Business

Charity in the social media age

The Philanthropist: Natalia Vodianova

Photograph by Henry Bourne

As the 21st century unfolds, so does the realisation that we have less time than ever to stand and stare. How can, and should, our society and economy best use its time? It’s to this question that Vanity Fair and UNLIMITED have turned their attention, presenting five individuals each thinking blue-sky about time, and what it means for them. In the third of the series, the model and philanthropist Natalia Vodianova explains how she has converted the time people spend adding “likes” to her social media posts into good deeds with her app, Elbi.


Natalia Vodianova has featured on a whopping 71 Vogue covers in 16 different countries, according to the latest tally. In model terms, and in an age where magazine covers typically go to movie stars and musicians, this is nothing short of spectacular. One could easily put this down to her beauty, but there is much more to the woman they call Supernova.

“When my success came, it was just really overwhelming because in a way I didn’t understand this injustice,” she explained. “Why did I have to have this incredibly difficult childhood and arrive at a place where I am making a lot of money, but I don’t understand why?” Growing up in poverty in the former Soviet Union, Vodianova was forced to sell fruit on the street as a teenager in order to support her single mother and two sisters, one of whom has cerebral palsy.

It was this confusion that gave her the drive to set up The Naked Heart Foundation, which builds safe spaces for children to play in Russia, as well as supporting children with disabilities. “I have this very incredible fashion industry behind me that I always tapped into when we needed a reward for big donors and this is how we have raised almost 40 million euros for Naked Heart Foundation,” she explains.

Natalia Vodianova and Timon Afinsky photographed by Henry Bourne at Elbi’s offices in Soho

The Elbi app grew out of yet another discomfort—this time around social media. After once observing that, her “entertaining” fashion pictures, got enormously more likes than posts about their charitable works, Vodianova complained to her friend and social media manager Timon Afinsky. His advice was sage: “He said, you can’t take your likes for granted.” At the time, there were 5 billion “likes” every day. “That’s when the lightbulb went on for me, and I said, ‘What if we turn all of these meaningless ‘likes’ into something really important?’” And so Elbi was born.

This is charitable giving optimised for the digital age.

You download the app, enter your bank details, and from there each day you are presented with a series of causes which you can support financially by pressing the heart button and donating a dollar, or by leaving notes and doodles of support and encouragement. “We call it philanthropy on the go,” the pair explain. Each action earns the user a LoveCoin, which they can in turn spend in the LoveShop, which is packed with exclusive luxury handbags, sneakers, cosmetics and jewellery.

It’s clear from seeing Vodianova and Afinksy together that the pair make an efficient double act. Where Vodianova was initially sceptical about even using social media, Afinsky was there to point out the bigger picture. And now as Vodianova raises five children and travels globally to make these projects happen—all while retaining those key relationships within the fashion industry—it’s Afinsky who holds everything together and keeps things moving smoothly in the app’s Soho offices. The ultimate double act? We think so.