Transformative philanthropy in India: equity, freedom and justice


Rajesh Tandon



Rajesh Tandon

TPI’s Center for Global Philanthropy recently hosted Philanthropy and Social Change in India, an event co-sponsored by New England International Donors, featuring Dr Rajesh Tandon, founder and president of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA). Dr Tandon is an internationally acclaimed leader and practitioner of participatory research and development, and has long advocated for a self-reliant, autonomous and competent voluntary sector in India. The blog below written by Dr Tandon is a follow-up to his visit and serves to exemplify these advocacy efforts.

Having completed my professional education nearly 33 years ago I was beginning to ‘dabble’ in some grassroots-level organizational activities. One day, someone suggested that I set up a voluntary organization if I wanted to work towards the empowerment of the poor and the marginalized. As I began to set up PRIA in 1980, my elders (uncles, teachers, colleagues) began to question whether I was getting into ‘charitable’ activities for the ‘welfare of the poor and the needy’ in the country. I was bewildered by such queries, because I assumed that my mission was social transformation towards a just and equitable society.

Three decades on, that question still haunts me; it also haunts PRIA, thousands of voluntary organizations, philanthropists, foundations and policy-makers in the country. The business of ‘doing good’ is far more complicated and risky than ‘do-gooding’. Feeding the hungry, curing the sick and educating the illiterate have been important throughout human history. But, philanthropy has also supported, in India as elsewhere, freedom struggles, movements to stop ‘untouchability’. violence against women, destruction of natural resources, and efforts at protection and promotion of human rights of minorities, indigenous people, migrants and displaced communities. It is this face of philanthropy – giving for social transformation – that needs urgent attention and expansion in today’s India.

Giving for the well-being of society has long been a part of Indian tradition, even though information about its contemporary patterns is not readily available. At the turn of the 21st century, a survey showed that more than 40% of the households in India make philanthropic donations regularly (PRIA survey ‘Invisible, yet Widespread’, 2002). Interesting trends from that survey showed that the poor and less educated from rural areas make such donations as regularly as the rich professionals from urban areas. A similar trend has been recorded in more developed western societies as well. The primary motivations for making such donations are related to ‘obligations to society’. On the basis of that survey data, it can be now estimated that Indians make donations to ‘charitable causes’ worth Rs 16000 crores (US$3.23 billion) per annum these days.

This is a substantial amount; the key question is what purposes such donations serve. The overwhelmingly dominant purpose of donations is for religious activities and institutions; next are relief during disasters and ‘welfare of the needy’ (orphans, street kids, destitute, etc.) A very small proportion of these donations go towards education and healthcare. However, hardly any philanthropic donations support those efforts which are aimed at social transformation.

The present reality in India indicates that large sections of our population remain socially and economically excluded despite growing government spending on social and economic development programmes. The core problem is the absence of transparent and accountable governance at all tiers of institutions in the country today. With nearly Rs200 crores (US$40 million) annually allocated by the government for development in each district of the country, efforts to ensure effective and purposive utilizations of such funds need to be scaled up. What is important is not philanthropy that supports a few hundred schools or clinics, but that which ensures that each government school, clinic, panchayat and municipality delivers quality services to all – yes, ALL – citizens.

Some significant impacts in social transformation in India have been achieved through transformative philanthropy. Civil society efforts to promote protection and advancement of human rights and accountable local governance, for example, received flexible initial support from the Ford Foundation, while Pratham’s annual independent education survey ‘ASER’ has been institutionalized through a grant from Google. In promoting capacity development of civil society and local governments, PRIA’s own efforts received such flexible long-term support from DVV International (Germany), CORDAID (Netherlands) and SDC (Switzerland). Atlantic Philanthropies in America has acted as an umbrella for hundreds of anonymous donors interested in supporting transformative philanthropy; The Synergos Institute in New York has engaged wealthy individuals worldwide for the past 25 years to make donations to causes and institutions that contribute to social transformation.

Such transformative philanthropy can be scaled up in India today because citizens’ associations and civil society organizations are active in every district and town of the country. Many thousands of them have been able to mobilize and support citizens to claim access to their rights and to organize self-help efforts. However, such efforts at social mobilization and demanding accountability from governance institutions are on the verge of being squeezed out of existence for want of flexible and durable funding. A mere 10 per cent of the total annual philanthropic donations towards such purposes can have a major transformative impact.

How can an eco-system of such transformative philanthropy be nurtured in India today? What mechanisms and policies are needed to incentivize and channel increased donations to causes that make our democracy work for all citizens? India lacks a modern institutional infrastructure that can professionally channel individual donations to such efforts that promote freedoms, equity and justice for all Indians today. Archaic laws and practices for incorporation of civil society organizations and restrictive fiscal policies and legislations do not encourage making or using such donations; section 2(15) of the Income Tax Act recognizes welfare and charity alone; not social transformation. There are now moves under the proposed Direct Tax Code to eliminate provisions that can provide financial sustainability to civil society organizations. India needs to translate into laws, systems and procedures many valuable principles enshrined in the National Policy on Voluntary Sector (2007). It needs professionally managed community foundations that provide ‘venture capital’ to underwrite the risks associated with experimentation for innovative solutions; it needs professional education programmes for preparing social development professionals; it needs to encourage youth leadership and engagement in transformative philanthropy

As philanthropy in developed western societies continues to show, new issues and challenges will continue to require societal responses from a strong and independent civil society. Transformative philanthropy is needed, now and into the foreseeable future, to create and sustain a more just and equitable Indian society.

Dr Rajesh Tandon is founder and president of PRIA

Tagged in: Civil society organizations India Social change

Comments (2)

mabel escalante

El total de los fondos para ayudar a los màs necesitados queda " perdido" en la BUROCRACIA que absorbe casi el 90 % de los Fondos. Hay que mejorar esa Burocracia para que el 90 % de los fondos lleguen a los màs pobres

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