About Swarna Rajagopalan

I am a political scientist by training with a special interest in security studies.

And we’re off…

This week, Prajnya received Rs. 17,000/- in donations, all on the same day! And then we started this week with another Rs. 5000/-. Thank you to our donors! You know who you are!

I am holding my breath, touching wood, crossing fingers and toes (you do too, please!)… please, please, please let this continue. We are still not even at 10% of our goal: Rs. 300,000/-.

I want to write something about the timing of this drive. What is logical is for us to raise funds at around the time that people are looking for tax savings–the last quarter of the financial year. It also allows us to enter the year assured of the funds we need to do our work. However, that leaves us carrying over a larger balance amount than we’d like or should.

The advantages of an April-May drive now seem many. First, we know what we are carrying over and can more accurately assess need. Second, given Chennai’s heat, it’s a quiet time for us anyway and our work tends to be routine and low-cost so it’s okay if funds are only trickling in now. Third, we started this drive on a common New Year’s Day (April 14) and it will take in Akshaya Tritiyai (May 13). We are hoping people will want to celebrate these by giving–to us, as well! When I have the money, I like to do that as part of my celebration. Finally, with the drive ending before the substantive planning for the 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence begins, we should, hopefully, have the resources we would like and won’t have to spend our energies on fundraising closer to the time. Fingers crossed that this drive is successful!

We have created a slideshow version of our fundraising appeal so that we (you and I) can share that as well. These days, when everyone is so busy and processing so much information all the time, the brevity of slides and bullet-points is handy. Take a look: With your help, we can do anything!

The first stretch is the hardest?

Week 1 of our 2013 fundraising drive just got done, and with just one donation of Rs. 1001/-: mine. That’s disappointing. We need to raise 3 lakhs (300,000 rupees).

The hardest part of my work in Prajnya is keeping the faith–that this work is worthwhile, that we will find people, that we will find financial and material support. If I lose faith, then the most important function I perform–cheerleading–lacks conviction.

In some stretches, nothing seems to work as it might. This has been such a stretch. It is clear to us we have pushed the volunteer team model to its limits. Using space at home is also limiting to everyone. And yet, moving out is not an immediate option.

With so much awareness about gender violence post-December 2012, I have wondered what is left for us to do. But there is work–there is the deepening and widening work of imparting more information and more skills. There are still serious research gaps we aspire to be able to fill.

And there is our other work. The work that actually inspired the launch of Prajnya–oral history and documentation on women’s work in the public sphere and peace education. For me, the near-comatose state of our peace education projects has been very saddening. I think, if we cannot do this work, then what work do we want to do at all?

So to find that at the end of the first week, our fundraising drive has lacked both tail-wind and momentum, makes me anxious. Very anxious.

If you missed our fundraising appeal, here it is: https://prajnya.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/with-your-help-we-can-do-anything/

The next stage

At our last Trustees’ meeting, all of us were unanimous that it was now time to get a small office space of our own and to hire a full-time administrator. And we agreed that in fact, the administrator was more critical than the office.

We can always borrow space, but we are finding that we can no longer manage with a part-time office team. The first casualty is efficient programme planning. We’re already short-handed without the hands that are available being preoccupied with logistical support and administrative housekeeping. But even scarier than that, as we enter Year 6, is the fear of falling behind on book-keeping. We believe, as do lots of others, that correctness and transparency are both critical to our legitimacy as a social organization. But as we grow and our lives get complicated, without a full-time person to sort us out, keep (us and) our papers in order, enforce a book-keeping discipline on us as we fly in and out of projects… this is getting palpably more difficult.

Ironically, although everyone would hold NGOs to such standards, there are few organizations we know of that support administration and overheads. And wages in the social sector are almost exploitatively low. If we were to try and raise what our current volunteer administrator earns, we would be taken to task for profligate spending on peripheral items. We know however, how vital this work is to us as an organization.

