It had been one week since I joined TYCIA Foundation as an AIF Clinton Fellow, and already, I was at a CSR conference representing the organization. Freshly printed business cards in hand, could I be more ready for the India CSR Summit 2019 conference? Arriving at a nice hotel on the outskirts of Delhi, I repeated my elevator speech to myself. Prison Project. Check. Girls’ Education Campaign. Check. We all do this in the backseat of Ubers, right? I had been told that attendees of the India Summit were both NGO professionals and representatives from corporations involved with their companies’ Corporate Social Responsibility teams (fondly referred to as CSR). Otherwise, I stepped onto a bustling conference floor unsure of what to expect. Equipped with photographs of CSR representatives, my first mission was to find them, introduce myself, and thank them for their support on our past projects. Quickly, I glanced at the three photographs and descriptions one last time, repeated their names, and put my phone away. Almost immediately I spotted the man in my first photograph. A bank representative. It was as if the energy in the room shifted, and before I knew it, the bank representative was surrounded by conference attendees. Elevator pitches rang from the group incoherently. Business cards were being thrown and passed over shoulders, aiming to get into the hand of the bank man. With a trail of followers and business cards spread on the floor, the man disappeared into a private, speakers-only lounge.
Welcome to the world of development finance.
The 2013 Companies Act, or CSR clause, made India the first, and only, country in the world with a social responsibility mandate for large, high earning companies (Sundar 2018). The goal of CSR is to help fund projects that positively impact communities in India. In the short time that CSR has existed, conferences like the CSR Summit have popped up, hoping to connect worthwhile projects and NGOs with corporate partners looking to spend their mandated CSR budgets. Some corporates have designated entire teams to manage CSR spending, and others have even started their own philanthropic foundations to spend CSR budgets on projects they’ve designed and created. The world of CSR is vast and multifarious. The system isn’t perfect though; articles upon articles have been written on the uneven geographies and unequal thematic programming supported by CSR (India Development Review 2019). Conversations continue about how CSR spending can improve, how NGOs can be better heard, and how to attract support for less sexy programming. Yet, despite the critiques, CSR spending funds programming for the most disadvantaged communities throughout India.
In the post-2013, CSR world that development professionals and corporates now operate in, conferences are a place to network and find potential partnerships. For me, newly discovering the unspoken rules in development finance – I observe. Conference lanyards lack any reference labeling you as an NGO or corporate representative. Booths throughout the conference floor are primarily representing NGOs and social enterprises hoping for a potential funder to walk up and be inspired. As the only representative from my organization, and without a booth, I wandered the conference floor. The perception, from my two days in conference land, was that anyone in the room could be managing a large CSR fund. In which case, everyone behaves as though the next conversation could fund your organization for the next 5 years. The reality, I think, is that the vast majority of attendees are from NGOs, and there is a lot less networking between corporates and NGOs than advertised. An entire industry has even emerged to help navigate the space between corporates and NGOs, monitoring the work of NGOs to ensure funding is properly spent – which could be an entirely separate article.
It is here that my work with TYCIA Foundation is centered. How exactly do you communicate with donors? How can we describe our programming, both successes and challenges, in a way that different donors can understand and are willing to contribute towards? How do you captivate audiences when poverty feels so alien, so foreign? Or worse, what happens when we are numbed by poverty?
Conferences like these seem to be a trailer of greatest hits, rather than a reality. Of course, CSR is still young; policy and implementation are adapting. Greater compliance with required CSR spending is improving (Sundar 2018), and slowly, so can the impacts of collaboration. We’re all learning.
I don’t have answers to these questions yet, I wish I did. Perhaps, soon I will.
India Development Review. “CSR Giving Is Heavily Skewed.” India Development Review, Https://Idronline.org India Development Review, 9 Apr. 2019, https://idronline.org/csr-giving-in-india-is-heavily-skewed/.
Sundar, Pushpa. “Five Years after CSR Became Mandatory, What Has It Really Achieved?” India Development Review, Https://Idronline.org India Development Review, 31 Aug. 2018, https://idronline.org/what-has-csr-really-achieved/.