Souvenir 2006

‘For several months before we started Saheli we discussed how we could raise funds for our work. Each time we calculated our expenses for running a shelter, we found that we did not have the required finances. Though we were aware that money was available from government and foreign agencies for women’s projects, we as a group felt that unless we had the practical experience we would not be able to utilise resources effectively’.

First Four Years, 1985

‘Where is the money going to come from?

... a frank admission of a group of highly enthused women who had worked together under different banners from 1976 to protest against atrocities on women. As Stree Sangharsh, we had protested against rape, dowry deaths and many other issues. We were confident of tackling these issues, were gaining hands-on experience as we worked day in and day out, but still were truthful enough to admit that we had no practical experience of running a ‘project’! Our first ever formal attempt to talk about ourselves was via a booklet titled ‘First Four Years’ published in 1985 and this is how the beginnings of Saheli’s notions and policies with regard to funding were described – how to get money, from whom, how to use it, when and who to say ‘no’ to!

Initially all the work in Saheli was done on a voluntary basis. Our first office started in a garage, which was part of Gouri’s house. Donations ranging from Rs. 2 to Rs. 100 were our main source of funding for the first two years. We have also been supported in kind by a large circle of supporters. From donations of furniture, typewriters, recycled paper, stationery, toilet seats and pelmets, bed spreads and cushions to liven up the office, Saheli has always received many offers of help. Printers have done printing jobs for Saheli free, or heavily subsidised them. Artists have donated their work to Saheli, musicians have performed free, gynaecologists have treated women we refer free of cost or subsidised… the list is endless, the support manifold. Over the years, offers for funds have come to us from many different quarters. A theatre group offering to do a play and donate the proceeds to us, a church organisation wanting to allocate funds from a fete, etc. But although many such offers have not materialised, the spirit in which they have been made has always been treasured.

A vibrant group expands its working capacity very rapidly, and Saheli was no exception. In a couple of years, as the scope of work expanded there was an increase in demand for the time provided by volunteers, more space for an office, a shelter to house women, space to take up legal matters, undertake educational and other activities. The need for money became acute.

As was the practice of the Collective then (another Saheli tradition we still adhere to) long discussions took place to arrive at an agreement about what kind of funding was acceptable. Not that there wasn’t money available for groups like Saheli. If anything, it was a time when ‘women’s issues’ were beginning to be in vogue – donor agencies were falling over each other to fund activities on women’s rights, but questions abounded: Can we take foreign funds? Should we consider government funding? What does it mean to be funded by institutions? How would it affect our autonomy?

Yet in the early days of this discussion, we did not make a rigid decision to ‘never’ take institutional funds. We decided that if our internal planning led us to require funds for some one-time activities we would get them and we did – e.g. holding a workshop on creative expression such as Kriti, and a study on the informal sector funded by the government. We also decided that we would prefer to take funds from our own government for on-going activities such as running the shelter. We also approached donors to fund travel to international conferences like the Women’s Conference in Nairobi in 1985 and the International Women’s Health Conference in Costa Rica in 1986. We also had a clearance under the Foreign Currency Regulation Act (FCRA). We continue to have the clearance, although we repeatedly put this under the scanner – do we really need it, especially when we have not accepted institutional funding from abroad since 1986, and is it really necessary to accept even individual donations from abroad. The debate is on-going.

Finally, we decided that on an on-going basis, rather than rely on institutions, we should build a support base that would help us maintain our autonomy and yet keep us accountable to people who believe in our work and vision. The idea was to try and widen the support base of individuals as much as possible, and this has continued to be one of our primary concerns over the years. We feel that this also works as a self-regulatory mechanism instilling a sense of accountability towards society at large and supporters, donors, sympathisers, and friends in particular. Of late, to make things simpler, instead of monthly instalments, in our most recent fund-raising drive, we asked for annual commitments, and people have responded with equal enthusiasm. Besides the financial help, our supporters and donors also provide tremendous strength in taking the struggle forward and play an active role in various small and big ways.

Other regular (even if small) donations come from a range of sources. From the very beginning we have been interacting with college students. In recent years with Women’s Development Cells becoming a part of Delhi University’s routine activity, our participation in their programmes – either as guest speakers, to conduct workshops, and in more recent years, self-defence workshops – have brought honorariums and travel allowances into the Saheli kitty! But more steadily, the reports we bring out – monographs on hazardous contraceptive technologies, booklets on sexual harassment at the workplace, etc., as well as our newsletters also recover some of their costs. As do the posters we do for outreach on various issues, be they the coercive population control policies, anti-war or the communal carnage in Gujarat. Donations towards calendars have also been a good way of fund raising, as well as spreading awareness about our work.

