Funding with a feminist lens: Neera Nundy, Dasra Co-founder

Private spending was up almost a quarter in India in 2020 – but where was it going?

To understand the funding landscape in India, we sat down with Neera Nundy, Co-founder of Dasra, the organisation working to develop the donor base there. Nundy spoke to us about funding with a Gender, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (GEDI) lens, broke down findings from the organisation’s annual funding report and talked about the strength of working at scale in India.

Elika Roohi: What began as a venture philanthropy fund two decades ago now is now an organisation that works on developing the donor base in India. How does Dasra build local infrastructure to facilitate strategic philanthropy?

Neera Nundy: What we’re trying to do now is start to build a community of givers. There’s very little data in India about how people give and what they give to. So, for the last 10, 11 years, we’ve put out the India philanthropy report. This year, our report really speaks to how Covid-19 was quite a moment for all of us in terms of philanthropy, but it was also a great equaliser. We want to take that opportunity, where you see families who engaged in a local way, to think about how they can engage in a long-term way.

We started a campaign called Back the Frontline to support organisations responding to Covid, whether from a healthcare point of view or an access point of view, and we ended up raising about $20 million with that effort. But we very quickly realised that, because of Covid, communities have fallen behind on all these development indicators. This fund now has an aspiration of raising $50 million to really rebuild India. We’re trying to figure out how we fund leaders with what we’re calling a GEDI lens: gender, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Can we support leaders who are women? Can we support leaders who come from the community who are representing minority religions or representing a lower caste? Can we start to invest in them? These are far smaller organisations than what Dasra typically did in the early days of our giving circles and things you would have read about or written about where we pooled funds and then supported an organisation to grow like Educate Girls or Magic Bus – organisations that are now stalwarts. We realised there’s something to be said to take what we did with these organisations and move that capacity building and support to deeper in the community, which is quite a shift for India. There is no foundation that looks at these smaller organisations.

What does it look like for a foundation to have a GEDI lens as a part of its grantmaking? Do you have any examples of effective GEDI lens funding practices that you’ve seen in India?

I think there’s a lot of work that we need to do in GEDI in India. I think right now – fortunately or unfortunately – it’s very basic: are we funding organisations that have women in their leadership? Are we funding organisations that have women as a core part of their intervention? What’s the percentage of women on their boards? These kinds of checklists are there, but it’s not really practised. And that’s really where it needs to go for equity, diversity and inclusion, right? How are women part of the decision making and how is that culture being inclusive – not just gender in the binary sense, but inclusive in a broader sense. I think that’s still very new to India.

There’s so much evidence that if you place money and higher education in the hands of women, their families are healthier and their kids do better.

In fact, when Dasra started on our own GEDI journey, as a co-founder, I was like we can’t be busy here telling everybody about how to do gender-lens philanthropy or organisations how to strengthen their institutions. We need to be stronger ourselves. So, when we started to look at ourselves in the mirror, I realised we need a lot of work here. The cultural context can’t be underestimated when you do look right at GEDI, given how deep patriarchy is embedded in our culture. We all behave like it’s normal. And so, you really need that cultural context when entering in with GEDI work.

You were saying that Dasra has done a lot of work on incorporating GEDI into your own practices. What did that process look like?

For our own work, we started with what everyone says you should start with – the board. At the very highest level, you need to know: is governance and leadership aligned with and does it understand the biases and assumptions with which we enter. GEDI work needs to start there. But you can’t do only a top-down approach, because a lot of times the journey from the top is quite slow, especially in the development sector. As long as leadership is on board, you also have to have bias and assumptions training.

You also must make GEDI, not just a part of your work as a values-based ideology, but a strategy and a part of the DNA of your organisation. For us, it resonates because we’re doing GEDI work every day with organisations that are trying to address it.

When thinking about it, we also ask what are the lead indicators? We created an internal way of being able to measure privilege. And so, we’re diversifying our group in terms of privilege. Did they come from a wealthy city, did they go to a private institution or public institution to be educated, etc. That made it tangible because we couldn’t find a way or a tool to measure that, in fact, we were diversifying – and so that privilege score is something we are keeping our eyes on.

