Interview – Deval Sanghavi and Neera Nundy

Dasra – which means ‘enlightened giving’ or ‘doing wonderful deeds’ in Sanskrit – was initially set up as India’s first venture philanthropy fund in 1999 under the name of Impact Partners by Deval Sanghavi, Neera Nundy and Ramanan Raghavendran. In effect, they work as the Indian arm of many overseas funders, including the Zurich-based LGT Venture Philanthropy. The challenge now is to develop the donor base in India. This is the aim of the India Philanthropy Forum to be held in February next year, as they tell Caroline Hartnell.

What led to setting up Dasra?

Deval SanghaviDeval Sanghavi (DS)  Prior to Dasra both Neera and I worked at Morgan Stanley in New York, where we did an enormous amount of due diligence on organizations while searching for companies for investors to take over. Morgan Stanley really focused on management, enabling the organizations to scale, grow and become more profitable. So during this time we kept wondering why can’t we use the same principles in the non-profit sector, finding good-quality organizations, investing in management teams and taking organizations to scale?. Most of these organizations have amazing entrepreneurs leading them, but they don’t necessarily have the management support to take them to the next level.  Out plan was to help them grow their models, and that’s exactly what we now do.

What made you change the name of the organization you founded?

We set up as Impact Partners, and it was India’s first venture philanthropy fund. We provided grant funding and hands-on assistance to eight non-profit organizations, mainly early-stage.

After spending three years working with a small group of philanthropists, we realized that the model of hands-on investing was actually one that we could open up to a larger donor base, so achieving greater impact. In 2002 we changed our name to Dasra and stopped calling ourselves a venture philanthropy fund. We felt we needed an Indian name, since we were based in India and our ideas and our methodologies came from there.

You stopped calling yourself a venture philanthropy fund, but do you still give that mix of funding and capacity-building support?

Neera NundyNeera Nundy (NN) We do yes, absolutely, that is our core model.  I think the change was away from funding only start-ups, which is the typical venture model, to also funding mid-cycle organizations that have been around for a few years and have a proven model and we can help them scale. I think that’s why we shied away from the term venture philanthropy. I think it’s a matter of identifying the tipping point in organizations and that’s exactly where we are.

Around the turn of the millennium, when most venture philanthropy funds formed, they funded start-ups, because they were using a new methodology and they felt that start-ups were where they would have most influence. I think we all realized, after working in the sector for a couple of years, that it’s actually better to work with established management teams and help them grow rather than starting something from scratch every time.

Since you became Dasra, have you succeeded in bringing in other donors?

DS We’ve worked with 20 donor agencies and high-net-worth individuals, bringing in a philosophy of hands-on investing to organizations that had never done that before. We’ve converted passive givers into active givers through our model, which is amazing.

Do you work with Indian or overseas foundations?

Both. We worked with foundations that are based abroad and in India whose mandate was to write cheques and not necessarily to build the capacity of the organizations post grant disbursement. We were brought in to provide technical support and really facilitate learning exchanges, where we brought communities and NGOs together to learn from each other and share their best practices and create synergies.

So overseas foundations could use you as a regranting agency?

Exactly. The cost of one trip a year from the UK or the US was in essence the cost of our fees to spend an entire year working with these organizations. Most international donors come to India for a maximum of three to five days before making decisions, while we actually spend three to five months with an NGO before making an investment. We can offer that capacity to smaller donor agencies that don’t have the resources to do it themselves.

It’s quite cost-intensive even in India to work with organizations over that length of time, so who does all the groundwork?

We have a team of 12 full-time staff members who do most of this work. We realize that getting volunteers at the due diligence stage is quite difficult, so we keep that in-house. That said, post investment, depending on the needs of the organization, we have been quite fortunate in getting a strong volunteer base of professionals and mentors to come in and work with these organizations on specific areas such as HR, communications or accounting where they need support. We supervise and hand-hold the mentor as well as the NGO to make sure that impact is being created through these services.

Are these volunteers ever the same people as your donors?

Most of our donors play more of an advisory role than a hands-on implementation role, helping organizations to think strategically about issues and opening their networks to them. Then we have a smaller group of young professionals who have more time, who can devote an afternoon a week, for example, to work with these organizations more intensively, so we have that mix with each of the investments we make.

How many organizations do you work with now?

This year we have two tracks. One is the Dasra Social-Impact programme where we help organizations create three-to-five-year business plans. These are organizations that have reached a tipping point and are looking to scale but don’t actually have a plan in place. On that programme, we have 30 social entrepreneurs who we work with intensively over a one-year period to create a plan. From that group of 30, we will probably work further with five to seven, introducing them to donors and maybe funding them ourselves, and providing the hands-on assistance post grant disbursement.  In the second track this year we have five organizations that we have made a four-year funding and assistance commitment to.

