Work amidst countless challenges and seeking solutions: A tale of NGOs in India

Often viewed as the 'opposition to the government', NGOs face the heat from the government, corporations, and even, society in general. We spoke to a few NGOs from across the country that narrated the current picture in detail.

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Due to fears of potential violence erupting in and around Delhi's border areas, where Indian farmers are protesting against the government's farm bills, the NGO Shuddhi had to cancel their recent cleanliness drive along the Yamuna River. "Volunteers were hesitant to work in the area," says Saurabh Gupta, the organization's founder. The lack of active government intervention may be a common factor driving both the farmers' protests and the challenges faced by NGOs like Shuddhi. Often, non-governmental organizations find it difficult to operate alongside other societal events, despite sharing similar overarching goals.

By 2015, India had at least 31 lakh NGOs, according to data collected by the CBI through the first-ever exercise collating information from all states and Union Territories on NGOs registered under the Societies Registration Act. This data highlighted a stark reality: the number of NGOs was more than double the number of schools in the country. However, it's likely that the number of NGOs, often perceived as opposing the government, has increased since then, along with their associated challenges. Among these challenges, meeting financial requirements remains the most daunting.


NGO Shuddhi's volunteers on a food donation drive in Delhi.

The NGO Shuddhi, dedicated to initiatives in cleanliness, health, and education, faces daily challenges from environmental and social factors that impede their short-term goals, while various other barriers hinder their long-term objectives. While the ongoing farmer protests pose a hindrance to their short-term goals, the lack of finances often causes their long-term objectives to take a back seat.

Corporate funding – not an easy way out

Besides individual donations, NGOs seek corporate funding for their smooth functioning, particularly after the enactment of the Companies Act, 2013 by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, GOI, which obligates companies to undertake CSR projects for social welfare. However, securing CSR funding from corporations is no easy task. "There is fierce competition among NGOs for funding," says Saurabh Gupta. Additionally, many corporations have established their own NGOs, Gupta notes.

As the founder emphasizes, many corporations tend to donate to public charitable trusts like the PM Cares Fund or CM Cares Fund to receive 100% income tax returns, rather than donating to NGOs, where only a 50% return is viable. "More collaboration from stakeholders is needed, such as the coming together of all NGOs in a city with similar goals, and the government needs to facilitate NGOs' work in remote locations," Gupta says, discussing potential solutions to ensure the smooth functioning of such entities. As of now, NGO Shuddhi has been reaching out to the corporates and has also been approached by the brands basis their work which is highlighted through the NGO's website and social media.

Elixir Foundation, an Ahmedabad-based NGO working towards youth empowerment for the past 8 years, has also benefited from CSR funds. Run by Madhish Parikh, one of the President's Award winners, Parikh believes that NGOs must "satisfy the corporates" to secure funds. "People in corporate offices are often unaware of the ground challenges faced by NGOs during project execution, and their expectations differ from potential outcomes," says the 34-year-old, explaining why corporations may hesitate to provide funds. "Companies need to assess the ground situation and engage with local communities before deciding to invest, conducting proper audits and surveys," Parikh adds.


Madhish Parikh with school students.

Working with a corporate for one project, however, does not guarantee a sustainable financial model for NGOs, as there is always uncertainty involved in obtaining funds from them, observes Parikh. Currently, NGO Darpan, a platform run by Niti Ayog, has listed NGOs functioning in the country. Parikh suggests that the government should also list corporates to provide reliable and authentic information to NGOs. "Most of the time, NGOs do not know who to reach out to. By providing information on corporate funding and collaborating with NGOs on projects, other NGOs can learn and act accordingly," he adds. Elixir Foundation aims to remain up to date with the current events and major days that are recognized by the UN to build their projects around it, that not only helps the NGO to give a supporting hand to its beneficiaries but also helps them remain authentic in the eyes of corporates.

While NGOs working for humans struggle for funding from corporates, those working for wildlife often find little consideration from companies. "It is easier to work for humans since corporates can take pictures and videos, but how can they do that with wild animals?" asks Dr. Sarita Subramaniam, who has been involved in wildlife conservation and promoting menstrual hygiene in tribal areas for the last 5 years.


Dr. Sarita Subramaniam (middle) donating sanitary napkins to tribal women safari guides at Kanha Tiger Reserve.

Having installed 108 solar panels in various forests and reserves, Earth Brigade Foundation has recently conducted a menstrual hygiene drive for victims of the Manipur riots and will soon be working at the Panna Tiger Reserve. Explaining why corporates hesitate to invest in NGOs like hers, she says, “Corporates prefer to focus on areas where they have factories to maintain good relations with local communities.”

Considered a 'small NGO' by Dr. Subramaniam, EBF finds it challenging to raise funds from corporates. Despite efforts to secure funds, she finds the process demanding. “We need to demonstrate the impact of our work to companies in numbers, but often the impact of our projects is intangible and cannot be quantified to secure funds,” she explains. However, she has maintained a record of her work to present it to potential donors. "These projects are capital-intensive, and maintaining a database increases our chances of securing deals with big names," she adds.

In addition to internal CSR funds, recent times have made it even more difficult for NGOs to access foreign funds. In late 2018, it was revealed that the central government had canceled the licenses of nearly 20,000 NGOs receiving funds under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA).

A sour face-off with the government


Dr. Subramaniam (right) at Bishanpura, Mukki, Kanha Tiger Reserve where her NGO installed solar panels.

In the absence of sufficient funds, NGOs like EBF are cautious about their usage. When asked to allocate funds to a government-owned organization for a forest reserve project rather than independently installing solar panels, she chose to decline. “There was a lack of transparency regarding how the funds would be utilized if given to them,” she explains. Additionally, Dr. Subramaniam mentions that some reserves struggle with low or no budgets to meet the water requirements of wild animals, yet NGOs are not permitted to assist.