Students at school in Beawar, India. Photo credit: Shutterstock


One theme that comes up when you talk about feminist funding is moving past the traditional framing of empowerment, where you’re expecting women to take on all the unequal systems by themselves – when, in reality, equality is everyone’s work. Is this idea present in GEDI lens funding work in India?

I think it’s still very nascent. It’s emerging as an area to fund. But without a doubt, it’s important – not just in philanthropy – but our women’s movement will only be achieved if men are part of that, right? Even in the corporate sector, everybody says that. I think what we are often struggling with is that if we’re funding men and boys, then are we taking money away from what should be supporting women and girls? And what we’ve been saying is to hold yourselves accountable for what happens to girls because that’s ultimately what we’re trying to move the needle on – but to do that you also have to engage men and boys in the programming. But the biggest challenge is not on the organisational side, it’s on the funding side. That’s where we have to do a lot more education. I mean, we know for girls, you can empower girls, but often there are gatekeepers, and those gatekeepers are their fathers their and their brothers. So, if you don’t engage them, it doesn’t matter how empowered they are.

During Covid, we saw in a lot of places that women were at the centre of the mutual aid and community organising work – and that funding women could have this very effective impact. Is this something that’s registered with the philanthropy sector in India, and has it led to any broad changes in funding practice?

There’s so much evidence that if you place money and higher education in the hands of women, their families are healthier, and their kids do better. There’s direct evidence of that. If you let women have access to savings, that’s where you’ll really see a change on all sorts of development fronts. I think there’s no doubt that all that people know, but I think it really came to the forefront, with how many on the frontline were being backed by women. The visibility of that perhaps really emphasises the importance of investing and supporting women through a lot of things that will then support and move the development. But I don’t think that’s new. I just think we have to amplify it!

Dasra together with Bain & Company put out a report on Indian giving and found that Indian family philanthropy had tripled in 2020. Can you talk about that a little bit?

It’s a tremendous opportunity to have more innovation and risk-taking. Although we have to convince families that that’s what they should be doing. But it can be bridge funding that can then lead to scale or systems change funding that the government supports or institutions then support. So I think using family philanthropy more as this bridging innovation and really trying to support organisations that don’t have all of the regulatory headaches of what you need to be able to operate in this country. Indian family giving can play a real catalytic role without a doubt. Our biggest challenge in India is how much of the development and philanthropy relies on Global North foundations and Global North money.

Something else that stood out in the report was education and health funding was 75 per cent of family giving. Is Dasra helping Indian philanthropy broaden its perspective beyond these two issues?

I think from the early days we’ve been really trying to move money to places that #, people don’t easily go to. I know everybody talks about adolescent girls now, but when we started our first giving circle in adolescents a lot of people would say, why are we investing in adolescents? There’s nothing we can do so late. We also funded things like domestic violence and it’s something that people think is quite shameful. We shouldn’t be talking about it, and it makes us look bad.

I think education is quite well funded, although there’s so much work to be done. So, we have played a conscious role to explore how you leverage the education system to support other issues.

But I think more and more our work is trying to help philanthropy to break these silos, and that’s the opportunity you have with families. Institutions label themselves as education or health – the ministries of the government also do that. But the way that you can really help a girl is not by giving her some education, some health. She needs that full holistic approach. So we’ve really been pushing for integrated support and looking at the intersection of all of these things and how they come together to deliver, and that’s actually what family philanthropy can do more of is not go into these silos.

But the reason education receives such a high percentage of the funding – and we all know this – is so many of us with the privilege of education can have social mobility. If you don’t have that, you can’t even get into the architecture of opportunity in the country, in any country.

What are some innovations the Indian philanthropy sector really excels at?

I think Indian philanthropy – and I wouldn’t just say the funders, it’s the NGO side as well – is really committed to being able to think about and address scale. You find very few folks who stay happy in the small and beautiful. In India, our scale is incredible with what these organisations can achieve. It’s almost amusing when you bring folks together from like the US and they say ‘we work with 150 people’, and we’re like, ‘wow, we work with 150,000 people’. I think there’s a careful tension between achieving scale, working with government, and really meeting the needs of minorities and communities. That’s perhaps not unique to India, but it’s challenging in India to address all those pieces at the same time. And I think the biggest concern is philanthropy shying away from activism, shying away from deep civil society movements that underscore our independence, culture, and the way the development sector has been.

Elika Roohi is Digital Editor at Alliance.

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