Dmitry Zimin has had a successful career as a scientist and a businessman, having founded the Beeline network, a Russian telecommunications company. In 2002, Dmitry Zimin and the Zimin family founded the Dynasty Foundation to realise their ideas about the role of intellect and science in society.
In 2002, Dmitry Zimin and the Zimin family founded the Dynasty Foundation to realise their ideas about the role of intellect and science in society. They believe that talented young people engaged in scientific research are capable of changing the world for the better. The family also believes that fostering talented people, their ideas, and projects in the natural and social sciences is one of the paramount tasks both in Russia and the rest of the world. The Dynasty Foundation was one of the first private foundations to support science and education in modern Russia.
When did your philanthropy begin? What is the focus of your philanthropy?
“The word ‘when’ implies a certain date or time, which is not possible to pinpoint. When I was President of Beeline VimpelCom, we established the Beeline Foundation. Corporate philanthropy is an extension of business activity. My private philanthropy began when I sold the business and retired. I quit business a wealthy man. At that time I also took a solemn oath before my family and friends to quit business for good.
There were two further considerations that led me to philanthropy and the establishment of the Dynasty Foundation. First, I was strongly convinced that money should not be passed on to heirs, as it would bring ruin. Second, I had been raised on non-fiction and popular science and used to be a lecturer in electrodynamics, so I decided to focus on supporting bright people in the field of science and those who promote science and knowledge. I relate to people in science and education. Supporting and developing relationships with people in this field is one of the most exciting things in life.”
Do you remember the first donations you made?
“They may not be the first, but memorable donations include some of the lifelong grants we made to people who are now seen as icons. For example, we supported one of the greatest modern-day mathematicians, Vladimir Arnold. He was an extraordinary scientist, a teacher and promoter of mathematics. For example, he published a problem book called 5 to 15, which I would strongly recommend to all children. It contains 100 problems for children to guess the solutions to. We initiated an all-Russia contest to solve problems based on this book, which was extremely exciting.
With the consent of my son, who is my heir, an endowment was established for the Dynasty Foundation, so it is no longer our money. He agreed to it unquestioningly. I enjoyed seeing his reaction to the proposal. And he is on the board of the Foundation.”
What do you mean by your ambition?
“Nothing lasts forever, but that said we are enabling the Foundation to exist in perpetuity. To achieve this we have established an endowment – with around $10m flowing in each year without eating away at the principal. We have also established a ‘perpetual’ management structure, as the Foundation should not be dependent on one mortal individual. Our management structure provides for rotation of board members, some of whom are nominated by the family. The corporate committee is responsible for selecting candidates for the board. The other reason for having a strong independent board is my laziness – now I can enjoy and observe.”
Is the Dynasty Foundation the conduit for all your philanthropy?
“The Foundation has strict grant-making procedures, with grants being awarded by the Grant Committee – so there is a bureaucratic procedure to the philanthropy.
But I can by-pass the bureaucracy as I have the right to award 10% of the funds – approximately $1m – to any person or institution I see fit, subject to it falling within the scope of the Foundation’s mission. For example, I made a donation to a provincial school in a monastery to build a physics classroom and pay the salary of a physics teacher. It’s an amazing story of a local priest, a former doctor of physics and mathematics, who established a secondary school.”
What does the future hold for your philanthropy? Where are you taking the initiatives you started?
“I am very interested in publication programmes. We publish a series of books and the Elements website.
We also launched the Enlightenment Prize, which is awarded annually to Russian language books in the field of natural and social sciences. The judging panel includes prominent scientists and writers.
I also recently enjoyed visiting some of our school programmes, including a teachers’ conference supported by the Foundation. I get great optimism from visiting schools – something I almost never get by looking at what is happening in Russia.
It would be misleading to claim that I am driven by some noble desire to educate humankind. It’s just that I find it exciting.”
What do you think is needed for philanthropy to thrive in Russia?
“One approach is the American model, where universities and scientific progress are largely reliant on philanthropy. Philanthropy is not seen as being supplementary, but as an essential part of the economy. And there is a tax system which encourages it. It’s amazing to see how those giant universities depend on philanthropy for their existence.
There also needs to be an adjustment in cultural values in Russia and in Russians’ attitude to wealth and rich people. The Orthodox tradition is all about poor being good and rich being bad and sinful. Finally, society needs to learn how to say thank you to donors and to appreciate and acknowledge their contribution.”
What advice would you give to a wealthy family that was at the beginning of its philanthropy journey?
“One can give advice on the technicalities of how to establish a foundation, set up an endowment and so on, but the rest is driven by people’s motivations, which are determined by the personal search for joy and satisfaction. It’s like bringing up children: ‘it cannot be taught, but you can learn it’.”
Find out more about the Dynasty Foundation.