A life lived on the edge: An account of the first ten years of the Foundation for Social Transformation

 

A region on the fringes of the nation’s consciousness

On a map of India, the north-east territories look like an afterthought – precariously attached by a narrow strip of land, no wider than two kilometres in parts, called the ‘chicken neck’. This geographical side-lining is a feature of the region’s history and politics, too. Central government has never really known what to do with north-east India: the British colonialists classified this cluster of states as either ‘excluded’ or ‘partially excluded’ areas, thereby making it possible for officials and tribal leaders to rule as virtual dictators; and ever since the Independence of India (a particularly painful experience for the region), the north-east has been considered problematic.

 

 

Successive legislative initiatives have been introduced in an attempt to respect the distinguishing characteristics of the region and to maintain north-east India within the republic. In recognition of the diversity of the region, and of the number of tribal communities living alongside each other, the Sixth Schedule was introduced in the aftermath of Independence as a means of ceding a certain amount of administrative autonomy to the region and of promoting economic development. Economic development failed to follow, however, and the administrative autonomy was only partially successful, in some instances leading to individuals using district or regional councils to promote the narrower interests of families, friends or themselves, rather than acting on behalf of the whole community.

Separately, in a bid to stem the violence in the region, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) was introduced, giving the armed forces a range of powers (which many human rights groups have challenged), among them the right to shoot a person on the suspicion that they might pose a threat or be a militant intent on an act of violence or sedition. Again, the introduction of the Act has had as many negative as positive effects – the armed forces, for example, have been held responsible for mass rapes of women, and for a number of acts of violence against citizens (among them, the Manipur massacre).

The region has constantly faced conflict, it’s always struggling for basic needs, security of life, basic human rights. Security has always been a priority.
Gayatri Buragohain, Executive Director, Foundation for Social Transformation

This is a politically volatile and fragile region, bordered on all sides by other countries (Bhutan, Tibet, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh). These borders are notoriously porous, and there is considerable migration to and from adjoining countries as well as between states. There has also been constant conflict since Independence, involving struggles between different ethnic groups, between militant groups and the state, between different militant groups, and between communities.

 

Rich in resources – poor in the management of resources

The sense of being at the far end of central government’s concerns extends to the manner in which the region’s rich flora and fauna are being exploited. The rich resources of this part of India – coal, petroleum, bamboo and timber – are of real interest to big business and national government, more so, it seems at times, than the people who live there. But the move to exploit these resources has led to massive degradation to the environment and caused problems for its people. There is a proposal currently, for example, to harness water and provide power by building a huge network of 168 dams across Arunachal Pradesh, one of the world’s six most seismically active regions. This project, thought to be India’s largest ever hydro-power initiative, is in complete defiance of the best advice of experts and others, who have said that such a programme would be unstable.[1]

All such developments have been of benefit to only a small minority of people; these privileged few have contrived to gain from these developments financially, while for almost everyone else living in the area the effect has been almost entirely negative. In Meghalaya, for example, a state rich in rivers and seasonal rivers, many of the rivers have become polluted through the waste from mining and from contaminants leaching into the water – as a result, the fish stocks have declined drastically, the fishermen who depended on fish for a living have been deprived of their livelihood, there is no fresh drinking water, and the locals have to walk long distances to get to a secure water source.

 

Coyness of external funders, and a changing community base

North-east India is a particularly extreme example of a region on the fringes of a nation’s consciousness, considered something of an irritant, were it not for the financial advantages to be made from its natural resources and for the danger that its political instability might spill over into the rest of the country. Regions of this kind rarely benefit from central government funding, and their instability and potential for conflict frequently scare off external funders and developers, too. In the case of the north-east, the volatility and insecurity of the region were factors making it a region that funders approached with the greatest of reluctance. Other issues had also, however, contributed to this reaction over the years. As Gayatri Buragohain, the current executive director of the Foundation for Social Transformation (FST), says, there were some NGOs that had effectively been blacklisted by funders because of their inability to maintain the appropriate channels of communication with their funders:

Something we know in the world of non-profit work is that it is important that you manage your account properly, you follow the rules and regulations, you maintain each and every receipt, you have every detail of your programme organized – when, why, how many people, all of that. This was not happening. So the basic assumption grantmakers had was that they would get a report in this particular format … which most of the NGOs, the people receiving the grant, didn’t know how to do and didn’t understand the importance of, either. Because of this a lot of questions have been raised about the credibility of non-profit organizations in the region.

