Magic Bus builds on Indian model to become a global NGO

Indian not-for-profit organizations are finding takers for their development model in other countries


A file photo of Matthew Spacie. Magic Bus, which has rolled out its global operations in London with a pilot project in January in two schools, plans to begin operations in four more in London in September. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
A file photo of Matthew Spacie. Magic Bus, which has rolled out its global operations in London with a pilot project in January in two schools, plans to begin operations in four more in London in September. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Mumbai: When Cleartrip co-founder Matthew Spacie founded Magic Bus in 1999, it was an idea that sprung out of Mumbai’s slums. Magic Bus, a not-for-profit organisation, is today on course to reaching out to 4,50,000 children in 22 states in India this year, and has big global plans.

Spacie, a 48-year-old British national, said he wants to make Magic Bus a multinational organisation. In fact, it rolled out its international operations in London with a pilot in January in two public schools.

Over the next two years, he wants to take Magic Bus to Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Indonesia.

The non-governmental organisation (NGO) will roll out its programme in four more schools in London in September. It has also partnered with a government agency for creating a programme that will be implemented in select government primary schools and funded by the UK government.

The NGO uses an activity-based curriculum to address a variety of issues such as gender equality, health, education and livelihoods through a 10-year mentoring programme.

Magic Bus has traditionally raised more than 50% of its funds from international donors like BMW Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Coca-Cola Foundation and has fund-raising offices in countries such as the UK, the US, Germany and Singapore.

“After seeing our work in India, there has been a lot of interest from countries such as the UK, the US and Singapore to contextualize our Indian programme to their country. It is a fallacy that there is no poverty in the developed world,” said Spacie.

In 2013, there were 3.5 million children, or 27% of all children, living in poverty in the UK, according to the UK government’s Department for Work and Pensions.

A high proportion of children in the UK schools partnering Magic Bus come from disadvantaged families. The NGO engages with children in the age group of seven to 11 years and early teenage girls to address social and emotional issues that lead to violence, drug addiction and teenage pregnancies.

“We use activities like football and basketball, and use metaphors from sport to deliver our curriculum to build their social and emotional skills, which is the model we use in India, but to address different issues,” said Priyanka Sharma, programme manager, Magic Bus UK.

“We will partner with the development sector and NGOs and build a curriculum on a need-based audit in these countries. Ultimately, it will be a childhood to livelihood programme,” said Spacie.

Magic Bus has engaged Thinkthrough Consulting, a CSR (corporate social responsibility) consultancy firm, to understand the different legal and administrative structures in different countries. It is also working with Bain and Co. on a uniform strategy across countries it will now operate in.

As Magic Bus expands, it will create regional hubs in Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, the UK and the US. These hubs will be responsible for fund-raising, developing programmes and launching operations for countries in that region.

Going global will increase the NGO’s international exposure, which will translate into greater funding opportunities from large donors. “We are not going to see a tremendous growth in international funding, as more and more people want to fund indigenous projects nowadays,” said Spacie, explaining why it makes sense to set up more branches.

Rikin Gandhi, founder of Digital Green, which was set up in India in 2006 to train farmers to make videos where they record their problems and share solutions with other farmers and highlight success stories, agrees. “Once we are part of their (donors’) system in one country, it helps to tap their resources for other geographies too,” he said.

Raising money from multiple countries will help Magic Bus create a central investment fund, from where it can use money raised in a country to fund other countries’ programmes where indigenous funding is hard to raise, said Spacie.

The exception is India. While India can receive foreign funding, funds raised in India cannot be used for other countries, as per its income tax laws.

India is a social bed of innovations and if something can work in India, it can work anywhere else, said Deval Sanghavi, co-founder, Dasra, a foundation that connects NGOs to donors. “For someone to incubate a fresh idea, it takes a lot of time. Indian NGOs with established models will be able to hit the ground running in new geographies,” he added.

A downside to having a one-country operation is that NGOs miss out on some big opportunities, said Spacie. “...we get excluded from some large conversations as we are seen as a one-country player. This move will allow us to have larger conversations with international donors,” he added.

A wider exposure plays a part in the ability to attract more diverse talent from around the globe, said Shubhasis Pattnaik, executive director of Gram Vikas, an NGO that works towards integrated rural development in states such as Odisha, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh.

“Diversity in talent brings different learnings into an organisation that is now 36 years old,” said Pattnaik.

Gram Vikas set up operations in Gambia in 2013 and in Tanzania in 2014, where it works with local partners.

For funding organisations, NGOs that can go global are exciting.

“We ideally would like to discover innovative models that have the potential to impact the rest of the world. Scale is very important for us. And when ideas can scale beyond national borders, it is attractive to us. Going global proves a point that you have the potential to serve different populations,” said C.V. Madhukar, director, investments, Omidyar Network, an international philanthropic investment firm. He added that NGOs should not limit their aspirations and restrict their presence to a particular geography as long as there is a demand for their services.

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