Philanthropy in Armenia

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Civil Society
Democratic Values
nongovernmental organization (NGO)
History and growth of philanthropy and nonprofits in Armenia

Authored by Seda Arzumanyan


Civil society plays a crucial role in democratic transition and consolidation (Smith 2011). Civil society puts pressure on government to make changes through mobilizing and engaging civic groups. There are many definitions of civil society, but a common modern one is “civil society is the sum of institutions, organizations, and individuals located between the family, the state and the market in which people associate with voluntarily to advance common interests.” (Anheier 2014).  Nonprofit or non-governmental (public) organizations present a civil society in a structural or organizational manner.

Public (non-governmental) organizations are defined by Armenian law as: “A public organization (type of not for profit) does not pursue the purpose of gaining profit and redistributing this profit among its members, and into which (the organization), based on their common interests, in the manner prescribed by the law, physical persons, including Republic of Armenia citizens, foreign citizens and those without any citizenship, have joined for satisfying their non-religious spiritual and non-material other needs; for protecting their and other persons’ rights and interests; for providing material and non-material assistance to certain groups and for carrying out other activities for public benefit. If the organization along with the objectives mentioned in this clause also has political, religious, professional objectives, then it is not a public organization and it can be registered as an organization of another legal organizational form.” (

Historic Roots

Late twentieth century was a timeframe when non-governmental organizations (NGOs) experienced significant growth in Armenia as a result of different events happening at the time.

Armenia was a part of the Soviet Union for about 70 years and many Soviet traditions have affected people’s mentality and approach to the government and philanthropy (Babajanian 2005).  The Soviet Union government provided all services to the public and community, therefore the public expected to see the government in a leading role in terms of providing social services.  Communism did not like and did not promote collective actions and currently, people who grew up during that time, do not like civic activities and hardly engage in them.  The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and one reason why was that people wanted to live in a civil society.  The ideology of democracy and independence ignited people to fight against the Soviet Union (Ishkhanian 2003).  Even though it has already been 25 years, communist traditions and mentalities continue to exist in Armenia: people see government as a primary agent for their communities’ problem solving and people do not like collective actions towards developing their communities (Babajanian 2005).

The collapse together with other major events in Armenia including an earthquake in 1988 and a war between Nagorno-Karabagh and Azerbaijan from 1991-1995 have shaped the social-economic-political developments in Armenia.  That was a transitional period for Armenia transforming from communism to democracy.  It was also the time when NGOs were being created rapidly because of funding from western sources trying to promote civil society and democracy (Ishkanian 2003).  On the other hand, during that time the newly formed government did not have enough capacity and financial resources to provide public goods and services and it was a good argument for establishing and operating NGOs.  During this period, major international organizations, such as OXFAM, Save the Children, CARE and others established offices in Armenia.  Also during this period, Armenian diaspora organizations were growing.  By 1996, over 1500 NGOs were registered with the Armenian Ministry of Justice, and by 2014, over 3,900 registered NGOs were in Armenia ( working in different sectors (education, housing, health, social services, promoting democracy, civil society, and other fields) (Paturyan and Gevorgyan 2014).

The NGO concept is new in Armenia and has followed a path of development during the last 25 years.  It still faces many challenges such as financial independence, limitation of financial sources, limited partnership with the government, weak capacities, transparency and accountability, lack of volunteer contribution and much more (Gharabegian 2014).  One of the biggest challenges for NGOs in Armenia is financial dependency on international, mostly western sources and issues of financial sustainability.  Three-quarters of NGOs reported that international organizations were their main financial sources providing grants; 14% reported state funding and 11% from membership and donations (Stepanyan 2016).  NGOs receiving financial resources from international organizations follow the donors’ agenda first rather than reflecting community needs.  But real development can happen and civil society will be formed when communities decide what they need and find solutions (Ishkhanian 2003). Sometimes organizations receive funding which does not match with their mission and goals, therefore NGOs have created distrust among people (Minasyants 2014).   By Armenian law, currently, NGOs are not allowed to implement direct business activities, but proposed legislation will provide opportunities for NGOs to generate revenue through implementing direct business activities and volunteer engagement.  



NGOs have a significant role in developing civil society in Armenia, promoting and sharing democratic values and concepts, also providing different kinds of social services that government fails to provide.  The European Union and USAID are major western donors and have provided grants and continue to support NGOs to promote democratic values and governance.  They also support activities to create a civil society in Armenia and implement social and economic development projects in different fields, such as health, education, children care, agriculture, small and middle business development, renewable energy, energy efficiency and much more (;

Currently, peoples’ mentality is changing in Armenia after a long transformation period from the Soviet Union.  Public awareness about their rights have increased, society shows a great interest in social, economic and political events. Young people have gained interest in development and reforms in Armenia and during recent years have participated in formal volunteering.  We also note an active interest in advocacy and demonstration events attempting to change governmental decisions and actions (Paturyan and Gevorgyan 2014). Also, wide usage of social media pages helped mobilize civic movements consisting of active citizens and groups of people moving to protect their rights and organize public campaigns, such as “100-dram”, “Mashtots Park,” “Dem enq” and others.  These were actions to stop illegal and corrupted activities by the government.  Those civic movements achieved positive results and showed how the people can be mobilized based on common needs and have an effect on the government’s decisions while pushing them to be accountable (Tadevosyan 2013).  Recent civic movements show how civil society has developed in Armenia.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Non-governmental organizations have played and continue to play an important role promoting democratic values and creating a civil society in Armenia after having a big influence on communist culture, traditions, and mentality (Babajanian 2005); also engaging and reducing government control in economic and social service delivery (Mercer 2002).  Development and operation of non-governmental organizations have created a new culture in Armenia.  The people have started to learn about new concepts of democracy, human rights, civil society, community engagement and volunteering. Although informal volunteering was a part of Armenian culture and history, formal volunteering is a new concept.  Many non-governmental organizations invite volunteers to work with them. Usually, mostly young people are engaged in formal volunteering providing public services (Smith 2011).