One significant challenge in the early stages of the FST was to overturn this perception of NGOs as essentially corrupt. A surprisingly large number of NGOs operate in the region (disproportionately more than in most other states) but many of them are no longer active – there have been too many stories of money being distributed to NGOs only for them to hold on to the money themselves or to waste it in ill-conceived programmes with no likelihood of success. As a result, a considerable number of organizations are effectively no longer likely to be considered by donors.

A final, significant deficit for the north-east region is the lack of attention it receives in the media. The long-term nature of its issues, perhaps, or its geographical remoteness, means that it features rarely in the press and other media – worse still, when it does, it is not the region’s challenges and its attempts to deal with these challenges that are the story but the activity, planned or actual, of big business in the area. Among the residents of north-east India, certainly, the national media is perceived as being corporate-friendly and disinclined to focus on the real issues that confront the region.

Faced with this triple whammy – lack of interest from central government, a reluctance to intervene from funders and an apparent inability from the media to paint an accurate picture of the region – one might expect the north-east communities to mobilize themselves, as communities of regions affected in a similar way often do, and become a powerful campaigning force, securing for itself the recognition and funds that are unavailable through conventional routes. The fact that this has not happened in north-east India is partly to do with the region’s inter-community tension and conflict and partly to do with a change in culture that has diluted the communitarian spirit of the region: there is a sense nowadays that those who can turn things to their personal advantage, do, and without concern for the wider impact of such behaviour. The traditional pattern of communitarian self-help, too, has been eroded by a new focus on the importance of acquiring money. A similar development has affected indigenous life: the working lives of people living from the land, or from hunting, have been affected by the changes to the environment – hunters, for example, are now hunting to meet the needs of people who live outside the region whereas previously their activity would have been guided by issues of local sustainability and environmental husbandry.

 

The origins of the Foundation for Social Transformation

This is the region in which a group of visionary citizens established the FST – or the North-East Network, as it was first known – ten years ago. Sharing a common ambition, this group of academics, economists, activists and people working in civil society decided to set up a grantmaking foundation that would help to develop civil society in the region. To an external eye, this coming together of 12 founding members in a region so geographically dispersed and with so many competing agendas is in itself a sort of triumph, but for Gayatri it is these very factors that made it so easy:

These were people who constantly meet together in different forums all the time and have been working on different things together for some time. The community is small, and the community of people who are working in the social sector is so small that we all know each other. I started working in this region only last year. Last February I moved here from Delhi but within just one year I know almost everyone who’s working in the sector; it’s a small network. We meet in the same meetings, we run campaigns together, we do policy work together – whenever there’s a crisis situation, we get together.

FST is the only indigenous grantmaking organization in the north-east, unique in that it was started by, and is now run by, people of the north-east. Its founding members were clear that it should operate in contradistinction to an international donor agency or grantmaking body, either of which might attempt to graft on to the region an approach or a project that was not the region’s own. Rather than accept someone else’s agenda, the FST set out to fashion an agenda that would emerge from the region itself in response to its own particular issues and challenges. And what became quickly clear – in the course of what turned out to be an extensive consultation process, involving everyone engaged in civil society in the seven states – was that most of the issues of the region flowed back to the years of conflict and to the continued political instability. The years of conflict had given rise to other changes, however, that were not immediately obvious: for example, many of the tribal societies in the region had prided themselves previously on the fact that there was more gender equality in north-east India than elsewhere in the republic, but that was no longer the position – indeed, violence against women is currently a highly significant issue throughout the region. A similar transformation has changed a community that used to look out for others, ensuring things were shared out equitably, into one in which people and communities have unequal access to resources, which are in any case managed inefficiently. The cultural context in which the emerging FST was to operate, therefore, was more challenging even than had at first been imagined.

