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Philanthropy in India: Dasra’s First Forum in the U.S.

December 17, 2014

The enthusiasm on display at the Dasra Philanthropy Forum on November 10 could have fueled a week-long conference. Hosted by the Ford Foundation, the day-long event brought together more than thirty speakers, five panels, and a crowd of over a hundred philanthropy, nonprofit, and social business leaders to discuss philanthropy in India, with a special focus on empowering the country's 113 million adolescent girls.


Based in Mumbai, Dasra (which means "enlightened giving" in Sanskrit) works to bring about sustainable, long-term social change in the world's second-most populous country. For the past five years, the organization has convened key stakeholders for an annual week-long conference to discuss, explore, and evaluate the challenges the country is facing, as well as how the private and public sectors  can work together to create greater impact. The event at Ford marked the organization's debut in the U.S., and the opening plenary remarks delivered by Tarun Jotwani, the organization's chair, charged the room with energy and anticipation of the conversations to follow.

The brainchild of Deval Sanghavi and Neera Nundy, Dasra was founded in 1999 to help transform the practice of philanthropy in India. In the years since, its staff has grown from eight to nearly eighty. Their efforts, in turn, have affected some 730,000 lives across India, of whom 325,000 have been women and children. In 2013, the organization created the Dasra Girl Alliance, a public-private partnership with USAID and the UK-based Kiawah Trust — subsequently joined by the Piramal Foundation — to ensure that every woman in India feels safe and empowered and that every girl receives an education. Indeed, it is the organization's belief that "Girls are essential agents of change in breaking the cycle of poverty and deprivation." To give girls in India the tools they need to realize that vision, Dasra aims to raise $30 million for health- and education-related initiatives, of which $9 million has already been raised, and to have changed the lives of over a million women and girls by 2018.

In the meantime, there's lots of work to be done. According to the World Bank, while India's GDP grew from $834 million in 2005 to more than $1.8 trillion in 2013, less than 10 percent of the country's population earns enough to pay income tax. As Deval Sanghavi noted, "Macroeconomics is not going to solve this problem; we need private philanthropy to complement government and business efforts."

Back at the Ford Foundation, the conference's format balanced well-attended panel discussions with smaller sessions offered concurrently. Many of the former featured Indian philanthropists who shared personal stories of their efforts to rally Indians around the idea of change, while others focused on the importance of partnerships and how investments in girls must connect to the broader themes of economic prosperity and stronger communities. Parallel sessions included discussions focused on the country's new Corporate Social Responsibility Law (which requires corporations to spend 2 percent of their net profits on charitable causes) and how it could affect the country's economy; the role of foundations in India; and how Mann Deshi, the largest microfinance bank in Maharashtra, with more than 165,000 clients, is improving the economic well-being of women from low-income communities.

Two broader themes that emerged during the event were the speakers' commitment to India and the importance of partnerships in overcoming the country's deep and long-standing social and economic inequities. Peter Smitham, chair of Atlantic Philanthropies, underlined the strategic nature of such partnerships when he noted in a panel discussion moderated by Jeff Bradach, co-founder of the Bridgespan Group, and which included Desh Deshpande, founder of the Deshpande Foundation, and Vijay Goradia, founder of the Vinmar Group, that "Charity is about making a gift; philanthropy is about making a change." Deshpande's and Goradia's observations based on personal experience similarly struck a chord among those in attendance, which included seasoned philanthropists as well as individuals who were learning about strategic giving to Indian communities for the first time. Goradia told the crowd how a visit to a preschool in the slums of Mumbai led him to realize that investments in programs, as opposed  to infrastructure, might be a better way to scale a successful intervention and build long-term sustainability. As an example, he cited Pratham, an organization established in 1995 that successfully scaled its efforts to nineteen cities in less than six years and today impacts millions of children in Pakistan, Kenya, and Brazil. For his part, Deshpande stressed the importance of a multi-sectoral approach, saying, "You need government to help out because they have all the big money. If you want to really create a system of change, you need to have the government's help."  

Conversations about the power of collaboration carried over to the afternoon discussion, during which a number of panelists, including Lynne Smithan, co-founder of the Kiawah Trust, and Bradley Bessire from USAID, acknowledged that partnerships are critical to the success of almost any social change effort. Smarinita Shetty, head of the Dasra Girl Alliance and moderator of the session, asked the panelists how they each came up with the "glue" needed to hold partners together. Jeff Walker of the MDG Health Alliance pointed to "multi-stakeholder coalitions" as the answer, saying "there is no other way." Walker also noted the "need to build a culture of strong listening" and suggested that philanthropy was "a tool for innovation, not the only answer. There shouldn't be a wall between donors and doers." Smithan agreed, and offered this formula for success: "Building a movement of really impactful nonprofits; helping organizations grow; and helping other organizations share best practices, knowledge, and become more interested in monitoring and evaluation."

What's next for Dasra? I had the opportunity to speak with Neera Nundy about the organization's plans after the event ended. She told me the conference had helped remind her, and others, about the urgent need for philanthropic investments in India, and that while there is a lot of talk about India as an emerging global power, there remains an unfilled role for philanthropists — in India as well as those who are part of the Indian diaspora — who want to be more engaged and strategic about their giving. "Being an enabling platform for individuals to engage in India is an opportunity for us as well as others," she added. "It's about building a community of funders that give to India, and connecting newer funders with more experienced funders. Knowledge transfer is important to newer funders and sharing experiences is critical to Dasra's operations. We're not about being prescriptive; we want to let funders choose what resonates most with them."

Likewise, information sharing is central to the organization's message to the international philanthropic community, particularly as it relates to women and girls. As Nundy told me, it's time for global philanthropy to be "open about challenges. Investing in things that may not always be results-oriented in the short term is okay. Addressing issues with an integrated approach. And taking risks even when the hoped-for results are not always clear."

Sue Rissberger is liaison for Africa and Asia in the International Data Relations department at Foundation Center.

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