Image of Ruben Vardanyan and Veronika Zonabend

RUBEN VARDANYAN AND VERONIKA ZONABEND 

Ruben Vardanyan is Advisor to the Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Sberbank, Russia. Prior to its merger with Sberbank in January 2012, he served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of Troika Dialog. He is a founding partner and a member of the Coordination Council of the SKOLKOVO Moscow School of Management where he served as president from 2006 until 2011. Veronika Zonabend graduated from the Moscow Aviation Institute and worked as an engineer at the Research Institute of Avionics. In the 1990s she became Deputy Head of the Foreign Exchange Department of Tveruniversal Bank and subsequently undertook various entrepreneurial projects in diverse sectors including hospitality and film production and distribution. 

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Our family fund is concerned with the long term.

When did you become involved in philanthropy?

Ruben (RV): “As soon as Troika started making a profit, which was over 20 years ago, we became involved in projects supporting orphans because we knew that in Russia this is a very significant problem. In Troika there was a charitable giving committee, which continues to exist after the merger with Sberbank. It helps the company’s staff to find ways to give to those in need.

But our family’s philanthropic activities are very different to corporate philanthropy. They have different criteria, budgets and decision-making processes. Our family fund is concerned with the long term. It actively seeks and pursues ambitious philanthropic programmes with a multiplier effect.”

Veronika (VZ): “Our family first became involved in philanthropy some time ago, giving small donations to help specific people and projects. For example, we funded various scholarships and grants, financed the publication of books about the history of Armenia and about the Armenian genocide, as well as the translation and publication of previously unpublished non-fiction books in Russian.”

RV: “Together with a number of partners, we are participating in the development of the infrastructure of a charitable giving system in Russia, and in increasing its transparency. For example, to attract professionals to the sector we have been funding the salaries of highly qualified managers working for six different charitable funds, such as Gift of Life.”

VZ: “Around five years ago, Ruben and I decided to give more structure to our philanthropy and to focus on a limited number of projects, which we would invest in financially as well as with our energy and time because this is the most valuable resource we have.”

RV: “We developed seven principles for selecting our projects:

1. A long-term vision and plan spanning several decades

2. Magnitude and an emblematic character

3. An inbuilt multiplier effect contributing to the development of the infrastructure, and social and cultural spheres of a region

4. Collegiality and internationality: the projects unite many people of different nationalities and faiths

5. Involvement of local communities in the realisation of the projects

6. Operational self-sufficiency: the projects gradually become self-sustaining but capital costs come from charitable donations

7. Best international practise and the creation of a new benchmark locally

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In the 21st century, I believe human resources and education will be key.

What do you mean by collegiality?

 VZ: “We don’t want the projects initiated by our Foundation to be seen as Ruben and Veronika’s projects, but rather as collaborative work with others who consider the projects as theirs too. We are absolutely certain that for the projects to be successful, they need the knowledge and expertise of many talented people from diverse spheres of work.”

What do you mean by long-term operational self-sufficiency of the projects?

 RV: “As we see it, the most sustainable model for philanthropy is when capital investments are made as charitable contributions, while project revenue covers at least operational expenses. In this model there is no need for constant donor support and if the revenue is greater than the expenses, the surplus can be used to develop the project. For example, revenues from the sales of tickets for the aerial ropeway in Tatev go towards the maintenance of its structure and towards reconstruction work at Tatev monastery.”

What is the focus of your family’s philanthropic projects?

VZ: “Geographically speaking, the focus is on Armenia and Russia because we believe that our efforts will have the most effect in these countries.”

RV: “Our largest project in Armenia is Dilijan International School. We have four major projects in the country, including Tatev Revival Project and the development of tourism in this region. In Russia, I play a key role in the development of SKOLKOVO School of Management, where we plan to create a research centre to study philanthropy, charitable giving, social entrepreneurship and ways of passing down assets from the first generation of wealthy people in Russia to the next.”

