Power of 10 is Gift of Life’s 10th anniversary special feature highlighting our achievements during a decade of helping children beat cancer in Russia. This month we’ve had the immense privilege to talk to Chulpan Khamatova; actor, friend of Gift of Life and most importantly the inspiration for our work, as the co-founder of our sister charity in Russia, Podari Zhizn.
At Gift of Life, we know that even a small donation can increase support in power of ten and help save a child’s life. Together our efforts are game-changing, as we pay for the most modern and effective medications, vital bone marrow donor searches or state-of-the-art surgeries. To support these crucial needs of our patients and raise funds, Chulpan has been pledging her birthday to benefit the charity for years now. We spoke with her about life-saving birthday gifts, systemic approach to charity, and the motivation of the younger generation to support charities and NGOs.
Photo credit: Olga Lavrenkova
Chulpan, for years now on your birthday you’ve been asking people, instead of giving you gifts, to donate to your charity, raising funds to support children with cancer. Did you have an epiphany moment when you realised that giving to others was more rewarding than receiving presents? Why do such gifts bring you most happiness?
It’s from the moment I first found myself in the charity world, right from our earliest fundraisers, that I felt real happiness in being able to give back. Now, after several years, it still makes me so happy when friends, relatives and colleagues use the excuse of my birthday to raise sometimes over a million roubles (£10,000) to help children; it really gives me a miraculous feeling to be part of it and help save lives. For me it’s gift that can’t be beaten by anything else. Especially when years later I see our patients fully recover, grow up and show up healthy and beautiful at the charity’s office.
Gift of Life celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. We have helped more than five hundred children with various diseases to battle cancer. What’s been the most memorable moment for you over the years of helping children with Gift of Life?
The most memorable were the times associated with amazing people making the Gift of Life’s work possible. Each and every time I see how hundreds, thousands, of talented, caring people in London join their effort to help children from Russia my heart leaps and I’m so grateful to our employees, trustees, volunteers, benefactors and, of course, artists and musicians who stage, produce, and perform at our unforgettable fundraisers.
A moment I clearly remember thinking ‘wow: this is real, not a dream’, is when Theodore Currentzis, Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave joined efforts and appeared on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall in London to support children with cancer in Russia and help them receive life-saving medicines on time. That night over 2,500 Londoners, including many prominent members of the Russian-speaking community in Britain, friends of the charity and connoisseurs of Russian culture came to support Gift of Life’s patients. It’s incredible how the foundation inspires so many remarkable people and unites them in this noble mission.
Romeo & Juliet charity concert, 14 January 2017
The third sector was hit hard by the pandemic. Gift of Life like many other charities had no physical fundraisers or events in over 18 months. Thanks to your contribution, our key donors have continued their support in that tough time. In your opinion, how will the world and attitudes towards charity change post COVID-19 pandemic? And how did you personally get through this difficult period? After all, theatres were closed for a long time, and filming was suspended.
It was a challenge for all of us. We all had to change our lives dramatically and learn to live in the here and now without planning anything ahead. Actors tried to survive without performances and tours; rehearsals were moved to Zoom. One way or another we all somehow rebuilt and began to adapt to the new reality. We need to remember that despite this challenging moment our patients continued to fight cancer regardless of lockdowns, and pandemic restrictions meant that they needed the charity’s support more than ever. We had no choice but to react to what was happening and give these children help at all costs.
We wanted to remind our donors and everyone around that cancer didn’t stop during lockdown and that it’s important to continue giving, but we tried to do it in an easy-going way and without being too in-your-face. We clearly understood that the pandemic was hard for everyone, and many people simply couldn’t afford to be as generous as they used to be. We were so lucky to find out at the end of the year that Podari Zhizn survived the financial crisis of the pandemic. And it’s thanks to all those people who stayed by our side despite their own problems.
Photo credit: Irina Polyarnaya
Our sister charity, Podari Zhizn in Russia is celebrating their fifteenth birthday soon. Could you name the three main achievements of Russian philanthropy over this fifteen-year period?
Giving to charitable causes has become easier, more convenient. Fifteen years ago in Russia, you had to fill out lots of paperwork at a bank and queue up at the cashier to donate. Thanks to modern technologies, the ability to donate to good causes is now seamlessly integrated in everyday life and doesn’t require much effort: there are subscriptions to monthly donations, shopping with tokens going to charities, mobile apps with contactless payment functions and many more.
And of course, the charity sector in Russia is also becoming more professional. There are now many foundations that build their work on evidence-based practices, publish transparent reports, avoid aggressive fundraising techniques, spend donations efficiently, and support not just direct appeals but also invest in systemic change and long-term programmes.
