There is mostly no free lunch, unless your mum packs it for you every day. Don’t we all know that?

For non-profits, our lunch, or rather, our daily bread comes from our donors. Thanks to them, we are able to discharge our mission and get stuff done.

On paper, it sounds simple. We know what the problem is, and have proof of the solution. So, write a winning proposal, implement what you commit to, evaluate the impact, get the paperwork in place. Repeat.

But it isn’t simple at all.

In the CSR (corporate social responsibility) space particularly, the unwritten ask is often for publicity. This is not unfair—donors will ask you to publicize the partnership, an informal transaction in return for funding you because they too need to showcase what they have done.

As non-profits, this stumps us for two reasons. First, not everyone believes that this is the way forward as partners. Second, it’s simply hard to do because few non-profits have the capacity.

Raj Gilda, co-founder of Lend-A-Hand India, a non-profit in the skills space, says he came face-to-face with the devil last year. A CSR fund was almost finalized. “We were really excited," he recalls, “because it was no small amount." But the fund came with a caveat: Lend-A-Hand was to deliver not only on the work but on the publicity front for that work. “Look, we can do a little bit…some social media," explains Gilda, “but this is not what we seek in a partnership. For us, it is all partners finding ways to fight poverty in some manner, based on our strengths."

Eventually, Gilda declined the partnership. “What else could I do? There was no way we could have met that request. We know how to skill the youth, not other things," he says.

Couldn’t Lend-A-Hand have tried at least? Gilda begs to differ. He says that asking non-profits to publicize the partnership is highly problematic. First, he points out, the funding was only for a year, so even if they put in the effort to expand their repertoire, it wouldn’t really be worth it. Second, and more telling, he says he has a problem with this kind of publicity. “What kind of relationship are we creating with the schools we work with? When they see that our engagement is basically sponsored by someone, they think of themselves as the cause of our sponsorship. It is really hard then to set up initiatives that will run on their own later on because this kind of attempt to publicize the work changes the atmosphere," explains Gilda.

Many of my peers are unhappy because it is challenging for them to deliver on what seems like an unfair ask. It’s like asking a hockey player to show some swimming skills. Non-profits that don’t work in the communication space say that no matter how articulate the founder or the CEO is, it takes years to be able to get their communications in place. In fact, publicizing a partnership has always filled most of us in the non-profit space with dread, because it means a few of us will be overstretched, spending weekends converting the data and bullet points we receive into report-style English and social media quips. Not all of us can hire a public relations (PR) agency. We are our own, over-stretched PR.

While this non-starter partnership was a big loss to Lend-A-Hand, it was a loss to the corporate donor as well, because they weren’t able to take advantage of an opportunity to partner with a non-profit that was changing the lives of so many young people.

Personally, if I were running a CSR initiative and partnering with a non-profit, I would play on their strengths. A CSR department should look to fill the gaps by getting a PR agency—or using the corporate’s own communications team. That way, a non-profit wouldn’t have to change out of its chappals into stilettoes.

Bharati Chaturvedi is the founder and director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.

This is the first article in a series on challenges faced by non-profits.

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