This consultation process helped to identify not just the main thematic areas in which the FST would work but also its organising objects. It is a testament to the thoroughness of the process that, more than ten years later, both of these are unchanged, as are the main operating principles of the organization.

The four main thematic areas in which it was agreed that the FST would work are:

  • Ensuring gender and social justice
  • Fostering youth development and action
  • Enhancing natural resources and linked livelihoods
  • Promoting regional arts and culture

And the core organizational priorities of the FST were identified as the need to:

  • Develop the capacity of the organization, so that it can both provide services and fundraise successfully
  • Build a communitarian spirit at the local level, to re-instil a tradition of philanthropy and volunteering
  • Change the perception of civil society in the region, and further afield, while also correcting public impressions of the corruption of the NGO sector
  • Interest regional and national government in the area, if only as a means of achieving results that are likely to be beyond government’s capacity to deliver from its remote sphere of influence
  • Bring the opportunities, the potential and the challenges of the region to the wider attention of international grantmakers and the global community foundation movement
  • Secure all this while still running projects and programmes that meet genuine local needs identified by the people on whose behalf the FST came into being in the first place
  • Attain sustainability

Certain other decisions were taken early on that are common to many other community foundations, the most obvious being that, for long-term, sustainable change, programmes and projects must be organized and led by people within the community, in response to needs expressed by members of that community; relying on external NGOs and development agencies would not affect the change in culture that was needed to deliver genuine social transformation. These decisions, sound though they were, would lead to internal weaknesses in the organization’s structure from which it would take some time to recover.

 

A strong start, and immediate setbacks

These core priorities and thematic areas continue to define the FST’s activity, but its progress over the last ten years has been anything but smooth. The early stages of its development were bright with promise: a significant grant came early on, in the form of a three-year seed-funding grant from the Ford Foundation. This was used to draw up a manifesto for the FST (shared with all stakeholders, and with everyone who had contributed to the earlier discussion and consultation process) and to begin the grantmaking activity.

As with everything it has done, this grantmaking activity has been an educative process for the FST. It has established that, in the north-east, the most effective grant recipients tend to be small organizations or in the form of individual fellowships. Capacity building is a significant factor in the successful administration of grants, and one which is easier to supervise when the same person turns up for successive sessions of a training programme, for example, or from one meeting to another; with larger organizations, different people attend different meetings and sessions, and there is a loss in continuity and coherence. This issue, though it directly affected the first round of grantmaking for the FST, is of broader significance for the whole region:

We realized that, when the operation of the grantee is accepting the capacity building and allowing us to hand-hold, the projects are very, very successful. We are doing a philanthropic study right now in FST and what we have noticed is that there are just a couple of organizations receiving funding who have the processes in place. But that number is small. The civil society of the NE needs to be strengthened to be able to see substantial work, substantial change. The smaller organizations need to be strengthened and, to strengthen the smaller organizations, the organizations that are otherwise not receiving funds from any source, you have to invest in capacity building of the organization.

FST has delivered just two rounds of grantmaking so far: the first grants, given out to a number of organizations and individuals whose projects matched the FST’s thematic areas of interest, were followed by a second round of grants that were in essence repeat grants given to a reduced number of the organizations and individuals who received grants in the first round. Thereafter, however, there have been no further grants, and the combination of factors that has led to this state of affairs – most of them beyond the control of the FST– and the adjustments the FST has had to make to accommodate itself to them, represents an important aspect of its growth as an organization.Grantees learning about mushroom cultivation

Most fundamentally, the Ford Foundation, which gave the FST its first grant, moved to a position where philanthropy development was no longer a priority area.[2] Although this was part of a global reorganization of programmes and priorities, additional bureaucratic complications in India may also have played a contributing role. In India, before you can receive a grant from a foreign donor, you have to receive the authorization of the Department of Economic Affairs (the DEA) – for reasons mentioned earlier, this authorization is almost impossible to get for an agency operating in the north-east. There is a similar requirement, as the result of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, to register any funding from a foreign source with the Ministry of Home Affairs – and, again, this is well-nigh impossible in the north-east, where the volatility of the region, together with the poor compliance record of some NGOs, has contributed to a suspicion that all such externally sourced funding is primarily intended to support militancy and sedition.

