Targeted, Nonprofits in Russia Flee

A number of high-profile nonprofits in Russia are fleeing, as the country’s governing elite moves to ostracize and persecute international NGOs.

Russia’s upper house of parliament has constructed a “patriotic stop list” that includes a host of international NGOs that Russian authorities feel either pose a threat to their hegemony or are antithetical to Russian principles. A number of renowned organizations face scrutiny, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Carnegie Moscow Center, the MacArthur Foundation, and the C.S. Mott Foundation. The latter two organizations have already announced plans to cease operations in the country.

Russian legislators have paved the way for fines and jail time for individuals caught violating laws barring certain nonprofits from pursuing their organizational missions.

This is not the first instance of nonprofit groups running afoul of overbearing authorities under Putin’s reign. Environmental groups and LGBTQ rights organizations have long faced persecution at the hands of the nation’s security apparatus.

What the exodus of international foundations from the country means for Russian citizens and culture remains to be seen. Organizations such as the MacArthur Foundation elevate intellectual and artistic genius to the international stage. With the grant-making organization’s departure, Russian citizens will be deprived of invaluable grants promoting Russian art and thought. Furthermore, the absence of human rights organization will only further obscure the plight of marginalized communities in Russia, such as the nation’s LGBTQ community and Central Asian immigrants.

Interview with Rob Saffer, Creative Music Foundation Executive Director

(Shot from CMF’s 2014 Fall Workshop. Courtesy of the Creative Music Foundation)

Key Elements Group LLC had the pleasure of sitting down with Rob Saffer from the Creative Music Foundation. Hosting workshops in Woodstock, NY, CMF brings together musicians from around the globe to form truly unique scenarios for artists to explore innovative concepts and ideas through improvisational sessions. Here, we discuss Saffer’s experience with the organization and what is on the horizon for CMF and other arts nonprofits.

KEG: What is the Creative Music Foundation’s mission?

RS: The Creative Music Foundation (CMF) makes it possible to profoundly experience and express our deep connection with the transforming energies of music, our universal language. CMF programs focus on the common elements of all music, emphasizing keen awareness, personal expression, intensive listening and cross-cultural communication, as well as provide unique opportunities for musicians, students and listeners from different backgrounds and traditions to explore together, share, develop, and broaden their musical understanding and sensitivity. CMF pursues its mission through workshops, residencies, coaching, concerts, recordings and archival projects that engage both listeners and musicians in the USA and around the world.

KEG: What role do you play in the organization, and what are some of the greatest challenges you face in that role?

RS: I’m officially executive director, but it’s really more of a producer’s role. I am responsible for getting stuff done: producing concerts, archival recordings, workshops, residencies, website and all manner of social media. I am the guy who figures out how to make stuff happen on shoestring budgets or less. As a former marketing and creative professional, I’m also figuring out how best to communicate what we do, how best to promote our work. I also get involved in board building and some of the artistic aspects of the organization, like helping choose which artists should come to our workshops. It’s a constantly changing situation that demands true improvisation.

KEG: What draws you to the organization’s work?

RS: I have been a huge fan of this music since I was in college at the University of Pennsylvania. This music has changed my life and has been the basis for much of my professional and personal success. More than anyone, I think it was the music of Ornette Coleman that – as I told him before he died earlier this year – gave me a strategy for living and an understanding of authenticity, creativity, democracy, and so many other crucial aspects to life. So I’ve always wanted to give back to the musicians and music that gave me so much. When I was living in Brooklyn, I volunteered my time helping cultural and musical organizations such as Celebrate Brooklyn, Symphony Space, Brooklyn Museum and Jazz Workshop – a Charles Mingus nonprofit.  When I moved to Woodstock and met Karl Berger, I got more involved with CMF. I learned that it was co-founded by Ornette, too. So, how could I not help the organization? Over time, my role grew from volunteer and fan to actually helping rebuild the organization. It’s a great honor.

KEG: How does the Creative Music Foundation fit into a larger context? What role does it play for culture and art in 2015?

RS: We’re trying to fill a role that traditional music conservatories do not: that is, helping people feel the basic elements of music so they can find their own voices to add to this wonderful gumbo of improvised music. We exist to help artists develop their artistry, giving them time and space to develop their own ideas and their own unique voice. Our workshops typically go way beyond music; they’re almost spiritual retreats, too. We constantly get feedback that our workshops don’t only help people become better musicians; they help people evolve as human beings! Could there be more rewarding feedback?  Additionally, we run an improvisers orchestra, led by Karl, that draws on nearly 100 musicians in the NYC area to create full scores of improvised orchestral music with astonishingly beautiful results. We have also digitized the Creative Music Studio (CMS) archives which are being housed for posterity and study at Columbia University. We’re just releasing the second three-CD set, following on the heals of the first that was hailed as ‘best jazz reissue’ of 2014 and received high critical praise around the world. We are considering starting a digital download label to release the majority of our catalog of 550 concert recordings made at the CMS in the 1970s and 80s. So, we’re looking back and getting out some great music from the past while helping to create the next generation of improvising artists.

