Usually the first response I get from people when I tell them that I now work in the social sector, is – “Oh! NGOs have a lot of money, people are always travelling abroad!” The next response is a very skeptical question – “So what exactly does your organisation do?” Even before I can answer, I know that I have lost the person because he/she has already made up his/her mind that all NGOs are dubious (financially) or are leftists who are anti-development.
As far as charity is concerned, for me there are four categories of people (non-social sector). First, there are the evolved minds who keenly follow issues and actively participate in it. Second is the type who donates but only in the name of God, thinking perhaps his sins will be forgiven if he gives Rs.1000/- to the temple and Rs.1/- to the beggars outside. Third, are the people who spend most of their lives running after money, designation, the next house or car or foreign holidays and hence neither have the time nor interest in anything else. Fourth, is the lot who wants to give back to the society but do not have much idea about how to go about it or are very skeptical of the social sector. It’s them who end up asking me questions like above.
To this last lot I will say that they are only partly correct. Partly correct because yes, there are many NGOs who have dubious operations or no clear cut strategy or thought through projects. There are many who change their projects depending on what the funding trends are. On the other hand, there are many more NGOs who are doing excellent work at the grassroot level and are so passionate that they keep working despite the lack of funds.
What would you say about a team of ex-AIIMs doctors who left their plush jobs to give medical help to the tribals of Chhattisgarh at subsidised rates? Or about the person who has tears in his eyes every time he talks of the chemical toxins dumped in the creeks of Konkan that has killed all 120 species of fish leaving the fisherfolks with no livelihood? Or the woman who fought against bias in her family and now helps the women of rural Rajasthan to lead a more free life?
The solution lies not in being skeptical but in understanding the sector, the way it works, the pros and cons of donating to a type of organisation, finding a cause and sticking by it. Let me clarify.
1) Like everything else in the country, the social sector has also seen a wave of change. The ‘jhola-chaaps’ of the 50s-60s do not exist anymore and neither is it flush with funds like in the 80s-90s. India has moved from being an under-developed to a developing country. Most foreign countries have stopped funds because as the government says – we can take care of ourself. Also there is a belief that foreign funds are being used by NGOs to protest against government policies especially if they are ‘pro-development’.
2) The sector itself is pushing for more transparency (financial) within. Most good NGOs have external audits done by third party and publish the result in its Annual Report. There is a consortium of voluntary organisations called Credibility Alliance who acts like a governing / monitoring body. All NGOs are now being encouraged to get certified by them after meeting their strict standards. So if you are unsure, look for an NGO certified by them.
3) Many people I have spoken to want to give directly to the affected community / beneficiary just to be sure that the money is not going elsewhere. So people will send books or computers to schools or give generators etc. But if children don’t know how to read, the books or computers have no meaning. If farmers don’t have money for buying seed, the generators are useless. NGOs work to ensure that this doesn’t happen and that the positive effects are long term.
4) There are many good grassroot NGOs who require funding but whose existence people are not aware of. The best way to reach them is through funding organisations like Oxfam India, Action Aid India or gateways Give India. These organisations have extensive reach, knowledge and works as per well defined policies and strategies.
5) But why fund a funding organisation? Most funding organisations work on two fronts – various programs at the grassroot level which are monitored regularly on progress and funds utilisation; secondly, it engages with various levels of the government to keep a dialogue going on what is right, what is wrong and how things can be improved. Well, to put it very basically, most changes in laws have happened over time because apart from others, the social sector has actively pushed for them – like Right to Education Act, RTI, Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill, Forest Rights Act, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act etc.
6) Whether you like it or not, the fact remains that a certain portion of your donation will always go to cover administrative costs like rent, office equipments, tea, salary and yes, that occasional trip abroad. Before you let out a large groan of disgust, just think, where else will the NGO get the money from? Everything has a cost attached to it and just like you, people in the social sector also have needs, bills to pay and families to take care of. You will also not do free service after some time. As for the international trips, it’s very much a part of the job – just like you do in your corporate job or otherwise.
7) Lastly, always keep in mind that change doesn’t happen in a day especially in a country like ours. It takes years and years of constant effort and sometimes public protests to just bring social issues to the fore. Have faith in your cause and have faith in those people who work hard for it.
I left the media sector because I found it shallow and the abuse of money blatant. Many times I was given offers for all expenses paid trips anywhere or a certain percentage of the advertising budget in return for exclusive business to them. I would have left the social sector on the same grounds if I found that finances are mismanaged.
Vikalp Sansthan works to change the attitude of not only women but also the men and youth of rural Rajathan to bring a holistic change in the attitude of society and stop violence against women.
Parivartan works with the fishing community of Konkan to help them find alternate source of livelihood.
Jan Swasthya Sahyog works in Bilaspur to provide subsidised medical care to tribal communities there.
Satpuda Foundation works to save the forests and wildlife of Central India
Greenpeace India works at the policy level directly through campaigns and petitions