Making a Positive Impact on People’s Lives – Big Brothers Big Sisters Russia
Text by Marina Lukanina
The origins of Russian charities date back to the year 998, to the Epiphany of Russia. During the reign of Ivan the Terrible special legislature focusing on helping people in need was introduced. The early 20th century was marked as a period of high activity for Russian charities. According to the website www.infoblago.ru there were 11,040 registered charities in the Russia Empire in 1902. Most of this work was stopped dead by what happened after 1917, when the funds of all public and private charitable organizations were nationalized.
The late 1980s brought dramatic economic changes in Russia followed by the formation of private capital. This, in turn, led to massive segmentation of the population and made the issue of charities exceptionally acute again.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the first active charitable organizations in Russia were foreign grantors, such as the Ford Fund, the McArthur Foundation and the Soros Fund. The next step was the appearance of Russian charity funds, such as Vladimir Potanin’s Fund and Dmitri Zimin’s Dynasty Fund.
Currently, there are still quite a few obstacles that prevent Russian charities from effective development, such as an unfavorable tax system for both grantors and grantees, and a distrustful and sometimes even negative attitude from people who have somehow lost the notion of philanthropy being an inalienable part of civil society.
We decided to learn more about one of the charities in Russia – Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) – and talk to its executive director, Roman Sklotskiy, about this organization and the potential challenges it is facing as a non-profi t organization.
What is Big Brothers Big Sisters?
BBBS is the world’s largest mentoring program helping over 280,000 children around the world reach their potential through professionally supported one-to-one relationships.
How long has BBBS been in Russia? How big is the program?
We have been in Russia for the past fifteen years. Our program started here under the auspices of different youth movements in the regions: Perm, Kirov, Tambov, Yoshkar-Ola; and later it reached Moscow. Together with Moscow we operate in seven regions now (also in Tumen and Yaroslavl). In the regions, the program has developed on the basis of pedagogical universities.
How does the program in Moscow differ from the regions?
In Moscow we exist like our American equivalent. We fully comply with BBBS international standards. The program is independent hence we do not work with any specific university. We work with three boarding schools and one orphanage in Moscow and we plan to expand our network. Currently, we have about 100 matches in Moscow (2008) and about 300 matches in the regions.
How does the program function?
I would say the core of our program is our volunteers. They come to us through the Internet, word-of-mouth, etc. We have a rigorous volunteer selection scheme. We look for specific people who have plenty of patience and understanding to work with different types of children.
What would be a typical profile of a volunteer?
A single female, between 19 and 30 years old, different professional occupation (from students to business executives).
What’s the selection process to become a volunteer?
Our case managers conduct an extensive interview with every volunteer to figure out his background, what his motivation is and his personal issues. Basically, they try to identify what brings him to this program. Then a volunteer fills out a written test that gives a more accurate impression of his psychological features and interests. Our case manager makes a psychological portrait of each volunteer and matches him with a child. Before being admitted to the program, a volunteer must bring a health certificate from a mental health clinic and also a note from the police. The children’s safety is of the utmost importance to us.
Do they go through any training?
Most definitely. Volunteers go through a 1-month training course (25 hours). During this course they are taught how to work with children, how to react on certain questions, how to address various issues, etc. There is a specific section of training that addresses safety.
What happens next?
For two months a volunteer meets once a week with a child on-site (at the orphanage or at the boarding school). After two months he is allowed to take the child off-site in agreement with the orphanage administration. That is what usually brings most joy to a child – hanging out at a volunteer’s house or going to see a movie or a theater play. Children are not allowed to stay overnight, however. Each match is also monitored by our case managers.
How is your cooperation with orphanage administrations going? What’s their reaction to BBBS?
They understand the value of the program but they are also afraid to take the responsibility of allowing children to be taken off-site. There is some reservation about the name of our program as well, as sometimes it is associated with some religious movements. We build trust by regular visits of our case managers to the orphanages and maintaining close contact with both children and the administration.
How do you attract the funders?
It does not make sense to ask for money right away. Ideally, we try to get some volunteers from an organization, establish the necessary level of trust and later ask for financial support.
We organize various fundraising events. Our most recent one was a poker tournament at the Metelitsa Club. Among our current supporters are Ernst & Young, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, AIG/Lincoln, Evolution & Philanthropy and United Way.
Do you think you have any competitors in the Russian charity market?
Product-wise – we do not. However, in terms of funding we do compete with other agencies, specifically with the ones that offer adoption services and foster care.
Compared to Western non-profit organizations, the issue of transparency in Russia seems to be quite diff erent. What’s your opinion on that?
Just recently I participated in a conference devoted to transparency of non-profit organizations in Russia. I think that such reporting should exist. We are striving for full transparency as the overheads are dramatically lower compared to the real services rendered by Russian volunteers helping Russian children.
Where can we get more information about the program and how to get involved?
You can refer to our web-site, www.bbbsrussia.org, that has the contact details of our Moscow office.
Big Brothers Big Sisters BOARD OF DIRECTORS:
Chairman: Stephen O’Connor (AIG/Lincoln)
Vice Chairman: John Delargy (Blackwood)
Co-Treasurer: Peter Reinhardt (Ernst & Young)
Co-Treasurer: Robert Gruman (PWC)
Secretary: Sergey Sirotenko (PWC)
Dora Rechnitzer, Max Hosford (Hosford Properties)
Walter Martinovich (Rombus)
Victor Petrovich Golovanov (Institute for Family and Upbringing)
Honorary Director: Ambassador Justin Harmon (Embassy of Ireland)
Executive Director: Roman Sklotskiy (firstname.lastname@example.org)