Magic Bus: Reaching out to slums with sport15 min read . Updated: 14 Mar 2013, 11:03 AM IST
The NGO introduces sport into slums as a medium for bringing children together and imparting lessons
New Delhi: I’m 46!" gasps Matthew Spacie, as if he had revealed himself to be an octogenarian. He’s talking about the phenomenon of CEO burnout, prompted by a survey he read saying that the average tenure of a chief executive officer in a non-profit organization is nine years.
Spacie’s own career, however, has hurtled from project to project since the age of 29, when he came to India as the chief operating officer (COO) of the travel group Cox and Kings Ltd, heading a team of 2,000, in a company growing “at 600% a year".
Two years later, in 1999, he founded the non-governmental organization (NGO) Magic Bus. In 2005, he added a third string to his bow, co-founding the travel website Cleartrip.com, while still working half his week at Magic Bus, which has grown from 30 children on a single rugby pitch to a quarter of a million young people enrolled in weekly workshops in 10 states across India.
It’s easy to see why he might be feeling drained.
“Just the energy levels for me, personally, in the last 16 years have been immense," Spacie says, of his various roles as entrepreneur, fund-raiser, social worker and manager. “My life is 24/7 Magic Bus. There’s never a moment when I’m not worrying about it. I have 750 staff to pay and I don’t have a product. I’m not selling anything, apart from the impact of the work we do. It’s just really high pressure."
His wife, the photographer Ashima Narain agrees. “In January, we sat together with our diaries and worked that we were going to be together for five days in February," says Narain, who met her husband-to-be at the launch event for Magic Bus back in 1999.
According to Spacie, much of the difficulty of sustaining and growing Magic Bus over the past 14 years has been the relative complexity of its model, which can be hard to explain to prospective donors and journalists alike. Magic Bus is known as a “sport for development" charity, but that concept is hard to grasp and to articulate in a country where sporting facilities for young people, especially from the poorest communities, are not viewed as a priority and play is still a luxury.
“Out of the last 50 articles on Magic Bus, I’d say two or three have actually got it right," says Spacie, of the learning concept he developed while working with a group of young men sleeping rough on Fashion Street in Mumbai. “I always get very careful talking about this because we often get referred to as ‘the football charity’, you know, ‘that organization that plays football with kids in the slums’, which we don’t."
What Magic Bus does do is to introduce sport into those slums as a medium for bringing children from different backgrounds together, earning their trust and attention, and then imparting lessons on a wide array of subjects, from hand washing to gender equality, through participatory outdoor activities organized by local volunteers known as “youth leaders".
For example, at the most basic level, children play games such as dribbling a ball through an open space that contains obstacles, while other children try to distract them. Afterwards, in a review session, the group sits down and is told that the obstacle course was like their journey from home to school, filled with things that might prevent them from reaching the classroom—lack of money or school books, working for their parents, and so on.
“And this was a massive challenge," says Spacie, “because when you start talking about sport—even I couldn’t articulate it very well at the beginning—most people will say, ‘Why are you doing sport? There are people dying in the street, there’s HIV, why would I ever support you?’ If I’m giving someone a three-liner about Magic Bus I can’t start saying, ‘Oh we use sport as a metaphor in the villages, it’s just...you know..." he laughs, suddenly and explosively.
Spacie did not just face a communication problem: Magic Bus doesn’t tick any of the boxes that usually attract philanthropic attention in the Indian context. It is not specifically focused on a big-money issue like education or malnutrition. It hasn’t spent much money building its brand in India. It doesn’t create tangible assets. Its brief doesn’t fit in with any existing government scheme, so it can’t easily access central funding.
And yet, despite all this, Magic Bus has an almost unparalleled reach both in terms of numbers and longevity—250,000 children are enrolled in three- to 10-year programmes, for a couple of hours every week. And it is scaling this number at speed. Since 2009, it has grown from 3,000 children to a quarter of a million and if it reaches its target of a million by 2015, Magic Bus will be one of the largest child-focused NGOs in the country.
