Editorial, 15 December 2015
The last week of November was seven dismal days for Armenians and two of their top charities. The United Armenian Fund (UAF), which has sent, since its inception, some $720 million worth of assistance to Armenia and to Artsakh, announced that it had shuttered its operations. A week earlier, the All-Armenia Telethon had announced that it had raised $10,378,000—the lowest amount since 2005 and a far cry from the glory days of 2011 ($31,000,000) and 2008 ($35,000,000).
The UAF board of directors stated that it would concentrate its efforts on other projects in Armenia and in the Diaspora. It’s an open secret that the death of long-time philanthropist Kirk Kerkorian and the winding down of his Lincey Foundation would severely impact the UAF. The board is composed of representatives from the Armenian General Benevolent Union, the Armenian Missionary Association of America, Armenian Relief Society, the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, and the Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America.
We will address the UAF demise at a later date.
The steady decline of moneys contributed to the All-Armenia Fund, the charity which has raised somewhere between $250 million to $300 million, is a painful fact. It deserves the attention of every Armenian.
Why the sharp decline in the Hayastan All-Armenia Fund contributions? The reasons cited by pro and con fund sources are various. Pro-fund people point out that in its heyday almost one-third of the contributions came from a small group of wealthy Armenians in Russia. The severe economic downturn in that country has almost dried up that important source of contribution. As well, some traditional sources have switched their attention to the Armenians of Syria. Several individuals who have been major supporters of the fund have passed away in recent years. A fourth explanation is that the first generation of immigrants was more involved in Armenian affairs and supported the fund. Their assimilated or partly-assimilated progeny do not have the same closeness or commitment to the nation. Finally, when Armenia and Artsakh became independent and Armenians were resisting Azeri attacks there was an enhanced spirit of patriotism. Some people have since become blasé about Armenia and Artsakh while others don’t know of a time when there was no independent Armenia.
All-Armenia Fund critics put the largest blame in the decline of the contributions on the close links the fund has with the corrupt Republic of Armenia government. Whether the RoA was headed by Levon Ter-Petrossian, Robert Kocharian or Serge Sargsyan, the government and its cronies have dipped their fingers into the fund till, critics allege. In addition, they say, there has been mismanagement and incompetence (for example, badly-constructed buildings which required repairs a few years after they were built).
Ara Manoogian, a vociferous critic of the fund, reports that in 2010 fund Executive Director Sarkis Kotanjian admitted to him, in a taped conversation, that the fund reeked to high heaven. According to activist and gadfly Manoogian, Kotanjian said: “You know all kinds of things have occurred in the fund’s history. Again, very frankly, openly I’m talking to you: they’ve stolen money, eaten it, and what not. It has happened.”
Critics have accused the fund of having a high overhead. While individual “chapters” have been scrupulous about administrative expenses (the Toronto branch has no payroll, no rent, no printing expenses for its newsletter and no travel expense), the Armenia head office hasn’t been as responsible. There have been scandals going back to the Ter-Petrossian regime.
Some diehard supporters of Sargsyan claim the big contributions of Moscow Armenians were partly due to Sargsyan’s lobbying and attendance at the annual dinner where huge sums of money were raised. Some supporters also say that the money raised by the fund is so miniscule (1% of RoA’s budget) that regime’s hangers-on wouldn’t consider it worth fleecing. A weak argument, but nonetheless part of the give and take.
Armenians are ever-ready to raise their voice about how much they love their nation and their homeland, but most of them fail to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to helping Armenian causes. “Let Kirk Kerkorian do it… let the AGBU donate…they have millions” they huff and puff while paying big monthly fees for their indispensable Netflix membership and for wasteful luxuries. They don’t think twice about coughing up $50,000 for a BMW SUV or a high-end Toyota but flinch at donating a few hundred dollars a year to their brothers and sisters who are living in terrible conditions and face daily attacks from the enemy.
There are about 3.5 million Armenians, not counting those living in Armenia, Artsakh, and Russia. If we divide 3.5 million by the average four members per family, we get 875,000 families. How much did these 875,000 families raise before the Armenians of Moscow began to pitch in and before people began asking questions about the management of the fund? A grand total of $7,700,000! You do the math as to how much that is per family. You do the math as to how much is that per 3.5 million Armenians.
And year after year–to add to the shame–it’s the same people who donate. While Toronto is one of the lucky communities (its dollar numbers have grown substantially in the last five year), it’s the same individuals who continue to donate year after year. The pattern is the same across the globe: of the 875,000 families it’s only 25,000 families who bother to help their impoverished brethren in Armenia and in Artsakh.
There was a time when critics questioned the organization’s audits. It’s safe to say that the audit is no longer an issue: Hayastan All-Armenia Fund Yerevan (the head office) financial audit is done by the well-known firm of Grant Thornton and a physical audit of its home page is performed by an independent engineering company in Yerevan. Representatives of the latter go to every major project site while they are under construction. A third audit–internal–is done by Ara Aslan of Nice.
Migirdic Migirdicyan, the founding chair of Hayastan Foundation Toronto, says: “We have no choice but to increase the standard of living of the Hayasdan and Artsakh by building humanitarian infrastructure so that they can have a normal life and stay on their ancestral lands. After all, it is those villagers’ children who are defending our lands.” Migirdic’s dedication is understandable and admirable but his argument has so far failed to impress most potential donors.
Assuming the above reasons as to why there has been a sharp decline in the donations are valid… assuming that the auditors are on the ball… and assuming that the thieves of Yerevan have in recent years failed to shave the donations… Where does that leave the All-Armenia Fund? What will be its future? Will next year’s telethon contributions continue to go south? To point out that 3 to 4 million Diaspora Armenians managed to raise no more than $10 million dollars must make the ghosts of Gulbenkian, Manoogian, and Kerkorian wonder as to why they bothered to help their nation in the first place. Another fact is that many Diasporans have attended heavily-subsidized Armenian schools. They have received elementary and even secondary school education because the Gulbenkians and the Manoogians of this world, in addition to individual Armenians, donated to the Armenian schools in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Cyprus, etc. Do the graduates of these subsidized schools remember the times when their principal waited anxiously for that much-needed check to arrive from New York or Lisbon?
To reverse the decline in donations, the Hayastan All-Armenia Fund leaders should come up ASAP with a new game plan. The current situation is untenable. If the fund maintains its current vector, it risks becoming irrelevant. Considering the dire need for increased donations and considering the millions of Armenians who live comfortably in the west, it should not be difficult for the fund executives to come up with a new battle plan, a new approach that will resonate with the Diaspora public. The old ways aren’t working. The need in our homeland is urgent.
Let’s not waste our time listening to excuse seekers. There will always be people who will find an excuse not to open their purse. They will talk about the depressed economy, the cost of filling their giant SUV’s gas tank, the high cost of macchiato. The Armenian language has a ringing slap for them: “We saw you in the summer and we saw you in the winter” (Kezee amarn al dessank tsmern al dessank). We honor them when we call them Armenian.