Significant areas of opportunities exist for Indian philanthropists to play a larger enabling role, says study
There were large-scale protests against the construction of a nuclear power plant in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu. The government of the day believed that foreign funders and social organisations were behind these protests and cancelled the foreign contribution (regulation) act (FCRA) licences of three main organisations involved in the protests, despite claims by some that they had not received any funds from abroad. The government froze banks accounts of organisations such as Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), citing that their work was against public interest, as specified in the FCRA.
 
Another example is that of Navsarjan Trust, Gujarat’s oldest Dalit-rights organisation, which believes its protest in Una may have been the ‘immediate provocation’ for the government to cancel its FCRA license. Navsarjan had to let go of its 80-member strong staff and shut down the three primary schools it ran. Its work in over 3,000 villages of Gujarat is currently under stress. 
 
The government claimed, “Navsarjan Trust has come to adverse notice for its undesirable activities aimed to affect prejudicially harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes or communities,” as mentioned in a statement issued by the ministry of home affairs (MHA).
 
Navsarjan maintains that no evidence of prejudicial activities has been provided by the government, and believes that the organisation is a victim of selective targeting.
What do these things mean to professionals in the social sector? A study within the sector finds out.
 
This study reviewed the changing trends in the funding of the non-profit sector in India, particularly in the recent context of the Indian government’s heightened attention on inflows from international donors. It examined the impact of these trends on local civil society organisations in India, on organisations that focus on rights and advocacy work as well as those that enable service delivery. The research was a qualitative exercise, which complemented the quantitative analysis conducted by Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP) and How India Lives on foreign funding flows. 
 
The CSIP at Ashoka University is India's first academic centre focused on enabling a strategic and robust philanthropic ecosystem geared towards greater social impact. It informs sector strategy through credible research and data, convenes platforms for norm-setting and collaborative learning, and offers programmes that strengthen civil society capability and sustainability.
 
Over 30 interviews were conducted with Indian philanthropists, foreign funders, social organisations, and legal, financial and technical experts to bring in multiple perspectives on the topic. The interviews were aimed to understand both personal experiences as well as the broader trends in the sector. 
 
The report discusses significant areas of opportunities that have been identified for Indian philanthropists to play a larger enabling role in the non-profit sector, particularly by supporting certain kinds of rights and advocacy work that have a structural, longer-term impact. The end goal of the study has been to support decision making by providing perspectives from multiple stakeholders on what lies ahead for the Indian social sector, as well as their hopes and expectations for the future of Indian philanthropy.
 
“This research comes at an extremely crucial moment, when the role of civil society is increasingly being contested by powerful interests. While civil society is hailed as the ‘social basis of democracy’ encompassing diverse groups, networks and movements that play myriad roles in strengthening the common good, the space for democratic dissent is shrinking, especially for those who work to promote, protect and strengthen human rights and advocate for policies that challenge exclusion,” observes Ingrid Srinath, Director, Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy, Ashoka University.
 
Rights and advocacy work is almost always supported through Indian or foreign private wealth – philanthropists, family foundations or individuals – because private funding has fewer legal restrictions on how it can be used, unlike government or CSR funding. The funder has the ability to take a long-term view, unlike an elected official or a company that has to regularly report to shareholders about CSR. Ideally, the funders’ giving can be viewed as separate from their business or professional interests, thus enabling the funder to support “riskier” work, points out the study.
 
While there are many complaints in the field from recipients of foreign donations due the strictness of the FCRA legislation, largely, those who are continuing to do their work and are receiving foreign donations are happy with the greater transparency in the system.
 
There is also caution among those who have been chastened by the government action. Funders and social sector leaders also spoke of a growing fear in the social sector that has impacted the way social organisations, donors and institutions engage with each other. Several interviewees used the phrase “chilling effect” to describe how the use of FCRA by the government was leading to self-censorship among social organisations. Importantly, funders and organisations had redesigned programmes to drop certain critical interventions, rather than risk facing an FCRA denial.
 
Two quotes on the general air of caution: 
 
“In this environment of self-censorship and fear, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are unwilling to support each other on even issues they think might be contentious.” - Leader of a Social Organisation. 
 
“Many NGOs, even those who still have their FCRAs, have also begun to change the way they describe their projects and programmes” - Leader of a Social Organisation that is concerned about losing FCRA.
 