Prajnya is ready to take the next step. Can you help us figure out how to do that? Do you know of organizations who fund administrative and infrastructural expenses? Do you know of individuals who can see the sense in contributing towards this important need? Would you share this information with us please? Or share information about us with them (you don’t have to tell us)? If you would like to be our advocate and introduce us, we would be grateful.

Thank you for your help!

On our fifth birthday, thank you!

Prajnya Initiatives turn 5 on September 9, 2012.

As the founder, I am alternately stunned by Prajnya’s journey, and winded by its exertions. People ask, what have you achieved, and I honestly have no answer except to say that the world changes if you keep moving and working. And you, have made this possible for us. It all works because we walk together. That, I know with complete certainty.

I am writing to thank you for supporting our work with your generous donation—whether it has taken the form of money, moral support, time that you have given us, shared expertise, shared network or cooperative partnership—one or more of the above.

To our donors: Your financial support speaks to us at multiple levels. It allows us to go out into the marketplace of goods and services to facilitate our work. When we stumble into self-doubt, it tells us, no, keep moving, you are on the right track. Or, don’t worry, I have faith in you. And most important, it gives us a community to which we can point and say: They believe in this cause, too. It’s not just us. You are the energy behind this change that we will bring about, creating a peaceful and just world. It’s happening because you want it to happen. We really couldn’t do anything without you, and all of us at Prajnya are profoundly grateful to you for your thoughtfulness, moral support and generosity.

To our partners: The work of making the world a better place is no one’s private turf. All of us care, all of us have committed to trying our best and we can each work best by learning from others and walking and working together from time to time. Those are values enshrined in Prajnya’s founding documents, and in the five years since our founding, all of us have repeatedly learnt that seeking to work with others is both an intrinsic and an instrumental good. It is working with other organizations like yours that has made our efforts possible, plausible and effective. We value our partnership with you, more than you know. And we thank you humbly for everything we have learnt from you in these years of our working together.

To resource persons, teachers and friends: At Prajnya, we did not start with the illusion that we possessed the competence to do everything ourselves. And all our experiences have only reinforced this clarity. If experienced and expert persons like you were not willing to share knowledge, skills, time and networks with us, what would we have been able to do? I will tell you: virtually nothing. I hope we do this every time we work together, but I certainly want to take a moment today to tell you how vital your support is to making our work possible. And I want to thank you for everything all of us at Prajnya have learnt from you. By participating in our projects and programmes, you have been friend, resource and teacher. We count on your continued presence in our community.

A heartfelt namaste; a very humble thank you, and a promise to do our best, are what we give you in return.

Swarna Rajagopalan, on behalf of the entire Prajnya team

Birthday party!

Prajnya turns 5 on September 9, 2012. We brought forward our celebration to September 1, to coincide with our Board of Trustees meeting. Here’s one group photo to share, in which we are draped in dupattas especially dyed in Prajnya colours for the occasion as a gift by a Friend of Prajnya, Kavitha Reddy.

To those who couldn’t make it, we did miss you! We hope you will be around for Prajnya 10!

Volunteering at Prajnya


This is the time of year when people email me and say that they/their students would like to intern or volunteer with Prajnya. In principle, we welcome everybody. In practice, we’ve learnt there are some caveats and some concerns.

For an internship or volunteer experience to work, both sides need to benefit and both sides need to feel good about the contribution of the intern/volunteer.

So we have learned what the caveats are that we need to issue, beyond the mandatory, there is no money for this work.

1. We are not a service organization. So if someone is seeking a feel-good task like visiting the elderly, bathing strays in a shelter or distributing food packets, then we may be able to suggest another organization that can use your help. But we just don’t do that work.

2. We don’t have an office. So it’s not possible to come and help in the office every Thursday morning.

3. We actually don’t have assignable tasks. We are so small we only have responsibilities we are happy to share with or delegate with volunteers. In fact, ALL Prajnya core team members are volunteers. We give our time, while earning a living. So the work happens all the time, and yet not all the time.

For most people seeking to give time to an organization, this doesn’t work. And we understand that. Life is so demanding these days, we really appreciate the time people give us or your intention to volunteer somewhere.