KEG: How do you envision the Creative Music Foundation developing in the short-, long-term future? What are the organization’s goals?

RS: We want to build our board and build our professional capacity so we can fundraise more successfully to fuel some of the projects mentioned above. We want to become a more financially sustainable organization that will be around for another 45 years. We’ve recently begun working on a succession plan so that our co-founder and artistic director, Karl Berger, can focus on composing and playing and not be burdened with the requirements of running a 501c3.  Ultimately, we would like a physical home – a campus – where we could have year-round programming: workshops, residencies, recording projects, etc.

KEG: Is there anything that, looking back, you would have done differently in your work with CMF?

RS: Not yet but I’m hoping that over time we’ll take chances, innovate and do a bunch of things that we should have done differently. We’ll always be an improvising organization at heart, so we’ll make mistakes and hit home runs. That’s art.

The Bailout and Greek Heritage: Is The Nation’s Past for Sale?

Late Wednesday night, Greece’s parliament passed austerity measures established by the recent bailout agreement. In response, sporadic violence flared up throughout Athens, alongside the more numerous peaceful protests decrying creditors’ imposition of further cuts in government spending.

Despite the agreement, Greece’s passing of structural reforms, and surprisingly broad support across the Eurozone for the bailout, the debt crisis drama is all but guaranteed to continue.

On Tuesday, the IMF announced that it would not participate in any plan that does not include debt restructuring – a policy deeply unpopular with powerful EU fiscal hawks German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble. Without either a “haircut” – a reduction in the overall debt burden – or the establishment of a generous timeframe to pay back debts, many analysts are pessimistic about the austerity package’s chance of success.

The measures require Greece to unload €50 billion in state assets, much of which will be sold off to pay back creditors. This could have a huge impact on Greece’s fine arts, cultural, and historical institutions, which have already suffered from an economic crisis that some economists consider worse than the United States’ Great Depression.

Denys Zacharopoulos – the artistic director of the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki – sums up the anemic state of arts and culture funding: “The first things to suffer under the government’s austerity plan have been culture, education and health.”

Structured as a nonprofit foundation and largely dependent on state funding, the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art has seen its funding shrink from a peak of €500,000 in 2006, to just $180,000 in 2015 – a 64 percent drop off. These kind of budget shortfalls are staggering, and can make a huge difference in an institution’s ability to deliver on its mission.

Many other arts, cultural, and historical institutions are struggling, some with only enough funding to pay salaries. Scheduled exhibitions have been indefinitely delayed, and the planned construction of a new contemporary museum in Athens has been called off. Decreased funding impacts cultural institutions in other ways; in February 2012, for example, priceless artifacts were stolen from a museum in Olympia during an armed robbery. Archaeologists blamed security cuts.

Many monuments and structures – including the iconic Parthenon – are owned by the Greek state. As details emerge concerning airports, sea ports, rail lines, and energy providers that face privatization under the terms of the bailout agreement, the question arises: will Greece’s cultural heritage be up for sale? 

Greece’s constitution features a robust framework for defending the nation’s artifacts and historical sites mandating public funding and protection. But if there is one thing fully evident with the recent bailout agreement, it is that Greece’s laws and referendums have little bearing on the demands of the nation’s creditors.

Regardless of the obligations delineated in the bailout agreement, special consideration for Greece’s remarkable heritage is in order. By removing the country’s capacity to steward and share its own past and cultural traditions, creditors are poised to rip away a powerful tool for national healing and cohesion during these difficult times.

Children and Greece’s Debt Crisis

In 2014, UNICEF commissioned a Health Behavior in School-aged Children (HSBC) survey, asking 11-, 13-, and 15- year olds how they have experienced the great recession in Greece. The findings are instructive – and tragic.


Philanthropy Supports Struggling Greece

As Greece scrambles to produce a list of economic reforms to satisfy its creditors, it is still unclear whether or not the Mediterranean nation and its primary negotiating partners will reach an agreement that keeps the Hellenic Republic in the Eurozone.

The country’s debt crisis has proved intractable. Following the onset of the 2008 recession, Greece has struggled tremendously. A list of austerity measures – including privatizations and pension reforms – has left much of the population reeling financially.

Economists initially projected only a few tough years before the economy rebounded. Instead, unemployment rates are currently higher than those of the United States during the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. Some fear that an exit from the Eurozone will leave a collapsed economy, and an exacerbated humanitarian crisis that could threaten the population’s access to basic needs items.

