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December 18, 2017

The Do-Gooders: Neera Nundy And Deval Sanghavi

Text by Tina Dastur

In conversation with the social entrepreneurs, Neera Nundy and Deval Sanghavi of Dasra, we learn how they are striving to help the underprivileged in India by setting up a system for strategic funding that maximises impact

Even though they both grew up in the West, Neera Nundy and Deval Sanghavi were always aware of the disparities that wracked the social fabric in their homeland. While Sanghavi’s first tryst with India’s poor came when he volunteered at a slum in Mumbai’s Grant Road area, Nundy gained a deeper insight when her mother opened a boarding school for tribal children just outside Kolkata. After meeting and working together at Morgan Stanley on Wall Street, the couple decided to transfer the skills they had acquired in the corporate world to the not-for-profit sector. While Sanghavi quit his job and moved to India to start Dasra in 1999, Nundy completed her degree from Harvard Business School, and joined him four years hence, in 2003.

Over the course of time, the couple (married by then) realised that while philanthropists and institutions were giving funds to NGOs, these organisations were often not equipped to effectively allocate their resources and leverage them. Dasra’s lens then froze on helping these organisations manage their resources more efficiently so that they could scale their operations.

Today, through their many collaborations with governments, academic institutions, donors and international organisations, Dasra has enabled systemic change. Via their myriad programmes like Dasra Girl Alliance, Dasra Giving Circle and Dasra Philanthropy Week, the organisation has impacted the lives of millions below the poverty line.

Excerpts from an interaction with Neera Nundy and Deval Sanghavi:

On Dasra
Nundy: “We were quite young when we started. We saw this as a real opportunity and, at the time, it didn’t seem like we were risking too much. Because of the exposure we had, whether it was Morgan Stanley or working with non-profits, we realised that there was a role we could play to bridge the distance between where funding is (educating donors to be more strategic in their giving) and the NGOs so that they could use those funds in the most optimum manner. So, we like to call ourselves an NGO for NGOs because that’s really where a lot of our motivation comes from.”

On the story behind the name
Sanghavi: “Dasra itself means ‘enlightened giving’. The word hails from a Vedic text. Twin brothers, Dasra and Satya, were both physicians to the gods. And, we realised very quickly that the organisations we were working with were doing god’s work — like providing healthcare, education, shelter, rights, dignity and equity. We wanted to help them perform more effectively, and so we settled on the name Dasra. Today, we see ourselves as physicians to NGOs, enabling them to create greater impact.”

On challenges faced
Sanghavi: “When we first started, it was daunting to even meet the heads of organisations because many of them said, ‘Look, we just want money; we don’t want hands-on support’ or ‘If you give us money, let us do what we want with it’. Then, with the funders, the challenge lay in convincing them to fund management costs and scale the organisations, even putting three-to-five-year operational plans in place. We literally started from ground zero, building relationships with organisations on the ground by providing them capacity-building support, enabling them to realise why focusing on institutional building would be relevant. And on the donor’s side, the task was educating them on what the gaps in the sector were and teaching them how they could give more strategically.”

On Dasra’s concept of ‘strategic giving’
Sanghavi: “Strategic giving has multiple components. Number one is researching and understanding what the root cause of the problem is. Many donors and non-profits focus on quick-fix solutions instead of looking at the root cause. Number two is providing support to these organisations and putting in place three-to-five-year operational plans. So, it involves capacity building and pre-funding of sorts. And thirdly, post funding, just like it works with private equity, you provide managerial support to these organisations. So, you’re partnering with them to create impact on the ground versus having a basic donor-donee relationship.”

On what they hope to achieve
Sanghavi: “We realised that education is critical — not just for the NGO but also for the giver. Many times, donors think, ‘How can my 100 or 1,00,000 rupees or 1 crore make a difference?’ versus flipping the question to say, ‘How can I help the country achieve zero poverty by this year?’ And when you start thinking broadly about what the country needs, you start realising the need to learn from each other and give collaboratively. So, through that approach, we created giving platforms like Dasra Giving Circle and Dasra Girl Alliance, where we bring a variety of givers together to focus on a few key outcomes. So, you have a group of donors that are pushing for those outcomes alongside a group of organisations — and it moves beyond just ‘Are you doing business as usual?’ to identifying whether you are scaling the impact…and then taking that intervention to the government so they can actually use that to affect a much larger group of individuals.

On Dasra’s approach
Nundy: “It’s taken a bit of time to move individuals from ‘Writing a cheque is great because you do need funding’ to ‘What more can you support the sector with?’ A lot of what Dasra has tried to do has been to bring about thought leadership, which is basically helping people understand the sector.”

In the pipeline for 2018
Nundy: “It’s been 18 years since we started. For us, the future is about collaborations and building platforms to engage multiple stakeholders. At Dasra, we’ve decided that we want to be ambitious about statistics, evidence and building capabilities in the sectors.”

Sanghavi: “There has been — and continues to be — a large amount of wealth that has been generated within the country. We have large family businesses that are now looking at setting up family foundations and contributing huge capital to the sector in the next 10 to 15 years. Using our networks, we want to enable a much larger group of Indians to actively participate in philanthropy and create greater impact than what they can individually do. Another big thing for us is to help India achieve its sustainable development goals — and for this, we will work closely with philanthropists, family foundations, corporates as well as NGOs, government and media. In certain sectors such as sanitation and adolescence, we’re going to go deeper.”

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