July 2015 brought civil society funding into the limelight. Azim Premji gave away almost half his stake in Wipro to his charitable foundation, which supports The Azim Premji Foundation and Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiative. This was overshadowed by the government’s hot pursuit of Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand’s NGO with allegations that they misused donations.
Not only does the government’s action draw attention to the ever-conflictual relationship between state and civil society, it also brings forward some concerns that only NGOs need to worry about— the regulatory universe of NGO funding and its impact on our functioning. (Full disclosure: I run an NGO that depends almost entirely on individual donations.)
A year ago, the Central Bureau of Investigation estimated that there were around20 lakh NGOs in India, averaging one for every 600 Indians. The Voluntary Action Network India estimates 1.2 million NGOs, of which 73.4% have one or less paid staff member, 80% work with local contributions (13% with government and 7% with international funding). These are old numbers but still correct indicators, I think. Essentially, we should understand that there are countless NGOs, registered in different ways (as trusts, societies or non-profit companies), working across the country on different levels and varying scales, mostly very small and funded largely locally. We know from our work in Chennai that they are poorly networked and most of them pivot around a founder or two, operating in relative isolation.

Jerry Nelson is an American freelance photojournalist who covers NGOs globally. Busy on assignment in South America, Jerry is always interested in discussing future work opportunities. Email him today @ jandrewnelson2@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @ Journey_America

There appears to be a growth in the numbers of NGOs and, according to Scroll, experts in the social sector attribute this growth to various factors including growing social inequality, entrepreneurial spirit and greater availability of funds. People are constantly pointing out that with companies now obliged to spend 2% of their profit socially, it must be a good time for NGOs.

But are things that easy?

First, let us look at the question of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).Most companies have their own CSR activities, either through foundations or villages or self-help groups that they adopt. They do not reach out to non-profits to disburse money, although that is a common perception. Most average NGOs would not have a clue about how to identify or approach a CSR manager either. Moreover, if companies were to go strictly by the items listed in Schedule VII of the Companies Act, what they could legitimately support is quite restricted. There is a suggestion that companies should liberally interpret the guidelines, but at a moment where the social sector is generally regarded with suspicion, if not hostility, most companies will err on the side of caution.

This means that for most NGOs to access CSR resources, they would have to make large adjustments in their proposed activities. Once, at a meeting to request financial support, someone told us, “We support tree-planting and blood donation.” Unfortunately, those were not the things we were seeking to do. Integrity in the social sector is not just good book-keeping and transparency, it is also sticking to your original vision and the things you set out to do. It is incredibly difficult to stay that course and yet, thousands of NGOs do it against great odds.

Communicating with corporates is also hard. People in the NGO sector come in with a sense of wanting to do something about a cause. Corporates speak a different language, literally, and it takes a lot of time and effort to understand the marketing and venture capital language with which they interrogate NGO workers. The effort tends to be one-sided, and even then, it is often hard for the corporate interlocutor to understand exactly what the NGO person envisions. Sometimes, we do work that cannot be counted or measured easily; the numbers may mean more to corporates than they do to us in this sector. With awareness or advocacy work, for instance, we can tell you we have reached or talked to X number of people in Y locations. Whether we have convinced them, we cannot tell from one contact and we honestly should not. The gestation period of some of this work is longer than time institutional funders have.

There is a great deal of discussion about FCRA and its abuse these days.Would that foreign funding were that easy to access! Applying for FCRA is a cumbersome and time-consuming process with no automatic return. You cannot be sure your application will be approved and you cannot be sure that once it is, you will actually get the grants you hope for. Now with almost all FCRA approvals up for renewal, in this climate it is also doubtful that many will get renewed, throwing those organisations into disarray. This means that, for one, many employees will have to find other jobs. What is worse, many care and development projects will have to be shut down, hurting those most in need of services. Little wonder that in recent years, one comes across NGOs who simply choose not to bother with the hassles of FCRA.

So who funds them? In our case, I can tell you it’s mostly your average, invisible, “ordinary” Indian. The India Philanthropy Report 2011 found that individual donors made up only 26% of all charitable donations. They were looking at the giving habits of wealthy individuals. That 26% takes on great meaning when you consider how much of it comes from middle class donors. For them, that Rs.1000-3000 donation is a large percentage that they may not even be able to spare. It has immeasurable value for the receiving NGO.

