Resourcing Social Justice: Understanding Philanthropy in India

By:- Tulika Srivastava, ED South Asia Women's Fund

Sarojini Naidu once quipped to Mahatma Gandhi: ‘Bapuji! It takes a lot of money to keep you poor!’

Conversations about philanthropy and social justice as a sector are few in India, which makes Caroline Hartnell’s paper extremely relevant and timely. She has undertaken a herculean task, in providing a reader-friendly frame to review the complex relationship of social justice and money, particularly in the current socio-political context, where public institutions are increasingly failing to deliver services and support to an increasingly poor and angry (and rightly so) population. Hence, even though this makes my task of responding to Hartnell quite challenging, I will attempt to build upon her work and highlight key issues that need a more nuanced analysis and reflection. While recognizing that one paper cannot possibly address all the issues related to giving and philanthropy, I will take this opportunity to identify some of the questions that need answering if we are to fully appreciate the findings and the recommendations made by Hartnell.

Despite a rich and vibrant history of social justice movements, which led to the creation of India itself, the lack of transparency about the resources that went into building these movements has led to a belief that money had no role to play in this enormous undertaking. The ideal of ‘impoverished leaders’ is difficult to replace in the popular imagination with laptop-toting professional NGO personnel moving from village to city to international locations, arguing about rights and undertaking research from foreign locales. This has also tended to make invisible the deep need for social justice actors to work on a consistent basis to ensure the realization of the promise of the Constitution, in a democratic republic that is deeply feudal, patriarchal and ridden with caste and community conflict.

Given this larger socio-political context, the idea of organized funding for rights work is difficult for Indians to understand and accept. Therefore, Hartnell initiates an extremely relevant examination into ways in which we as a nation understand the giving of money, ie philanthropy, particularly in the present context of political conservatism and state control. She paints a large canvas, on the premise that all giving is within the philanthropic frame. She maps giving through its myriad avatars – grants for human rights, service-focused grants, welfare models, investments, impact-based giving models, among others – as well as the sources of the funding, tracking the changes that have happened over time.

Is religious giving really relevant?

In the introduction itself, the paper identifies Indians as givers, with religion or religiosity as a key motivator of the giving culture in India, and quotes various sources as acknowledging that many/most/all/few/some religions practised in this country idealize giving. The significance of this to philanthropic work escapes me, other than the opportunity we might lose to advocate for changing the direction of the said giving towards social justice work, rather than any other.

Further, I don’t know if this mapping helps when we are tracking philanthropy. It is to my mind a non sequitur. Giving is a community practice, and allows us to exist as compassionate, empathetic and sensitive human beings. It would perhaps be more relevant if we focused on the fact that Indians – for all the regional, caste and community differences – are deeply community minded, with all the good and bad that comes with it.

Charity and philanthropy are not the same

Further, there is a need to understand ‘giving’, and its various drivers, which have extremely different goals and rationales. People, including Indians, give for a range of reasons, including, among many others, obligations – religious and social or both – desire for approval, need to contribute, to see a better world. I give to a range of interests for various reasons – ideological, personal and religious –satisfying different needs. At all levels my giving reflects only my interests and my need to give. Some of it is philanthropy, and some charity. Thus, all giving cannot be understood as if it is the same; and charity and philanthropy are neither the same nor similar.

Charity gives us the notion of those who ‘have’ giving to the ‘have nots’. It references the large-heartedness (and the large purses) of the giver, allowing those who receive to also exist in this spectrum as the powerless recipients. On the other hand, philanthropy, while not the opposite of charity, is markedly different as it references the obligation of the giver to give, or rather to share their resources, for a wide range of social purposes. It references putting the resources of the giver in the hands of the recipient, trusting the recipient to use them in a manner that brings about progressive social change.

Coming from a women’s fund – better understood as the resourcing arm of the women’s movements, a particularly underfunded sector of social justice work – I will question the manner in which giving is mapped as different aspects of the same coin.