Relationships between banks and social organisations were spoken of as a major casualty, as financial scrutiny is at the centre of the FCRA law. However, the issue was described as being broader than access to foreign funds. There was an increased reluctance on the part of banks to even want social organisations as their customers, which places a significant hurdle in their functioning. “Banks consider NGOs high-risk customers now and do not want their business,” says an expert in the social sector.
 
Some philanthropists hesitate to step up and fill the funding gaps created by FCRA de-registration; possibly because of the widespread apprehension about being seen as supporting organisations against which the government has taken action. The few philanthropists who do pitch in to help are often loath to publicise their efforts, because of similar apprehensions, points out the study report.
 
Several interviewees mentioned that Indian philanthropists have a low risk appetite. The tendency to give ‘safe’ grants is speculated to be governed by how closely businesses are still linked to philanthropy, by reputational risk, the possibility of legal backlash, as well as the risk to other grantees or partners, the study report said.
 
With the scarcity of donors and funds being as it is, an expert in the social sector observes that channelling of donations has become skewed for the purpose for which it is utilised. “Retail funding happens for movements or events but not for NGOs and their work because it is hard to explain to the individual donors what NGOs actually do with that money. No one wants to pay for the salaries of a field worker, they want to pay for something more tangible,” observes the expert.
 
A passionate CSIP, which wants funds allocated for rights and advocacy, points out in its study: “Interviewees strongly recommended that Indian philanthropists take some time to do research on rights and advocacy issues and reimagine their grant-giving strategies. However, immediate (within 6 month) and short-term (6-18 month) measures could be implemented to provide relief to rights and advocacy organisations that have lost foreign funding.”
 
CSIP wants philanthropists to be outspoken in their views and not make anonymous donations. The study report observes, “It was believed uniformly that Indian philanthropists would have to take a more proactive role not just through their grants but also through their voice, platforms, and influence. Many interviewees spoke about the far-reaching effect that this would have on the sector.”
 
Finally, we make a plea for building a strong human resource base of staff in the social sector and NGOs, and philanthropists should not shy away from salaries funded through donations – both domestic and foreign.
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    For These Orphaned Girls, the Future Beckons
    If there is one thing that stands out about Sheela Bal Bhavan (SBB), it is the interest of most inmates in getting educated, so that they are equipped to become at any given point in time, useful members of society. For the 25 inmates of SBB, the Bhavan is their home and also for its trustees and their family. For girls who ‘graduate’ from SBB, after getting a job or getting married, it is their ‘maayka’—their parental home.
     
    Joti and Sheela Bhatnagar founded SBB in 1992. The Bhatnagars, both educationists and non-resident Indians (NRIs) who had done well in their professional fields in Montreal (Canada), returned to India after retiring in the early 1990s. Providing for women’s education in India had always been their passion. Since women in Rajasthan were lagging behind on this parameter, and because Sheela was from Jaipur, they chose the city to set up their NGO, registering it as a trust. They established SBB using their own savings and with help from their colleagues from Canada.
     
    Supported financially by CanServe Foundation, a Canadian not-for-profit, SBB is managed by a board of directors in India and staffed by women caretakers, two of whom live on the site. All day-to-day operations are handled by Sangeeta Garg, project coordinator, who joined SBB in 2012. It was a happy coincidence for Sangeeta, as she was suffering from an empty-nest syndrome after her children left home for higher studies and the Bhavan was looking for a mother figure. Says Sangeeta, “Since our residence is located close to SBB, its inmates feel free to come over and discuss with my husband and me whatever problems they have. They have a bond of affection with us and really look upon us as their parents.”
     
    The Child Welfare Committee (CWC) of the Rajasthan government’s social justice & empowerment department, which is responsible for orphaned and abandoned children in the state, selects the girl children sent to SBB. These girls are either orphaned or abandoned by their families. Most girls come to the home between the ages of 0-6 years and stay until they turn 18.
     
    The inmates of SBB attend a local English language private school. The younger girls receive tutoring at home, whilst the older girls attend a nearby tutoring centre after school. The girls are encouraged to continue their studies after high school. Many of them have obtained Bachelor’s degrees from local colleges and a few have gone on to obtain Master’s degrees as well. The home provides complete financial support for their entire education. 
     