It sounds similar to venture philanthropy funds in the US and Europe. Do you think that the model has taken particular turns in India, or has it really worked pretty well as it was, particularly once you’d changed your name and your identity a bit?

I think it’s worked in the sense that providing hands-on assistance and money creates a much greater impact than just writing cheques. I think that’s just common sense. The difficulty we face in India is that many of the organizations we work with have never had the budgets to attract professionals into their teams, particularly for the key support functions such as finance, marketing and HR. India has seen one of the greatest salary increases globally in the last few years.  Organizations are mostly still founder-driven with very little senior management, if any, beyond the founder. We therefore work quite intensively to fill in those gaps until we can train within or recruit from outside.

Is finding organizations that seem ready to be supported a problem at due diligence stage?

NN One of the biggest differences from the US and Europe is that most organizations in India don’t have a three-to-five-year plan, and a lot of the venture philanthropy model rests on that. So we have to do a lot more hand-holding than typical venture philanthropy organizations would do to get them to a point where they can say ‘we need x-millions of dollars to do x,y,z over the next five years’. That’s the reason for the Dasra Social-Impact programme: we needed some way to prepare a larger number of organizations for the amount of funding that wants to come to India.

We also needed to spend a lot more time building a relationship with the organizations so that we could be close enough to work with them. You can’t just bang on the table and say you want a board seat. When we started Impact Partners, we said we would always want a board seat, because that gives you more power to move the organization in some direction, but we realize that we don’t have to be very dogmatic about that. Often, at the point where the relationship becomes strong enough, they automatically invite us to be on the board. I think that’s one of the modifications we’ve made to the typical model.

Do you fund in particular fields, or will you fund any organization that is ready for support?

DS Our basic aim is to benefit the most marginalized communities. We focus on health, environment, education and livelihoods, because we’ve realized that there is no silver bullet answer to getting people out of poverty. So we work with a large array of organizations focusing on different issues and bring similar skill sets to them.

Marginalized groups aren’t a traditional focus for giving in India. Did you have a difficulty finding an initial group of donors to support you?

So far, fundraising has all happened through word of mouth, so donors have approached us rather than us approaching them. Our typical donor gives us about a quarter of a million dollars a year. They’ve done their own due diligence and research and realized that our model fits their business philosophy.

But it’s been easier for us to get this type of support from international donors. In terms of India, one of the things we’re doing is hosting an Indian Philanthropy Forum early next year, and the goal of that event is to kick off a drive to educate and nurture donors in India. I think last year alone the number of high-net-worth individuals grew by 22 per cent in India, yet giving from that group has been minimal, primarily because of a lack of knowledge. They still don’t know what’s out there, they don’t trust organizations, and they don’t have the time to focus on these areas along with their business or full-time jobs. The point of the forum and subsequent activities is to help this group with end-to-end solutions, enabling them to start giving more effectively to organizations focusing on marginalized communities.

We want to show them that it isn’t about creating a scholarship or a school or a hospital in their village, it’s about working at a macro level and understanding what the needs are. The new group of Indian high-net-worth individuals are fairly young. They’re open to investing in other areas; they are often from cities, so they don’t necessarily have an attachment to a particular village. They are looking to support India as a whole, and their businesses clearly have done so. So I think it’s going to be easier to work with newer philanthropists who are not as embedded in traditional ways of giving. And they have role models, like the Gates Foundation and Warren Buffett.

Were your original founding donors international funders or Indian donors?

There were two in India and two outside of India. In terms of their profiles, most have been senior managers, often founders or CEOs of companies, including Morgan Stanley, Yahoo, Shell, hedge funds, etc. There has been an array of entrepreneurs as well as people in the financial sector. I guess they relate to our hand-holding post-investment model, because they are either technology entrepreneurs who have achieved success because of that type of investment or people from a finance background. And because we share that background, we’re able to relate to them and they’re easier to access.

Can you tell me more about the India Philanthropy Forum

It will be held in February in Mumbai. We’re expecting 100 participants at the event – high-net-worth individuals who have the ability to give a lakh of rupees a month, or about $25,000 a year. We have about 30 speakers coming, from government, from other NGOs, alongside experts in environment, education, livelihoods and health. We’ve tied up with a few private wealth management companies, because a lot of them are looking at philanthropy now, and having Dasra support these needs for their clientele is a great way for them to enter the market.

