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Aakar Patel. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Aakar Patel. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Engaging the young

India has the world's largest youth population356 millionaccording to the UN. We asked the heads of four non-profits how this demographic is relevant to them

For the love of the country

Aakar Patel, executive director, Amnesty International India

I have been in the development sector (funny how the word “development" can hold such wide meaning) for three months or so. I have some initial observations about the people in it which I thought you may find interesting.

The first thing is that it makes me optimistic about India. That is saying something because, as readers of this paper will know, I have long held a very negative (some would say prejudiced and overly cruel) view of this country’s inhabitants. This is being eroded, gently, by my immersion into this habitat of the very civilized.

The second thing is that it is shot through with very qualified people. It is a sector akin to banking in that sense. It is not unusual to have people from the Indian Institutes of Technology and National Law School and the School of Oriental and African Studies and such places. By my estimate, I am the least qualified person in the Amnesty India office and I am not being modest.

The third thing is the salaries. How shall I describe the state? In some organizations, it is better than others and in many, including my own, quite good (some colleagues will disagree). But there are others in the space who work for little or no money at all. Heroines and heroes to me. People who are committed, passionate in the right sense of the word and highly motivated in the face of hardship, and yet almost always cheerful.

The fourth thing, and this ties in with the two above, is that the development sector has very bright young people. I was editing a newspaper at 25 and was made editor-in-chief (a grandiose, meaningless title but indicating that I oversaw newspapers in three languages) at 30. So I know a thing or two about working with super bright young people. This is different. It will take you aback, I guarantee it.

The fifth thing is the preponderance of desis in the international aspects of this work. Amnesty International’s secretary general working out of London is an Indian passport holder (Salil Shetty, an Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad/London School of Economics man and, more importantly, a Bengalurean), who is one of the great reformers of the sector. Greenpeace worldwide is run by Kumi Naidoo, an African of Indian origin. People we should be very proud of.

The sixth thing is the egalitarianism of the space. Like journalists, we are all on first names. At Amnesty India we have hot desking, meaning no fixed spaces to sit (including for the executive director) and those who come in early can take whatever seat they want. Meetings are less top-down and more involved than in the corporate world.

The seventh thing is diversity. Most important is gender diversity (no matter what caste and class one is from, if one is a woman, one is disadvantaged in the face of prejudice). But also in other spaces. We have begun affirmative action for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and the disabled, and nothing stops the corporate world from doing this.

The eighth thing is processes. They seem almost sacred. For someone who has run things as a tyrant for so many years, and my former colleagues will please forgive me for this, it is something of an education.

The ninth thing is the issues that we work on. These are the things that are left to the state in India because we have no capacity and little interest in Afspa, or the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, and violence against Dalits and Muslims and in gender and sexuality and manual scavenging and such things. This is stuff Indians expect the government to take care of. It cannot and will not. It is civil society (a wonderful and accurate phrase holding two meanings) that must step in.

That brings me to the last thing. Which is that these wonderful young people do this work because they love their country and, more particularly, its people. It hurts me to see the asinine manner in which their work is dismissed, without real assessment, as being against India.

Enough writing for now. To the barricades.

The changing face of fund-raising

Puja Marwaha, chief executive officer, Child Rights and You (CRY)

Puja Marwaha. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
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Puja Marwaha. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

“Changing the lives of children is a continuous process. Nothing can be done in a limited period. As individuals, we have to continue to give support by way of financial help, time as well as other resources."

These are simply the voices of our committed donors, the ones who understand why giving is important. India’s tryst with philanthropy began primarily within the individual giving space and was largely concentrated within personal networks.

It was a matter of trust. We supported people whose commitments we trusted, especially if they were about our immediate community concerns. The late 1970s and early 1980s altered the philanthropy arena quite a bit, with the starting of both Indian organizations like Child Rights and You (CRY) and international organizations like Unicef and HelpAge. There were new avenues for giving and there was a realization that much larger social issues could be tackled at the national level. The scope and spread of working towards change had just broadened.

As change-makers and individuals working to create a sustainable impact in tackling issues of poverty, illiteracy, global warming, etc., we realize that organizations too have evolved over the years. Our ways of enlisting help from people interested in seeing change in the lives of the lesser advantaged have evolved too.

A case in point is CRY’s journey from being the organization that raised funds with the humble greeting card retailed at 3, to making that leap towards raising funds to support grass-roots-level organizations that want to do great work for children.

From an organization that relied largely on face-to-face fund-raising and snail mail, we made that jump to looking at other ways to reach out to more and more people and enlisting their support. Any change fosters growth, and that’s exactly what happened.  We learnt how to value our donors and understood how to communicate to them the impact that their funds had brought about. We also walked the tightrope of making the right investments required for fund-raising. The focus on being professional certainly worked.

Technology had a role to play. We knew that to be heard and seen and to be viable, we needed to cater to the altered younger demography in their language, in the medium that they were conversant with. Younger minds wanted to see change, they were in fact participating in creating social change in their own unique ways and we had to make them understand what we were about. It was about getting them on board to understand that there is a race against time to change the childhood of millions of out-of-school children, children engaged in labour when they are supposed to be studying, children who don’t have access to adequate healthcare, who are at potential risk of abuse and exploitation. It was about adapting to the brave new world in an increasingly changed environment that had veered towards enhanced personalized engagement.

Today, we understand that the donors of tomorrow indeed are committed to creating change and want to be involved in understanding the actual impact of their support. Peer influences are important, especially among the youth. Social media, digital engagement and convenient payment technologies have a considerable role to play.

