14 April 2022
an interview with Elena Topoleva-Soldunova by Polina Surnina
There’s no point waiting for an improvement in the foreign agent law, but there may be some relaxations in the economic sphere, something like a new NEP [New Economic Policy]. Elena Topoleva-Soldunova talks about her journey in the third sector and about how nonprofit organizations can build a constructive and mutually advantageous dialog with the regime.
Elena Topoleva-Soldunova was born in Moscow and graduated from the MGU [Moscow State University] School of Philology. Later she studied in Boston at the Center for International Higher Education with a major in social marketing. In 1993, she began work at Postfactum, one of the first independent news agencies, along with Interfax. At the suggestion of Nina Belyaeva, head of the Interlegal international foundation, she became editor-in-chief of the Third Sector bulletin and found her calling in the nonprofit world.
I do everything I can to help nonprofits.
“I fell in love with these people. I’d never known there could be people like that, that they could do such amazingly interesting things,” Elena says. “I realized I wanted to do this, too. Since that moment—and this was more than 30 years ago–I’ve been in the sector and never lost my interest in the sphere, but most of all in these people, who continue to inspire me and give me strength. I do everything I can to help them. Some of them, like Igor Donenko and Oleg Zykov, were cofounders of the Social Information Agency, which we created in order to talk about these people.”
The Agency for Social Information appeared in 1994 and over the course of its entire history has been one of the main sources of knowledge about the nonprofit world.
Elena Topoleva-Soldunova is its director, as well as chair of the Commission for the Development of the Nonprofit Sector and Support for Socially-Oriented NGOs of the Public Chamber, deputy chair of the RF Council on Guardianship Issues in the Social Sphere, and chair of the RF Labor Ministry’s Public Council.
“One of the first correspondents for ASI was my mama, but I quickly let her go.”
— When ASI appeared, were there other publications on the market that talked about nonprofits?
— No, our newsletter, Third Sector, was the first. But its mission was not to talk about nonprofits to the outside audience; it was intrasectoral. And I realized it wasn’t enough just to put out a bulletin, I needed to create a specialized news agency that would tell people about the third sector who know nothing about it.
There were no social networks at the time, there wasn’t even the Internet yet. Once a week, we printed bulletins a few pages long, xeroxed them, and either faxed them to the media or delivered them by messenger.
Since I’d been working at Postfactum, my first team also came from there. The agency supported us greatly, officially allowing us to use its resources in order to make this new specialized product.
— How did you gather information? Did you telephone?
— Among other things. One of our first correspondents was my mama. She was very inspired by this story. I gave her names and phone numbers and she started calling. But later I quickly let her go because after every conversation she would sob, “What fine people, what important things they’re doing!”
We also went around on foot—to those few efforts going on then, simply to these people’s apartments. It’s interesting that we didn’t have to sell the media on this. Right away the most important publications (for instance, we were very friendly with Public Newspaper) began taking our information happily, publishing it and quoting us, and even paying us small sums to subscribe. Because at the time basically no one knew anything about this.
ASI’s main audience is the nonprofits themselves
– Right now is ASI also intended for an external audience?
– Periodically, we’ve analyzed who our main reader is. When there was no Internet, we could tell people about what nonprofits were doing only through intermediaries, through the media. But when websites and social networks appeared, we could do this directly.
Gradually, the main audience for our news feed wasn’t the media but the nonprofits themselves—especially because the most important thing was for them to learn about each other.
Understandably, all kinds of other people read us, too: students, teachers, and officials responsible for interacting with nonprofits. But quantitatively there was a change at a certain point, and we saw that ASI’s main audience were the nonprofits themselves.
And we began working above all to tell the NGOs what their colleagues in different regions were doing, what was happening as a whole in the country: what laws had been passed, what important events were taking place, what grants and other measures of support there were.
From our surveys we see that ASI is a key source of information about what is happening in and outside the sector in terms of what concerns us. […]
“I see that no divisions have emerged, thankfully.”
– Are you aware of any divisions in the non-profit sector?
– The third sector has never been homogenous. It’s made up of a highly diverse set of organisations staffed by people with different perspectives and views.
This disparate quality has become quite evident now, since the start of the special operation. At first, I was quite concerned that divisions might start to emerge within the sector and that many people would start to mistrust or even attack one another.
That’s why I penned a letter calling on organisations not to fall out, but to continue with their mission and to work together for the greater good, helping those in need, especially as such people are growing in number.
That’s how you should conduct yourself, to work tirelessly for the well-being of our citizens. And new challenges, as we know, present new opportunities.
“There’s no sense in waiting for a relaxation of the foreign agent law. There could be some relaxations in the economic sphere – a new NEP or something like that.”
– Can the sector expect new support measures in the current climate?
– This is a recurrent theme. We get papers sent to us all the time – “List of proposed measures to support NGOs for review”. A working group on improvements to NGO legislation has been formed in the State Duma, which discusses support measures and also prepares them in the Ministry of Economic Development. But as of yet, no substantive measures have been proposed. We’re waiting to see what comes.
We shouldn’t expect any relaxation when it comes to the law on foreign agents. It’s only going to get more hard-line, and is already going in that direction, because relations with various countries have become really strained, and, in some cases, outright hostile.
But there could be some relaxations in the economic sphere – a new NEP or something like that. The government would go for that, I think, and I’m hoping that this would apply to NGOs.
If I was in government, I’d propose lowering the tax burden, and the level of control and bureaucracy over any and all legal entities. We need to rebuild after sanctions and not allow people’s quality of life to fall. For this, we need to nurture whatever entrepreneurial activity there is.