Fund raising: Early experiences and hurdles

After the first few months when founder members and volunteers contributed almost all the money for Saheli’s functioning, fund raising became a part of Saheli’s routine work.

In the first four years, Saheli managed to raise Rs. 1,50,000 through individual donations. In addition, our records show that Rs. 30,000 was accepted from the Legal Aid Committee of the government for case work, and Rs. 28,000 from the Ministry of Social Welfare to set up a short stay home. Rs. 13,500 was received for publications. To give an idea of other fund raising efforts: our calendar in 2003 raised money to the tune of Rs. 70,000. Three other major fund-raising events organised in 1988, 1995 and 2004 raised approximately Rs. 90,000, Rs. 1,50,000 and just over Rs. 4,00,000 respectively.

But along the way, we also made some decisions which we were not comfortable with in retrospect, but these experiences helped shape our future funding policies and decisions. We had initially thought that accepting money from the government for specific tasks would be worthwhile. However, the experience of working on the short-stay home project with government was riddled with problems. We had difficulty in getting the promised money released in time for the smooth running of the shelter home, while the Ministry of Human Resources’ Development (HRD) was upset with Saheli for not disclosing the address of the shelter in response to a question raised in Parliament. Saheli did not want to make the address of the shelter public due to apprehension over the women’s family landing up and harassing them! So while some of the work and projects moved on well, some others did not see the light of the day due to various reasons – lack of funds, inordinate delays in receiving them, and/or sustained drive and/or womanpower.

A write-up in Saheli Newsletter in September 1986 says, ‘After the 1984 riots in Delhi, we had got involved deeply in the relief work. At that time the Central Government approached us to start a training centre for these victims. We took up the offer and did in fact get a shed, but even until May 1985 the approved funds did not reach us. Delhi Administration, which had given the shed to us started asking us to vacate because we were not starting work there... The women were restive and were ready to migrate away from an unfriendly environment. At this juncture rather than to agitate before the government we probably took a less-than-correct approach of receiving the funds from SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. Yet there were lessons to be learnt from this venture of becoming answerable to 60 women for their livelihood through a project with funding of limited duration. Our discomfort with government funding as well as foreign institutional funding only grew with such experiences.

Another offer to work with the government came from the Ministry of HRD to print and distribute posters on the subject of women’s oppression. While the idea of distributing ‘posters with a message’ had its appeal, printing Saheli’s name alongside with that of the Ministry of HRD was unthinkable.

Volunteer power,full-timers and part-timers

While Saheli’s work demanded the induction of paid full-timers and part-timers, they were always in small numbers. In contrast, volunteers were in larger numbers, but with the limitation of the time they would make themselves available for Saheli work. In principle, it was always accepted that paid full-timers and part-timers would neither have special privileges nor would they be expected to do all the dirty work. For at least the first 10 years of Saheli’s life we had functioned with the help of one or more paid workers and other non-paid workers or volunteers. The history of interaction between volunteers and full- or part-timers is chequered with frustration, and the struggle against differing notions of accountability.

In the early part of 1991, Saheli had extensive discussions about the course of its work and a decision, though painful for many, was reached to stop case work. This necessitated a re-think about the need to continue having full-timers in Saheli.

Again in the mid-90s Saheli had paid part-timers for specific short-term work. However, the combination of paid workers and volunteers working side by side did create situations of stress even when responsibilities were defined fairly clearly. In general, it has been our experience that having two types of workers in the same organisation throws up several challenges. Each tends to view the other’s work inputs and outputs differently, with expectations of accountability weighed more heavily on those who do take money. In contrast, volunteers can take on a ‘holier than thou’ attitude when they fulfil their own commitments to the organisation!

Institutional foreign funding: Issues at stake

Despite continuing the practice of collective decision making, having discussions on the issue of where funds are coming from and how and where they are getting used, unhappiness was brewing in Saheli in 1985-86. Many notations in the Daily Diaries reflect this very clearly. It was against this background that the ‘split’ happened. Many founder members and other volunteers who worked in Saheli until then ceased to be members of Saheli, with some of them vowing never to climb the steps to Saheli office again. The whole process was traumatic and demoralising for everyone, and the scars of which are raw even twenty years on. A Saheli newsletter published in September 1986 had this to say, ‘A lot of confusion in Saheli arose when it became common knowledge that some of our members had started receiving what can be called activist-funding. In other words, people were receiving funds not for working on specific projects but for being activists. We felt that it was violative of our basic approach that the basic work of Saheli will remain independent of organised funds. Further, we believed that a particular individual could not exist with two different approaches to the question of funds. One could not, for example, make a policy of taking activist funding in one organisation but profess to be different in Saheli.’