As Gayatri herself admits, this loss of the organization’s main source of funding was particularly difficult because it found the FST unprepared:

The biggest challenge for FST has been that it was seed-funded by the Ford Foundation. This had perhaps created a false sense of security and downplayed the need for the organization to think about a long-term funding strategy from diverse sources.

This common omission (essentially, the difficulty of balancing the need to do something now with the need to secure funds to be able to do other things in the future) was compounded by certain other decisions, taken early on, that are also common to many other community foundations – most significantly, the failure to impress on everyone working in the organization the central importance of fundraising to its operation.

The loss of funding very nearly sounded the death knell for the FST. All other avenues for funding turned out to be dead ends and, when the then executive director had (for family reasons) to relocate, it looked as if the FST might follow the pyrotechnic trajectory of so many other fledgling organizations: an initial burst of bright enthusiastic activity, followed by a sudden, terminal decline. That this turned out not to be the case is partly down to an extension to the grant from the Ford Foundation (although of a reduced amount and for a new purpose), partly to the activity of the FST’s founding members, and partly to the organization’s ability to refashion itself to changing circumstances.

 

A forced change of direction

The Ford Foundation’s final grant, which was given in 2011, was a reduced grant to enable the FST to build its own capacity: basically, a time-buying support that would allow the organization to secure funds from other sources and achieve a degree of financial sustainability. Bureaucratic hurdles and administrative difficulties, however, many already referred to, meant that this grant came through only in 2013.

The FST was able to survive the intervening years largely as the result of the intervention of the founding members of the organization and its board members, who were able to secure a couple of grants for project implementation. Inevitably, however, these grants changed the way in which the organization operated, moving it from what had initially been a grantmaking organization to one that was effectively a service organization. Two years ago, in 2013, when these implementation grants were finally assigned, Gayatri (who had previously been involved with the organization in a voluntary capacity) joined the FST as Executive Director and, with an entirely new team, began to try to restore its previous grantmaking capacity and to secure its longer-term sustainability.

 

New lessons to learn

One effect of the decision to ground the FST in its community, and to ensure it responded to needs expressed by members of that community, was that there was no guarantee that the organization would boast all the skills required for it to survive – most conspicuously, the skill to generate funds to enable it to carry on its activity. Establishing the case for fundraising and clarifying the need for everyone to become involved in the process itself required a shift in the understanding of those working for the FST about what a philanthropy organization is and the part that fundraising plays in it. The new team had to accept a change in its understanding of organizational culture, the most significant element of which was this need for everyone to consider themselves, at least in part, as fundraisers. The team was not unusual among non-profit workers in resisting this idea:

I think that a big scare that we have as non-profit workers is that we don’t want to raise funds, we don’t think of ourselves as people who can raise funds or who can be marketing and sales people. Fundraising seems to be for marketing and sales people; we are people who work at the grassroots and who deliver, who make projects happen.

Little by little, this has begun to change, as members of the team have absorbed the importance of fundraising to their core activities. This recognition has been partly driven by necessity: a fundraiser drafted in to take sole responsibility of the fundraising function left the organization within a year of her appointment. Even this setback has turned out to be educative, however. The fundraiser had initially had considerable success, raising USD 6,000 very quickly indeed, as part of an individual donation programme. But this success was the result of the contacts she had brought with her; what she had been unable to do was to tap into any previously unexploited local philanthropic sources. The lesson was clear: for the FST to succeed as a local philanthropic organization, it had to operate locally, using local people, with their local contacts and their awareness of local needs, challenges and resources.

FST Staff participate in in-house trainingThe rest of the team still had to buy into the idea, however, and this did not happen immediately. It was only when two members attended a meeting in Shillong in September 2013, which the FST hosted at the recommendation and with the support of the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) and Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace (PSJP),that they fully understood how integral fundraising was to the other aspects of philanthropic activity:

For the first time they realized ‘OK, this is what we are talking about. This is something totally different from what we’d thought. So this is a big struggle that we are going through right now and now we know what we have to do and that, OK, let’s get started, let’s try whatever ways we can to expand and fundraise and raise more money for grantees.’

