Change Legitimizers and Social Innovation

written by Sanjeev
05 · 2 · 18

I like the idea. Let’s do it!”, says Sanjiv Tandon each year when I go to him to ask for his support for an annual event that we do on World Water Day. Sanjiv Tandon is the National Head of one of the organizations of the United Nations. He acts as the principal nodal source of information about the United Nations organization’s work in India. His role is to promote greater public understanding of and support for the aims and activities of the United Nations by disseminating information on the work of his Organization to people everywhere.

I always go to Sanjiv with an idea for a large public event which is aligned with the UN goal. So far, he has always immediately extended support.

The interesting thing is the kind of support he offers – the UN logo and the presence of the director of his UN organization for the region as a Guest of Honor. Plus, he offers to contact a list of ‘A’ listers – big VIP politician or celebrity names – who could be potential ‘chief guests’ for the program. To be fair, in some of the programs, he has also contributed with collaterals and IEC materials printed by UNIC on the UN theme for the year. They are usually very well designed useful articles like T shirts, umbrellas (have been using those for 4 years now!) and notepads. However, he does not support with funds, or with any co-branded items.

Walk for water

I remember how he would exclaim, comfortably leaning back in his chair, smiling enthusiastically, “I like the idea, Jyoti! Let’s do it! I am confirming to you, our participation right away!” With a generous sweep of his hand he’d say, “Go ahead and use our logo and our participation commitment in any letter or publication”. Such was his magnetism and personal power, and such was my unconcern with anything but the ideology behind the event, that I would be literally weeping with gratitude at his magnanimity. Two years into organizing the event, the worldly reality of fund raising for the event was beginning to worry me. It then occurred to me that maybe I should be asking him for some more direct support.

So, in the third year, I finally asked him, “Do you think you would consider funding the event too – at-least partially?”

“I don’t think that is necessary, Jyoti!”, he replied in the same genial tone.

“Not necessary?”, I looked at him disbelievingly.

He, I think, was rather amused to see my perplexity at his brazen denial of my, very real, need.

“Well…it’s OK…you are a valuable partner, so funding support is not critical…but it is getting increasingly expensive to hold events like this”, I muttered.

“Of course, I know that. And I know how tough it is for you!” He sat up, genuinely empathetic, and exclaimed, “That is why I allow you to use our logo immediately!”

I thought he was joking. I was talking hard cash and he was talking a fluid design! Almost as if he’d read my thoughts, he said, “I am not joking. I am serious!”

I asked him what he meant.

Walk for Water

“When I give you the ‘right’ to use my logo on anything you create, it also means that you can play up our partnership in anything that you write to potential donors. You perhaps do not realize the power of the UN logo! Let me ask you something. Have you ever had any difficulty in raising the funds you need?”

I thought about it. I had had no problem ever. We usually ended fund raising with a surplus.

So, I shook my head.

“I guessed as much”, he clicked his finger triumphantly and then, with pride in his voice continued,

“The UN logo is the most powerful international logo. It is the largest, most credible, and most powerful welfare and policy advocacy institution in the world!” He paused, and looked at me, “Do you agree?”

“Yes, of course! But what does that have to do with my need for funds?”

“It has nothing to do with your need for funds, But, much to do with the ease of raising funds”, he replied. “Since we are the first partner in your project, people will have a positive impression about FORCE. This will increase your status and reliability in the eyes of a potential donor. Also, he gets the opportunity to be a co-brand partner with the UN – and that is a big draw for him.”

I nodded. My brand management experience had taught me the importance of a powerful brand and here was a live example of that.

“So, even without our contributing a penny, you have probably found the going not as difficult as you thought it would be”.

It made me think. As I replayed past conversations and learning in my mind, I realized he was right.

For us, at FORCE, the UN was a ‘Legitimizer’. By pledging their support, some of the aura of the UN rubbed off on us as well. That support became like ‘seed capital’. It yielded returns in terms of funding, support from other large institutions, event organization and top officials/ leaders/ VIP presence. In the events we held with them, our other partners were large organizations like UNICEF, World Bank, Plan, WaterAid, Save the Children and multinationals like HSBC, Coca-Cola, Veolia. We also had Delhi Government departments handling water and environment and the Central Government ministry handling water resources as partners.

What’s more, in each of those events we had the then Minister of Water Resources and/or the Chief Minister of the state as the Chief Guest.

