Expanding CSR Eco-System—Engaging in a transformative agenda

Grass roots organizations which suddenly found themselves flummoxed with sudden restriction on sub-granting under new FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) rule sometime back, now must find new ways to remain relevant in civil societies’ transformative agenda. For these organizations, looking beyond traditional resources-individuals, foundations and government- is a must to sustain.  In the recent past many years have witnessed a scramble for CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), small or grassroots organizations included. But for them understanding CSR eco-system is very crucial.

The sudden shrinking of space for CSOs especially engaged as small groups at grassroots level in transformative agenda is a cause of great concern.  Further, the resource availability to such grassroots level organizations has completely eroded especially after the change in the FCRA law barring sub-granting. While the impact of these changes is now quite evident, development sector is also witnessing a strong emergence of corporate social responsibility (CSR) where companies with certain amount of turnover are required  to spend 2% of its profit in CSR activities. It was a euphoric moment for majority of civil society organizations where they saw a ray of hope as against declining traditional sources. The CSR story unfolded in many different ways and many companies created their own foundation and started implementing CSR projects directly. A large number of companies were asked to contribute to PM Care funds and that also impacted the resource availability. There were few companies who were eager to support civil society action. However while the eco system of CSR was expanding its footprint vis-à-vis traditional civil society engaged in transformational work at grassroots level was not wholeheartedly accepted by CSR. Lack of credibility, trust, managerial capacity etc. were cited as reasons. The requirement of large balance sheet and full-fledged institutional and staff structure very much limited the availability of resources to grassroots organizations.  So in practice CSR could not provide much help and support in sustaining the transformative agenda of the traditional civil society organizations especially at the grassroots level. However, it started changing the landscape with a different skill set requirement, different types of institutions and different employees set. So there is a mismatch which is strongly visible between most of the micro CSOs and CSR.

Gradually it is important for the CSR to concurrently review its practices and ensure how small grassroots level organizations/institutions can be sustained. This will require a substantial re-orientation and resetting of the CSR operations. Some of the key questions which CSR needs to address in order to be much more effective is to respect the skill set available amongst the existing civil society and how this skill set can be upgraded/utilized by them. The focus should shift from the balance sheet oriented approach to more ideological commitment and process oriented approaches. Donor-Donee relationship should replace partnership relationship. This will require lot of trust building in between the two. The current need of large balance sheet should be seriously relooked into because this approach only supports larger organizations. The managerial skill set of CSR staff also needs to be reorganized to seriously invest in perspective and capacity building especially ideological, institutional, democratic and leadership focused. Focusing on output and results should focus on processes. Corporate style of output oriented approach has a serious lacuna in a rural transformation context.

The skill sets required are different and the ability of the CSR colleagues to acquire those skill sets and respect them is an area of concern. There are large numbers of foundations and CSR institutions coming up every day and it is good that most of them are being handled by young and energetic colleagues. However, in workshops and seminars I have missed presence of the traditional representation from the grassroots engagements. Here I would like to clarify that traditional is not old but traditional is as modern as is necessary in todays’ context. It is contemporary. The difference lies between the understanding of the problem, the underlying causes and the way the same can be addressed from a transformational process approach which is both social, economic and political. Political not referring to political parties but ability to take decisions on its own. Currently the advantage of CSR is being utilized mostly by the elite of the sector those who are highly qualified, established institutions with very articulate and capable leaders and these are the institutions which easily grab CSR attention. How can CSR mould this to non-articulate, committed grassroots initiatives?  CSR needs to invest in relationships, institutional building, leadership building for permanent sustainability. However CSR is creating its own limited ecosystem to operate upon. The public sector undertakings/CSRs also do not contribute much as their requirements for qualifying is so huge and complicated that very few organizations fulfil that criteria. Here the consultants enter and exploit the CSOs. Thus it is important for CSR to take a relook at its operating principles and strategies and ensure that how small grassroots level initiatives can also be supported and the resource imbalance which is developed due to various underlined factors is addressed. This will make CSR a true partner in development and growth of the nation and in sustaining the vibrancy of the civil society thereby upholding the principles of democracy and democratic principles.

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