    Sangeeta says with almost maternal pride, “The home has celebrated seven marriages. Nine of the young women who grew up in the home are currently living independently in cities across India, pursuing their post-school studies or focusing on developing their careers. Three of them have obtained Master’s degrees in physiotherapy, business administration and tourism.” 
     
    The home is sustained with annual contributions from CanServe donors, each of whom is assigned a particular child to sponsor. The sponsor becomes a surrogate parent. Most sponsors are matched with younger girls, so that they have the opportunity to watch the girl grow and develop. SBB has various levels of other annual sponsorships towards the daily expenses of the home, including food, utilities, tutoring, school supplies, clothing and staff salaries. 
     
    SBB also invites international volunteers who, typically, commit 1-3 months of living at SBB. According to Sangeeta, “Volunteers walk the girls to school every morning, share their meals, help them with their homework and, most important, act as didis—Hindi for elder sister. They are an important source of affection for the younger girls, confidantes to the older girls, and conversational English teachers for all. Volunteers have come from all over the world. Indians too can volunteer.”
     
    SBB has FCRA registration for international donors and also exemption under Section 80G of the Income-tax Act.
     
    Sheela Bal Bhavan
    C-192, Ahilya Marg, Hanuman Nagar, Jaipur 302021
    Telephone: 0141 2353007
    Website: www.canserve.ca

     

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    Helping Slow-learners Catch Up
    Located in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, is an institution doing pioneering work towards providing academic and vocational skills to children who are slow-learners, with delayed development parameters and specific learning disabilities. Its focus is on inclusive education. Bhavani Child Development Centre was set up by Vimala Venkatesan in July 2003 as a non-government organisation (NGO). 
     
    Says Vimala, the Centre’s managing trustee-cum-director, “Our main aim is to understand how our students learn and how well they should be learning, to achieve academic goals.” Passionate about the fact that many children are not given a chance to enjoy their childhood, Vimala believes that society needs greater awareness and acceptance of children with specific learning disabilities (SLD) and of slow-learners. She works in close coordination with parents as well as educational institutions. “Otherwise, we are creating stressed childhoods on the one hand and depressed parents on the other. And this is no good for the society as a whole.” 
     
    Over the years, she has found that parents need counselling more than children. Because of societal and peer pressure or sheer lack of awareness, parents perceive academic performance as the key parameter of a child’s success. Many do not have the time or the ability to diagnose the reasons for the slow or delayed learning of their child. And, at school, because of the teacher-student ratio, teachers too do not have the time to perceive and diagnose the difficulties of slow-learners. 
     
    Vimala has trained at the National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development (NIPCCD) in setting up a guidance centre for pre-school children with SLD. She was a resource person with the Guwahati NIPCCD for teachers and anganwadi trainers. Later, she took courses at National Institute of Mental Health on children with physical and other challenges. She would set up ‘counselling centres’ in whichever city her banker husband was posted. After he retired and settled in Jaipur, she set up a ‘learning cell’ for children with SLD in a mainstream school. But being confined to one school was not enough, so she decided to set up the Centre. It is intentionally called a ‘development centre’ because “we look at the total personality development of the child—not just academic performance.” The Centre has about 60 children at any point of time and has guided over 2,000 students and helped them in academics and skills, since 2003. 
     
    “It’s heartening that some of my students now work in well-known bakeries or have become hair-stylists; many have joined their father’s business as well. What more can a parent want?” says Vimala with justifiable pride. 
     
    The Centre provides early intervention for children with delayed development parameters who are likely to have learning disability. As a first step, it establishes partnerships with parents and teachers to create awareness about tracking milestones in child development to identify the various types of learning disabilities. 
     
    It also trains teachers on how to handle slow-learners. She says “Changes in the educational system are as crucial as the methods for assessing children. So we have developed PEPAL—a Programme to Evaluate Performance and Learning. It comprises activities tailored to review students’ knowledge in the curricular component and to assess development of cognitive and perception skills, logical thinking, mathematics, language and literacy.” This model is now being used by several schools all over India. Vimala says that her biggest satisfaction was when she found that, after she trained teachers in PEPAL, one particular school in Jaipur closed the special section for slow-learners.
     
    The Centre accepts funding only for specific projects. State Bank of India, Trident Hotels and Vijay Amritraj Foundation (USA) are some of its funding partners. The Centre has FCRA registration and also 80G exemption. You can donate towards the fees of one child too; it costs Rs2,300 per month.
     

     

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