In a speech to the UN General Assembly in the fall of 2022, President Biden called on the UN to stand in solidarity with Ukraine. At least 1,000 companies have left Russia because of Putin’s brutal unprovoked war on Ukraine. Some companies left because of sanctions. Others left for moral reasons, often under pressure from investors, consumers, and out of empathy with their employees in Ukraine. But companies also have human rights responsibilities. Whether they stay or leave Russia will impact the war and human rights of the people of Ukraine. When companies leave en masse, Russia faces the possibility of economic oblivion.
Nonprofits can also impact the war. Russian oligarchs have donated lots of money to cultural organizations, universities, and think tanks, such as Harvard, MOMA, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Many of these donations are tainted by corruption and the close ties oligarchs have with Putin.
Philanthropy is a common way for oligarchs to launder their reputations, sometimes with an eye to future wrongdoing, what social psychologists call moral licensing. Studies show that people often follow their good acts with bad acts as a way to balance out the good with the bad. In the end, whatever good oligarchs do through their giving may be outweighed by the bad they’ve done in the past or will do in the future. But oligarchs are only part of the problem. Nonprofits that solicit and accept their donations are complicit in those harms, too.
What are the responsibilities of nonprofits? How should they meet their moral and human rights responsibilities during Russia’s war on Ukraine? What should we expect from museums, universities, and cultural organizations? If anything, they should be held to a higher standard than for-profit enterprises. After all, nonprofits serve the public good. They may not have had a physical presence in Russia, the way Starbucks and Levi Strauss did, but many of them are connected to Putin by way of Russian oligarchs.
“Philanthropy is a common way for oligarchs to launder their reputations, sometimes with an eye to future wrongdoing.”
How are nonprofits connected to Russia’s oligarchs?
Consider Viktor Vekselberg, a prominent Russian oligarch with close ties to Putin and head of the Skolkovo Foundation. Like many Russian oligarchs, he made his money with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Skolkovo Foundation donated over $300 million to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to support Skoltech, a program aimed at developing Russia’s tech sector. Vekselberg also sat on MIT’s Board of Trustees. It was only in 2018, after the US Treasury sanctioned him for “malign activities,” that MIT found the wherewithal to remove him from the Board. And, it was not until Russia invaded Ukraine that MIT ended the Skoltech Program, explaining, “this step is a rejection of the actions of the Russian government in Ukraine.” MIT finally got it right. Donors, such as Vekselberg, implicate nonprofits in Russia’s war on Ukraine. But had MIT done its due diligence from the outset, it would not have accepted Vekselberg’s donation in the first place. Boycotting oligarchs shows solidarity with the people of Ukraine, while doing nothing renders nonprofits complicit in the human rights violations suffered in Ukraine.
Vladimir Potanin, Russia’s richest oligarch, has supported the Kennedy Center and the Guggenheim Museum, among others. Until recently, he sat on the Board of Trustees at the Guggenheim, and on the Advisory Board of the Council of Foreign Relations. Potanin resigned from both in April 2022. Although not a Russian citizen, Len Blavatnik is a Russian insider who donated millions of dollars to Oxford, the Tate Modern, Yale, Harvard Medical School, and the Council of Foreign Affairs, to name a few of the elite recipients of his philanthropy. Aaron Ring, a Yale professor who received support from the Blavatnik Fund, called on Yale to suspend the Program. He was concerned that Yale was endorsing the donor. Yale maintained that since Blavatnik had not been sanctioned, his donation could be accepted. During Russia’s war on Ukraine, stakeholders like Aaron Ring don’t want to benefit from Russia’s oligarchs. They want to stand in solidarity with Ukraine.
How are nonprofits implicated in Russia’s human rights violations?
The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011. They hold that enterprises are responsible not only for their direct human rights violations, but also for their indirect ones. So, what counts as an indirect violation in the nonprofit sector? When a nonprofit benefits from donors who are implicated in human rights violations, the nonprofit is complicit in the wrongs of the donors. Many Russian oligarchs are tied to Putin, have profited from their relationship with him, and stand to benefit from his war on Ukraine.
“Boycotting oligarchs shows solidarity with the people of Ukraine, while doing nothing renders nonprofits complicit in the human rights violations suffered in Ukraine.”
When nonprofits refuse to accept donations from oligarchs, they stand in solidarity with Ukraine against Russia. Given the tendency of oligarchs to donate to elite and high-profile organizations, boycotting them may create a bandwagon effect, or a little philanthropy warfare!
Russia has a long record of human rights violations. Freedom of expression is one. The Committee to Protect Journalists confirmed that 82 journalists and media workers were killed in Russia between 1992 and 2022. In 2020, Russia adopted a law banning so called “disrespect” to authorities. Its violation of the fundamental rights of LGBTQ people is longstanding. In 2013, it penalized so called “propaganda” about homosexuality. Activists and celebrities faced fines for supporting the LGBTQ community in Russia.
Now, Russia is under investigation for war crimes such as rape, torture, and execution style murders of civilians. As of 2022, the UN General Assembly resolved that Russia should withdraw its military forces from Ukraine. This came amidst reports of Russian attacks on residences, schools, hospitals, and on civilians, including women, people with disabilities, and children.
Have nonprofits done enough for human rights?
Have nonprofits done enough for human rights? No, not when it comes to Russian oligarchs. By laundering the reputations of oligarchs, nonprofits have enabled Putin’s war on Ukraine and the horrific suffering it has brought. The Guiding Principles can help nonprofits identify their human rights responsibilities and ensure that they are not complicit in Russia’s human rights violations. All enterprises should practice due diligence, a mechanism that prevents human rights violations and complicity in them. Refusing donations from Russian oligarchs is the very least nonprofits can do.
Transparency is at the heart of due diligence. Yale Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld has tracked which companies left Russia and which have stayed, providing much-needed transparency on the operations of for-profit enterprises. Not only does Sonnenfeld’s list incentivize companies to pull out of Russia, those that left have outperformed those that remained. Unfortunately, no such list exists for nonprofits. Tracking nonprofits with respect to Russian oligarchs, knowing and showing, would go a long way toward ensuring that they meet their human rights responsibilities.
To be sure, there is a risk that nonprofits will receive less money if they boycott Russian oligarchs. But it is also possible that they will be rewarded for doing the right thing, as Hands on Hartford was when it refused donations from the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group. Generous donors may come forward when they learn that nonprofits stand in solidarity with Ukraine. Granted, the impact nonprofits can have on the war in Ukraine is not as great as for-profit companies, if only because of scale. But keep in mind that nonprofits serve the public good, which if anything enhances their human rights responsibilities. In the long run, when nonprofits stand in solidarity with Ukraine, they serve the public good.
Featured image by Elena Mozhilov via Unsplash (publish domain)