The debate about institutional funding did not end with the ‘split’ of 1986. It came up later in 1989 when two members wanted to carry out an in-depth study of women’s reproductive choices in the context of sex selective abortion, then again around 1994, when one member wanted to focus more specifically on making safe barrier methods like the diaphragm available to women. In another instance, a member wanted to work on a project on communalism funded by an international donor. Such projects would have meant accepting donor funds, or raising large amounts of funds to support this kind of work. The concerns were: we are setting up a precedent, would it lead to a tussle of priorities if two members worked exclusively on one aspect and not on overall Saheli work? The arguments in favour were: the work goes out of the organisation if it is not accommodated within. The individual also often goes elsewhere, taking with her years of experience. These discussions also had implications for Saheli members whose specific interests were not finding expression within the group. The question we had to grapple with then and even now, is: How does everybody get a chance to develop her interests? The outcome was a decision against taking funds, in all these cases. A decision that can be interpreted as having many fallouts, as it is true that the specific health-campaign-related work was taken out of Saheli.

With our experience over the past two and a half decades we believe that the proximity of funders to policy makers is proving detrimental to the women’s movement. The ‘autonomy’ of the movement is decreasing and the direction of the movement is being shaped by the agenda of the donor agencies. Recently, in 2005, the International Women’s Health Meeting (IWHM) was held in Delhi, in which we made a presentation to illustrate this point. We argued that donor agencies have been steadily working their way towards manufacturing of consent. For more than 50 years they have worked to change the discourse, co-opted the language of the movement and have tried to give it a different direction which many even fail to notice! (Saheli Newsletter Sep-Dec 2005). This was not the first time that Saheli had criticised the role of donor agencies in setting the work priorities for the movement. Our aim was to try and evolve strategies by which we would be able to set our own priorities independent of donor agencies, we would think of ourselves as feminist activists who are part of the women’s movement and analyse the need of the hour. While many were highly appreciative of this point of view and were reminded of the energy with which many issues were addressed by the movement, the presentation attracted strong criticism too. However, being an autonomous women’s group which banks primarily on donations from individuals, we felt it was important to raise these issues.

Experiences of fund raising efforts by Saheli

Annual meeting 1987: “Finances: Last year Rs.20,000 in the red. This year a bit better”.

1997: “Went to the bank today and withdrew Rs. 13,000/- for the calendar (Hopefully, we’ll spend less than that!!). The balance in our account after today’s withdrawal is Rs. 14,638.49”. Vani

1999: “Do we raise 40K every 2 years by preparing calendars?” Sadhna

2004: “Bank main abhi approximately Rs 30,000 hai. Ab hum ko fund ke baare main bhi think karna hai... please Saheli’s sochna start kar do...” Satnam

This is how the alarm bells start ringing for fund raising every few years in Saheli office! So far our major efforts include a concert by Gangubai Hangal in 1988, screening an award winning film ‘Unishe April’ by Rituparna Ghosh in 1995, bringing out calendars for 2003 and the latest in the series was a major fund raising drive, reaching out to a large network of supporters in 2004. As a closure to this process, Mumbai-based Neela Bhagwat generously agreed to perform at a concert we organised to mark the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Anyone not directly involved in Saheli’s fund-raising efforts might think that once we discover that we are really low on finances, the discussion would primarily focus on what kind of programme we could have, how to organise it, what is the way to collect funds from the supporters and how much money we should plan or need to raise. But no, that is not the way it happens. The issues are so complex that we cannot thrashed them out once and for all, so we start - and that’s not just because of the presence of some new members! The notion of Collective functioning and decision making is still operative at its best (do we hear you saying “at its worst?!!”) in Saheli.

Here it must be noted that the fund-raising efforts at Saheli are not always meant for raising funds for ourselves. As a non-funded organisation, we do not have such a surplus of funds that we can contribute to every fund-raising effort from Saheli’s coffers. So, half the time we begin with ourselves as individuals, on some occasions we turn to our usual supporters and ask them to chip in the fund-raising for a cause. One example is channelling money to help victims of Gujarat carnage under the banner of the Aman Ekta Manch, a loose coalition of various groups, of which Saheli is a part. On two separate occasions where fund raising was essential for conducting the National Conference of autonomous women’s groups, we produced calendars, sold them and the proceeds were our contribution towards the expenses of the Kanpur Conference in 1993 and Ranchi Conference in 1997.

