Image of Vladimir Potanin


Vladimir Potanin is founder and owner of the private investment Interros company and, since December 2012, CEO-Chairman of the management board of MMC Norilisk Nickel. 

He established the Potanin Foundation in 1999 and has made a public commitment to give the majority of his wealth to philanthropy.

When and why did you first engage with philanthropy?

“For me, philanthropy started in early childhood – when you do something at home or in the schoolyard to make things better. People have a natural desire to change the world for the better. And the more successful you are and the more opportunities you have, the more this inclination to change things around you grows. For me, this led to the development of a structure for my philanthropy [the establishment of the Potanin Foundation] and to thinking about my legacy.”


I chose causes I felt passionate about [education and culture].

What do you mean by legacy?  

“Legacy relates to how people perceive me today, as I get older and when I am no longer around, and how people perceive my family. That’s the ‘external’ side of legacy.

But another very important part of legacy is how you educate your children, and how your success or money affects your children, your grandchildren and the wider family. You can help your children get an education, healthcare and give them a good start in this world – or you can spoil them and they will live without any motivation to achieve anything. I call this the ‘internal’ side of legacy.

I have decided not to leave all my wealth to my children and to dedicate a majority of it to philanthropy. I will leave them a small portion so they are comfortable and so they have a good education, healthcare and can fulfil basic needs. But I want to protect them from the responsibility of significant wealth and encourage them to create their own careers and lives. The responsibility of managing significant wealth would result in little time to focus on the things that matter to them.” 

Are your family or children involved with your philanthropy?

“This is a good question. The choice is whether you get your children involved at the very beginning of your philanthropy or whether you explain to them that philanthropy should come from them directly. My choice was to explain to my children that if and when they are successful, they can not only spend their money but can also pay attention to charitable issues – do something that won’t increase their wealth or improve their career, but involves giving something back. My children are involved in my philanthropy on occasion, but philanthropy is very personal so it’s important that supporting others, whether it is with money, time or expertise, comes from them. My philanthropy has an educational influence on them.”


I am fully aware I may not see the full impact of my philanthropy during my lifetime.

What is the main focus of your philanthropy?

“Education and culture. There’s no scientific logic behind the choice of these causes and I am fully aware that I may not see the full impact of my philanthropy during my lifetime. But the soul of a philanthropist needs to see some results while alive. And that’s why I chose two causes that I personally feel passionate about.

For example, there are two motivations for my focus on culture. First, culture is something that is international. I lived through a period when Russia and the Soviet Union were very closed. But I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel with my father who worked for the Minister for Foreign Trade and to speak foreign languages. When Russia became open, I wanted people to know more about Russia, and culture is a great way to achieve this through supporting museums and galleries and through exhibitions about Russia abroad. 

The second reason I chose to focus on culture is that it provides a counterbalance to my working life, which can be very pragmatic, pressured and sometimes hostile. Culture is a great antidote to this as music, art and literature are beautiful. It helps me rebalance my energy. I don’t collect art, but I like to admire art in galleries and museums, as that way it belongs to everyone.”

If you were to single out a particular donation that you were especially pleased with what would that be?

“It’s difficult to choose one donation. All donations inspire me in different ways. For example, I had great pleasure from the first scholarship programme due to the ironic but hugely enjoyable way in which the students thanked me in the form of jokes, songs and a short performance. It was incredibly funny and became a tradition for a number of years.

Another example is when I decided to acquire the Black Square and give it to the Hermitage State Museum. It cost exactly $1m. It was a hugely symbolic donation for the Hermitage as the museum had not acquired any new work since the 1930s. What was a small gesture therefore helped the Hermitage rekindle its ambition to acquire new art and new collections.

If you are personally involved in your philanthropy, each donation will be valuable to you in different ways. If you ask me this question again in one year I will probably give you different examples.”


I decided many years before I signed the Giving Pledge to give a majority of my wealth to philanthropy

What does the future hold for your philanthropy? Do you think the focus of your philanthropy will change?

“I decided many years before I signed the Giving Pledge to give a majority of my wealth to philanthropy.

I don’t know if the focus of my philanthropy will change. I don’t think I need a clear strategy for this.

The role of the Potanin Foundation is very important as it’s also like a business, even though it’s not for profit. I don’t want the programmes to deteriorate in quality, so I have professional staff who run the Foundation and deliver the programmes, ensuring that they evolve as appropriate. This is important to keep the culture and education programmes running, relevant and effective. The Foundation has an annual budget of around $10m. I am on the board of the Foundation but not involved in its day-to-day activity.

Each year or each month I may have new ideas, like giving an endowment to my alma mater, creating an endowment for the Hermitage State Museum where I am on the board of trustees, creating an exhibition in Las Vegas involving the Guggenheim and the Hermitage, or launching the Russian International Olympic University. These are activities that I have supported directly myself rather than through the Foundation. If such activities require follow-up, sometimes I would support my Foundation to do this. But all new ideas come from me personally and I fund them directly. Over time, I may transfer more and more of this role to the Foundation.”

You and your Foundation have played a very active role in strengthening philanthropy in Russia. Why did you choose to do this and what have been the key successes?

“I think that the development of charitable activity and philanthropy is a key marker that helps judge how developed civil society and the country itself is. In countries such as the UK and US, philanthropy is well established and children engage with charitable activity and giving right from school. It’s supported by governments, legislation and the general public. And it gives a psychological and moral reward. In Russia this does not exist. So changing this environment involves changing legislation and the attitude of the public towards philanthropy. People who want to do something charitable or philanthropic can face many hurdles. It’s important that people begin to believe that someone can do something for no real personal gain, other than the feeling of doing something good.

While we have a long way to go, it’s important to say that in Russia we have made great progress since the middle of the 1990s. And I think it is because of the contribution of particular people, including myself, that we are moving this process forward. I want all people on earth to believe that there are people ready to do something for nothing.”

What do you think the future holds for philanthropy in Russia, especially among wealthy families?

“The problem is that the general public think that institutions in Russia, all institutions and not just statutory, are corrupt or very bureaucratic. People don’t believe in institutions, and that’s why they are not ready to give their money to them. To create trust takes time and there is no short cut to this. Those who are already involved in charitable organisations and philanthropy need to help build this trust, which involves actively communicating about what they are doing, why and the difference they are making. At first my philanthropy had a relatively low profile – but now I am more vocal. We need to give philanthropy a high profile so it encourages others to give. And we need to hope that the next generation will believe even more in the idea of philanthropy.”

If you were talking to a wealthy family or individual that was at the beginning of their philanthropy journey, what advice would you give to them?

“Be clear about your motivations for philanthropy – you need to genuinely want to do it before you seek advice from experts on how you can make a real difference.”

Find out more about the Potanin Foundation.