The Shillong event transformed the way in which the FST’s new team perceived the organization, moving it out of its earlier insularity – and the feeling that its issues and its activities were unique – to a realization that it was part of a larger group of organizations dedicated to building community philanthropy, whose work, challenges and experiences mirrored those of the FST.

For Gayatri, too, the event was the start of a significant liberation from the sapping sense of isolation she had all too often previously experienced. Following Shillong, she actively cultivated contact with her new peers, curious to know more about how they had handled the challenges they had faced, and how she and the FST could learn from these experiences. It was also to be the start of a personal journey of professional development that would introduce her to community foundations beyond south Asia and show her how foundations could contribute to local governance and peace building.

The process is not complete. The transformation has had to be endorsed by the members of the board, not all of whom might have been expected to support this shift from the organization’s founding principles – fortunately, however, there is considerable support at board level for Gayatri’s vision and recognition of her energy and achievements. And if it is only within the last year that individual team members have begun to write proposals themselves, rather than rely on Gayatri (or another designated fundraiser) to do so, the process has marked a signal change in the way in which the team members define their role within the organization – and this internal reorientation marks the obvious beginning of an external reorientation, too.

 

A changed cultural landscape

One of the factors that had contributed to the perilous start of the FST continued to be an issue even at this later stage, though. The culture of the region had changed and the cultivation of a new spirit of local philanthropy had become a more demanding task as a result:

There has been a rich tradition of community giving here in the north-east. It is still visible in some of the remoter areas. However, because of the years of conflict that people have struggled, money has become something very dear to people; people don’t want to let it go, because people have struggled so much for basic needs. At what point we started to value money more than human relationships and community it’s difficult to say, but there has been that change. Money has become so much more important; you can very clearly see that in the way in which people are accumulating money. And the common aim of many youngsters seems to be to earn money. So there has been a paradigm shift in the way people have looked at life, valued life, seen what it means to be a good life, because people have gone through the struggles of living hand to mouth, and basically struggling for their daily needs, so there’s been a huge shift in the way that money is valued over recent decades.

How do you set about restoring a sense of supporting each other, giving back to the culture, when circumstances and the media conspire against you? One way is to vary the ways in which you try to get communities to give; another is to use the media itself to promote the cause of local philanthropy. Applying the first principle, the FST has attempted a number of approaches to increase the extent of local giving. None of these has been unarguably successful, although all of them have provided useful lessons.

The first approach was to use social media to increase local giving: an online programme, called North-East Rising, sought to use community members to persuade local people to give back to the community. This should have played to the organization’s strengths. After all, Gayatri had experience of raising money online, and the idea seemed a compelling one: money was to be raised to enable the FST to give seven grants to each of the seven states. But the campaign proved to be less successful than expected, and for instructive reasons. The issue of trust (already, as has been seen, an endemic concern in the region) became more significant still when fundraising on the Internet. But the premise of the campaign also turned out to be ill-conceived: before people were prepared to contemplate giving, they wanted to know who the recipients of the seven grants were, whereas the FST had assumed that it would identify these at the conclusion of the campaign and on calculation of the funds. The campaign turned out to be a useful lesson in the importance of working out the correct order in which to do things – since this activity, recipients have been pre-selected, and the FST has started to crowd-fund on the basis of already identified projects. This approach is already proving to be more successful.

Another approach was to put on events to attract a more diverse audience and to broaden the organization’s fundraising appeal. One such – a musical night at which an activist sang songs of peace – generated hardly enough revenue to recoup the cost of putting it on. The lesson learnt here was a lesson of scale: the event was too small to attract the attention of significant sponsorship and, whatever its success, it was never going to create enough money to show an important return on the investment of time and energy. For the next event, the FST plans to organize something much larger and much more likely to secure the interest of a major sponsor.

