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Not Just Success Stories. Every Child’s Story Is Worth Listening To

Posted: May 6, 2019

As NGOs face pressure to raise funds by showing their “success stories”, the author reflects on how the ordinary stories of quiet, everyday change and progress are left behind as unworthy.

I work in the non-profit sector, with an NGO working in the field of education. The work it does cannot be defined in a sentence or two or written under some ‘heads’. Briefly, the organisation works with the marginalised community in the field of education. 

Working with NGOs and especially in the field of education and not under some fancy heads like ‘Skills’ or “Livelihood’, one thing that is very hard for us is securing funds for the school that we run. 

There are a number of reasons as to why we find it very difficult to find funders. One, the CSR scenario has changed drastically over the past couple of years making it an extraordinarily tedious task to crack it and two, marketing is the need of the hour – something that old school organisations find hard to wrap their heads around. 

To be frank, the insecurity, the sleepless nights thinking about the funds and the hard work are all now a part and parcel of the fabric of the organisation. 

There have been months when people have worked without salaries, worked on half their salaries or worked under extreme uncertainty. For some, this might be a relatively easy choice to make but for those who are the sole earning members in their families, who are responsible for providing a certain lifestyle to others, it is a huge step. 

The funding that we do get is from people or organisations who come and visit us, see our work, understand as well as accept that this work would be hard to describe based on indicators or set heads. 

Tell us your Success Stories?

Often when we have guests coming over or people trying to find some CSR activities that can be done in our organisation (mostly in the months from Jan-March) and after looking at our campus, at our groups, understanding what we believe in and how our approach is different from the mainstream, they ask us a question that we almost never have a straight answer to. I have in the last 4 years not been able to articulate an answer to this question. I don’t know how to approach the answer when people ask us to give details of some success stories. 

The world right now is a fancy place to be in. There are terms, there is a specific terminology, there are a set of catchwords which if used, can ensure funds and attention and also, with these aspects, there is an increasing scarcity of understanding and recognising ideas. 

A lot of organisations in the social sector are based on ideas, on the conviction in the ideas and a lot of patience and hard work to implement those ideas, the results of which cannot be measured or “seen” within a quarter of a year or in one financial year. To such organisations, success stories actually mean something very different. 

How do I describe in a report, the moment when a girl child of our school successfully negotiated with her parents and postponed her marriage so that she could study for two more years? How do I describe the feeling when a mother trusted our teachers so much that she smuggled her daughter out every day through the back door to appear for exams because the men of the family were against it and guarded the front gates?

Can I say that it is a success story when the children in my class reached a conclusion among themselves that eating beef or pork is a personal choice and doesn’t make a human being bad or evil? When a four-year-old stands straight in the Saturday assembly and talks clearly about what she wants and puts forward her problems with a 13-year-old, isn’t that a success story?

The girls who studied with us and are now married are aware and extremely driven to make their girls educated and have a say in their family about this, does this come under the category of a success story? When a group of girls forced us to have higher classes and on their own managed to get their parents’ consent to study further and complete their school education, how is that as a success story?

A woman in a conservative rural setting who has studied in our school comes to meet us in the office and in front of her husband says she would not be having more than 3 children, I think its an inspiring success story. But for the “market”, is it? 

The organisation I work for believes that every person has a right to quality education that would make him/her a rational being who is able to contribute as an informed autonomous citizen of this country and the world. Can this be measured? Can this have an “outcome” that can be put on paper? Can this have “indicators” and on a scale measure our success? Probably not. 

So, when someone asks me to tell them about our success stories, personally for me it is a moment where all these and many more incidents rush through my mind and I then try and explain how we see such instances and moments. 

Looking beyond the ‘winners’

We have met a lot of warm people on this journey who understood what we are trying to say and even if not monetarily, get interested and involved in our work on a personal level. We have also met a large number of people who in as many words said that these aren’t really the success stories that they are looking for. 

Success stories nowadays consist of someone who has been able to secure his/her career or score extraordinary marks in exams or goes abroad to study. All these outcomes are a result of hard work and dedication and I am in no way denying or doubting that. What I am trying to ask here is, why are the success stories being limited to the areas of competition, career and money?

Is a person who is not “winning” or competing in anything but making informed balanced fair rational choices in life not successful? And if s/he is, why aren’t stories of this person not worth telling? Also, can an idea be measured only on the basis of being successful or unsuccessful? If a person goes halfway, understands the essence of an idea but has not been able to change things completely, is that person a part of the world of success stories? 

Now I come to my final question: Why success stories? Why not just stories? All our stories are related to the idea or work we are talking about. Aren’t all stories worth telling? Or listening to? 

First published at the author’s blog

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