The social multipliers

The couple behind the Dasra Philanthropy Week on how they bridge the gap between givers and receivers


Nundy and Sanghavi choose to work on desks facing each other. Photo: Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Nundy and Sanghavi choose to work on desks facing each other. Photo: Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Neera Nundy and Deval Sanghavi, partners and co-founders of Dasra, a non-profit which connects corporate philanthropists with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), work out of what I would call a “hybrid workspace”.

The Dasra office is part of a residential building in a quiet lane in Mumbai’s Santa Cruz. Nundy and Sanghavi’s room, at the top of the building, resembles an entry-level management consultant’s office—a few colleagues seated in a room which has little other than several laptops. Office décor consists mostly of paintings gifted by non-profits and official citations.

Nundy and Sanghavi, a couple, sit facing each other; their executive leadership team of three professionals takes up the rest of the room. The uncommon arrangement was by design. “We were keen to build a senior management team as a cohesive group which is enabled by sitting together in an open room. The close proximity allows you to help each other quickly, without the formalities of email or setting up meetings—and it’s fun,” says Nundy.

A tree cuts through a work area at Dasra
Elsewhere, teams of young professionals huddle over computers in open-plan workstations and a conference room. There’s even corporate signage for different departments, located across three floors of the building. Only minor quirks, such as a tree that unexpectedly cuts through the ceiling of a conference room downstairs, suggest that this workplace is somewhat unconventional—neither a residential start-up nor a corporate office, but a hybrid space.

Platforms for giving

A meeting room in the Dasra office
One of Dasra’s biggest achievements is its Giving Circle—a platform that enables wealthy philanthropists to collectively donate their money to NGOs in a targeted and strategic manner. Individual donors commit to giving Rs.10 lakh a year for three consecutive years to a particular sector or cause, such as adolescent girls or livelihoods. Ten individual donors are grouped into one Giving Circle, resulting in Rs.1 crore annually for three years, to be allocated to an NGO chosen by the donors.

Dasra produces research reports on various sectors throughout the year, outlining the most effective NGOs in that space. “For each of our reports, we look at 300 organizations to nominate the top three or 10, for example, that make most impact,” says Sanghavi. Giving Circle donors then vote to choose one of these NGOs for fund allocation. They can also volunteer their time, skills or networks to help the chosen NGO to scale up. To date, Dasra has directed Rs.21 crore via seven Giving Circles, engaging 85 philanthropists.

The reports also have a multiplier effect on the sector. “Our reports are now being downloaded off our website by government, by funders, by researchers, raising tremendous awareness for the sector,” says Sanghavi. The organization’s annual philanthropy forum has grown into a three-day conference—this year’s edition, held last week, was attended by 600 people, with varied interests in the social sectors.

Managing hybrids

A drawing presented to Dasra by a non-profit
So how does one successfully build a hybrid platform, bridging two different communities? Nundy and Sanghavi’s workplace offers some clues.

First, work out how best to amalgamate diverse environments. Their workspace has the warmth of a home with the structure of a corporate office—with 65 people, it is more organized than the average residential start-up, yet less efficient than a large, open-plan office.

Both Sanghavi and Nundy were educated in the West, and worked at investment bank Morgan Stanley before starting Dasra in 1999. Business terms such as fund-raising, portfolio management, strategic planning, balanced scorecards and investor communication are as much part of Dasra’s daily vocabulary as traditional non-profit concerns such as malnutrition, sanitation and empowerment of adolescent girls in rural areas.

The hybrid model entails finding innovative solutions to address stakeholders’ differing viewpoints, for example, with respect to time. Social impact begins with behavioural change, which takes time. “Giving a toilet to a person does not guarantee they’ll use it. It takes three-five years to convince individuals who have defecated a certain way to do it differently,” says Sanghavi.

A framed Dasra poster
But corporate philanthropists are accustomed to faster results. So the Giving Circle model addresses this gap in timelines by asking donors to stay committed for enough time to bring change, and then delivering the multiplier effect of a group investment. “They like the leverage effect—I’m actually giving Rs.10 lakh but I’m getting reported back over a crore,” says Nundy.

Second, evolve continuously. Both Dasra’s business model and its workspaces have adapted to the outside environment in the past decade. Nundy and Sanghavi first operated from their two-bedroom flat in Kandivali, juggling work and babysitting their three boys.

The couple started off running training programmes for non-profits. “It took us 10 years to learn from the market, to make mistakes, to really create a model that was sustainable before we actually ‘hit the market’,” says Sanghavi. “A big learning for us was that providing capital without a significant amount of managerial support, or just managerial support without money, is detrimental. Just like any private equity investments,” explains Nundy.

Nundy’s MBA degree from the US’ Harvard University
They later shifted their office out of their home to increasingly larger spaces, based on affordability and need. The tree in the conference room illustrates their adaptive attitude: They needed more space, but didn’t want to cut it down, so they built a room around it.

Finally, specialize, but continuously collaborate. Nundy manages internal operations, while Sanghavi handles external responsibilities, but by being co-located at work, not separated by partitions, it’s easier to stay connected.

Sound lessons, for a business world increasingly driven by platforms and complicated by diversity. (Neera Nundy and Aparna Piramal Raje are business school classmates).

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.

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