An example of a third activity was an attempt to raise funds through a garage sale. But the reaction of people to this event was indicative of the broader cultural change to which Gayatri has already alluded:

They said ‘So what is this, a second-hand clothes?’ and we said ‘Yes’ and they just put it back because they don’t want to wear something that someone else has worn. So, it’s difficult: the concept of giving back to your society is no longer an aspect of towns and cities. In many rural areas the community gives to support community members: if there is a natural calamity or a wedding, if there is a death, it’s the community members who feed everyone, who take care, who build a house, everything. But with this drastic change in society there’s been a drastic cultural change also. It’s not just drastic organizational and economic developments and reductions in natural resources. It’s also drastic changes in the culture and the way in which people feel and build relationships, the way they communicate. And the whole idea of community, helping each other, taking care of each other is also dying along with it. And it’s not happening, you know?

 

Using media to change the perception of philanthropy

One of the causes of this change in culture is the media, and the FST has seized on any opportunity to counter this by using the media to promote a broader understanding of philanthropy, and local philanthropy – appearing ‘in local media, newspapers and media houses, writing and talking in different forums, producing videos, using social media’. Crucially, it is attempting to engage young people as philanthropists, using them as a means of promoting philanthropy within the community.

The process is a long and arduous one, though, and the FST is constantly coming up against the distrust (‘disgust even’) of people whose previous exposure to non-profit organizations has led them to assume that all such organizations are in it for their own ends, as a means of lining their pockets:

This is a huge challenge, the result of a huge distrust of civil society in India, not just within our community but also within India. We are making a serious attempt at this but we are facing tremendous challenges. We are persisting because we think that what we are doing is very important as we cannot constantly be dependent on outside donations to bring change inside; change inside is not just about bringing money inside to do some projects but also about changing the way people think about how they want to change their community and how they can contribute to this. This is a current major focus.

The first stage of effective fundraising – changing perceptions

There remains the issue of where to raise funds from in a depressed economic climate and in a country where the region for which you are campaigning has long been viewed with suspicion. The irony is that the north-east is recognized as a priority region by the government, and there are considerable funds dedicated to its development – but the history of the region and the track record of some NGOs working in the area both militate against the disbursing of these funds. For this money to reach the communities for which it is intended, perceptions of the region and the non-profit sector working there also need to be changed.

This suspicion works both ways, of course. In a region that has so long been neglected by central government, the idea of working with government is unlikely to win much support, particularly when there is a feeling that what organizations such as the FST are setting out to do is essentially the government’s public duty:

We think it’s the responsibility of the government and the state to provide for its citizens. Our role as civil society should be more one of strengthening initiatives the government has set in train. We shouldn’t have to depend on foreign agencies to deliver projects ourselves. But how much our state will allow us to participate in this is something that is constantly changing and is uncertain.

Needs must, however, and when an organization is as financially precarious as the FST is, it would be a mistake to close down any fundraising options. Much of Gayatri and her colleagues’ time is therefore currently taken up trying to forge connections with government officials, hoping to come across the master key that will unlock the door to investment in the region. So much of this seems to be down to luck: it is not a case of gaining access to a particular role or department; it is much more haphazard than that – a case of ending up in the right place at the right time, in the company of the right person to advance your cause. The process is time consuming and beset with bureaucratic hassles, but essential nonetheless – and not just for the FST. Changing perceptions works in both directions as much as suspicion does and, if the government officials need to be reassured that the north-east is ready to be invested in and that the FST is the right organization to act as the bridge between central administration and the region, they need also to recognize the benefits that will flow to them when the FST succeeds in gaining the trust of people, and reaching parts of the community, with whom the government on its own would stand no chance of engaging.

This is, however, very much a work in progress, a long-term enterprise that runs the risk of foundering on short-term financial sustainability. Relationship building and networking are crucial to the changing of perceptions and the longer-term viability of an organization, but that organization needs to have sufficient funds to be able to sustain itself in the intervening period and to provide the services it was set up to deliver in the first place.

 

Seeking support further afield

Outside government – and leaving to one side the issue of individual and local philanthropy (another work in progress) – the two remaining fundraising options available to the FST are regional/national foundations and international organizations. With the first of these, there are similar challenges to working with government, although there is considerably less bureaucratic complication. The greatest challenge continues to be the perceived difficulty of the north-east as a region to work within, and a consequent reluctance on the part of donors to provide grants for work in this area. Once again, the only ways round this are to challenge and then to change this perception by forming relationships with the donors and educating them:

[We have] to visit them, meet them, explain to them what’s happening on the ground in the region, bring them to the confidence that we are the right organization to invest in because we are capable of sorting out issues, whether these are to do with the bureaucracy or the terrain of the region or ethnographic differences. We are building our network by meeting, attending different conferences, meeting people, networking with donors who attend these conferences and then taking it forward on a one-to-one level. It’s a slow process.