What does work for us is when people slowly start coming to our programmes like the monthly roundtables or to engage with us on social media, and then start getting more and more involved over a period of time. Every single person who is now a pillar has started gingerly and then taken ownership of the Prajnya vision. And we welcome that.

What sort of person can best do that?

1. Someone with flexible time and mobility.

2. Someone who communicates promptly.

3. Someone for whom our cause strikes a chord.

4. Someone willing to start over and learn something new.

I always think Prajnya is a good fit for people in their forties, seeking to re-enter the workplace, but not necessarily in need of paid work. You have education, skills, mobility and life-experience. You may enjoy working with us.

What skills do we need? All skills. We often tell people who visit: Prajnya is like an Indian wedding. People come and go. Pick up the work in front of you so it gets done–folding clothes, putting away newspapers, whatever. Give yourself and us the time to discover what is your niche, the responsibility you can undertake most comfortably. And be prepared to be called out for everything–particularly at programmes, it’s all hands on deck.

If you are around, there are things we can imagine doing because you’re there to help do them. If no one is around, we hesitate to create work. At that moment, when a volunteer organization approaches us, we have only the haziest ideas. So show up, get involved and we will know what we can hand over to you.

We do need more people right now. We need people to come in now and grow familiar with our work. Our work has grown in the last two years but our team has not. Moreover, because it’s a team of young people, we have to endure through waves of coming and going–new jobs, new studies, new marriage, new baby.

Still want to help but don’t have a long time. Don’t hesitate to email us: prajnyatrust@gmail.com. Tell us about yourself. Think in terms of skills you bring on board (can you improve our design skills?). Think of your hobbies (do you like to read? can you do reviews for us?).

This work belongs to all of us. Feel free to check in with us to see what’s there to be done.

A depressing fundraising week

This week, we received ZERO new donations. Yes, there are promises pending and at least one cheque in the mail, but especially in fundraising, a bird in the hand is worth many in the bush.

As Managing Trustee, I share credit for Prajnya’s successes but all our shortcomings are a function of my own failures. So on a morning like this, I am left asking: what more could I have done?

One route we have thought about often but never really pursued, largely because we end up being so overstretched and short of time, is to approach individuals in the corporate sector and ask for large donations. While we are a little leery of a “XYZ Pvt Ltd” sponsors Prajnya situation, we realise that our rock-solid support base of individuals cannot meet our needs. Most individual donations are in the range of 500-5000 Rs, and this goes a very long way because we are so frugal. However, having raised only 1 lakh where we need 8, we have to acknowledge that a few donations of 50K, for instance, could really help us without breaking a corporate’s back.

People who get to know us, are ready to help out. But how to get them to get to know us? This chicken-egg roundabout has me dizzy!

What we’ve learnt is that most MBA gyaan does not work for us. And fundraising tips are most suited to charity or service NGOs, not people like us. It’s been a steep learning curve but we’re learning now that it’s our story, in our voice, told our way, that gets us the most sympathetic listening and solid support. But how to get someone to give us that kind of time?

All thoughts buzzing around in my head. 😦

In the beginning

Prajnya is the product of many dreams and dissatisfactions. These have taken many forms all my life, and finally taken shape as Prajnya. The first time I sat down and wrote up a document about Prajnya was in February 2003. This is what the cover said, and this is how I spelt Prajnya then.

As the organization and the work have become more and more real, many things have changed, but we have retained the why this, why now, why thus from the very first document, changing only our spelling both to read more easily and also to facilitate domain registration.

You can read these early notes here.

I have been so anxious not to have Prajnya identified with me, and to develop a co-dependend relationship with the organization that I do not usually identify myself as a founder (though others sometimes do). But here it is, with this photo from the first doc I wrote, saved as ‘theme for a dream.doc’, my mea culpa. I am happy to state this is no longer just my dream. It belongs to everyone who has worked at Prajnya and everyone who supports us and now, you.