The most important investment in a social enterprise is intangible. It includes passion and round-the-clock investment of time. The intangible investments make a strong bond between the entrepreneur, the community and the issue she is trying to solve. Ironically, there is no investment, venture capital or equity fund that would have scope for such deep social, emotional, moral and intangible activities to align funds. I doubt if even social funds would have deep considerations of investments for intangibles. A friend whose enterprise was invested by a social venture capital fund found herself struggling only with financial excel sheets rather than discussing the reason for which the entire investment was made.
I find that the most exciting part of corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds is that those that can be classified as grant funds are potentially a pool of corpus that has serious potential to be invested in social enterprises or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for such projects and ideas that not only help sustain the invested NGOs and their core team but more importantly into the idea that the NGO as a protagonist would invest in to pursue and create a sustainable enterprise. Here are five such ideas that could change the face of the country through the use of CSR funding which we could call Corporate Social Responsibility Enterprise Fund.
Public digital library: There are more than 500 district public libraries in India corresponding to almost each of the districts. Each district and state library is suffering from decay, apathy, non-functionality and absence of visitors or readers. Most such libraries are in spacious buildings, some in historical buildings, but they are uncared for. Incidentally, district libraries are principally a public place but the most they lack is the attention of the public.
Because of my experience with three such libraries in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, I feel it is a great opportunity to have all district public library adopted and run through public, private and community partnerships. The transformation cost of CSR investment is no more than Rs.15-25 lakh, one time, per library, for two years, which will change the scenario of the entire library, and would also make a sustainable revenue-oriented effort to make the district library serve the community in a new avatar of being called as District Public Digital Library.
Village hotspot: There are more than 650,000 villages in India and we also have more than 40% youth in the country. There is a huge hunger of information out there. All we need is to think how we can adopt villages, first those that are already covered under the spread of several towers by telcos or railway networks so we can easily get broadband or 3G to the locations, and then establish access devices which could be manned and supervised by a young entrepreneur and facilitate access to information to the general citizen. Each user could pay for the usage. The usage could be provided through tablet-based access devices or through buying Wi-Fi coupons. Our experience says a village hotspot could be established with one-time investment of less than Rs.5 lakh each and for another Rs.10 lakh for two years, it can be run and sustained for ever.
Digital NGOs: Each NGO and CSO (civil society organization) is a gold mine of information but unfortunately hidden somewhere far away, not known and without any wherewithal to use digital media to reach out or share about themselves. Thus among millions of registered NGOs, while we know a significant number of them would be dormant, even a large percentage of those who are functional do not even have a simple website. We have calculated that a full-fledged functional and unlimited dynamically growing and maintainable website does not require more than Rs.10,000 to build, operate, manage and keep updated. We have experimented through thousands of NGOs whose websites we built. What is unfortunate is that even a meagre Rs.10,000 is a difficult amount for a grassroots NGOs to invest in to enjoy a functional website, which may also fetch them funding and better outreach. So why can’t the CSR fund finance a number of NGOs to have a website? For example, depending upon the budget, one company can fund, say, 100 NGO websites and the cost would still be not more than Rs.10 lakh per year. What it would give is widespread visibility of the investor through so many websites and taking credit for enabling digital literacy among grassroots NGOs and helping them adopt digital inclusion.
Video health service: There are about 2 million aanganwadi (creche and day care) workers in India and several thousands of sub-health and aanganwadi centres. Health is an important concern, especially in villages where most health centre facilities are non-functional or non-existent. Unfortunately, we see health services as a curative solution, while more than 70% of the health issues are preventive. CSR funds can work wonders if each and every health centre is converted into a Skype centre or Live Video Conversation Centre between citizens and doctors who would be remotely available in a town. This can be a paid service for each citizen as they are ready to pay for the health advisory or service.
A million digital labs: We have more than 1.4 million government schools, mostly in rural areas. The vast majority of them do not even have a computer lab and thus, millions of children and teachers, even in the era of digital revolution, have not seen a computer. On the other hand, many schools that have computer labs do not use them. CSR could become handy in adopting such schools and establishing digital resource centres, which not only the students would use as a lab but also the village community, including the youth. Every user would pay for this. There could even be information services there that would be available at a defined rate.
Each idea that I have mentioned and recommended is based on my personal experience and with a fair amount of confidence I can say I would be able to provide a complete plan and implementation methodology for them.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He serves on the board of World Summit Award and Association of Progressive Communication. He is co-author of NetCh@kra – 15 Years of Internet in India & Internet Economy of India. His Twitter handle is @osamamanzar.