It is a process, however, that has seen some signs of success. A number of organizations have begun to express interest in working with the FST, and the hope is that the more such organizations hear about it and recognize its standing in the region, the more likely they will be to work with them in the future.

In some ways, the FST’s involvement on the international stage has been one of its more conspicuous successes. Thanks in large measure to the support of the GFCF, it has secured a presence for itself that would have been hard to imagine ten years ago. The start of this process was the GFCF field-group meeting that the FST hosted in the north-east, in Shillong.[3] This convention brought the FST together with a number of other community organizations in India, with which the FST continues to communicate and exchange ideas (the event also, as has already been seen, helped to effect a change in perception among two members of the FST team). The GFCF also enabled Gayatri to attend a European Foundation Centre conference in Sarajevo – introducing her to a broad range of international foundations – and, later, to go to the Youth Philanthropy Summit in Chicago:

These two events gave me an introduction to the whole world of philanthropy at the international level and how those people look at the role of community foundations, and also the opportunity to meet the leaders and the representatives of foundations and to be able to network. I also gained the confidence to seek a scholarship and attend the annual meeting of International Human Rights Funders Group. By attending these kinds of conference we get to speak to people who we would otherwise have no access to meet face to face … it becomes so much easier to then continue the conversation by e-mail later on … so those are important introductions that the GFCF has made possible for the FST …

This kind of activity has had a dramatic effect both on the internal organization and ethos of the FST and on its profile for potential funders. A clarifying realization that Gayatri took away from these international philanthropy meetings – and especially from sharing experiences with long-established foundations that have managed to find more or less stable ground to build on – was that community foundations, run in small communities and with the full engagement of those communities, can have a significant impact on community members’ involvement in local governance and peace building. In this respect, though, the FST faces a major challenge in that its work is spread across seven states with a combined population of more than 35 million: the sheer size of the constituency makes it difficult for the FST to really function as a community foundation. Inspired by her encounters with international colleagues, however, Gayatri recognized that the way forward was to create alliances at local level with grassroot philanthropists and activists who would form smaller community foundations under the umbrella of FST’s network of community foundations. Such an arrangement works, of course, only if the FST itself is stable and strong and if there is a revival of formalized community philanthropy that allows such structures for organized philanthropy to be created and sustained.

Time consuming though these activities are, they are also immensely significant in raising the profile of organizations and establishing their credentials in the eyes of future funders. Without them an organization such as the FST would have neither the visibility nor the impression of reliability that would draw it to the attention of funders, and the importance of this international presence when fighting for a region as neglected as the north-east of India cannot be overstated.

 

A series of balancing acts

All that said, of course, this activity represents just one element of the difficult balancing tricks that the FST, and organizations like it, have to perform: balancing international presence against local accountability, long-term sustainability against short-term effectiveness, the need to fundraise against the call to deliver, maintaining independence while collaborating with others. The FST has so far managed to walk these tightropes with a fair degree of precarious poise, maintaining faith with its founding principles and never losing sight of its core objects, nor of the original reasons that brought it into existence in the first place. That it has managed to do so is down to the tenacity of those who work in and with it, and to their ability to adapt and evolve in a changing funding environment and a social and political context that is unpredictable and hedged around with bureaucratic obstacles. To have survived ten years in these circumstances is impressive enough; with such resilience, who is to say where the FST may be in a further ten?

 

Read this report in PDF format.

For more information, visit the FST website.

 


[1] Not surprisingly, there is stiff opposition to this proposal, and many people in the state are coming together to fight it.

[2] This change of priorities itself appears to be changing under new leadership.

[3] This was the Asia Community Philanthropy Peer Learning and Exchange Peace Network, which the GFCF and the PSJP sponsored.

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