We’re trying to get these individuals who have 20, 30, 40 years of experience in the field to talk about what’s going on and what the needs are, so the role for philanthropy becomes really clear.

Are there other venture philanthropy funds in India?

NN There are more social venture capital funds. The main difference is that they’re based on equity and debt funding, where we have focused primarily on grant funding. The SONG Network fund, for instance, invests in small and medium enterprises, and they expect their investments to derive returns. Acumen Fund, which has a base in India as well as in New York, operates in a similar way.

For us, part of the reason for the Indian Philanthropy Forum is to achieve more visibility for strategic grant-giving. Acumen Fund, which has been extremely successful, has also skewed philanthropy in India because poverty can’t be solved by market-based solutions alone. There are certain models that will always need to be subsidized, especially when your group is extremely marginalized; they just can’t afford to pay. What we’re trying to do through the Forum is to show people where equity plays a role and where philanthropy plays a role.

For the new philanthropists in India, giving money to an organization that gets it back and reuses it, as Acumen does, is clearly a very attractive option. We want to show that a more differentiated philanthropic market is needed.

Can you tell me about your relationship with LGT Venture Philanthropy?

DS We also have a joint venture partnership with LGT Venture Philanthropy in Zurich – they have a venture philanthropy fund investing globally. They work with people on the ground in each country, and in essence we are their Indian team. They have realized that having a team on the ground that has done this for the last ten years means they start high up the learning curve, and through the partnership we’ve got some fantastic access to capital and learning at a global level. I think this partnership has not only allowed us to bring tailor-made solutions to India, but in three to five years we’ll have the ability to expand the outreach of non-profit organizations that we’ve supported with them in India to other parts of the world through their networks – in China, Latin America, Africa and South East Asia. The partnership has given us a platform to learn, work and engage with their global team to create a model of philanthropy in which 80 per cent can be similar across boundaries and just 20 per cent needs to be modified to suit the particular country.

Do they have a similar arrangement anywhere else?

In the other countries that they’re in, I don’t think organizations like us, which have been around for ten years to create a network, exist. In India, they’ve realized that, although it’s a country, it’s definitely more complicated than most continents. So it’s better to have an on-the-ground partner, providing a lot of the hand-holding investment resources to these organizations. I think 30 to 40 per cent of their current portfolio is actually in India.

Do you have other partnerships similar to the one with LGT?

Yes, the Dasra Social-Impact programme is run through a partnership with Social-Impact International, which has the goal of providing a development programme for entrepreneurs who want to take their organization to the next level. Peter Wheeler [co-founder of New Philanthropy Capital in the UK] and his partners were very keen on this model being developed from within a developing country, as opposed to bringing in a methodology from abroad. Over the past year, we’ve helped them with the curriculum and implementation of the programme, and we have formed a strategic alliance where we’re actually running their programme in India and have 30 entrepreneurs that are part of it this year.

I think the success of Dasra over the past decade has been that we’ve been able to forge really strong partnerships with other organizations and tweak their model according to Indian needs.

India’s a huge place. There must be a need for a thousand Dasras. How big do you ideally feel you could be given that there is unlimited opportunity and many more overseas organizations who would like to work with you?

Enlisting the support of volunteers and mentors across the country has allowed us to scale our model up in a cost-effective way by having people close to these organizations working with them long-term. The business planning side (ie Dasra Social-Impact), we are looking to scale up quite aggressively, reaching out to 350 entrepreneurs in the next three years, and in that process tying up with leading management institutions. S P Jain, for example, has centres across the country, which can take this curriculum and implement it in other places.

Your own core team would surely have to grow a lot bigger to manage that?

NN Much of our approach is based on how we can leverage what already exists; it’s not about creating it all ourselves – which is why it makes sense to partner with S P Jain, for example. There are others in India that are very good at certain things and we need to build closer links with them. We would then play more of a managing, facilitating role, bringing in the expertise that we need from existing organizations. Over the next five years, we see ourselves growing from a team of 12 to a 30-member team. I think that is as far as we would like to go!

For more information

For more information on the Indian Philanthropy Forum in February 2010, please contact

Comments (1)

Ravishankar Rao

1) My colleagues and I wish to participate in DPW 2019. Can you please include my email id in your mailing list for this, for your newsletter (if any), and for updates on various events and activities of Dasra and its associates. 2) Where can I find more information about the India Philanthropy Forum? Thank you. Ravishankar Rao Executive Director Public Affairs Foundation Bangalore T: +91 80 27839918

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