The 2015 India Philanthropy Report says that the total number of donors has gone up in India but it describes the reality that many of us live— that there are two tiers of giving. In Tier 1 are NGOs that consistently receive support from their donors; the report uses the word “sophisticated” to describe both those donors and NGOs. NGOs in Tier 2 inhabit a negative spiral in which donors move from cause to cause and NGOs are constantly raising funds. That is a reality. The challenge is to transform Tier 2 by building its capacity. But how?

Let’s start with the great concern about lack of accountability and transparency on the part of the NGO. It is a healthy concern whether applied to NGOs, political parties or corporates. But if we return to the VANI statistic about most NGOs employing just one person, in order for them to keep great books, that person needs to be an accountant. Individual donors do not have the capacity to support an office space or a living wage for a qualified person. For the quality of governance that NGOs are expected to have, we need to have a minimum administrative structure— a good book-keeper, a space to keep records. There is demand for that, but no support. If the one person employed by an NGO is a book-keeper, then who will do the work for which the NGO was founded?

While completely agreeing that NGOs must meet the standards to which they hold others, I would ask potential donors to consider this everyday conundrum in our lives. How can they help NGOs create the administrative support structures essential for the work that they do? All sorts of gifts would help: office space; dedicated administrative support or web design and maintenance (essential for transparency these days). A volunteer accountant from your organisation to visit and help with accounts would be greatly appreciated by many organisations. But the most radical help would be to get over the allergy to administrative overheads when you support an organisation.

Dedicated giving—to one purpose or one activity—has its utility, but giving without conditions, is far more useful. It allows the money to flow where it is most useful in the moment. In a sense, it is closest to the ideal of giving that every faith tradition advocates: giving in gratitude because you are in a position to give, rather than to control an outcome because you are in a position to do so. Most individuals give in this spirit and that is why they are so precious to small organisations like mine.

Corporates and foundations are constrained by their rules but they can emulate this model of giving if they take a little trouble to get to know a cause or an organisation in a sustained fashion. The responsibility of facilitating that cannot rest with the NGO alone. They are already short-handed and under-resourced. “Cultivating” a potential donor is simply not as important as addressing the need of the day. A part of the job description of the hundreds who will now be recruited to CSR portfolios must be to devote time to learning about causes and maybe even volunteering with an organisation as part of their due diligence before an official relationship is charted.

The India Philanthropy Report shows that donors like to give to organisations with a proven capacity to handle money, accounts and even receipts. The result is that those who have, get more. In the service sector, this creates a situation where most service providers—say, those who run helplines and distress services for women—cannot hire trained help, cannot spend money on training, cannot upgrade or expand their services and cannot retain their staff. What does this mean for the quality of services available to the majority? It means that one or two organisations are able to do this work brilliantly and everyone else just holds on thinking that something is better than nothing.

Civil society—the NGO sector—bridges the gulf between citizens and government. When governments treat this bridge with hostility, it is the citizen who is distanced and whose interests have no interlocutor. NGOs take on the responsibility for a hundred different things—from handloom cooperatives to prisoners’ rights to concerns about nuclear energy or land use to education—that are beyond the capacity of individual citizens and strain the reach (and the political will) of governments. All these issues and projects however, underwrite the democracy and the visions of equitable development we like to endorse over long lunches and dinners.

None of us can support all those causes. If we gave thoughtfully, however, we might find that press freedom or supporting the preservation of indigenous seeds is particularly important to us. A little research would shows us who is working in that area and we could learn how to make a donation. Remember that many, many organisations cannot afford to join portals or to set up online payment. When I make the commitment to give, I make the commitment to finding a way to get that support across even if I have to walk over to the post office and send a money order.

You do not have to give. But giving feels really good. It enables the NGO to do their work but it empowers the donor even more. Giving can include time, materials or money. It can take the form of sharing your network or your administrative resources. Running this small organisation, I have seen and I can reassure you that every bit really counts and nothing is too small a gift. Even your loose change can buy stamps for an NGO—​ revenue stamps for receipts and postage stamps to send them out!

Originally Published by: Swarna Rajagopalan | Sat, 1 Aug 2015