Individual giving will span a wide range of supporters, from impulse-driven donors to committed high-frequency donors, to high net-worth donors who bring, along with funds, strategy and definitive thinking on how to address pertinent issues.

In the end, both giving and raising funds for a not-for-profit is all about having that collective shared belief that change is possible. To me, whether it is the little old lady who year after year walked into the CRY office in Mumbai to share her precious 240 with us for children or the tech-savvy young corporate executive who wants to share his many thousand rupees, it is the spirit of giving and taking action for others that triumphs.

Take out the time

Rahul Nainwal, co-founder, iVolunteer

Rahul Nainwal. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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Rahul Nainwal. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

In the summer of 2002, I took a 20-something volunteer on my Bajaj Chetak scooter to the Delhi Cantonment railway station to work in a school for children from nearby slums. She liked the project, committed to work from the next day and then disappeared without a trace.

This was my first volunteer placement and it turned out to be a disaster. This made me wonder whether formal volunteering was going to work in India or not, at least the way I had visualized it when I co-founded iVolunteer. I thought we had made a mistake. People didn’t want to volunteer. They would rather just give money and avoid the hassle.

In the early 2000s, volunteering with a non-profit was a strange concept. Our conversations used to include fielding questions like, “Why I should volunteer", “What is the benefit to me?", rather than “I want to help". One of our potential volunteers had put it in plain words “Volunteering is for those who have nothing else to do."

When Shalabh Sahai and I co-founded iVolunteer in 2001, our idea was simple. How would we get more and more Indians to share their skills and time with organizations who need it the most?

A lot of volunteers did come through but they would disappear after the first meeting with the non-governmental organization (NGO). For many, all the effort was just too much to handle. It became clear to us that we had to sell the idea of volunteering before we did anything else. We learnt quickly, added a bit of structure and orientation, screened volunteers properly, and our numbers started improving.

Things have changed since then thanks to the Internet and social media. Our days of selling volunteering are over. People are now proud to tell others where they volunteer and what they do. They want to teach in schools, help in fund-raising, organize events, read to the blind, mentor a young adult, though working with children is still the No.1 cause people want to volunteer for.

A lot of young people are actively involved in volunteering because they also see it as a gateway to better career opportunities, admissions to Ivy League universities in the US or a first step to, eventually, start their own social enterprise. They are willing to invest a year of their life in volunteering at a very early age. This, in my opinion, is a very important step because it sets them on the path to becoming socially conscious leaders of tomorrow.

While the motivation to volunteer has more or less remained the same in the decade that we have been working, today’s volunteers are much clearer about the kind of work they want to do. This does put a little bit of pressure on host organizations, which sometimes struggle to meet volunteer expectations.

Another challenge nowadays is time. At iVolunteer, we work hard to ensure that the intention to volunteer actually leads to something meaningful. This requires us to create interesting projects with clear deliverables, find new ways of engaging volunteers and do regular follow-ups to ensure that volunteering projects are on time and everyone is engaged.

In my opinion, giving both money and time to the social sector is really important. But it is by giving time that one gets truly invested in the causes and communities that are closer to our hearts. Does volunteering help make the world a better place? Maybe. Does volunteering bring about change? Almost certainly, and that change starts with us.

A cause close to the heart

Nisha Agrawal, chief executive officer, Oxfam India

Nisha Agrawal. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
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Nisha Agrawal. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

In July, Wipro’s chairman, a billionaire, gave away almost half of his holdings in India’s third largest exporter of software services to his philanthropy foundation. Premji is also the first Indian to sign the Giving Pledge, sponsored by billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to invite the world’s wealthiest to donate the majority of their wealth to charity.

But Premji is now 70, Buffett is 85 and Gates will turn 60 later this month. They have built corporate empires from scratch and now want to give back to society.

What about the youth? India has a fifth of the world’s young people. According to a survey conducted by The Economist before the general election in 2014, these young people want positive change in the country; they believe in democracy. This generation is not hopeless and helpless. They believe that systems can change, processes can change. In the same survey, 72% said it was not a good idea for the children of politicians to join politics, while 76% said they would not care about the caste or religion of the prime minister. In the same survey, 74% felt that India was becoming more violent.

There are various forms of violence that occur every day in India. As an organization, Oxfam India is working to reduce the violence against women.

In the past, we have worked with the government, lobbying to improve policies, but now we have realized that these are not the only ways to tackle the problem. The main problem is that people in India—both men and women—are accepting the levels of violence against women.

The time has come to strive for a change in social attitudes. That is why, for the first time, Oxfam India has taken a deliberate and conscious decision to work with young people to change social norms.

One of these norms is that “women and girls are not valued as much as men and boys". So we are now designing a campaign focusing on 14- to 35-year-olds and working with them on gender equality, which will ultimately lead to less violence.

The youth of India want to engage in social change, they want a better India. And we want to help translate that individual thought into collective power, which can bring about change. For us, the inspiration comes from some youngsters, whom we call “agents of change".

One such girl is 12-year-old Jyoti Devi, who lives in Uttar Pradesh’s Hamirpur district. She talks to elders in her village and convinces them to send children, especially girls, to school. Jyoti, head of the student committee, is aware of her rights, guaranteed under the Right to Education Act.

If all children in India grow up the same way as Jyoti, in that they are able to recognize problems, organize themselves, come up with solutions and then implement them, we would have a transformed India.

Oxfam India is engaging with young people in three ways. First, creating spaces for young people to develop themselves; second, creating spaces to develop societies around them; and third, actively trying to bring about change.

In these three roles, the youth will usher in change, which I am confident will be swift and long-lasting.

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