India experiences the joy of giving

As the UK announces plans to halt its aid to India and NGOs draw funding out of rural areas to focus more on the burgeoning towns and cities, DiA’s 5-month India Volunteer Sam Oakley, who is volunteering with partner organisation Seva Mandir, reports on a local big society initiative that has taken the subcontinent by storm.

People gather at the mall. Photo: Sam Oakley

People gather at the mall. Photo: Sam Oakley

For the majority of September and October, Seva Mandir was involved in the India Giving Challenge, India’s first solely online fundraising campaign. It was the second time that this online campaign has been run, something which has stemmed from the gradual rise to prominence of Joy of Giving Week (JGW).

JGW is a now annual event beginning on 2 October, with the premise of expanding the culture of giving back that is perhaps slightly absent from the emerging Indian middle-class. It’s a fascinating concept which shows just how India’s attitudes towards charity are changing.JGW first took place in 2009 and was the brainchild of a number of NGOs who were all looking to find a way to raise greater awareness for charitable causes in general. It is now an annual, centralised campaign with the goal of bringing Indians together from all walks of life to celebrate giving back to the community. The point here is not to push fundraising per se, but to encourage engagement with charitable processes in general. This is hugely important for NGOs such as Seva Mandir. Money raised in small individual donations is, of course, always greatly received but if there can be a shift in Indian culture towards a long-term association with the work of NGOs, the benefits are far more sustainable.

In keeping with this theme of raising awareness of their work, Seva Mandir, for the first time in its history, ran an event a local shopping centre for JGW. The event was held at Celebration Mall, a new shopping complex that has been built within the last year on the eastern outskirts of Udaipur. The venue itself is a rather strange environment with a great number of expensive designer shops as well as a multi-screen cinema and a McDonalds, particularly odd when contrasted with the rather barren land that lies outside. But it is a place of significantly high footfall and a clientele with whom Seva Mandir is eager to engage. It is this new, middle-class clientele that JGW is particularly aimed at. The whole point of the event is to raise awareness among this particular section of society of the idea of giving back.

For Seva Mandir, the event was very much a learning experience about the ways in which it is going to have to change its approach to fundraising. With the Indian government now making all corporate companies give 2% of their profits to non-profits, there is an increasing withdrawal of big-money donors from abroad, as the government wishes to portray the message that India can now take care of its own. While this is certainly an admirable philosophy, it’s clear that India is not yet ready for this; it can’t simply fast-forward its own development for the sake of its burgeoning international reputation. Seva Mandir faces a great dilemma in the near future as its patterns of funding adjust to this new climate, and events like the one held at Celebration Mall may well become more commonplace as it seeks to move on from the reliance on corporate and foreign donors and looks to more directly appeal to the local community.

The signs from the event itself have to be seen as positive. The idea was that people in the mall would come up to the stand that had been set up and write messages for children in the rural schools in which Seva Mandir operates. These messages would be written on what was called “leaves”, and attached to the “giving trees”. There was a fantastic response and many people seemed genuinely interested in the work that Seva Mandir does and were eager to show that they were engaging with the idea of giving. The crucial factor for the future is finding a way to convert this interest into extended engagement with Seva Mandir’s projects.

Direct community outreach in this sense is something that Seva Mandir has never really involved itself in. There are a number of reasons for this, but an important one to note is that Rajasthan is traditionally one of India’s poorer states. Particularly in the area that Seva Mandir works, Udaipur is the only major town and even then it is one that has only witnessed recent growth. Consequently, I don’t think it would be unfair to say that the community has generally been quite a distant player in Seva Mandir’s affairs. Following on from the relatively positive experience at the two-day mall event, the resource mobilisation unit (RMU) of
Seva Mandir is now beginning to look at ways of capitalising on this interaction.

But this is far from a straightforward task. Particularly as the population of Udaipur becomes second and third generation urban residents, the link to their rural history has the potential to weaken. Without the element of familiarity that the difficulty of life within the village brings, it can be tough to encourage participation in Seva Mandir’s programmes. Of course, this is far from a universal trend, but it is one that would seem to have precedent in India. There can be little denying that NGOs with an urban focus have an easier time in raising funds and promoting their own work. As India’s population becomes increasingly urban, the idea of empathy of donors with the cause of urban NGOs seems more of a reality than with their rural counterparts.

To see this idea in action, you only have to look at the totals raised by the respective NGOs in the India Giving Challenge. The winning charity was Parivaar Education Society, which raised a startling Rs. 8,147,140 (just over £93,000) with Teach for India coming second with Rs. 7,341,412 (approx. £84,000). Parivaar works in West Bengal, explicitly with disadvantaged children in urban areas, with a focus on helping children who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. The fact that this remarkable total was raised by only 84 unique donors goes some way to showing how a readily identifiable cause can be utilised in encouraging large individual contributions.

Teach for India, while working explicitly on education, has one huge advantage insofar as it describes itself as “a nationwide movement of outstanding college graduates and young professionals working towards eliminating educational inequity in India”. It’s clear here that the scope of its goals vastly outstrip those of Seva Mandir, albeit in scope only as opposed to delivery. An NGO of this size has an international appeal and again, a specific cause with which all Indians can identify. Attempting to help tribal populations in Rajasthan deliver services which the government does not provide is understandably more difficult to identify with.

The total which Seva Mandir raised came to Rs. 193,135 (£2,210), an admirable, if not slightly humble, total. This still places it comfortably in the top half of all the NGOs competing but is clear evidence of the competitive market which fundraising is moving into. Seva Mandir works where it does for a reason; the people of Southern Rajasthan desperately need their help. Moreover, they need empowering and not handouts. As such, when competing in a national competition aimed at raising funds it is clear that Seva Mandir has a disadvantage because the whole ethos of the NGO is that helping these people is about more than just financial resources. And yet, money is still so very important to help facilitate this empowerment. It is a conundrum that Seva Mandir needs to solve and a solution can only necessarily be found in getting local people to more actively engage with the NGO itself.

The idea of online campaigning and fundraising is one, as I have said, that is relatively new in India. It is clearly the future though and this is something which Seva Mandir is certainly realising. The RMU and various volunteers assisted in the Children of Udaipur campaign, which involved a number of different initiatives to try and spread the message of the rural schools around which the campaign was centered. There is unlimited scope and potential for operations like this in the future and Seva Mandir is now realising how imperative a strict strategy is for making them a success.

While the amount raised in the India Giving Challenge may have fallen disappointingly short of the ambitious target of Rs. 480,000 (approx £5,500), the lessons learnt throughout the two months and the relative success of the Joy of Giving Week event have laid a platform for a revolution in how Seva Mandir thinks about its future fundraising. In much the same way as Joy of Giving Week is designed to help change the attitudes of the Indian people, it can also help NGOs reassess their own goals in what is a dramatically changing environment.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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