The term NGO by itself stands for “Non-Governmental Organisation”. Generally speaking, this refers to non-profit organisation engaged in charitable activities or similar forms of social welfare. In India, these organisations enjoy a tax-exempt status if they are eligible under Sections 10 and 11 of the Income Tax Act, 1961. We see a lot of media coverage of these NGO’s – from press releases in the major newspapers to radio appearances and so on.
But an interesting thing to note is that their most common appearances are, in fact, in the pages of Corporate Annual Reports, in the pixels of Corporate publicity videos and even in the grandiosely titled Corporate Social Responsibility Reports published on glossy paper by companies.
Surprised? Probably not very much, because it is something you have always suspected.
The fact is that NGO’s and Indian corporates have long had an entrenched relationship. Ever since it was realised that ‘contributing to charity’ was good for the image of a company, the image of laughing slum children has become so integral to the company’s public image that it seems they can no longer print an Annual Report without it. Add in a video or two shot for the express purpose of inclusion in a TV commercial and you complete the picture.
In 2014, the Government introduced a law making it mandatory for a company to spend 2% of its profit on Corporate Social Responsibility, or in other words, on charitable purposes, further entrenching this trend.
If the benefits to corporates are so obvious, what is the situation for the NGO’s? The answer is simple – funding. In a country where conspicuous poverty is the norm, the citizenry of our great country still prefers to pour money down the throats of religious organisations; making pilgrimage centres wealthier than all but our richest companies. With actual person-to-person donations very limited, NGO’s are strapped for funds, no matter how noble their intentions. Even the best of them are now heavily dependant on corporates for funding. As if that was not bad enough, there are the NGO’s that are formed by corporates themselves to avail of tax and other benefits. Between them, the focus shifts from actually serving the objectives of the charity to serving the ambitions of the company’s CEO and other top management.
What impact does this end up having? Simply put, it puts ‘visibility’ above ‘need’ in the hierarchy for the NGO’s. Organising a football tournament for urban slum children might not sound particularly important compared to improving the municipal school infrastructure, but the football tournament allows for the CEO of the company and the Chairman of the Trust to pose for a joint photo that can then be plastered across financial and general newspapers the next day. To put it in a more general way, the needs for the Corporate to project a certain image become more important than the actual objective of the NGO.
Even worse is the tendency for NGO’s to allow Corporates to indulge in targeted bottom-of-the-pyramid marketing in lieu of actual charity. The products of the said Corporate are pushed to a population that perhaps has no specific use for them, in the hope that it will create customers where none existed as well as provide free marketing.
For all that, it must be admitted that such efforts are better than nothing in a country with such crippling social and economic problems as India has. Perhaps the corporate interference in NGO’s should be viewed as a necessary evil rather than as being destructive to the wider cause of benefiting India’s poor.