Dasra Philanthropy Week day 3


Rob John


Rob John

Friday, 7 March: Dasra means enlightened giving in Sanskrit and has its origins in India’s first venture philanthropy fund started up back in 2000 by Indians working the New York financial services industry. Impact Partners didn’t survive the post 9/11 downturn but three years later its CEO, Deval Sanghavi, teamed up with his wife, Neera Nundy, to launch Dasra.

While Dasra initially continued with investing in NGOs that showed potential to scale up, the nascent philanthropy ecosystem was a lot less developed than it is today. So Dasra had to help build the ecosystem in which it operated. It launched programmes to build the skills of social entrepreneurs and convened a platform where high net worth philanthropists could meet, share and learn. I recall the first Indian Philanthropy Forum in 2009: it was a small, private event for a handful of big-ticket philanthropists and outstanding social entrepreneurs. Fast forward to 2014 and the forum is now the Dasra India Philanthropy Week, showcasing outstanding, entrepreneurial NGOs that are strategically tackling core social problems, the work of grantmakers, corporate foundations, impact investors and philanthropists. Dasra is now a key component of the Indian social investment ecosystem it helped create, with a staff of 73 having unlocked $40 million into NGOs.

Tigers & termites
The consulting firm Bain & Company have used the forum to launch sector research on philanthropy in India (I’ve critiqued earlier reports in my ACSEP publications) and this year they present something different: a blueprint for creating the ecosystem needed by 2035 to seriously move the needle on reproductive and child health in India.

The following panel unpacks what ecosystems are and how they work. One of my heroes, entrepreneur Matthew Spacie, shares his experiences of collaboration in taking MagicBus India from an idea (about using sport to build the self-esteem of street kids and make them employable citizens) to a proven methodology that is attracting attention in 22 other countries. He talks about the Bombay Port slum, not more than 5 km from the luxury of Taj Palace, where 400,000 people live illegally without water, sanitation or schools. He says that through ‘collaboration and community cohesion’ 98% of its children now attend schools, outside the slum, from a base of 20%.

‘Tigers don’t vote’ says conservationist Anish Andheria, and ‘termites have no need to evolve for 600,000 years.’ Anish helps us understand the fragility of the environmental ecosystem and what it teaches us about ourselves and the ecosystems we try to build.

Lakshmi Pratury, founder of INK Talks (think TED), tells us that ‘people half our age are twice as smart’ and to prove the point introduces tenth grader Bani Kohli. Bani was appalled by the food thrown away in her uncle’s restaurant every night. A waste, yes, but in India also an insult to the thousands of children who die from hunger every day. Bani set up a charity that collects good to eat food every night from Delhi’s restaurants and distributes it to hungry children on Delhi’s streets.

The roll of the dice
No programme or intervention by Dasra happens without first doing really high quality sector research (which includes shortlisting the best-in-class NGOs in the field). On the final day Dasra launches the report No Private Matter – Confronting Domestic Violence in India, sponsored by USAID, Omidyar Network and the UK-based Kiawah Trust. Its statistics are chilling. 70% of women face domestic violence and three quarters of those that file a complaint attempt suicide. But the report goes on to explore the opportunities to change this, if the right resources, organizations and ecosystem can be assembled.

Selvi Hariga personifies the violence that is an everyday experience for Indian girls and women. She tells her story: forcibly married at 14, tortured by her husband because she has no dowry, sold to other men by the man she is supposed to trust. She runs away and contemplates suicide, but instead, with help from a women’s shelter and NGO, turns her life around. She is now proudly ‘India’s first woman taxi driver’, has remarried, cares for her new daughter and fully intends to start up a travel agency using women drivers. A film is being made of her life, to inspire others.

The dice rolled very differently for Roshini Nadar Malhorta. Roshini is a ‘next gen’ philanthropist. She looks to be in her 20s but manages her father’s company – HCL Corporation – a start-up IT business that now turns over $6.2 billion annually. She candidly admits to not ‘feeling old enough to be a philanthropist’, but is totally committed to the family’s core philanthropic activity – a ‘leadership academy’ for the most gifted children from the poorest families in Utter Pradesh (annual incomes typically I lakh Rupees – £1,600). Asked from the audience what she might have done in life without all that money, she tells us she’d ‘probably work for Dasra’!

It’s been Dasra’s most ambitious philanthropy week so far. The conversations about the complexity of philanthropy in the chaos of India have been mature, intelligent, grounded and always passionate. Billionaires and the most dignified people of humble means have shared the same platform and in their own ways contributed to my understanding of what social transformation looks like in India. Dasra has been a remarkable experiment by two young, ex-investment bankers who returned to their homeland without resources or networks. Proof again that India is the capital of frugal innovation.

Rob John is a senior visiting fellow at the Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship & Philanthropy, NUS Business School, Singapore, and a co-founder of AVPN.

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