Lessons learned from Ten Years of the Foundation for Social Transformation

This article was originally published by Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace on 26 March 2015. The original article can be found here.

sahai_300By Chandrika Sahai

‘A Life Lived on the Edge: An Account of the First Ten Years of the Foundation of Social Transformation’ is a new resource produced the Global Fund for Community Foundations. It tells the story of a community foundation in the North-east of India, of the conditions that necessitated its birth, its vision, its struggles, how it came to almost close doors and its slow recovery and renewed direction.

The story describes the context within which the Foundation for Social Transformation (FST) was established as a grantmaking foundation that would help to develop civil society in the region; historically problematic, conflict torn, ‘politically volatile and fragile’, a region slowly being denuded of its natural resources for the benefit of a minority, neglected by its central government and its issues overlooked by the media. The author of the story writes, ‘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.’

A thriving civil society would have helped the region fight against the odds but to add to its woes, NGOs in the regions are said to have earned the distrust of funders on account of their incapacity to maintain appropriate reporting channels with funders, thus cutting off funding to the region.

FST was thus born in complex and inhospitable terrain and its honest story of a strong start, immediate setbacks and slow recovery bring out many lessons not just for the organization itself but some that can be applied across the field. These lessons represent some necessary elements for the success of small foundations operating on the fringes of society as well as of philanthropy.

Getting it right takes time and listening

Getting the foundational principles of the organisation right means keeping your ear to the ground. ‘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.’ Although painfully long and extensive (as was in this case), the resultant operating principles and objectives of the organisation take into account the context of the region and map out a vision that is best suited to it, (instead of imposing a preconceived one-size-fits-all strategy). These are the result of a thorough consultation, which included local voices and perspectives.

For sustainability and stability, ground the organization in its community

FST was established (like many other grassroots foundations in India) with seed funding from one foreign donor. The comfort of this big grant led to a situation of over dependence on one donor alone and when this donor shifted its priority ares, the flow of funds to FST ceased almost causing the organisation to close its doors. The lack of an enabling funding environment in the region added to the troubles. The foundation was forced to change directions and after just two rounds of funding had to shift from being a grantmaker to a service orgnaisation. ‘…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.’ For long term sustainability, the organization had to appeal to the community it served and tap into its resources. ‘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.’

The people, who make up the foundation, matter

A lot of the renewed energy came into the organization with the new executive director, Ms. Gayatri Buragohain who was also willing to take risks, fail and learn from failures. And its not just the leadership, the entire team matters. Initially Gayatri’s found herself alone with her vision to restore the organizations grant making capacity and had to work to bring her team and board members on board and share the vision with her. Getting the support from the team and board marked a breaking point for the organsiation’s repositioning. ‘…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.’

Fundraising needs creativity, perseverance and a vision for culture change (if necessary)

When the foundation started on the track to reestablish itself as an indigenous grant maker, it attempted numerous creative fundraising strategies, some of which failed while others succeeded in part. However, with each failed attempt, FST learned something new about their community and its giving culture, which had drastically changed over the years. A philanthropic culture, the report tells us, has always existed in the community but off late been replaced by a great amount of value being placed on ‘money’ and self-interest, perhaps arising out of the years of instability and hardship that the people of the region have faced. Under Gayatri’s leadership, FST is now persevering to change public perception of NGOs (which is one of distrust) in the region through media campaigns, and is trying to bring back the culture of community giving and support.

Networks open up new possibilities

A major element that enabled Gayatri to bring her team on board, stimulate her own professional development and mitigate her isolation was FSTs exposure to new networks in philanthropy. The support from the Global Fund for Community Foundations and a host of opportunities that exposed the foundation to diverse groups of people, experiences and lessons from the wider field of philanthropy, both locally and internationally, were critical to helping FST firmly locate itself as a community foundation and grant maker. ‘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 story of the Foundation for Social Transformation India is testament to the difficult conditions in which many grassroots foundations in the global south are established and operate, the adjustments they have to make along the way and how it their unique capacity to constantly reinvent themselves and keep their ear to the ground that keeps them going. Above all, it speaks to the importance of the small things that make a big difference toward cultivating community philanthropy that aims at sustainable social change. These are: time, patience, a willingness to take risks, resilience, networks (both local and global) and an ear to the ground.

Chandrika Sahai is the Network Coordinator for the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace. To read the story, ‘A Life Lived on the Edge: An Account of the First Ten Years of the Foundation of Social Transformation’, click here.

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