VZ: “The focus of all my energy and time at the moment is Dilijan International School, which initially started as a relatively small project as a summer camp. In the process of developing the ideas, we realised that there is a huge demand for educational institutions in the region, and that there aren’t enough high calibre international schools. Gradually, the idea grew into a project to establish an international school for students from all over the world, with a capital investment of over $100m. It has taken us five years to develop the concept to make Dilijan exceptional. The architect, the project team and I visited many schools in different countries to absorb new ideas, learn from their experience and to have the opportunity to avoid mistakes made during the construction of other new schools.”

The key themes of your philanthropic projects seem to be education and culture. Why is this?

 RV: “It’s very simple. In the 21st century I believe human resources and education will be key – educated and creative people who want to make a difference will be societies’ main asset. Today, as the world becomes more interconnected and people have diverse personal and business interests in many parts of the world, understanding different cultures is increasingly more crucial. This is key to the future of any country and society.”

VZ: “People are largely defined by their education, so its role in the 21st century will be ever more important. Education systems that exist today do not meet the needs of contemporary society. Some of the skills people will most need in the 21st century will be very different to those needed in the past. For instance, the most sought after qualities of tomorrow are likely to be very good all-round knowledge and the ability to think creatively – qualities that education today does not foster.”

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We need to build a culture of philanthropy and its infrastructure in Russia.

Philanthropy is clearly more than just giving money. Can you tell us about what other resources you draw upon?

VZ: “Writing a cheque is the easiest part of philanthropy. If you really want to make a difference in the world, you dedicate what is most valuable – your time and energy, and pour enthusiasm and love into the project. Despite all the challenges and a very busy schedule, my work brings me a lot of energy and my life has a new meaning.”

RV: “I am not a believer in instantaneous philanthropy. I enjoy engaging in the projects we support. For example, we are involved in a project to renovate a wing of Dumfries House, an 18th century estate in Scotland, which has been initiated by Prince Charles. This project includes an educational exchange programme for students from Scotland and from Dilijan International School. We are also looking to learn from major foundations around the world, such as the Bosch Foundation and other private family funds.”

What have been your biggest lessons from philanthropy?

VZ: “I discovered that there are many more people who want to do good and to help than I imagined. We hear a lot less about the good things than the bad.”

RV: “You need to be very, very consistent and fulfil your promises, while being careful not to make promises you cannot keep.”

What does the future hold for your philanthropy?

RV: “We have undertaken a number of projects we need to complete. In 2005 we began the restoration of Tatev Monastery, which will be finished in 2017. Dilijan International School will open its doors in September 2014 and will need our continued support until 2025. There is a long road ahead.”

How do your children feel about these philanthropic projects?

RV: “We have agreed that we won’t leave our children a large inheritance, to avoid the problems that come with great wealth. Instead, we will invest the money in philanthropy, and I hope they will join us in this and continue the work we have begun.”

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If you really want to make a difference… pour enthusiasm and love into the project.

What do you think needs to be done to cultivate philanthropy in Russia?

RV: “We need to build a culture of philanthropy and its infrastructure in Russia. Unfortunately, there was a real loss of confidence and trust in charities in the 1990s. We need to rebuild this trust by creating a history of successful philanthropic projects, while improving transparency and the level of professionalism of the sector. There is a need to develop fundraising mechanisms. 

One of the projects we are working on at the moment is focused on developing a collection of funds aimed at connecting middle-class donors with those who are able and ready to bring philanthropic projects to fruition. The creation of such transparent mechanisms will help raise confidence towards charitable initiatives. It’s important to inspire a desire to get involved in philanthropy across all levels of wealth.”   

VZ: “There is a need to tell more stories about the good things people do. A lot of people do amazing things in their local communities and regions, even though the state does not always help. For example, recently I met a young woman who has almost single-handedly created an online education programme for orphans, without state support. Such people should be recognised and respected by society. Russia is rich with talent.”  

What advice would you give to a wealthy family planning to get involved in philanthropy?

VZ: “If you want to do something worthwhile, prepare for the fact that it will become a key part of your life. Also, try to avoid double standards and be very genuine in what you do. For example, when I say that we are building one of the best schools in the world, I want my children to study there.”

RV: “Define what success means to you and prepare for a long journey.”  

Find out more about Dilijan International School of Armenia