Giving Journeys: The Path Less Trodden

1813257007_c8b775f60bMy friend, Priya Viswanath, is a philanthropic consultant based in Delhi, India. She was formerly the CEO of Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) India and is on the governing council of Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium, (APPC). Priya has written and published extensively on the topics of corporate, diaspora and local philanthropy. Her book, Diaspora Indians: On the Philanthropy Fast Track, provided ground-breaking research on the Indian diaspora in the US, UK, Far and Middle East and their contributions to India’s development. In the post below, Priya reflects upon the recent trends in Asian philanthropy and the need to work with local organizations.

Last week while writing a tribute to my friend Elizabeth Vatsyayan of AAG, I was reflecting on the life of a non-profit leader who spent a life time in true “service”, but struggling to keep AAG alive every year of their existence. Earlier this week I met an interesting economist who had recently set up a trust in memory of her son, Ali, who had passed away 10 years ago. She was seeking some advice and counsel on activities of the Trust and building an institution, yet another one! Both these meetings and reflections led me to think more deeply on small charities led by folk with great passion and engagement; doing extraordinary work, but finding no support from the folk with the money or the power of collective thinking.

The last few years I had the privilege of learning and seeing first hand the powerful work of smaller charities – their joys and struggles included. I was inspired by the passion and commitment of their leaders, their acceptance by the communities where they operated and the target groups they assisted and empowered. Post the devastating tsunami my colleagues and I spent many months working close up with several small charities in the South and were quite taken aback with their power to leverage with a wide cross section of donors and the partnerships they had with local governments. Our grants and initiatives opened doors wider for these groups and a range of corporates extended support through CAF India where I then worked. The charities provided relief and opportunities for communities devastated by the disaster… but it ended there. For companies and indeed many foundations their aspirations were met and projects were closed out to the satisfaction of many. We each went our way, but often my thoughts drift back to those amazing leaders and groups and wonder what the recession and the drop in charitable dollars has meant to them and the projects they nurtured and supported.

Similarly with other charities and projects (the non-vanilla) kind which we inspired evolved companies and leadership to support. Unlike individual donors who are driven powerfully by their experiences and commitments and continue to support the financial crisis not withstanding; companies and donors move on. The stories – struggles and anguish of small charities and their leaders to keep head above water has occupied much of my own mental space the last decade. Dignity Foundation having to close down a centre for care and support of aged in Delhi due to lack of funds (Rs. 5 Lakhs per annum) or AAG who is in peril at not being able to raise funds from any donor for some important initiatives they run for prisoners in Tihar Jail or sex workers in the red light district of Delhi. This at a local level! At a more global and macro level, reduced support for philanthropy support organisations and groups like the South African Grantmakers Association (SAGMA), Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium (APPC), WINGS and other grant making organisations who play a vital role to guide, influence, transparent, accountable, effective philanthropy…make me wonder about the wisdom and commitment behind philanthropic giving.

A couple of years ago when the Ford Foundation started talking about Social Justice Philanthropy and extending support for initiatives that had social justice at the core of their work, many of us wondered about the trajectory and possible impact. And with regional staff as well as others one has argued and discussed what this will mean to organisations and initiatives that will no longer be supported by the Foundation by this change in focus. A decade later as I review philanthropic giving trends and charitable donations/investments by companies and individuals in India and some parts of Asia, I too despair for those that cannot see beyond the vanilla projects and wonder about the path to be traversed.

While education and health are important and helps build human capital and healthier societies, how do we ever address issues of poverty, inequity and justice with little to no demonstrated support? Individuals are happy to sponsor education of children, girl child; IT companies are delighted to provide computers and help children get computer savvy; donors and foundations underwrite annual operating costs of schools managed by non-profits!

Take the case of education alone – Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) is Government of India’s flagship programme for achievement of Universalization of Elementary Education (UEE) in a time bound manner, as mandated by 86th amendment to the Constitution of India making free and compulsory education to the children of 6-14 years age group, a fundamental right. Implemented in partnership with the state governments to cover the entire country and address the needs of 192 million children in 1.1 million habitations, the programme seeks to open new schools in those habitations which do not have schooling facilities and strengthen existing school infrastructure through provision of additional class rooms, toilets, drinking water, maintenance grant and school improvement grants. Existing schools with inadequate teacher strength are provided with additional teachers, while the capacity of existing teachers is being strengthened by extensive training, grants for developing teaching-learning materials and strengthening of the academic support structure at a cluster, block and district level. In spite of this the largest private and corporate donations are directed towards education in India. Non-profits insist each on establishing alternate schools or initiatives barring a few.

An oft quoted and recommended organisation who traverses the path less trodden is a small non-profit in Bangalore – Sivasri Charitable Trust who through its Shikshana programme works with existing government schools and infrastructure and has been able to reach out to 28 schools and 8,500 children in four years. No reinventing of the wheel and searching for donations and support for the best “alternate” education model/school for the founder Mr. Ramamurthy. Impact measurement and assessment of the schools they support and the work they undertake are made by a model developed by a third party – the Azim Premji Foundation and is being used for quantitative assessment of schools. And there are other wise examples of partnerships such as this.

To my mind supporting and making existing infrastructure work is the need of the hour, be they schools or public health dispensaries. Donors get better leverage for their monies and precious charitable rupees can be put to more effective critical need issues.

Smaller charities / non profits who are handicapped because of a resource crunch need support; as a group of concerned citizens, civil society as a whole needs to reflect on equitable development vs microcosms. Working in partnership vs working in isolation; setting up new initiatives or foundations or trusts for every new idea or sentiment needs to be reflected on. Also organisations live through life spans as individuals do and do leaders have the courage to call it a day and move on having achieved what they set out to achieve? Is the need of the hour also to look at the shelf life of these institutions and move on to more real struggles investing energies wisely? I don’t have the answers, but maybe you do as donors – individuals, companies and foundations or will at least reflect on what is needed.

In my line of work I meet remarkably passionate leaders of non-profits; business leaders with market acumen; philanthropists with vision and I consider myself privileged to know each of them and to learn from them. In some powerful way it would be great to bring these forces together to bring in real change; impact larger numbers and attempt to bridge the gap and build a just society.

Republished with permission by author. Formerly published in the Centre for Advancement of Philanthropy, Mumbai, Philanthropy newsletter. Photo courtesy of mckaysavage, Creative Commons, Flicker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *