Dasra has changed the face of giving in India

Deval Sanghavi and Neera Nundy ditched lucrative jobs in the US to steer philanthropic initiatives in India in the right direction

Published: Dec 31, 2014 06:08:11 AM IST
Updated: Dec 24, 2014 01:05:06 PM IST
Dasra has changed the face of giving in India
Image: Joshua Navalkar
Deval Sanghavi and Neera Nundy

Philanthropy isn’t new to Lynne and Peter Smitham. Neither are quality management practices.

Peter, chairman of private equity firm Actis, leads the board of The Atlantic Philanthropies, a foundation that has made grants of over $6.5 billion, drawing from an endowment made by US billionaire Chuck Feeney. Lynne is a management development consultant.

So, they didn’t want any half measures while supporting a constituency close to their hearts: Adolescent girls in India, a largely neglected group vulnerable to early marriage, violence and unemployment. The group accounts for nearly 11 percent of the Indian population, yet remains invisible.

In 2010, the Smithams commissioned a study to map women’s empowerment among poor communities in eight backward states. The report aimed to identify states/regions most in need of support. The study identified Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, where organisations working in these areas received little support. The Smithams had set up the Kiawah Trust to fund projects focussed on girls in India and sub-Saharan Africa (but they wanted to ensure they had the right local partners).

During a two-week trip to India in early 2012, the Smithams were hosted by Deval Sanghavi and Neera Nundy, a young couple who stood out for their approach to solving social problems. The two were founders of Dasra, an NGO they had started with the hope of changing the face of giving in India. “In the two weeks we spent with them from morning to night, we travelled to projects on dusty roads and in smelly slums. We met with their people and started to understand how they worked,’’ recalls Peter. “They were not just raising funds for other NGOs, but more significantly, they were helping them think strategically and scale up.”

In many ways, Deval and Neera spoke the same language as the Smithams. The couple had started their careers in investment banking in the US. In 1999, Deval quit his job at Morgan Stanley when he realised his true calling: Working with the underprivileged in India. Neera, who has a degree from Harvard Business School, joined him in 2003.

When they set up Dasra, it was more like a philanthropy fund. Over the years, the founders have played a pivotal role in incubating and scaling up organisations. Impressed by their approach, the Smithams urged them to create a separate unit within Dasra—focussed on adolescent girls—which they would fund. It was set up in 2012 and, in March 2013, it grew to become a full-fledged five-year initiative called the Dasra Girl Alliance.

Soon, Deval got USAID (US Agency for International Development) to join the alliance. This was the first time the US government agency had funded a private initiative. In March 2014, the project got another boost when the Piramal Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Piramal group, committed funds to it. Having built up scale, they will now direct a funding of Rs 150 crore to empower adolescent girls, mothers and children. The target is to change the lives of one million girls by 2018.

Deval and Neera’s work has been on two fronts: Handholding NGOs to achieve scale and sustainability, and working with philanthropists to help them understand a problem and solve it. “When we started off, our focus was more on the impact of our work,” says Deval. “Over time, we realised we had to create a mechanism to get funders involved. The Dasra Giving Circles were born when we were able to get small groups of high networth individuals together. Each circle has 10 members. To find a seat at the table, a member has to commit to giving Rs 10 lakh a year, for at least three years. It is like a peer group helping out with a particular social problem.”