook community. Of course, I’m talking about Moscow, but it can be St Petersburg as well, and the major Siberian cities. The rest of the country is living another kind of life. Many people are struggling, and you just won’t get through to them with appeals about somebody else’s problems.
Is there any way to change this situation?
Promoting issues in the media. But unfortunately, we’re almost completely cut off from any communication channels. The state protects us from enemies, builds roads, and collects taxes, but organising everyday life is society’s own responsibility. That’s why we have to sort everything out for ourselves. For example, Facebook allows us to organise ourselves and spread the word, and that’s what we do as a private initiative. There are more and more initiatives like this now.
How did you manage to go from being a foundation to an entire professional union, the Wse Wmeste (All Together) charitable assembly?
We came together on a personal basis. At first, we were just a group of friends with individual initiatives – Olya Suvorova with Adress Miloserdiya, Lena Smirnova with Sozidaniye, Deti Marii, and others who suddenly found each other. Now we’ve become an organisation with hired staff, and an office which Moscow city council gave to us to celebrate our tenth anniversary, and that’s already a great deal! We’re developing a consolidated statement of intent, and we can gather lots of signatures at once, and act as a united front. Right now, we’re trying to solve structural issues to do with charity: education, writing, gathering expert opinions. Wse Wmeste is what happens after the story’s happy ending, though we are an elite club and not easy to join. I was the assembly’s first director, and then was democratically replaced. A change at the top is normal for any structure, even for our large community of female friends. There aren’t many men in our kind of business.
Why is that?
In Russian, charity is a feminine plural noun. There are few men because the salaries are low, whereas women are prepared to work for less, that’s just how it’s happened historically. This profession has no status to speak of, it gets no “respect”, and for men that matters. In reality, charity is like a social elevator. There are few of us, and it’s very easy to build an incredible career.
What models of charity are there in Russia?
According to every indicator, our country is a century and a half behind, even in terms of our worldview. So we’re going to see what the West does. My favourite example is the royal family and their lovely ginger Prince Harry, who inherited some charities from his mother, Princess Diana, and chose some others based on his own preferences. He spent the night under a bridge in London to support a homelessness charity. Of course, he had a bodyguard and a sleeping bag. But he still did it, he drew attention to the problem, and people began to donate. Not all homeless people can be brought back into ordinary life, but if someone wants to live like that, we must help them avoid being an eyesore in the streets, give them the chance to have a hot meal, and brush their teeth and change into better clothes. Money can make all this happen.
Prince Harry spent the night under a bridge in London to support a homelessness charity. Of course, he had a bodyguard and a sleeping bag. But he still did it, he drew attention to the problem, and people began to donate.
Our favourite model is the charity shop. We were the first, but now there are lots of them, and not just in Moscow. For example, there’s Spasibo in St Petersburg. Then there are flashmobs. It’s enough to recall the wonderful Ice Bucket Challenge (an extremely successful campaign to gather funds for research on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease few people had even heard of before the campaign began – Ed.). But that’s just a format, one we can use to come up with our own original flashmob. As for the rest, there are markets, bike rides, festivals, expert classes, balls… We can take any topic and adapt it creatively to our circumstances and my artistic training really pays off here.
How have you benefited from your HSE education?
The most important thing besides getting my diploma was my social circle. Friends are something you always get from a good university. From time to time, I get invited to HSE to talk about charity, and it sometimes produces stunning results. Generally, it should be part of your family upbringing. That’s how it is normally. But families don’t know what charity work is, so we need to talk about it in schools and institutes, especially since our charitable assembly is bursting with excellent public speakers.
Do people and organisations readily decide to cooperate with you?
It’s never a problem to agree to cooperate with people. I’m just careful about only making agreements with people I like, which is to say people who are similar to me in spirit. For example the Gogol Centre is a marvellous place. When I appealed to them, I had no doubt they’d be happy to work with me.
Why are our celebrities so apathetic when it comes to good deeds compared to those in the West?
They’re genuinely hard to get through to. We’re talking about something special here: not many famous people give their hearts and souls to this business the way Khamatova or Khabensky do. It takes depth of spirit and intellectual exertion, and I’m sorely disappointed by the low level of compassionate and intellectual development among our celebrities. The prestige of spiritual depth is another kind of value, but it’s not shared by everyone.
of Russians have not been involved with charities in the last five years
have transferred money in response to a TV or radio appeal
have worked as volunteers
have made significant donations
(Source: Levada Centre, 2013)
How do you train people to give money to charity the same way they pay their electricity bills?
