Seven things to keep in mind before going the philanthropy route

Most importantly, see failure as a chance to learn, change, and evolve into a better, stronger organisation

Zarina Screwvala
Updated: Mar 29, 2022 10:51:36 AM UTC

Zarina Screwvala is the co-founder of the Swades Foundation & works full time as its Managing Trustee & Director. The Swades Foundation operates with the single-minded focus of empowering rural India through holistic and sustainable growth using its unique 360-degree model. The foundation has 270 full time staff serving 2000+ hamlets impacting over half a million people. Zarina was a co-founder of the media company UTV, where among other ventures, she created and launched several TV channels including Hungama, Bindass & UTV Movies. Zarina has a deep interest in philosophy and is a member of New Acropolis.

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Here are the seven things to empower rural lives that may also help you; Image: Shuttertock

If you are reading this article, chances are, you are either planning to start or have already started your philanthropic initiative. Or you have a keen interest in stories behind the people who aspire to create an impact in the world. While for many, philanthropy is for the wealthy or the old who wish to give away their money, it actually is much more than that. On a philanthropic journey, a philanthropist engages in research, learns and unlearns, makes choices, sets values and revisits them, and deals with the spreadsheets as every contribution to the cause they love deserves its story to be told, in numbers too. As Bill Gates said, "Effective philanthropy requires a lot of time and creativity—the same kind of focus and skills that building a business requires." I echo this and feel that starting a philanthropic journey can be a challenging road, but it is worth taking.

Our experiences as a small NGO called S.H.A.R.E., and scaling up the Swades Foundation in 2013 include rewarding experiences, challenges, failures, and we have learned to embrace all of them. While the internet is flooded with so many checklists to refer to, if you are willing to take the philanthropy route, here are the seven things that we have learned on our mission to empower rural lives that may also help you.

1. Going beyond charity to empowerment

When you begin a philanthropic initiative, it is common to pick sides, but honestly, charity and empowerment go hand-in-hand. Charity addresses a pressing need of the community by supporting money, gifts, or services, while empowerment is all about giving power to the community in the form of organisations, tools, or education and information that will enable them to address their needs themselves. With Covid-19, we saw many philanthropies who not only worked on answering the immediate need of meals, medical and protective equipment, but also ensured the long-term recovery of the impacted ones through efforts in livelihoods, skilling, education, and behaviour change for Covid-19 vaccination.

2. Failure is inevitable, don’t be scared by it

Encourage your team on the ground to bring bad news, failures, and any other issues up fast. Don’t shoot the messenger but listen and pivot. If you deal with failure well, it builds trust not only with your staff but also with the community. Of course, share all the successes wholeheartedly and celebrate a lot, keep your team and the community inspired.

3. Community ownership

Every life you are going to touch in your philanthropic journey is valuable and has something to contribute. It is essential to understand your community, love and respect them as they open up to you. In my experience, this is what we have done over the years and this learning has come from many failures. Adopting a push versus pull approach instils community ownership. Pushing communities to meet your goals might not create much impact. But, when community members express their needs and set their own goals for prosperity, you have begun to anchor your empowerment process. The next probable step is to connect them to government schemes or even other non-profit organisations and help them where you can. Testing the community's buy-in and their convening power has helped us see many achievements that the villagers have achieved themselves. While this may even feel hard-hearted, it is worth it. When every member of the community contributes something, it gives them a stake in the process. It can be in part of a small proportion of the cost or in the form of voluntary labour. It fills them with a sense of ownership and pride.

4. Collaborate, don’t compete

Accepting your gaps and collaborating for partnerships for specialised support helps you create a larger impact. Implementing our holistic model of rural development we learned that it is not possible to work alone. It helps in scaling up operations and reaching out. We learned this in our years in media and film. Doing everything yourself is like trying to produce, direct, act and choreograph a film yourself. It is best avoided. During the first and second waves of the pandemic, we saw numerous partnerships between non-profits, government, and corporates. For Covid-19 vaccinations, many non-profits have partnered with state and district administrations and have played a huge part in the successful inoculation of citizens.

5. Establishing a mission statement for your charity

Once you decide on the cause and strategy for your philanthropy, you can establish a clear mission statement. The mission statement should sum up the essence and purpose of your organisation. A clear mission statement helps you to explain yourself to the community you serve, to all your partners, to donors, and the general public. Most importantly it serves to unite your staff under a clear goal with a clear direction.

6. Strengthen your team on the field

Truly, we would be nowhere without our dedicated team, 80 percent of whom are on the field. When your team has the required heart, head, and hands you just add many more who believe and work to create the impact you wish to see. For this, you have to lead the way and be with the community members and understand them more and more. It's a learning that all the time you spend with your community, you and your team will learn at least one new thing about the community.

7. Identify your supporters

Besides your team and the community you serve, your biggest supporters are corporates and individuals who align with the purpose, principles, and processes of your philanthropy. Sharing your organisation's impact, stories and field notes with them will continue to strengthen your relationship and attract potential donors. If the corporates' beliefs, goals, and visions for charity align with your purpose, your donour relationships strengthen more and become your biggest allies. Also, working with the government is a must if you wish to scale.

In the end, I hope that the road to empowering and transforming those in need brings you the inspiration and joy that it has brought to us. Don’t be put off when you fail, but recognise the failure as a genuine opportunity to learn, change and evolve into a better, stronger organisation.

The writer is the co-founder, managing trustee and director of the Swades Foundation.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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