Why grantmakers and non-profits are committing to community-driven change

Communities have their own approaches to social change which philanthropy can support. Transferring ownership to communities to design, implement and sustain their own development efforts builds lasting resilience

Updated: Nov 30, 2023 04:46:08 PM UTC
ASHA volunteers giving health tips to village women, Mewat, Haryana, India. Image: Hemant Mehta/ Getty Images

Amidst the tragedy that spread with the surging Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 came an important insight for the social development sector. In Mumbai’s slums, the informal settlements where an estimated 42 percent of the city’s population resides, a distinct form of community response offered a glimpse at how social change can be transformative—and how philanthropies can support that change.

As the pandemic shut down the city, NGOs, donors and philanthropic organisations activated supply chains to bring critical food, basic services and psychosocial supports to a population who would have been left isolated otherwise. But in engaged and socially cohesive slum communities like Dharavi, residents weren’t just recipients of that largesse. Instead, they owned it—taking a strong hand in designing and shaping supports and in how they could best reach community members.

In Dharavi, we found community roles in a rapid state of change. Slum residents initially queued up for cooked food and dry-ration food aid, which the previously self-sufficient communities found demeaning. But they soon took the reins of a more stabilising response—namely, community action. Slum leaders and residents in Dharavi slid into proactive and lead roles, for example, by supporting the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation with health screenings, contact tracing and sharing Covid-19 prevention measures in communities. During subsequent waves of the pandemic, the local people ran community food kitchens, where food was locally prepared and often distributed by out-of-work auto drivers to the sick, elderly and people with health conditions or impairments. These crucial pivots in the “aid” programme put communities at the centre as owners of change, which resulted in greater equity and inclusion, and a restorative sense of dignity.

This kind of community-driven change has led both non-profit organisations and funders to deliberate on what it means to redefine power, leadership and ownership. We spoke to five organisations who have funded such community-driven approaches in India to explore their motivations. Our field visits, interviews and research over the last three years broadly uncovered two main themes: Equity and sustainability.

Bringing an equity lens

Funders like The Oak Foundation, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies (RNP), and The Nudge Foundation have been deeply engaged with communities using innovative approaches to pursue a more equitable society.

The Oak Foundation works with local organisations to design projects from the community perspective. This participatory approach emphasises inclusion and amplifies community voices, bringing visibility to people who are often unheard or marginalised in mainstream discourse. “If communities are living in high-climate-disaster-prone areas or under situations of chronic social injustice, then they must have a huge amount of inner strength and resilience,” says Paromita Chowdhury, a programme officer at Oak. “It is about how we harvest that and make it a strong point in the conversation. This has [also] helped us understand the different dynamics within communities, which are the more dominant groups by gender, religion, age or ethnic considerations.”

RNP’s approach adopts a “community-sensitive” lens. The philanthropy has a gender-equity portfolio it calls Laayak which works with men and boys as well as women to upend the power dynamics that underlie gender inequities. Says Natasha Joshi, associate director of RNP: “We are the products of the same socialisation process. Men need to understand how patriarchy and gender socialisation shape their own notions of who they are and how they behave.” The Laayak portfolio works with organisations such as CORO India, Cehat and The Gender Lab, among others, that adopt community-based programmes that create safe spaces to voice fears, address sensitive questions and explore structured activities. The goal is for men and boys to realise their privilege, rights and opportunities, and become positive role models for others to emulate.

Also Read- The importance of listening: How to enable productive communication between funders and communities

Then there’s The/Nudge Institute, which serves as the coordinating body for H&M Foundation’s Saamuhika Shakti collective. Nudge uses community gatherings called Namma Jagali to amplify community voices and needs in initiatives that enable those in the waste-picker community to have greater agency over their lives. For example, Saamuhika Shakti partners help women in the waste-picker communities find alternative roles, such as collecting flowers from temples for Phool to process into essential oils or other sources of income, such as turning into a beautician. Indeed, by focusing on gender and equity, Saamuhika Shakti brings nine implementing organisations together around stakeholder voices. “The feedback loops we create allowed us to hold ourselves accountable and provided timely alerts on when we needed to adapt our approach,” explains Akshay Soni, senior director at Nudge and Saamuhika Shakti’s executive director.

Sustaining change through the community

Transferring ownership to communities to design, implement and sustain their own development efforts, we believe, builds lasting community resilience. Adopting this belief, the Swades Foundation, founded by entrepreneurs Ronnie and Zarina Screwvala, has established community-driven local bodies, called village development committees, with 50 percent representation from women. Through these committees, community members work directly with civic bodies and officials to drive their own change efforts in select areas. The approach is working. “The impact achieved in select villages over 10 years with a top-down/donor-programmed approach is now being achieved in approximately three years with a community-driven change approach in neighbouring villages,” shares Zarina.

In much the same way, the EdelGive Foundation builds community resilience by supporting partners to form strong collectives like Ekal Mahila Sangathan (Single Women’s Organisation), supported by CORO, and producer groups supported by the Torpa Rural Development Society for Women. Says Atul Gandhi, COO at EdelGive: “We saw women take charge and drive the initiative. Many women from the Single Women’s Organisation also contested elections for local government bodies and were elected as Panchayati Raj Institution members.” By becoming an integral part of these institutions, women play a significant role in decision making towards advancement of the entire community.

Also Read- How to create enduring social impact

In its efforts to ensure sustainability, the Oak Foundation focuses on cultivating leadership capacity for ownership. To build leadership within a community, says Chowdhury, “you must build advocacy skills and help them do local-level negotiation with self-governments, to federate at some level to use the local governance structures. Ultimately, it is important that the community should own the processes and equally important for the NGO to facilitate an inclusive community process.”

How funders can commit to community-driven change

Funders who have committed to enabling community-driven change are working to address a few important questions:

> How can we ensure communities are at the forefront of decision making and driving social change? > Are underlying systems and root causes of deep-rooted community issues being addressed?
> How can we support communities to manifest their power, resilience and ownership?

Through a deliberate emphasis on community action, the funding community can form partnerships that will foster lasting community-driven change—and equitable and sustainable impact.

About the authors: Mohapatra and Venkatachalam are partners, while Noronha is a principal at The Bridgespan Group, based in Mumbai.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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