On the occasions of Gangubai Hangal’s concert, screening of ‘Unishe April’ and Neela Bhagwat’s concert we brought out a souvenir. The strategies we adopted for fund raising were similar for the first two events, but somewhat different for the third one. On both the earlier occasions, we brought out a souvenir giving information about our work, ideas, and campaigns. The publishing of a souvenir was seen as a one-time organised effort to stabilise our financial situation. For both the souvenirs, we collected advertisements amidst serious concerns. Friends helped in getting advertisements, with paper and printing, and meeting the cost of the cultural show. However, the amount of energy spent and the whole exercise of seeking advertisements raised several doubts. While some corporations were easier to rule out, questions remained as to whether it is kosher to accept money from other private or public sector organisations, government departments, UN agencies, etc., when we don’t see eye-to-eye with their opinions on many issues? Is this not ‘corporate sponsorship’ for our work? Is this money going to our routine Saheli work or will be spent specifically on some defined project? Can we and should we maintain separate accounts of expenditure for money thus collected? For routine Saheli work do we use only that money which will come from individual donations? Is it practical to segregate such work? Can some work be considered Saheli’s core work and some other not?

The questions were endless and their residual discomfort travelled with when prior to the most recent fund-raising event in 2004, we went through many more such debates. One major change we adopted, as mentioned above, was not to seek sponsors or advertisers for the programme or the souvenir. We spread our network far and wide and once again asked for donations only from individuals - either as a one-time contribution or on an yearly basis. Donations from groups, organisations, companies were avoided. There was an overwhelming response from old and new friends as well as from unknown/unexpected quarters. An author in Australia known to one of our members, donated the royalties from her book. Our faith in ourselves was reaffirmed by this support and generosity. And we concluded this effort with a magical evening of Neela Bhagwat in concert, and marked the occasion with a small souvenir which had no advertisements.

Individual vs. institutional, Indian vs. foreign money

On this occasion of completing 25 years, as we look back and try to look forward, improving on the dialogue with fellow travellers would be high on our agenda. The dialogue will pave the way for more co-operative and joint work. Since one of the most controversial subjects is Saheli’s stand on funding, we decided to clarify a few more issues that we have faced time and again. These are to do with our stands on individual vs. institutional and Indian vs. foreign money for our work.

Since it is a well known fact that individual donations are a major source of funds in Saheli, the questions we inevitably face are, what is the source of such individual money? Is money coming to us from inherited sources or is it self-earned money or business-earned money or salary money?! Can such sources be segregated in an individual’s wealth? Which sources are ‘cleaner’ than others?

The same sort of questioning also extends to ‘foreign’ contributions from individuals. If our friends and supporters who live outside India are interested in sending money as individual donations, we accept it. Individual donations are different from donor agencies in the extent of control they exert, and are free from the ‘donor driven agenda’ that is rife in the movement today.

This is also extended further to Saheli volunteers and where their money comes from. At any given point, there are/were many volunteers working for Saheli. Not only in the beginning, but all through the 25 years, Saheli volunteers have contributed in various ways. The contribution in terms of time is immeasurable, but beyond that, directly and indirectly, we have contributed financially too. Thus, like our friends and supporters, we also put in money for Saheli’s day-to-day working. Where do we volunteers earn our money? The issues of where we work, what are our commitments at the workplace, whether there are clashes in our interests at work vis-a-vis Saheli work, whether the money that is earned by us is ‘acceptable’ to Saheli, are relevant in the context of our stand on funding, but just turning them into a bogey to challenge our critique of institutional funding is not a positive step towards taking this discussion further.

Do we have a stand on all these issues that we can explain satisfactorily, and which is unchangeable? We feel we have certainly arrived at a stand which we have been satisfied with over time. While this may not mean that this stand will never change, our past experience shows that it has neither changed radically nor substantively over the years. In fact, while reviewing Saheli’s history of 25 years we are pretty happy about many things. Mostly that the history in the context of funding is full of consistencies! The few inconsistencies that do seem to linger, are important to address.

It is obvious that we have evolved our stand after discussions and hands-on experience over the years, and have not adhered to what is sometimes interpreted as a ‘purist’ or ‘holier-than-thou’ stance. The journey through 25 years has taught us to be open, try out alternatives, and adhere to options that affirm our autonomy and our politics. And we will continue along this road in the years to come.