‘Out’-ing the social justice agenda

Ingrid Srinath

January is the month of Janus, the Greek god of beginnings and endings, doorways and gates. It was appropriate, therefore, that CRY’s 2004 meeting was held in January and that the presentation announcing the consensus to redraft CRY’s mission – from ‘enabling people to take responsibility for the situation of the deprived Indian child’ to ‘building a people’s movement for the rights of India’s children’ – should be called Janus.

The new form of words embodies a change that had been evolving for over a decade, and that has released a huge amount of organizational energy, enabling greater collaboration and higher levels of respect, trust and transparency. The change also threw into relief the growing divergence between CRY’s twin functions of grantmaking and fundraising – Janus also has two faces.

The process of change wasn’t free, however, of doubts and anxieties. Individual employees worried about the new orientation and the changed skills it demanded, fundraisers worried about possible donor reactions to the change, while grantmakers faced the prospect of terminating valued, long-term partnerships that did not conform to the new agenda.

The meeting, coinciding with CRY’s 25th anniversary and India’s general election, provided a timely opportunity to test CRY’s new avatar. CRY launched its first overt, national campaign centred on rights-based advocacy, which reached out to all its stakeholders – target communities, NGOs, donors, volunteers, young people, politicians and the media – advocating specific policy reforms. Significantly, the communication did not feature the endearing images of children or the individual stories that had been the hallmarks of most previous CRY communication. The positive response to the campaign and the fact that it necessitated participation by all CRY employees went a long way in reinforcing organizational conviction and confidence in the approach. All CRY communication is currently being revamped on similar lines.

It was the end of a difficult process, however. CRY had spent the past decade coping with the leadership vacuum that followed the loss of its charismatic leader, Rippan Kapur, in 1994. These were years of organizational stasis as his successors regrouped and painstakingly rebuilt institutional focus and ethos, weathering the financial crunch caused by the neglect of the business focus during that period and a wrenching overhaul of business systems and processes to emerge renewed and revitalized. Over the period of transition, CRY’s key functions, grantmaking and fundraising, both now growing at a healthy pace, had also grown apart.

Grantmaking moves towards social justice …

A review of the grantmaking aspect of CRY’s business in 1989 had resulted in a more holistic capacity-building approach that could be described as venture philanthropy. A second, more widely participative, review in 1995-96 resulted in a conscious choice to bias grantmaking towards those organizations with the least access to traditional government and international resources. Further, grantmaking at CRY moved from a sectoral, issue-specific focus to one based on a rights framework that addressed the root causes of inequity rather than its symptoms. Finally, it emphasized that advocacy was essential if change was to be achieved on a significant scale. By the end of the 1990s it would it be fair to say that grantmaking was following a social justice agenda.

… but fundraising left behind

On the fundraising side, however, the emphasis had been on exploring new sources and building sustainable revenue streams. Though fundraising material did use rights terminology and described the holistic nature of CRY’s grantmaking approach, the key fundraising ‘product’ remained the option to ‘sponsor a child’s education and health for a year’ as frontline fundraisers struggled to balance the need to gratify donors’ wishes for tangibility with their increasing knowledge of and conviction regarding the social justice agenda. Attempting to reconcile these mismatched agendas threatened organizational cohesion and left many employees deeply conflicted.

CRY’s national reach and equity across sectors gives it the leverage to significantly influence government policy. It was, for example, the prime mover in a successful national advocacy campaign to amend India’s constitution to include the right to education among the listed fundamental rights. However, this mass mobilization, which enlisted support from over 2,000 marginalized communities and over 2,500 NGOs, did not include the vast majority of CRY’s middle-class individual donors or corporate supporters.

In a nation of the size and diversity of India, inequities are deeply rooted in centuries-old fissures of gender, caste, class, ethnicity and religion. Political careers and electoral success are, most often, a result of successfully managing caste arithmetic. Policy too often becomes a patchwork of ‘schemes’ aimed at appeasing specific interest groups. Marshalling the political will to effect fundamental change in favour of social justice is nearly impossible among fractious coalitions whose constituents’ loyalty is often traded for political and bureaucratic appointments.

The limitations of philanthropy

Similarly, even on the most optimistic forecasts, the contribution of private philanthropy will be insufficient to ensure that the benefits of India’s increasing prosperity are equitably distributed. Only a new model of governance, CRY believes, where priorities are determined by empowered communities, will be able to do this. It will take nothing less than the active citizenship of Indians from all walks of life. Enlisting advocates for child rights in particular, and social justice in general, from among the educated, professional and business classes who are the key beneficiaries of the current economic regime and from among India’s increasingly influential global diaspora will be particularly critical. CRY can be, and frequently is, the one entity that opposing interest groups trust. It is, therefore, in a unique position to serve as the hub for such a coalition of interests and influence.

Gains and losses

It is inevitable that not all donors will respond positively to CRY’s more complex appeal. Those who cannot be persuaded to value the longer-term effort necessary to effect sustainable change and prefer the immediate gratification of providing temporary charitable relief to the underprivileged will perhaps switch their loyalties to other organizations or continue to support the more traditional, religious charities. Corporate donors motivated primarily by the public relations benefits of philanthropic gestures and those that fight shy of any ‘political’ risks may prefer the relatively easily packaged charity event or photo-opportunity. CRY believes, however, that the benefits in terms of organizational coherence, transparency and differentiation are well worth that price.

Why, in retrospect, has it been possible for CRY to make this transition? Significant factors include:

  • CRY is a publicly funded, indigenous foundation that, lacking government, corporate or philanthropic endowments, built a resource base among average, middle-class Indians. This ‘retail’ approach to resource generation has resulted in high levels of visibility, the freedom to define its agenda independent of the constraints sometimes imposed by large donors, and a public profile that minimizes potential risks.
  • The relative lack of ‘formal expertise’ of its founder, early volunteers and employees resulted in an experiential approach to learning that was ideology-free and open to inputs from a variety of sources.
  • Its hands-on, highly engaged approach to grantmaking gives it a first-hand feel for the priorities and real-life experiences of the communities it serves and creates an iterative learning loop between partners and CRY where collaborative impact measurement and experience guide strategy development.
  • Decades of assiduous attention to accountability and transparency within the organization and in the public domain have earned high levels of trust and equity across sectors.
  • Investments in organizational processes help build, sustain and refresh mission focus and participative decision-making.


These assets, and CRY’s track record as a pioneer in the sector, will, we hope, also make overt social justice grantmaking and resource mobilization more feasible for the sector as a whole and help tap the creative energies of donors and NGOs, especially those working in less popular areas and causes.

Despite CRY’s optimism about the change and the success of our early efforts, the challenges are daunting. Sustaining board, employee and donor conviction in the face of increasing donor fatigue and charity communication clutter will not be easy. Each challenge brings the temptation to revert to the familiar or take the line of least resistance. To overcome this, CRY itself will have to become a microcosm of the just society it envisions.

Ingrid Srinath is executive director of CRY. She can be contacted at ingrid.srinath@crymail.org

About CRY
Indian child rights organization CRY (Child Relief and You) believes that every child is entitled to basic rights of survival, protection, development and participation. In a word, to childhood. CRY has learned over 26 years that ensuring these in a sustainable manner is only possible when grassroots action is combined with community empowerment, active citizenship and advocacy.

Started in 1979, today CRY partners almost 200 child development projects across India. In its 25th year CRY initiated a citizen’s movement to restore the rights of children. Today its symbol, the pinwheel called the ‘Free-a-Child Chakri’, represents freedom for all India’s children.
For more information, see http://www.cry.org

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