Culture of giving still at a nascent stage in India: Smile Foundation

Inspired by Peter Senge, Founder of Society for Organisational Learning, a group of young corporate professionals came together in 2002 to set up Smile Foundation to work with grassroots initiatives for effecting positive changes in the lives of underprivileged children, their families and communities.

Today, Smile Foundation has more than 400 welfare projects operational in 2,000 villages and communities spread across 25 states.

Santanu Mishra, Co-Founder & Executive Trustee of Smile Foundation, told IANS that the tracking mechanism, efficient delivery of services and measuring programme impact on the ground are going to be more robust, and Cloud technology and AWS have helped them use data effectively towards achieving that.

Here are the excerpt from an interview:

Q1. What is the idea and vision behind the Smile Foundation?

A: Smile Foundation was initiated in 2002 when a group of friends came together with the intention of giving back to the society. We were inspired by the thought and philosophy of Peter Senge, the founder of the Society for Organizational Learning who has propagated that “sustainability, social equality and the environment are now business problems and corporate leaders can’t depend on the governments to solve them…”

What triggered our thoughts was the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990’s which had brought with it a lot of positivity, hope and immense opportunities.

Business revived, and India became not just a market, but also an investment prospect for the developed world. Professionals like us, particularly those in the areas of finance and strategy, were the first ones to benefit from the transforming economy. Disposable incomes and settling down early became a reality for the working middle-class.

For the first time in India, professionals could think beyond just making a living, and contribute towards society.

Fuelled with enthusiasm, we gave a shape to our dream, and Smile Foundation was born. Having almost no experience of the development sector, and being committed to our respective careers, we thought it best to rely on the knowledge and expertise of development professionals, and let experienced social sector leaders take lead in the day-to-day operations and management of Smile Foundation.

Q2. What innovations has Smile Foundation brought into the non-profit space?

A: In the initial years of Smile Foundation, the Indian economy had seen an unprecedented rise, forcing the developed (or higher income) countries to rethink their priorities, and the international grants that had been a major resource pool for the Indian development sector started drying up.

This trend was further augmented with the onset of recession in 2007, when the western world started focusing on their own economic turbulences rather than investing in social ventures in the developing (or middle income) countries. Many Indian non-profits had to close their doors, while others were forced to rethink their core values and change their modus operandi in the new environment.

On the one hand, the conventional resources of the development sector like international grants were dwindling every day, on the other, both the corporate and individual giving culture in India were still at a nascent stage. But where others saw challenges, we saw opportunities. Amidst all these adversities, we resolved to not just survive the odds, but also evolve as a sustainable Indian social institution — committed to do real work on the ground, and make the society and businesses inclusive in the process of bringing change.

With this seemingly impossible dream in our hearts, we set out on the challenging and yet immensely rewarding journey of spreading smiles across the country. On our way, we had to make many difficult choices and constantly innovate – whether it was choosing to work on the ground through a service-delivery approach, practicing management principles and adopting a business-like approach in the development sector, creating a unique resource modeling keeping businesses at the centre, or promoting the concept of civic driven change. Yes, we almost always took the road less travelled, and as they say, that has made all the difference.

Today, when we look back on our journey of the last 15 years, we feel privileged to have been able to impact the lives of more than 1.5 million children and families every year, with the efforts of thousands of committed, passionate people including teachers, doctors, community mobilisers, trainers, development professionals, grassroots community organisations, and with the love and support of over 350 global brands, 5000 schools, hundreds of colleges, millions of children, youth, volunteers and individual supporters.

Q3. Tell us about the reach of your work. What are your plans for the next couple of years?

A: Smile Foundation has more than 400 welfare projects operational in 2,000 villages and communities spread across 25 states of India. It covers areas such as education, healthcare, skilling and livelihood, women empowerment, etc. We would like to create more synergy with both governmental and corporate efforts and thus help expedite the process of development at the grassroots.

Smile Foundation will also continue to deploy appropriate technological solutions in project management and governance. The objective is to achieve better efficiency, optimise resources, promote good governance and create lasting impact on the ground.

Q. What types of challenges do you face while working and how do you solve them?

A: One of Smile Foundation’s major challenges is the difficulty in finding the right professionals such as doctors, teachers, project managers and community workers to work in remote areas. Also, retaining these professionals is another major problem as tackling development issues is a serious, long term and complex endeavour.

As corporations form the majority of our resource pool, one of the challenges is to meet the gaps between the output-driven expectations of the corporate and the outcome based impact that the social sector is designed to deliver. Generally speaking, in the development sector, input is not always equal to the output.

There are so many subjective processes and outputs which one needs to understand and appreciate. The social impact of a project on the ground can not immediately and fully be measured in figures; rather it is long-term and can be observed in the changing behaviour patterns and habits of a community. However, post the CSR mandate, as the corporate are becoming increasingly involved in development initiatives, they are also beginning to understand the dynamics of the social sector.

Even though our economy is surging ahead, and the income levels of individuals are multiplying, the giving culture in the country is still at a nascent stage. Individuals are generally inclined more towards religious giving, and are less likely to contribute towards social causes. It will take time for the Indian society to wake up to philanthropy, but the scenario has started changing and is hopefully going to get better in the coming years.

This sector has been struggling with trust deficit so changing the perception of people is another major task which we face. One big challenge of our sector is the lack of regulation and organisation.

Sometimes, we have to work in an imperfect environment. Although things are changing now, it will take some more time for it to be perfect. Self-governance can be a solution for the development sector. Smile Foundation has always been very particular in following and promoting practices of good governance.

Q. What are some of the emerging technologies that will further reshape education, healthcare and livelihood over the next 4-5 years?

A: Next few years are going to be interesting for these sectors from the perspective of evolving technology. The tracking mechanism, efficient delivery of services and measuring programme impact on the ground are going to be more robust. Organisations working in these areas can also optimize operational efficiency and amplify outcome thanks to advanced and innovative technological solutions.

Education will witness newer online tech for teaching and learning. Monitoring tools for observing real-time performance of students are also possibilities. Among many innovations in healthcare, virtual consultation with super specialists even in remote areas will be a reality. Efficient tracking mechanism for specific diseases is also within reach. Skilling and livelihood sector will benefit from imparting in-demand skills and doing better employability mapping.

Q. What has cloud technology and AWS helped you to do that you couldn’t do before?

A: Cloud technology and AWS have helped us to use data effectively. With the help of Salesforce, we are able to track, manage and build effective engagement solutions for our support to provide regular updates and information and on the other hand, AWS gives us a useful means to host our donation platform which ensures better security. It also enables us in reducing cost through continuous optimization and effective utilization of resources in the long run.

Further, cloud technology has helped us manage our youth employability skill training programme, named STeP, more effectively across India. In healthcare, the Beneficiary Management System is making management of patient databases smoothly. In Smile on Wheels, the mobile healthcare programme, we are managing the supply chain of medicines pan India with the use of cloud technology.

Education Scholarship Management System has made the entire process of enrollment of students, assessment, disbursement of scholarships and funds for the students from primary school till engineering. We are planning to take a few more infrastructure on AWS in the near future. We believe this will help us achieve resource optimization soon.

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