Workshop featuring a group of people sitting at tables; a woman is speaking into a microphone and the facilitator is smiling at her.

The change we seek: Reflections on a recent trip to India.

This article first appeared on Philanthropy Impact's website in April 2023.

By Sonal Sachdev Patel - CEO of GMSP Foundation

Change. Impact. Transformation. Progress. No matter what you call it, we philanthropists are obsessed with it.

Some use harder metrics than others, but ‘change’, it seems, is the way we as a group have decided whether or not our support is making a difference. Rather than focusing on deep and lasting change that is difficult to measure, NGOs are often demonstrating more superficial change to satisfy their donors. See my blog 'All we can't measure' for my thoughts on that!

But an insistence on change comes at a cost. At a time of contraction and precarity, our partners are asking us - the funders - to change first.

I’ve just returned from a weeklong trip to India, where I had the pleasure of attending the Dasra Philanthropy Conference. It’s also where I had the privilege to visit many of our grassroots partners working in Mumbai.

It was here that I felt the tension in the pursuit of ‘change’ most acutely. I engaged directly with a group of expert (and exhausted) campaigners and practitioners and this is what I was reminded:

  • Partners deserve our time. This means patience; change is always hard and not always linear. This also means presence; to invest real time in calls, visits or active engagement to demonstrate our commitment and care.
  • Partners deserve our understanding. How can an application form translate the full power and potential of an NGO? Why must they spend hours on reworking language for US vs European audiences? Why must they spend thousands on professional photos? We must do more to break out of the rigid, western communication frameworks we impose on our partners.
  • Partners deserve our trust. I felt ashamed that the NGOs are still calling for unrestricted funding. The evidence is clear; there is simply no strong argument to continue to deny our partners this most fundamental expression of trust.
  • Partners deserve infrastructure support. This is connected to trust, but it extends to the ‘resilience’ we expect of our partners, yet do too little to enable. They need support as they lead and manage underfunded and understaffed organisations.
  • Partners deserve connection. They need opportunities to learn from their peers and inspire each other.
  • Partners deserve rest. Our work requires a human-centred approach, and it must be humane to the people delivering that work.

These are the necessary conditions of change.

What must funders change in our own practice - our biases, our approach, our priorities - in order to enable the change we seek?

One of the most-quoted aphorisms is “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” When you’re a philanthropist - with all the outsize power and privilege this position holds - this statement is even more resonant and urgent. A humble but incisive instruction to hold ourselves to the same standard as we hold our partners. To demand change within before change anywhere else.

I thank GMSP Foundation’s partners for reminding me of this, and for demonstrating that making the world a better place requires change from all of us.