Philanthropy must be prepared to talk dirty


Aditi Patel


Aditi Patel

In October 2012, Dasra published a report on access to toilets and sanitation in urban India, with plans to launch a Giving Circle around that theme at the same time. Dasra Giving Circles are a collaborative effort to channel funding to high-impact non-profits in sectors that need it most. Our team researches a sector in depth, shortlists the most scalable non-profits, and then brings together a group of philanthropists who vote to support one organization over three years. To date, Dasra has successfully closed five giving circles, channelling over US$2 million of funding to five organizations and providing over 400 days of capacity-building support to the social sector.

The Giving Circle on toilets and sanitation was one of the most challenging for our team, and was a first for Dasra in many ways. It was the first time we actively focused on finding philanthropists who might not able to commit a full membership, but still wanted to be part of the Giving Circle initiative. These philanthropists took the lead on forming a ‘circle within a circle’ or consortium model, which allowed us to increase our outreach and awareness of the issue. It also encouraged collaboration on multiple levels: the members of the consortium had to agree on one vote within their consortium, and then again within the wider Giving Circle.

It was also the first time we were dealing with a topic commonly held to be unpalatable at best. Would Indian philanthropists really be willing to talk about shit? After all, wasn’t it true that philanthropists in India shy away from ‘dirty’ topics? Wasn’t it safer to highlight more palatable issues like children’s education, in order to engage more philanthropists and bring maximum funding to the sector?

We expected that the circle would take us at least six months to close. Our outreach strategy was more aggressive than it had ever been – we planned multiple events in four different countries to talk about the research findings and to promote the circle. We lined up scores of meetings. And most importantly, we decided to take a risk: rather than playing it safe, we would use sensationalism to our benefit.

We had a thing or two to learn from long-established partners in the field. The World Toilet Organization and other sector leaders have long held that the best way to talk about toilets is to use shock value and humour to break the ice. If non-profit leaders on the ground had the courage and conviction to challenge ‘polite’ society in how they talked about toilets and sanitation, who were we to beat around the bush?

Needless to say, Indian philanthropists challenged our assumptions. Not only were they willing to talk about the toilets and sanitation, they wanted to know more. Rather than being repulsed by presentations talking about shit, they applauded the efforts being made by non-profits all over the country. Instead of changing the topic to talk about education, they were keen to understand why 24% of girls in Delhi slums drop out of school each year because there are no toilets. The Giving Circle voted to support Shelter Associates, a non-profit that uses cutting-edge technology-based solutions to provide data on toilets in urban slums. We closed the Giving Circle well within our six-month time frame, and learned a great deal about Indian philanthropy in ‘dirty’ sectors along the way.

Testing the waters made us reflect on some of our preconceptions about Indian philanthropy. We learned that we often err on the side of being safe, assuming that Indian philanthropists are generally conservative in the causes they choose to support. Does ‘safety’, however, come at the expense of accurately representing ground realities? Understanding the double-edged sword of straight talk has never been more important as India faces increasingly urgent, yet unpleasant issues like sanitation and menstrual hygiene.

If organizations on the ground are dedicating their lives to tackling these issues, doesn’t that compel intermediaries to put aside our own assumptions about ‘polite society’, and run the risk of being rude if it helps spread awareness?

The answer to this, as we learned through trial, error, and occasional embarrassment, is a resounding ‘yes’.

Aditi Patel is an Indian Philanthropy Forum analyst at Dasra.

Tagged in: Collaboration Global health India Sanitation

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