Fifteen years ago many Russians had a negative connotation with the words “charitable foundation”, as for many they were synonymous with fraud, but now more and more people start to trust charities, as those are constantly reviewed by government agencies and conduct their activities transparently.
What are the key differences between the philanthropy sector in Russia and the UK in your opinion?
Charity giving is the norm in the UK. Everybody appreciates the need and knows how to help if they need to. This is taught at school from early age. The competition in the third sector is high. Even though there is a well-established and generous Russian community in this country, a foundation like Gift of Life that helps Russian children needs to work very hard to be noticed in the UK. Therefore, at its core Gift of Life’s fundraising model has an emphasis on unique cultural events such as fundraising concerts and charity auctions that strikes a chord with the Russian diaspora. And once again I want to highlight how grateful I am to all the artists and musicians who spend their time helping Gift of Life to spread their mission and raise vital funds for the charitable needs.
Photo credit: Evgenia Basyrova. Vladimir Spivakov and Hibla Gerzmava performing at the Gift of Life Gala 2018
Our compatriots, even those who have lived abroad for some time, do not always understand why charities need a systemic approach. Why is it so important?
It’s simple: thanks to systemic approach, not just one child but hundreds of children can receive crucial support and survive. For example, Podari Zhizn has a project which enables access to early diagnostics of leukaemia. If we help equip more labs with modern technologies so that more children receive the most accurate diagnosis at the very beginning of their treatment, then doctors will be able to immediately prescribe the most effective medication or procedure for them, which means that we will not have to deal with relapse therapy later and precious funds are spent most efficiently. Also, thanks to regular donations, the foundation can support medical treatments in a timely and effective manner, so sick children do not have to wait for the funds to be raised but can be supported as they need.
You often say that philanthropists should not shed a tear, that helping others should be a natural and constant process. But most people around the world only respond to emergency appeals. What must happen for people’s attitude to change?
Emergency appeals can be implemented without manipulation of feelings of guilt, although they are often presented this way. I don’t like it when people turn to me through the message “if you hadn’t bought yourself a cup of coffee, this money could help someone.” I do not want to feel guilty and hide my eyes, I want giving to be a positive, to feel joy at helping others, to understand that I am able to solve at least one problem. What I mean is, the communication approach shouldn’t play on guilt, but highlight the positives that come from giving. Even if we are talking about helping a severely ill child, the same result can be achieved with a completely different, positive message.
Photo credit: Tania Naiden. Chulpan, Patron of Gift of Life Ralph Fiennes, Trustee & Co-founder of Gift of Life Lyuba Galkina
You and Podari Zizhn are inexorably entwined in people’s minds. If we imagine that fifteen years ago you did not meet a group of paediatric oncologists, did not stand at the origins of the foundation, did not help grow it to the scale of the whole country… How would you fill that space in your life?
It’s hard for me to imagine any other life. In any case, I would have joined another charitable foundation. Firstly, it is an opportunity to usefully apply such unnecessary thing as fame, which I have as an actor. And secondly, this is a huge passion, creativity, energy, when you try to change something that seems impossible. I would need it badly in my life.
Working in the third sector is emotionally draining. For you, this is more than a job. You are with the charity 24/7. How do you deal with burnout?
Good news helps me cope with anything. I receive letters from our former patients, they come to see my performances, they come to help at our fundraising events as volunteers. This all helps me carry on and shows clearly that no effort is wasted. And I also have tremendous support from my family and the charity’s team. I do not carry everything alone on my shoulders, and this also helps to avoid burnout.
In one of your previous interviews, you said that it is important to reach 10-14-year-olds and educate them about charity through the latest digital platforms, so we don’t lose this generation of philanthropists in the future. You have three teenage daughters. What charitable initiatives do they support and what motivates them?
Like many in their generation in Russia, my daughters are preoccupied with environmental problems. Therefore, everything related to separate waste collection, waste reduction and recycling plays a part in their live. I know that they have subscribed to monthly donations supporting various causes. I think they are motivated by opinion leaders: young artists and bloggers who speak the same language when they talk about charity. Convenient methods of giving, for example, handy mobile apps, are equally important for younger generation. And, of course, understanding what exactly they can do to help solve a particular problem is paramount. Their generation leads a conscious way of life. If they see how their 50 roubles (50p) can change the world for better, they will take part and help.
Your wish to the charity’s donors and their children, for whom, we hope, helping those in need will also become an integral part of their lives.
I wish that all of us never forget to enjoy every minute and every little gift of this life.
To support the Gift of Life’s work and help children beat cancer, donate now.
Photos: Olga Lavrenkova, Irina Polyarnaya, Evgenia Basyrova, Tania Naiden, Gift of Life and Podari Zhizn.