In order to transfer 100 roubles to a charitable cause once a month, you have to know that it’s a common practice. A social norm. Giving to charity as a kind of cleanliness of spirit is something taught in childhood. On the 1st of September there was an excellent event called ‘Living Children Instead of Dead Flowers’. The teachers suggested instead of bringing horribly expensive flowers to school (as is traditional in Russia), to give the money to a children’s hospice. Several schools responded, and those were schools after our own heart, where people don’t need to have helping others explained to them. People are cynical and tend to think, if I was given donations, I would steal it rather than hand it over. But there are people who don’t steal, because they’ve been given the right kind of upbringing. But there is a legitimate question: what do the organisations get out of all this? Yes, we get something. We get salaries.
Do you determine your own salaries?
These days, yes, though we started out as volunteers. But if you’re going to dedicate your life and working hours to a problem, you have to be able to support your existence. That’s why the law delimits 20% of funds which can go towards rent, salaries, office supplies etc. We always try to minimise these expenditures. Among charities, it’s considered in good taste not to take the whole 20%.
I always get terribly anxious when people talk about sick children, so I prefer just not to know about them. Am I the only one?
Let me explain: this is a big mistake. Some people even prefer to pretend that there’s no such thing as death. Others, on the contrary, become emotional vampires who initiate hysterical donation drives online. Well, the main problem for our charity work is being emotional. That’s something that we have to avoid entirely. In the USA, the average American transfers $10 a month to three charities. He’s made his decision once: he’s ticked a box in his bank documents and forgotten about it, while the money keeps coming in. Whereas we have to see a photo of a dying child on the Internet, read the horrifying story of their disease, and only then tear the shirt off our back for bandages, gather the money by a terrible effort of will, and save the child. One child. And if we scroll the page down, how many other such children are there? We can supply help to this neverending list if every grown employed person donates regularly. If you want emotion, we always have Krymsk, Amur and Fukushima. Donate blood, gather toys and foodstuffs, travel there to be a volunteer. Whereas I have a group of ‘secret angels’, and their duty is to each transfer 100 roubles a month.
How does one become a ‘secret angel’?
Add me on Facebook, and I’ll add you to the group. The only way to get there is through me. It has 1068 members, and I publish reports about the transferred funds for them. Of course, it’s more convenient to do it automatically. We’re getting an app developed, so next month we should have an automatic donation system.
Charity takes depth of spirit and intellectual exertion, and I’m sorely disappointed by the low level of compassionate and intellectual development among our celebrities.
What kind of people help you? I’d like to put together a portrait of a Russian donor.
We meet our donors at the Moscow Conservatory, at the Bolshoi Theatre, at the Triumph Gallery, at the Jean-Jacques Café – those are the kind of people who give money to charity. We have corporate donors as well, but in times of crisis the first expenditures they cut are advertising and charity, while individuals have different motivations. If they were giving money to begin with, then they’ll keep giving even if their personal circumstances get worse.
How can someone in need find aid on their own?
Russia has social services and economic quota systems, but they receive few funds. Medicine is something that can devour any country’s budget, but in Russia it is worse off than elsewhere, and only exists in large cities. Under no circumstances must you fall ill. This troubles me deeply, but once you start doing charity work, you’re unable to stop.
Are your charities only for children?
Most charities are indeed limited by the age brackets of helping children. Adults aren’t cute, aren’t weak, they’re supposed to be independent, so you don’t feel sorry for them. But we created the Zhivoi foundation, which puts forth inhuman levels of effort to gather money for adults. It’s pointless to argue who needs help more: old people, dogs, children or adults. But there’s enough money for everyone. Take the 12 million people living in Moscow, then take away the poor, the greedy and the uncaring. Let’s say that only leaves 2 million. But if each of those donates 100 roubles a month, then the problem will be solved.
Traditionally, it used to be the church that oversaw charity. Do you work with religious organisations?
In theory we could, but I don’t work with the church or the government. I don’t feel at home with them. It’s like going to your local council: you walk in, and you can sense that they’re not happy to see you.