Ideas & Insights / All Perspectives / Ideas & Insights

Follow the Money: Using Financial Data to Learn About Organization Sustainability

Sheela Patel — Director, Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC)

The Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC), the organization I founded with many dear friends and fellow activists in 1984, is now over three decades old. While others celebrate with events, I decided to celebrate this amazing journey by documenting its evolution and history. I have written about many projects and activities of many federations—my challenge presently is to write something that not only covers SPARC’s three decades but also weaves together the amazing process and practical, evidence-based history that I have had the privilege to be a part of. With the support, advice, and encouragement of my friends, I decided to write a series of articles and papers that could be later woven into a book.

The first opportunity to document this journey came when the International Institute for Environment and Development’s (IIED) Human Settlements program asked me to write about “local funds.” It started as a request to look at the grants and monies we had converted into revolving funds and examine what they have produced. In parallel, Ashvin Dayal from The Rockefeller Foundation was in conversation with SPARC about developing sustainable financing and moving away from grant-based dependency as the mainstay of funding social movements that SPARC supports through its partnerships with the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) and Mahila Milan, a federation of women’s savings groups. My colleagues and I explored a range of transition scenarios that emerged when we began to trace the history of our organizational financing. Before we knew it, we had turned our three-plus decades of financial and accounting data into a database and, as we began examining it, a story emerged.

Just when all this was happening, The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center invited me to be a Policy Fellow resident in May 2016. I accepted it as a period that would allow me to look at this data and write what it told me. In the serene and amazing splendour of the Bellagio Center, in the company of other residents from different fields who were there with me, I spent a month struggling with this data and learning so much from others about issues and subjects unfamiliar to me.

Deepening analytical capacity and increasing financial knowledge at the local level … will be of utmost importance to establish new pro-poor urban development options…

What emerged is a paper recently published by IIED, “Taking money to making money: SPARC, NSDF and Mahila Milan transform low-income shelter options in India.” The paper examines the funding we received over three decades, how we chose to spend it, and what outputs it produced. More than anything, the results made me even more confident in these key takeaways:

  • Local ownership with internal and external accountability for the spend and building of capacity- and evidence-based outcomes takes time in social movements to evolve. However, when they do, they transform all resource usage into investments that leverage other much larger investments needed to address poverty.
  • Sustainable development needs new partnerships that extend from local to global, but a focus on the management of funds alone does not produce development outcomes that really reach the poor. Instead, they produce no legacy after the projects are withdrawn.
  • Most importantly, this process itself has led me to realize that financial data has value beyond yearly audits and fiscal governance scrutiny. It has immense value in helping us understand how decisions and accountability within organizations guide the culture and, ultimately, the sustainability of organizations.

Building on these takeaways it is clear that deepening analytical capacity and increasing financial knowledge at the local level while building multi-level associations of global and local actors will be of utmost importance to establish new pro-poor urban development options and to mobilize urban poor Indian communities. Moving forward, financial management processes at SPARC will incorporate these learnings and be designed not only to drive increased funding but to do so in a way that fosters a culture of collaboration and localizes community-driven development in order to leave a lasting impact.

Leave a comment