For most of us, the sanctioning of Russian oligarchs in response to the war in Ukraine passed by without us noticing much. But among the obscure billionaires, one figure loomed far larger in the public eye. Roman Abramovich, until recently the owner of Chelsea Football Club, was forced to sell up after being sanctioned. No money from the sale was allowed to go to Abramovich and a big chunk was pledged for the victims of Russia’s war in Ukraine—indeed Abramovich himself said this was his aim.
And that chunk is very large indeed—maybe up to £2.5bn—which is apparently to be used to set up a charity following the successful bid by US tycoon Todd Boehly. By comparison, at the time of writing, the British government has given £3.8bn to Ukraine, whilst UNICEF UK raised £141.8m last year for all its causes.
So, what exactly is this new charity going to be, given that it has a budget two thirds the size of the UK government’s support for Ukraine and over seventeen times that raised by UNICEF UK last year?
Plans for the foundation
Mike Penrose, who once led UNICEF UK, has been working with the football club on plans for the foundation but he’s not given much away so far. He is adamant that he is independent, telling Sky News: ‘I have never met [Abramovich], nor has he ever conveyed any message to me. The only request I received was to use my experience and contacts to create a foundation that would have the greatest impact on conflict-affected people in Ukraine, and in other countries affected by conflict across the globe.’ Penrose has substantial experience in running major humanitarian charities, so that gives us reason to hope that things will be managed well.
When sums this large emerge for charitable purposes they are usually used to create an endowment that can give out grants over many years. At NPC, our advice would be to clarify your mission; to consider how that fits with what others are already doing, so you can work together rather than duplicating; to think through your theory of change, establishing how you will achieve your mission; to agree what you will measure to assess your impact, learn, and keep you honest; appoint some independent trustees, who aren’t just your mates; and, of course, apply for charitable status.
That already raises enough questions and debates in itself for the ‘Abramovich’ charity—like who will appoint the trustees and on what basis? What exactly will their mission be and how will they decide grant allocations? Penrose seems keen to tie down some of this even before trustees are appointed. When Chelsea applied to the government for the sale, he said: ‘I’ve written an overview, a scoping document on the foundation, on what we want to achieve, and an initial budget to set the thing up, and get it running and allocating money’.
The incredible potential
There’s no plan it seems to use the existing and well-established Chelsea Foundation as a vehicle—likely because it would have to drastically alter its aims and practices if it is to help victims of the war in Ukraine, and this is probably not what the public expect given the need is urgent. Perhaps we’ll see something a bit more of the Mackenzie Scott style who has just dished out largesse from her billions in great big grants with relatively little due diligence. In an emergency such as we have in Ukraine, that would not be a terrible thing to do.
And of course, we mustn’t forget the other unusual aspect of this process, which is that the whole situation came about due to government insistence. The government not only forced Abramovich to sell, it also decided the licensing rules for Chelsea to operate under until he had done so, and Abramovich couldn’t sell the club unless the government approved the new owner and the transaction. So, might the government want to have a say in how this charity is set up? It would be a bit strange given it is supposed to be independent, but the public would surely want to feel that their government was making sure the charity did what they had been promised (even if those promises were a bit vague).
Penrose claimed back in mid-May that: ‘If they give us the green light in the next few days, we can have the foundation set up in a couple of months and have money on the ground in hours or days after that.’
Well, the green light was given, and we’re now a few months on. Let’s see what happens now. The incredible potential for impact from this money means we should all be watching this process closely.