Currently, the non-profit sector is the largest channel of initiating and implementing philanthropic actions in Armenia, although the sector faces different kinds of challenges, and needs government support for growth and sustainability.   The government should understand the key role of civil society organizations in society’s democratization process and should make further legislative changes to provide good opportunities for their engagement and growth (Minasyants 2014). Both sides can help each other: philanthropy can be developed and grow in a democratic society while non-governmental organizations help the government to become democratic (Payton and Moody 2008).

Key Related Ideas

Armenian Diaspora: Armenia has large diasporan communities all over the world. The Armenian Genocide of 1915 affected Armenians by spreading their resettlement and creating a diaspora all over the world.  Christian Armenians, who lived in Western Armenia which is currently a territory of Eastern Turkey, were systematically exterminated by the Ottoman government.  Currently, the diaspora consists of approximately 11,000,000 people including 120,000 in Georgia and about 7 million worldwide with the largest representations in Russia and the USA.  The Armenian diaspora is one of the largest supporters of Armenia by investing in philanthropic activities of different types (

Christianity:  Up to 95% of Armenians are Christians. Armenia has its dominant church, Armenian Apostolic Church.  Armenia was the first country that accepted Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD. The Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin is considered as the center of authority in the worldwide Armenian Apostolic Church.  The Armenian Churches are represented in almost all Armenian diaspora communities.  They fund or implement an assortment of projects to address social needs in Armenia (  Historically, Armenian Apostolic Church played a significant role in gathering communities together to protect the Armenian identity under various empires.  The Armenian Apostolic Church educated people about important values as a means to help each other including supporting the poorest.

Informal volunteering: Breakup of the Soviet Union brought economic problems for people from the former republic.  The government failed to provide basic social services to Armenia and people relied mostly on their families, friends, neighbors’ and community member support (Babajanian, 2005).  People supported each other through informal volunteering and giving or sharing.  Many families received cash assistance from their family members that worked temporarily in Russia or other former republic states.  If there was a death in one family, the community gathered together and supported the family. Informal volunteering was and continues to be a part of Armenian culture.


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Kirk Kerkorian (June 6, 1917 – June 15, 2015) a famous Armenian businessman and philanthropist.  He lived in California and owned several big businesses there.  He built the world’s largest casino-hotel complexes in Las Vegas including the International Hotel (1969), MGM Grand Hotel (1973), and the MGM Grand (1993).  He had investments in movies and airlines industry as well.  Kerkorian has Armenian origins and was a major donor to Armenia.  He established the Lincy Foundation in 1989 and through that he supported both the Armenian government and charity (over $1 billion).  He was also recognized as the 10th largest donor in the US by Time magazine in 2000 (New York Times).
  • Ralf Yerikyan (November 16, 1967) currently serves as a General Manager at one of the leading mobile communications companies in Armenia, VivaCell-MTS.  He is not only an innovative business leader but also a corporate leader who was the first to introduce and promote a concept of Corporate Social Responsibility in Armenia.  He has invested heavily to support programs addressing social needs in Armenia (
  • Ruben Vardanyan (May 25, 1968) is a famous and well-respected businessman and philanthropist in Armenia.  He was an investment banker for over 20 years in Russia.  He with his wife have been engaged in charitable and philanthropic activities since 1990.  They created a family foundation in 2007 and started implementation of social entrepreneurial projects. He has a passion for changing the world through mobilizing and engaging talents.  Ruben Vardanyan is founder and initiator one of the largest development projects in Armenia.  He established United World College (UWC) Dilijan in Armenia, the first UWC college in Eastern Europe.  He is the founder of the IDeA Foundation in Armenia.  The foundation implements projects aiming to have significant socio-economic impact in Armenia through support from corporations, individual donations and investments (


Related Nonprofit Organizations

Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) is the world’s largest Armenian non-profit organization and its mission is devoted to upholding Armenian heritage through educational, cultural and humanitarian programs.  AGBU implements projects across Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Armenian diaspora.  AGBU’s headquarters is located in New York City with chapters in 31 countries and 74 cities and addresses the needs of Armenians implementing various projects focusing on schools, scouts, camps and support for the arts through internships, virtual learning and young professional networks (

Eurasia Partnership Foundation Armenia’s ( mission is to empower people to create change for social justice and economic prosperity through hands-on programs while helping them to improve their communities and their own lives.

The foundation operates in Armenia and has started “CSO DePo: Civil Society Organizations Development Program” in consortium with other local NGOs under USAID’s Development Grants Program in 2014.  The program aims to create sustainable civil society through strengthening the capacity of civil society organizations.  Within this project, they have launched the CSO DePo Portal,, which is a great resource for civil society organizations’ development, networking and fundraising purposes.

Public Journalist Club operates in Armenia and implements Media Center project. The project is committed to ensuring civil society’s active and constant participation in discussions and debates over important political and social issues, developing a culture of debate, creating a platform that will unite media representatives, non-governmental organizations, civil society, state and international institutions, helping to shape and promote a culture of cooperation.  The Center weekly initiates media events, such as debates, discussions, press conferences to address and cover ongoing events and developments in Armenia by creating open and transparent discussions among different actors. The Media Center is coordinated by the Public Journalism Club non-governmental organization and supported by the Open Society Foundations in Armenia and the Embassy of Great Britain (


Reflection Question - How does western countries’ funding/financing affect the development of civil society and nonprofit sector in Armenia positively and negatively?



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This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.