NGOs also have the right to engage in income-generating activity. We need to nudge them in this direction and to provide the conditions in which they can do this easily.
“The law on foreign agents works poorly, and there have been many attempts to refine it, but they haven’t made much progress.”
– When were you first invited to meet a top government official, and who was that?
– It was Dmitry Medvedev, and his press secretary, Natalya Timakova, played an important role here. She took a great interest in the subject of charity herself and did a lot to ensure that people worked with the sector at the highest level. I also had the honour of meeting and talking to Vladimir Putin multiple times and in various places.
– What was he interested in?
– Various topics. We opened a dialogue with Dmitry Anatolevich Medvedev on how to change social advertising so that it better served NGOs. It has always been an important communications tool for them, but there have been a lot of problems with it.
I discussed the subject with Putin as well, and he was astonished to find that there is a quota on social advertising and that no one is ensuring that it’s met. There aren’t any clear rules on social ad placement in the media at all – especially on TV.
We also discussed the entry of NGOs into the social services market. That’s an important subject, too, to afford NGOs more opportunities to become social services suppliers and to receive funding for this out of the public purse, just like state-funded organisations. We raised this matter many times at various high levels, and it led to quite a positive result in that some relevant recommendations were made.
There was much talk of the foreign agent law as well when I was a member of the Human Rights Council. I even managed to help some organisations to avoid being put on the register. For instance, they tried to enter the environmental organisation Muravyevsky Park of Sustainable Nature Management in the list of foreign agents because they had foreign money. But they weren’t even remotely carrying out any sort of political activity.
I tried to show that the law worked poorly, citing this organisation as an example. They were left alone. There were many attempts to change this law, including at my instigation. Working groups were formed in an attempt to refine it, but they haven’t made much progress.
“The moment of truth arrived, and out of about 30 representatives of business who had been invited, not a single one showed up. It was such a shock, I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.“
– It is often said about you that you are an intermediary between NGOs, government and business. How and when did you come to play that role?
– Nina Belyaeva, head of the Interlegal Foundation, came up with the idea of organizing a dialogue between NGOs and the authorities. The Foundation did a lot of work in this direction, but it was very difficult to get through to the authorities.
I remember writing letters to the government, asking them to pay attention to the nonprofit sector, and tried to convince them that no economic reforms can succeed without a dialogue with civil society. However, I could not get any attention.
Only many years later Evgeny Grigorievich Yasin, who used to be Minister of Economy of the Russian Federation, said the reformers at that time had underestimated the influence of civil society and its institutions on the country’s development.
We all shared in the success of the first Civil Forum, which brought together representatives of the highest echelons of all branches of power, including the president, and major NGO leaders such as Liudmila Alekseeva (1927-2018, the legendary Soviet and Russian human rights activist, one of the founders of the oldest human rights organization in Russia, the Moscow Helsinki Group – editor’s note).
For the first time ever, a dialogue between society and government took place at this level. After that, the authorities stopped ignoring NGOs. Not everything was always smooth, there was a lot of criticism, there wer questionable laws, but the fact of recognition had been achieved once and for all. After that, the main task was to build a constructive and mutually beneficial dialogue.
Relations with business were established later. We studied international experience and saw that it was also very important to work with business, but it was not easy.
I remember how we invited representatives of very big companies to a meeting, we had funding for this, we ordered food, we spent a lot of time on the invitations, it seemed everyone had agreed. The moment of truth arrived, and out of about 30 representatives of business who had been invited, not a single one showed up. It was such a shock, I’ll remember all my life those tables with food and no one to eat it.
Now things have changed a lot. Business is actively working with NGOs, no one needs to be persuaded. It’s more about how to interact properly.
“Many regions, which previously did not do much to support nonprofit organizations, have changed their attitudes and have now risen by many ranks in the rating.”
– You left the Human Rights Council because you couldn’t combine your work there with the Public Chamber, right?
– Yes, I chose the Public Chamber, it gave me more opportunities to help NGOs. I still collaborate with colleagues who work on this issue in the Human Rights Council – now it’s Svetlana Makovetskaya and, before that, it was Natalia Evdokimova. We have always worked in partnership, we never had the aim of competing.
– What are the three main achievements of your time on the Public Chamber?
– First of all, we achieved the adoption of a memorandum signed by all of the major media holdings, many foundations and representatives of the advertising industry. It set out shared principles by which we are all trying to be guided when dealing with social advertising of a fundraising nature.
And there is a 5% quota for social advertising on the Internet (this is not to our sole credit, but the work of the Public Chamber’s Coordinating Council on social advertising acted as a stimulus). There is a body that oversees fulfilment of the memorandum, and ads are placed for free.
The second thing is support measures for non-profit organizations, which we (not just the Public Chamber) achieved in the first wave of Covid. We had to fight for them very hard.
Thirdly, for the second year in a row, together with our colleagues from the RAEX analytical agency, we have been doing a regional rating of the third sector, ‘Region-NGOs’. This is a powerful driver of change in the regions.
We compare regions by the quality and level of development of the nonprofit sector on the basis of huge data sets. Everyone can see themselves there as in a mirror, understand where their weak and strong sides are, and what needs to be done to improve their position and make the nonprofit sector stronger in general.
This rating is a part of a project with the same name, ‘Region-NGO’, which was significant and successful even before the rating appeared. All together we have managed to ensure that many regions, which previously did not do much to support nonprofit organizations, have changed their attitudes and have now risen by many ranks in the rating.