Strict credit controls have limited the amount of cash available to Greek citizens. As the nation quickly depletes the remaining bank reserves, the future – no matter which way it goes – promises to be difficult.

Outside of the economic effects that a “Grexit” would have on the philanthropic sector, there is another charitable angle to the crisis: foundation and nonprofit support for struggling Greek citizens.

A number of philanthropic entities have sought to mitigate the social effects of the great recession. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), for example, initiated an ambitious three-year program in 2012 aimed at alleviating the worst effects of Greece’s economic crisis. After spending $130,000 million on 200 grants – primarily on social welfare, but on arts and education as well – the program benefited nearly 500,000 individuals, or 4.5 percent of the nation’s population. The grants also sustained 3,000 jobs, and is believed to have doubled the economic impact of the grant monies issued.

But the SNF initiative and the work of other smaller philanthropic groups in the extensive Greek diaspora still fall way short of the support needed by a population without opportunity and a diminishing social safety net.

The country’s path over the seven years following the global recession has been rocky, painful, and socially devastating. Greece’s economy has retracted by 25 percent since 2009, and its unemployment rate hovers around 25.6 percent. Its youth unemployment fares even worse, sitting just shy of 50 percent. Those without work are increasingly less likely to find it – 75.3 percent of the country’s unemployed were without work the preceding year. Greece has seen a 35 percent suicide rate increase since the initiation of harsh austerity measures in 2011.

The problems that Greece faces are variegated and require comprehensive relief efforts from government institutions, foundations, and nonprofits. While many media reports choose to focus on the mere economics, the real human impact is jarring. Some generous individuals, however, are beginning to take notice, and are making charitable gestures that could compel others to act.

A tragic photo that emerged this week depicted an elderly Greek pensioner crying outside of a bank. James Koufos, an Australian business man, recognized the gentleman as an old school friend of his father’s. Moved by the photo, Koufos requested that anyone in the Greek public with the man’s contact information step forward, offering to pay his pension. He stated that he “will never allow to see a fellow Greek proud hardworking man starve.”

As the human toll becomes more apparent, other philanthropists and donors may come out of the woodwork to help citizens bogged by depression, betrayed by the nefarious and disingenuous dealings of their country’s political and economic elites, and deprived of the resources they spent their working lives to secure.

Philanthropy and the Greek Debt Crisis

Following the break-down in talks between Greece’s political leadership and the country’s creditors – also known as the “troika,” including the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank – Greece’s financial crisis has entered its eleventh hour.

While the drama is still playing out, it is all but guaranteed to have an impact on the global economy – including the philanthropic sector. 

Last minute attempts on Tuesday from Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to secure a third bailout faltered, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated that there would be no further negotiations until the results of Greece’s July 5 referendum on the current bailout package become known. Leaders across Europe argue that the referendum is a de facto vote for Greece to either remain in the Eurozone or leave.

On Tuesday evening, Greece has become the first developed nation to default to the IMF, missing a €1.6 billion loan repayment, entering insolvency and quickly approaching bankruptcy. The country also has the distinction of being the first European Union member to default on its creditors.

The global effects of the crisis are already taking shape. In Asia, stock markets fell 3 percent on Monday, while Europe dipped 4 percent in anticipation of the Greek default.

International turmoil this year has had little effect on U.S. markets. In fact, the U.S. exchange has gone through the longest post-recession stretch of time without a 5 percent sell-off. Additionally, the United States has little direct economic interest in Greece; the nation amounts to less than 1 percent of U.S. trade.

The real threat is the spillover that would occur from European markets, which would take a serious hit following a Greek default and a “Grexit” from the European Union. The biggest fears rest on the potential backlash, which could involve investors pulling money out of struggling Eurozone countries including Italy, Spain, and Portugal, as well as potential bank runs in those nations.

If the more pessimistic projections prove correct and the default and “Grexit” rattle global markets, the result could be a huge blow for the philanthropic sector, which is just now enjoying a return to pre-recession levels. Indeed, the sector broke a new record last year, raising $358.4 billion. This extraordinary feat – which defied predictions that it would take ten years for philanthropy to recover – was aided significantly by increased giving from corporations and foundations, which outpaced the rate of growth for individual giving.

As a Stanford report details, foundation and corporate giving are heavily influenced by stock market trends, and dip accordingly when markets take big hits. This means that, should the United States fall victim to the financial fallout of “Grexit,” the fastest recovering segment of philanthropic giving would face a hurdle to its robust rebound.

Nothing is certain yet. The referendum on creditors’ bailout demands is this Sunday, and a yes vote may pave the way for further talks that will mitigate Greece’s technical default and generate a plan to continue pumping Greek banks with funding in order to return the nation to solvency. But pending these compromises and deals, the philanthropy of corporations and foundations could face the detrimental effects of a sliding market. 

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