Obtaining the support of these big organizations became easier for us after the UN’s ‘seed capital’ investment with its logo. Their extending support to us was a ratification of the justness of our cause and credibility of the organization. It also signalled that the event would be of a scale that would justify the involvement of big partners. The promise of having the UN Director for South Asia present, added to the aura of the event and made it possible for us to convince the Chief Minister of Delhi and the Union minister for Water Resources, apart from a host of other high-ranking leaders and celebrities to be present for our event. Since, many of our donor organizations were multinationals with their head-offices in the main donor countries of the UN, this was a valuable connection for them. All these factors together removed the usual barriers that donors had to dedicating social responsibility funds to new non-profits and made our event successful, year after year.

Another example of a ‘Change Legitimizer’ comes from my experience of a campaign to save a water body – Neela Hauz – from being destroyed by the construction of a bridge.


The Neela Hauz was a small, quiet, beautiful, and bountiful water body tucked away in a busy neighborhood in the southern part of Delhi. It was hidden behind a clump of trees and bushes – a part of a small reserve forest in the city. So, it was not visible from the winding road running next to it that connected that neighborhood to one of the main roads of Delhi. For the few who knew about it, it was a secret treasure – a place where you could see fishes, migratory birds and feel connected with nature in its pristine loveliness.

All this changed, suddenly, one day, when one of those treasure seekers, Manu -a lady who lived in a housing society close by, discovered the Neela Hauz exposed and violated by some heavy machines parked on its banks. After a couple of days of angry questioning, she found out that the government had started work on a direct road, cutting through the water body, to connect the neighborhood with the main road. This was being done to help commuters save travel time and prevent the accidents caused by the steep curves in the current winding road that connected the two. Manu, had heard about FORCE, and our work on Water. So, she called me to discuss what could be done.

To cut a long, and fascinating story (which I will touch upon more in the Co-Drivers segment), short, in the final stages of the efforts, we were granted an audience with the then Lieutenant Governor (LG) of the city. On the day of the meeting, we walked into his meeting room to find that he had also summoned senior officials of departments of the Government that had some involvement with the Neela Hauz – such as the landowning agency(DDA), the Department of Environment, the Groundwater Board, the Municipality, and the Water Supply Utility. Our group had given him a memorandum for a demand for protection of the Neela Hauz. Apart from the demand, the memorandum also listed down the rules that were being flouted and the environmental damage that was being done. In the meeting that followed, he asked pointed questions related to the rules, regulations, procedures, and technologies for the construction of the bridge and the protection of the water body. He also asked about the role of the water body in the neighborhood especially in maintaining the water table in this water scarce part of the city. From his questioning, and the answers being given, it became clear that there were laws and rules that were being flouted in letter and in spirit and that damaging the water body, would have an adverse impact on the groundwater table in the area. This was a serious concern in those days when 72% of the water requirements of the neighborhood were fulfilled by groundwater sourced from the same area.

After the meeting, the LG committed his support for the cause. Though there were multiple agencies involved, each with a different mandate and CEO/head, the LG’s interest in the issue spurred them into greater and faster action. The LG was the administrative head of the Union Territory of Delhi and hence had a significant power over them. They were more responsive, more cautious about breaking any rules and more open to citizen participation.

The LG, in this example, played the role of a ‘Change Legitimizer’. His adoption of that cause gave it a quasi- legal and administrative sanction. It also gave the campaign to save Neela Hauz, a new direction. This would not only protect the water body from being encroached upon by a road now, but would legalize the protection such that it would be preserved for posterity. The net result of the LG’s support was that the Neela Hauz and the forest surrounding it, was declared a protected ‘Bio-diversity zone’ – one which had to be preserved in its indigenous natural form by the government.

As both (Neela Hauz and Sanjiv Tandon) examples above illustrate, Change Legitimizers add credibility to a project, encourage new partners to join in and help expedite and achieve the social innovation objective. Their support also helps overcoming procedural hurdles.

Change Legitimizers add value to an effort simply through an association with them. They could be authorities which give legal, social, or scientific credibility such as government agencies, scientists, researchers, teachers and religious or social leaders. The common factor in Change Legitimizers, whether they are large organizations or local individuals, is that they have high credibility, legal or social power which are looked up to by the rest of the community.

The Change Legitimizers enable rapid adoption of the idea by the people.

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