The 2011 census is expected to confirm government estimates that more than 93 million people are living in slums across urban India, 128 million people are still without access to clean water, over 7.1 million children in India are excluded from education. The statistics are shocking.

Dilemma: Identifying an NGO worthy of support often proves to be tough. Photo: Thinkstock

Navigating the social sector in India is extremely complicated—there are issues of lack of transparency, stories of corruption, and never-ending requests for donations. However, after asking questions and researching carefully you can be associated with many amazing organizations committed to significant change in India. And they need your help.

Philanthropy has to be a balance between giving with your heart and giving with your head; new and old donors alike need to take certain steps before deciding who to give to and how to give.

Thinking from the heart

In urban areas alone we find the quality of state education is abysmal, with only 50% of eight-year-olds able to read a simple paragraph. UN figures suggest more people have a mobile phone than access to a toilet, and the World Health Organization says India still has the highest number of maternal deaths in the world.  So where do you start? 

When deciding who to give to you have to work out what really matters to you—is it empowering the next generation or working with the elderly? Is it the plight of street dogs or the fact that there is so much waste that stirs you? Do you have a family member who has suffered from a particular illness and has been helped by a pioneering hospital? Looking back over your life and seeing what has affected you is a very good place to start. If you realize that sport made you the person you are, then look at organizations that empower children through physical activity. If you respond better to creativity and art, maybe an organization that has a strong non-formal education programme is the right approach. Many of us have been profoundly affected by our education, yet only one in 100 girls in rural India graduates from school to tertiary education. Maybe your involvement with an educational project could help improve that ratio. Alternatively if you are appalled every time you pass by slums, look for a community-based organization which works to improve livelihoods for the communities in your city.

When the head comes into play

Start thinking about giving effectively and give to organizations that in turn use your money effectively. Research organizations and ask the following questions: Do they have a strong team? Are they transparent about their finances? Does the organization have communication material that really tells you what they do? Do they have a track record? Have they got a long-term plan for growth? “Administration costs" do need to be taken into account, but you don’t want to be funding an organization that spends more on its running costs that it does on its programme. However 80:20 (programme versus administration costs) is a good thumb rule.

Another important part of giving with your head is understanding how an organization demonstrates that it is truly creating results.  If you want to make a difference you want to support an organization that doesn’t just tell you it “educated" 300 children—but tells you how, and what the impact of that education has been. Programmes cannot be measured by what effort has been put in, but by what the outcomes are. It is all very well to report that an extra 300 slum children attended a government school every day for a year, but the important outcome would be that 75% of them improved their grades from one year to the next. Of course, there are a great many programmes whose outcomes are hard to demonstrate—such as gender equality and community cohesion—but it is still important to support organizations that are committed to monitoring and evaluating.

The good news is that in recent years the non-profit sector has become more aware of the need for transparency and reporting on impact. A number of organizations have emerged that are working with NGOs to improve governance, transparency and effectiveness, also making it easier for you to give more strategically. Talking to organizations such as GiveIndia, Dasra, Credibility Alliance or GuideStar can help your decision-making process.

Think carefully about the length of your commitment and also about what aspects of the NGO you want to support. Are you only interested in supporting a specific programme for one year or are you ready to look at long-term funding, which can be used holistically to grow the NGO and help it increase its impact? NGOs can plan and allocate resources so much more effectively if they know the length and size of commitments, so talk to your selected NGO and find out what they need.

Remember too that your involvement does not need to be limited to finances. Many organizations need hands-on assistance—you can read to abandoned children, help run healthcare workshops, or mentor NGO leaders. There is a raft of possibilities where your skills can create a difference and being closely involved with an NGO often has an immeasurable positive effect on your life too.

The social problems in India are vast and the government and private sector alone cannot solve them. As a nation our level of giving still lags behind much of the world, so this year on Diwali let’s not just think about how much we give but how we give more effectively.

Deval Sanghavi is the CEO of Dasra, a foundation that works with philanthropists and social entrepreneurs and brings together knowledge, funding and people as a catalyst for social change.

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