We need to change the paradigm of the way we understand giving and, therefore, the manner in which we engage with it. And we need to admit that all giving cannot be categorized in a parallel manner, on the same continuum. Giving has to be seen as beyond individual satisfaction, and legitimacy for such giving has to be created, nurtured and institutionalized.

Understanding the need for funding for social justice work

Next, I want to draw attention to the issue of resources and legitimacy of movements. Somehow, the idea of funding for social justice work has not been understood either by the larger public or by the state – which has contributed significantly to increasing distrust of civil society actors, particularly NGOs. Hartnell recognizes that one of the big obstacles to giving is lack of faith in NGOs. The reason for this lack of faith has to be investigated closely.

On the one hand, we have the expectation of voluntarism from not-for-profits, even though it is well known that it is full-time work – and it’s the worst-paid sector, with little or no social benefits. As quoted earlier, Sarojini Naidu foregrounds this dilemma of resources and their usage in India. The focus on the frugal life of the leaders of the freedom struggle built familiarity and ownership of leaders – particularly Bapu [1], as well as the cause he espoused – among the general public, which remained engaged with the larger issues of claiming an independent India without truly understanding the need for or role of resources in building the movement across the country. This focus on the freedom movement has led to an understanding that all social struggles are ‘voluntary’ and do not even require resources.

Hartnell quotes Aruna Roy, who notes the limitations of institutional philanthropy and the way it may prevent social movements for human rights and justice from standing politically strong. Citing the example of the Right to Information campaign, Roy talks of the strength that rights-based movements draw from public support as opposed to institutional philanthropic support. This is perhaps one way of approaching resources. However, it also assumes – among many other assumptions – that the community has bought into the human rights pact.

There are all kinds of rights, including sexual autonomy and self-determination among others, which simply do not have popular support, particularly within communities in which the violations of these rights regularly occur. The organizations/groups/individuals who respond to these violations need resources for several actions: the immediate safety of the claimants, medical support to the victim, access to safe spaces, initiating legal action for justice, among others.

Further, this is not even the full range of work they need to do. They work at community mobilization, awareness raising and rights advocacy among the community, and make themselves available for support at all times. These are groups that cannot exist on individual whimsy; they need institutional, long-term, definite support to enable them to do their work of ensuring the realization of human rights, building the community to claim them, and further enriching the content of the right itself.

This is not safe work, and the state [2] – despite the Constitutional promise – has elected neither to do this itself nor to support it through social justice programming. Funding from foreign sources has largely supported these groups, but this funding has itself been placed within a complicated legal regime, which Hartnell identifies as another obstacle to giving.

The need for arms-length philanthropy

Alongside the mistrust in NGOs, which have a strong track record of transforming individual lives and community spaces, many givers – particularly corporations – have an equal and amazing faith in their own abilities to deliver on issues they have little or no understanding of. Hence, we are seeing more and more corporations setting up foundational arms to satisfy the 2 per cent rule, and undertaking outreach work as soft advertising, to benefit either their own staff or marketing needs, and calling it philanthropy.

The big thing that is currently absent in India that would address this shrinking of resources, and therefore the shrinking of democratic spaces, would be organized and institutional arms-length philanthropy in support of social justice work. I believe we have to undertake strong advocacy to forward this as a central value of giving among those who give. These can be ordinary private individuals, extremely wealthy individuals, corporations or other groups and collectives.

Giving resources, without necessarily controlling the process, is a practice that is only recently being explored by established philanthropists in the country. This way of making privately owned resources available to people with ability and expertise to ensure they are put to use for the benefit of the issues and communities the resources are intended to serve, while not entirely foreign as a notion (given that’s what tax is about), is not a practice we have seen in India until very recently.

A strategy could well be to demonstrate the impact of this arms-length philanthropy [3] and the way it enables access to resources for a range of social justice interventions and the building of institutions that support access to human rights for many communities and issues.

