Us, and some fundamental questions

A Founder’s Reflections

Swarna Rajagopalan

This post has been many months in the writing and yet it is written without a road-map.

September 9, 2017 marks the tenth anniversary of Prajnya’s launch and we’re busy making plans for the celebration weekend as well as this year.  Last November, I took the call that we would no longer debate imminent closure; we seemed to be here to stay, at least for a while.

But in recent months, I have been thinking of something very fundamental: Who are we? And as the only one in the organisation who remembers most things from the very beginning until this moment–actually a fourteen year span–I thought it was worth recording all the possible answers to this question as of this moment, while I remember them. As a historian-of-sorts, I am always thinking of the possibility that someday we will have been significant enough that someone will wonder about our history. That a women’s history project will feature us.

In the first few years of imagining Prajnya, I never used the term ‘NGO.’ In my mind, Prajnya was going to be many different things and this may have described one attribute. I had never really been part of the social sector as it had evolved in the last two decades so I wasn’t thinking about a definition vis-a-vis anyone else, but just my imagination for this ‘space’ I wanted to create.

And ‘space’ was the word I used most, as a place-holder, you might say.  In the first draft of our first vision document, I wrote these words that still appear on our website:

Why yet another…?

  • Non-governmental organization? Because civil society’s engagement with peace, justice and security issues cannot be limited to a few fora.
  • Public policy research organization? Because a plurality of perspectives is the foundation of learning.
  • Publications and multi-media source? Because teaching, advocacy and communication bring learning to fruit.
  • Networking hub? Because communication, networking and community-building is an essential part of the Prajnya vision.

I was thinking on paper. What I was imagining was something bigger, more inchoate–a space, someday physical, making it possible to think across disciplines, holistically, without borders; a canvas for many media–both of exploration and of expression; an agenda that animates the interstices between existing fields; and a promise not to race to the limelight. We would be there, we would breathe, we would build, we would nurture, we would evolve. We would be all these things and then, something more, created by the imagination of everyone who joined our journey.

Needless to say, once I started the process of founding Prajnya, I needed to find more limiting words, and words that would instantly be understood by others outside my head. Lawyer friends helped me identify the structure that would give me the greatest autonomy to stick to my original vision–a Trust. So we established that.

And then, as we began to function, we needed words to describe ourselves to people. I sometimes used ‘space’ and watched people space out! Volunteers used ‘amaippu’ (organisation) to describe us in Tamil but we did not have even one full-time person until 2015! Sometimes, I heard them say ‘mayyam’ (centre) but we had no premises of our own. “Fair enough,” I would think, “but not exactly right.” Over the years, I learnt to tune out that critique. In English too, volunteers and I would use words like ‘organisation,’ ‘non-profit,’ ‘non-profit centre’ and even ‘NGO.’ Given that our vision was not conventional (“we shall deliver services,” “we are a social movement,” “we do advocacy”), it was handy to use the word that was most likely to make sense to people.

In the beginning, I would attempt to describe our vision as it was in my head. People would listen closely, glazing over, and then say, “You should pick one thing and do it with focus.” Good advice, but not what I had imagined. Over the years, I realised that it was hard for even our volunteers to comprehend, remember and articulate the entirety of what I had imagined and founded. Introducing Prajnya or speaking about it, each one would simply recall, with pride and passion, the little piece of it with which they had been involved. I rarely stepped in to correct them, basking in their feeling of ownership instead. I realised understanding Prajnya would be for most people like the blind men and the elephant. I would just have to factor in that reality.

A few months ago, I realised there was another dimension to this fundamental confusion. Most people now encounter us as an ‘NGO’ though we rarely use the word ourselves (as we still avoid nouns!). This includes donors, partners, resource persons, volunteers and most important, job applicants. Today’s NGO world is so corporate–offices, a full complement of staff, grants, reporting. This is a good thing insofar as it has brought transparency and accountability to this sector. Salaries range from government to corporate levels and for middle class/upper class kids, working in the social sector is no longer an option that has to entail sacrifice and delayed gratification. Jholas are now almost extinct!

My revelation was this: I had founded and continued to run Prajnya in the mould of two quite different organisations than today’s corporate NGOs. First, when I imagine our work, our place in society, our approach and values, I imagine them in the mould of the women’s organisations and civil rights groups of post-Emergency India, which were early formative experiences. Poorly and personally resourced, all hands to deck, cause before personal growth, these were collectives unfettered by protocol and and social obligations and quite autonomous in their political positions. And they were and are political. Sometimes, by contrast, politics in today’s NGOs is like a designer accessory. The organisations I saw as a teen–the Forum against Oppression of Women, PUCL in Bombay–came from a different place and brought together people from many different causes and backgrounds.

Second, I wanted Prajnya to emulate the standards of intellectual excellence I had seen in places like the Centre for Policy Research and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. I wanted it to host the eclectic and creative scholarship of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai whose revival I briefly got to witness. The catch is, that excellence requires resources. Again CPR’s model (then, at least) of self-financing through contract work was a possibility but I have never been able to bring that to Prajnya.

I saw these two moulds–and continue to see them–as complementing each other and I wanted to bring them together in this ‘space’ I fashioned. I haven’t quite managed it.

In our early years, we budgeted and planned like an NGO but raised money and grew with volunteer work just like those women’s organisations I had grown up with. I simply did not–arguably, do not–know how else to do this. In the last five years, the expectation has arisen that we would be like a contemporary NGO–have grants, corporate donations, good salaries, nice location–and when we look around and see that we don’t, there is a sense of failure. I sense it in the volunteers and then I internalise it.

But in recent months, I have thought more and more: Is that who we are? It seems as if the road to our vision must pass through the toll-gates of such corporate NGO-isation. People tell me how to monetise our work and people shake their heads and say, “You must learn to say this in a way that people don’t feel guilty and will give you money.” I took a lot of this marketing advice in our early years and like the Panchatantra tale of the father, son and donkey, there were no happy endings. I was miserable and contorted, and we still had no large endowment or campus. And if I were now to confess that the thought of that makes my spirit grind to a halt, I am sure I would be considered stupid, impractical, wasting people’s time when I am unwilling to help us out by changing.

The truth is, like most founders in the social sector, I am here because I have identified work that desperately needs to be done. Actually, I am going to stop saying ‘social sector’ and say ‘public sphere’–that may free me up a bit. I did not come in with a business plan or a fundraising strategy because although it is fashionable to use the term ‘social entrepreneur’, I am not an entrepreneur. I am here to do what I can, with others who feel the same way. Ideas and words are my strength and those who are drawn to Prajnya tend to be similar.

Being small, growing at a glacial rate, is frustrating because our hearts and minds spin out ways to work faster than we can move.  But when faced with the pressure to become someone else in order to do this work, I think now of the time and effort that would involve, and would rather invest that in doing whatever is possible.

Is this the only way to grow? Is speaking a corporate language the only way to raise resources? Are external indicators of how much we have, where we sit, how many we employ, how many we reach, the only indicators of our ‘success’? Or should we celebrate our persistence? Does our success lie in those who have supported us for years and those who support us in every way they can and every chance they get? After ten years, we look around and see friends and believers everywhere, and it is a harvest of warmth and friendship that Prajnya reaps–is that our success, that we have created through our sincere effort, networks for change wherever we have gone? Is there a word to describe us? Is this not a path we can stay with?

It seems to me, as the founder of Prajnya, that our biggest celebration would be to make our own way work for us, to stay true to our temperament and imagination and to show the world that this is also a way to be–away from the jargon, the expectations, the marketing and the hype.


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