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When We Put People First, Development Will Follow

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By Nimesh Sumati

Most of the time when I used to accompany the founders of nonprofits to meet different funders, especially corporates, nobody was interested in the story and journey of the founders–the struggles they had gone through, the sacrifices they had made, the challenges they faced; all they cared for was sustainability, replicability and scalability.

But without understanding the founder’s journey, background and mindset, it’s hard to understand the nonprofit and what it will achieve over time. Once you understand the journey, of say, Dr Sunil and Jenny—a couple in Assam who founded The Ant, and understand what they are up against, your expectations will become more realistic. For instance, in the border areas where they work, there are three very different communities that co-exist, and natural floods and riots are frequent. They, therefore, cannot scale as a normal mainland organisation would.

People who do not understand the context will look at their balance sheet and say, “they have been working for 12 years and don’t seem to have done much”. Donors don’t always understand the local situation and its complexities and will judge the nonprofit by parameters that are applied in the mainland; they must realise that a worm’s eye view is as important as a bird’s eye view.

Invest in people, not in projects

At Caring Friends–the giving network Ramesh Kacholiaji founded and I joined about 13 years ago–we are not focused on any one sector. We invest in people and their passion, and we encourage our network of associates – smaller philanthropists, many of whom are first time givers—to also apply the same lens. In the past 13 years, we have enabled more than 500 people to give upwards of a few hundred crores to more than 100 small and medium nonprofits in our country.

Related article: There is a lack of supporting infrastructure for first-time givers

The work of identifying the organisations, understanding their work and impact, conducting the due diligence and then engaging with them on an ongoing basis, is done by us at Caring Friends (CF). And in the process of doing this, we have learnt and unlearnt many lessons along the way.

Go beyond the paperwork

The Caring Friends relationship with a nonprofit typically starts with a token donation from either Rameshji or me and a few of our friends. We don’t believe in signing MoUs because MoUs don’t protect you from anything. If they are violated, what can you really do? Instead, it makes more sense to spend time with the organisation, see the strength and potential of the staff, the quality of work, the region and circumstances the nonprofit works in.

Once these organisations become part of the CF family, we conduct regular visits. We also receive reports periodically, though they are not a condition for future donations.

We understand where the nonprofits are coming from: if they spend their time doing paperwork, when will they do the actual work? Their passion is to work on the field, with the communities. The paperwork is therefore kept to the minimum.

Trust your nonprofit partner from the get-go

Projects can get delayed, costs can increase by, say, 10%; but integrity and honesty cannot be measured in percentages. A person is either honest or not. Trust cannot be conditional. I cannot say that I can only trust a nonprofit up to ₹20 lakh. If I don’t trust them, then even one lakh is too much to give. If I trust them, then even ₹10 crore isn’t too much.

We have seen that everything else falls into place when we carry out the due diligence process with a spirit of trust. If, however, it is based predominantly on documents – checking if the 12A and 80G are in place, whether the last three years’ balance sheets are there, if the bills are in place and the funds used – the process can be manipulated, and even the auditors won’t be able to detect it. Figuring out whether you trust the nonprofit or not relieves you from having to worry about the day-to-day.

To be a real partner, support people–founders as well as staff | Photo courtesy: Charlotte Anderson

Help them identify blind spots, and fill the gaps

Once you’ve spent time with a nonprofit, you might see gaps that are invisible to them. Funding both what they ask for and what helps fill these gaps is important. As donors, we might not have the experience that founders have, but we might be able to develop the understanding of what is required; experience and understanding are two different things, and it’s possible to have one without the other.

Auditing nonprofit partners is important, but it should be done with a view to improve rather than investigate. The objective should be to look at their programmes and organisations and see if there are suggestions that can help them.

Organisations are built by people; support them in different forms

A donor’s decision to invest in a nonprofit is driven a great deal by the ability, quality and mindset of the founder. In a similar vein, the areas of support must also focus heavily on people.

At Caring Friends, for instance, we have created staff welfare funds at several of our partner nonprofits. At one organisation the second-in-command—working there for the past 25 years—draws a salary of just ₹15,000. Where will he go if he needs ₹2 lakh for his children’s college fees? At another nonprofit we support, the staff are heavily indebted–with some of them borrowing at rates of interest as high as 36%.

So, we created a staff welfare fund for employees who have worked for three years or more at the organisation. This can be in the form of a grant or loan. The nonprofit founder and an internal committee—which must have at least two women–run this fund and allocate money as they deem fit.

Likewise, we also have an informal founders’ trust. We can’t give the money directly to a founder because then they will be indebted to us, they will feel compelled to listen to whatever we have to say. There is no balance in such a relationship. It, therefore, has to be a trust so that the founders don’t know who is giving to them. The relationship is then not one of indebtedness.

This doesn’t cost much. So far, in the five years since setting it up, we’ve spent ₹15 lakh. Most founders—even those working on grassroots issues and drawing a modest salary—just don’t ask for their personal needs; but the idea is that if they do need this money, it’s available to them. I believe that we need more founders’ trusts in the country; it is a tribute to their work and their sacrifices and not an obligation.

Funders rarely look at the staff and founder welfare; they look at the capacity building and encourage people to attend workshops, but sometimes fail to look at people’s needs. This is particularly needed in older, more traditional nonprofits who do great work on the ground but are not necessarily able to present their work in a way that today’s funders expect.

This article was originally published in India Development Review. You can view it here.

About the author:

Nimesh Sumati has spearheaded the growth of Caring Friends since 2005. His main focus is on quality and to strengthen the organisational fundamentals. A keen social entrepreneur, he recognises a social problem and undertakes painstaking research and background checks to identify credible and efficient social organisations in that space for ‘Caring Friends’ to support, nurture and grow. He is very passionate about visiting all CF associated organisations in different states in India on a regular basis, many times with new potential donors and supporters.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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