Sat. May 25th, 2024


Women domestic workers partnering with the Martha Farrell Foundation (MFF) were among the worst hit by the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India. In most cases, they continue to be either sole breadwinners or equal contributing partners in their households. As women, they also experience the weight of caregiving. When the pandemic impacted livelihoods, it wasn’t just them, but also their families and children who suffered the consequences of income loss. Domestic violence increased, fear loomed large and women domestic workers, mostly migrants, found their confidence shattered when they lost their jobs for the second time.

Women empowerment (Voices of Youth)
Women empowerment (Voices of Youth)

MFF received funding support to help the women with urgent relief. The flexibility of the funding allowed the relief to be designed in a manner that did not further impact the dignity of the women. Instead, the entire process was co-designed and co-led with women such that they were able to exercise their own voice and agency throughout the process. With an equal decision-making role, women domestic workers emerged stronger, with many of them leading the relief process. Today, the participants of the programme are community leaders, supporting their peers and counterparts in rebuilding stronger lives, negotiating safety and countering violence.

Non-profits have demonstrated agility and flexibility at all stages of the pandemic’s response cycle while enduring profound, indelible personal and institutional consequences. In building this frontline of non-profits, funders have played a significant role, not only through mobilising resources towards underserved areas, but also by trusting non-profits to take the lead in deciding where to invest funding for maximum impact.

Dialogue in global philanthropy is nurturing narratives that focus beyond the ‘what’ and ‘who’ funders are giving to. Instead, ‘how’ funders are giving is a pivot that is being revitalised by reviewing learnings from the response to the pandemic. As we settle into the ‘new normal’, there is a continual need to document lessons learnt during and prior to the pandemic, to ensure that relationships, values and trust are strengthened and not lost.

The new terms of reference build ‘safe spaces’ or arenas for dialogue and free action, an environment for non-profits that enables leaders to work locally, on their own terms and towards outcomes that the entire ecosystem galvanises towards. Safe spaces for non-profits can build resilience against future shocks, nurture innovation and engender lasting change.

Historically, non-profits and funders have a complex relationship. In India, civil society is currently at a juncture where immense gains have been made across development indicators, yet the highest levels of inequity are being articulated through grassroots voices. Alarmingly, these inequities not only play out in the communities the sector seeks to serve, but also amongst stakeholders leading the ecosystem.

Through its Pay What It Takes Initiative, The Bridgespan Group surveyed 77 funders and 388 NGOs in India, the study found that 68% of funders said that they have flexible indirect cost policies, yet 83% of NGOs reported they struggle to get indirect cost funding. 75% of funders said they support organisational development needs of at least some NGO partners, while 70% of NGOs reported most funders do not support their organisational development needs.

Civil society has created spaces in communities wherein members can interact in a trust based, judgement free manner, without guilt, humiliation or control. However, the above data points raise the question— Are the spaces that non-profits occupy with funders facilitated in a control free, trusting manner?

The typical grant process is an example of the inequitable power dynamic. Legal frameworks and policies play a significant role in highlighting non-profit and funder relationships. Non-profits are often encumbered, and especially the small, rural, community-led organisations.

As part of an exercise Dasra conducted during the first wave of COVID, close to 50% of NGOs that had annual budgets below INR 5Cr (~600K USD) were suffering from greater financial stress, as compared to 20% of NGOs that had annual budgets above INR 25Cr (~3M USD). Similar ratios are likely to emerge when NGOs are asked about their ability to reason with funders.

There is a high likelihood of manifesting inequity along each step of the granting process. At first, it may occur during grantee Identification as popular mechanisms to identify and usher non-profits into funding portfolios tend to be complicated and inaccessible due to language and technology. Next, the granting process itself can be daunting. On entering the portfolio, pressures may arise in the form of restricted, agenda-driven grants. The overall non-profit experience of granting entails strict, inflexible budget lines, which cannot be worked around, even for greater good of the community. Additionally, the conversation is centric on programmatic needs with little thought for institutional needs.

Post the granting stage, reporting can be another bottleneck as once the grant and work kick-off, periodic reports are sent to the funder along with field visits by funders. These interactions have the potential to deepen inequities by way of long documents in unfamiliar languages and attempts to make changes in programming basis one-time or quick observations.

NGOs work with communities on the premise of building safe and inclusive spaces, we need to create a space where the partnership between funders and NGOs focuses on the same principles.

Globally, good grant-making practises are emerging in the form of multiyear and flexible funding opportunities that enable NGOs to decide how they would like to utilise grants as well as access to multi-year grants. This allows NGOs to be agile and continued support ensures that they can commit to the multi-year journey that change requires. The FORD Foundation’s BUILD initiative is a great example of the same.

Equally critical is recognising privilege, as the onus lies on a funder to identify their own privilege and circumstances. This ensures that their interactions with grantee partners are sensitive and thoughtful. The Snakes and Ladders of Equity game is a good place to think about the role privilege and biases play in grant-making. Providing support beyond granting is another medium by which grantors can enable organisations to build and deepen their own capacities by making introductions, hosting networking events and amplifying their work. The BMW Foundation’s work on grantee well-being and building networks of leaders provides a base to think beyond the grant.

Existing narratives also emphasise that non-profits can listen better to the communities to deliver stronger programming. Similarly, funders should build active listening and explore grantee perception reports. This enables a space of sharing and feedback loops where all stakeholders are able to give and receive inputs. Incorporating the inputs being received can enable “feedback to feed-forward”, as put forth by a non-profit leader discussing listening practises. The Fund for Shared Insight has created toolkits to help non-profits and funders understand listening better to communities.Additionally, the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project has guides on incorporating the principle of trust into giving.

This is the right time to make the funding relationship more inclusive and give NGOs the space to serve their communities the way they see fit. Non-profits will play a pivotal role in the journey of innovation and lasting change, we need to create a supportive ecosystem for them to thrive.

This article is authored by Nandita Bhatt, director, Martha Farrell Foundation and Anantvijay Singh, manager, Rebuild India Fund.


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