The notion of arms-length philanthropy is rooted in the belief of the giver in the recipient’s vision and their ability to work towards that vision. This approach advocates for balancing accountability with trust and flexibility; and not focusing on controlling and monitoring activities and short-term targets. The idea is to work towards long-term social transformation through a partnership. We are seeing some small examples of this in its nascent stages in India, including Arghyam and Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives among others.

The role of the state

The final point that I would like to raise is on the role of the state in promoting a stronger philanthropic environment. A caveat to studying philanthropic giving in the context of social justice work is that a strong philanthropic environment is not entirely dependent on state support, and can exist without it. Nevertheless, a significant range of work is supported and funded by states as part of their administrative design. In fact, the international human rights treaty bodies have consistently questioned states about their allocation of resources to the non-governmental sector to support social justice work in a democratic manner.

This is particularly significant for India, given the welfare nature of the state, and its duty to provide for its citizens. While there is a recognition that – in the face of great obstacles such as extreme poverty and population challenges – we do have one of the better health systems in the world, with the poorest having access to top-class services at affordable costs or free, social justice is not a sector that the state can ignore for the sake of development.

The state needs to make resources available to non-state actors to fully participate in the compact of building the nation in fulfilment of constitutional promises. It has to enable independent bodies to support citizens to claim their rights, and to speak on behalf of the vulnerable, marginalized and oppressed. In the event that it cannot give the resources itself, the state must make the resources available to others. In India, instead of facilitating the transparent flow of resources and ensuring accountability, the legal regime is an obstacle to resources for social justice work. The system – even though it is mandated by the Constitution and obligated by international law – neither supports rights work nor allows organizations to access resources to support rights work from outside. Nor does it engage in any advocacy to ensure an enhanced understanding of philanthropic giving nationally. In fact, it creates disbelief and lack of faith in organizations that challenge it, through a ‘blacklisting’ system.

The state encourages corporations to commit their CSR towards supporting government-sponsored programmes/campaigns such as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), among others, thereby taking attention away from the non-delivery of the state-run municipalities, which have the specific responsibility of doing exactly that [4]. So instead of supporting social change, often these inputs are diluting state accountability.

Continuing the conversation

It is very exciting to read through the paper, as much for what it does not say as for what it does. While the research centrally speaks to philanthropy and social justice work, we have to remember that social justice work cannot be funded exclusively through philanthropic initiatives. The work is critical and cannot be allowed to depend on ad hoc spurts of support or largesse. The state must ensure that there are allocated resources that support social justice work, either directly or by creating an environment in which such support is enabled.

In order to not lose sight of ensuring steady resources for this work, we have to track ways in which the state invests in non-governmental social justice organizations as much as we track funding from other sources.

We need to continue the good work initiated by Hartnell, to cut through the hoopla and lay out the critical need for social justice work in the country. We need to create a more technical understanding of supporting social justice work, and pull out the threads of the different kinds of giving, identifying each for what it is. We have to be clear that philanthropy and charity are not on the same continuum; in fact, even the different types of giving that Hartnell identifies are not replaceable by each other.

The kind of data that this paper brings forward – backed by more critical analysis – is deeply needed to change the image of NGOs in the public sphere. We do need to bite the bullet and step forward to identify the kind of giving that works to bring about transformative change. And therefore we have to identify what isn’t working.

As mentioned right at the beginning, I look forward to building upon the work Hartnell has done – as this mapping is critical. There is a need for more collaboration in developing this work so as to nuance the broader picture, define terminologies and review the findings more analytically.


[1] A familial name in colloquial language for Mahatma Gandhi, the leading light of the Indian freedom movement, meaning ‘father’. Mahatma Gandhi is also known as the ‘Father of the Nation’.

[2]There have been instances such as the Mahila Samakhya, among other state initiatives, which in its beginning days was about grass-roots feminist advocacy, but since then it has been rolled back entirely.

[3] Such as practised by earlier versions of Oxfam, Save the Children, Ford Foundation, etc.

[4] There is of course a much longer story attached to this, which covers the absence of waste management plans in all urban centres, little or no services in rural settlements, with the work still being the duty of particular castes, who are neither garbed nor paid nearly adequately.

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