Invest in an A-team for impact: expert

Dasra’s Deval Sanghavi says nonprofits and foundations must move from shared learning to shared action to make a difference

India’s philanthropists must do more to improve how foundations are run if they want to boost impact, according to Deval Sanghavi, cofounder of Dasra, a nonprofit network dedicated to promoting strategic philanthropy.

More investment in management and in building up institutions around giving is needed among nonprofits and philanthropists alike if the sector is to blossom and make inroads into the country’s deep social problems, Sanghavi told Philanthropy Age.

“There was an ivory tower feel that many philanthropists had. But we’re starting to see that change,” he said. “It’s important to be nimble when you start an initiative. But – when you have a model that works – there is a huge requirement to invest in management.”

India’s donors have some work to do. The country ranks 130 out of 188 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index. And while the country has made great strides – notably wiping out polio, and getting more children into primary school – still around 10 per cent of children aged 6-13 are out-of-school, according to data from India’s National Sample Survey Organisation.

“You have to make sure you are adding to the sector, not creating a parallel initiative” India’s philanthropic landscape has changed since Dasra started working in 1999 mainly due to evolving attitudes towards collaboration, according to Sanghavi. While giving has long been part of Indian culture, many philanthropists used to work in silos. The boom of Indian business and economic growth has also brought forth new donors, as business leaders bring capital, expertise and their “core competences” to the table, he noted. At the same time, the government is more honest about the challenges India faces.

“Admitting that 731 million people [in India] still need toilets, for example, is the first step to engaging the whole country to work on these causes,” said Sanghavi. “The government is much more open now to working with the private sector to create impact on the ground. The conversation has moved on from building toilets to managing waste and not polluting waterways.”

The next step for India’s philanthropists and social entrepreneurs is to move from shared learning to shared action – or partnerships, according to Dasra. Many donors are moved to act because of a need they’ve seen, but few consider what is already being done and what they can do to avoid duplication or build on existing efforts. “You have to make sure you are adding to the sector, not creating a parallel initiative,” said Sanghavi.

“You need talent to solve problems on a large scale”Still, strategic philanthropy has a way to go in India – as elsewhere – in part because of the scale of the remaining challenges. “No-one can sit here and think we’ve solved problems by being strategic,” observed Sanghavi. “Fifty years ago the need to build infrastructure was critical. Now, you see some of the same [philanthropic] families shift focus from hardware to software – it’s about behavioural change and a focus on quality. That’s where philanthropic capital can play a role.”

Other hurdles facing donors are poor data on giving in India, and a lack of transparency both from philanthropists and nonprofits. More investment is needed on due diligence and vetting of NGOs, on the one hand, and building the capacity of nonprofits to fulfil those obligations on the other, said Sanghavi. “The absorption capacity of organisations is a challenge,” he said. “You need talent to solve problems on a large scale.”

Founded in 1999, Dasra aims to promote strategic philanthropy in India by helping donors share lessons and build partnerships to kickstart social change. It also backs research into the sector and helps build the capacity of nonprofits and social enterprises. The Mumbai-based foundation has helped mobilise more than $51m into the social sector and advised 730 social organisations since its launch, according to the foundation.

Dasra also holds annual events to support India’s philanthropists. The next Dasra Philanthropy Week, held from 27 February to 4 March, will include events for foundations and social enterprises to share experiences. The focus this year is on support for India’s adolescents, as well as the launch of new research mapping different donor types in India.

To take a look at some of the lessons Dasra shares, click here.