While government departments often mention they will inform NGOs of any needs, they are sometimes denied access to forests where they have successfully implemented solar panel installations. “Forest departments do not permit us to return for repairs or servicing of technical equipment, nor do they inspect it,” she adds, noting that without maintenance, the machinery becomes obsolete.

The situation worsens for NGOs aiding individuals with treatments at government hospitals. Recently, Abhishek Singh, founder of the Delhi-based Saviour Foundation operating in Delhi, Maharashtra, Bihar, and U.P., attempted to admit a patient with a back tumor to the Rural Medical Centre (RMC) in Delhi but was refused entry. “The staff directed us to a private hospital,” the 32-year-old recounts. “NGOs step in where the government falls short, yet we receive minimal support from them.” Nonetheless, the NGO eventually assisted the patient in securing admission to the hospital.


Saviour Foundation helps people with treatment at government hospitals.

As per the CBI report mapping NGOs, it was highlighted that the number of NGOs was 250 times the number of government hospitals with one NGO for 400 people as against one policeman for 709 people. Abhishek Singh mentions that while the government claims the “free treatment” to the poor, the reality becomes different as even to get medicines, the patients have to queue for hours and medicines are not procured on time. “Once, a nurse was cursing a parent over their child patient in the hospital mentioning 'why parents give birth when they can not take care of the child'. Such filthy comments are very commonly heard in government hospitals where we take the patients,” Singh says keeping the hospital’s name anonymous. The only way out for the Saviour Foundation is to also work around educating youngsters and organizing camps and sessions even in these hospitals for sensitization purposes. 

Even though the situation is fairly better with autonomous bodies like the Child Welfare Committee and while the members of the committee are hired based on their involvement in education, along with health and welfare activities in relation to children for at least seven years, the committee does not ensure the education for the children, as per its current provisions. NGOs like Muskurahat Foundation come into play to take care of the education of 12 shelter homes and orphanages in Mumbai run by CWC while the body takes care of the food, clothing, and shelter.

Online crowdfunding yet not sustainable


Himanshu Goenka's NGO teaches in the shelter homes and orphanages run by CWC.

While the Maharashtra Child Welfare Society, with whom Muskurahat Foundation closely works, lender its full support to the NGO, it ultimately, comes down to the Foundation to manage the expense and for a newly established like Muskurahat, online fundraising becomes the only choice. However, it does not come easy to them. “Along with rigorously working every day, we have to map the traction for the daily fundraising programmes and it is a challenge to keep up with it while without it, it is difficult to survive,” Himanshu Goenka, the founder says. 

Along with other fundraising platforms that have come up in the last few years, social media and digital advocacy of social causes have been great sources to pool funds for young organisations like the Bhopal-based Paw People Foundation. Run by Sakshi Shrivastava and her partner, the NGO gets the funding through social media. “It is not a sustainable model because the funds are limited and the platform does not guarantee a consistency of donations,” Shrivastava says adding that remaining active on social media is, however, important to get support from people.

Internal burnouts


Sakshi Shrivastava says it is difficult to keep the volunteers motivated at times.

Irrespective of the donations, however, NGOs like PPF maintain their daily operations but, at times, it does take a toll on the mental health of the volunteers and employees. “No one talks about the mental health of the people who work at the NGOs. Seeing adversity and in our case, blood loss and death of dogs are not always easy to deal with,” Sakshi Shrivastava says. To help people working at the organisation cope with it, the founder is currently planning to conduct group therapy sessions with the therapists for a smooth flow of work.

Stereotypes, not a bygone affair

As much as it is demanding for teams to deal with the challenges that are often encountered in daily operations, it does not fall easy on the one-person team for an entire NGO, especially if they are a woman. Dr. Aarati Bhandare, who runs Amulya Boondh, an organisation working to promote sustainable living in Belgaum does not only have to deal with the cash crunch to run her NGO but also the countless criticism from society.

Bhandare, who was recently invited to the ISRO for a session was also part of the committee that was assigned to work towards making an NIT campus, zero-waste. With 7 male members on board and the only female, she presented her draft only to hear filthy comments like – “You do not teach us what is sustainability”. “Oftentimes, my ideas and projects are rejected without any consideration,” the 40-year-old says recounting a similar incident at a local market of Belgaum where the traders and the shopkeepers did not take her “seriously” as Bhandare demonstrated the benefits of using a sustainable alternative to the paper cups that were used by the majority of the shop keepers for drinking tea. 


Dr. Aarati Bhandare distributing bamboo toothbrushes and bags at a government school.

Dr. Bhandare also has to return empty hands from the government schools when she is denied permission to talk to students or conduct sessions on sustainability. “I was, once, told that people like me come 'beautifully dressed up' and it later leads to cases of trafficking,” she reminisces. She also highlights that people have a general perception of those working for NGOs. “Society expects us in the Khadi clothes with enough serious attitudes and in the absence of any of these, we are not considered a good samaritan, especially not a woman,” Dr. Bhandare who chooses to go with casual shirts and pants, says adding that "society gets intimidated on seeing confident women".

Bhandare also has to hear a lot about her intentions since she belongs to a well-built family. “People think I am rich and I don’t have anything else to do, so, I run an organistion that talks about the environment,” she laments. However, countering numerous challenges, Bhandare does not let anything come in between her projects. She has sold her jewellery and even saris to accumulate funds for her organization because for her, just like every NGO we spoke to, it is the mission that matters the most.

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