By comparison, in 2012, Save the Children claimed to reach a million children in India across all its programmes (of which 114,000 were in its education programme, 607,000 in its child protection programme and 205,000 in its health and nutrition programme).
“I can tell you how to get a girl of 14 into school," says Spacie, “but I’m not going to build that school. The whole premise of Magic Bus is to leverage what’s already there. Our programme costs ₹ 1,200 per child per year. It’s nothing. We don’t do the delivery, the youth leader does, we don’t build assets, because they should already be there by law. It’s very complex but I’m pleased it’s complex. Getting people out of poverty isn’t easy."
The Magic Bus ethos was not always as coherent; Spacie has had 14 years to develop it. As a travel agent living in south Mumbai, Spacie wasn’t the likeliest candidate for a career in the social sector. Born in Cyprus, the son of an army father, Spacie attended boarding school in the UK before going to work for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata for a year between school and university. He returned to Mumbai in the late 1990s as a young professional: “With the context of coming from overseas, you land in Bombay and you see this incredible visual dichotomy of wealth and immense poverty," he says.
In those days, Spacie spent much of his free time playing rugby at the Bombay Gymkhana Club—he was allowed to play for the Indian national side thanks to his residence permit and the fact that the game was fairly new to India. After struggling, and failing, to connect Cox & Kings with various NGOs working in Bombay, Spacie decided to begin at an individual level and approached a group of about 30 young men who lived on the street outside the rugby club, offering to train them in the sport and set up a team: The Magicians.
“For two years I was their coach, their mentor. The first thing I wanted to do was get them all jobs through my network at Cox & Kings as office assistants, cleaners, at McDonalds, whatever we could find," says Spacie. He is a restless, mobile speaker, describing little circles and pathways on the tabletop with his forefingers as he talks. “It was an absolute failure! Within two months every single boy left, ran away, because they had no work ethic. Why would they want to do that when they were living on the streets with all the excitement that held? I realized very quickly we needed to work with young children."
In return for coaching them, Spacie persuaded his rugby boys to volunteer their time at the weekends. With the help of a local NGO Akanksha, the group hired buses and drove into different slums every week, picked up 50 local children, and “drove them off to have this incredible weekend away". The trips were to the mountains or the sea, involved activities such as kayaking or rock climbing and were mainly just for fun. “I was a travel agent! You can imagine that I had no idea of how to do stuff with kids. What struck me was when we would drop them off on Sunday night, it was devastating because they knew this had been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We had to change that."
Today, the course model lasts for 10 years, from the ages of eight to 18, or as the staff say, “childhood to livelihood". Once enrolled, the children attend weekly workshops until they have worked their way through the curriculum. By the end, they often become unpaid “youth leaders" themselves, volunteering to train younger children in the community.
“The problem is that most of these kids don’t know how to play. They don’t know what play is," says Pushpendra Pandey, a 23-year-old youth mentor, who leads a group of 40 children in Tughlaqabad village in south Delhi. “They need to get our messages on a regular basis," says Mukesh Singh, a training and monitoring officer in south Delhi. “Some Hindu children don’t like to play with Muslim children, and that’s a big problem. Also, for girls there are often religious issues, so sometimes we have to have separate sessions at the beginning."
The volunteers, who lead the two-hour sessions, once a week, are later helped to apply for jobs, or scholarships at the second level of Magic Bus training. Many of them graduate into paid staff positions. Magic Bus has 750 paid staff today, and more than 8,000 volunteers. Of the first batch of children that Spacie approached, he estimates about half are either working as paid staff for Magic Bus, or have started their own community programmes helped by an incubation fund within the organization.
It took a long time for this structure to evolve. For the first 18 months of Magic Bus’s existence, Spacie worked pretty much alone with his network of friends and volunteers. By 2002, Narain says, in the same month the couple got married, Spacie left his job at Cox & Kings and hired a garage space next to Cadbury House as an office. “It didn’t occur to me that it would ever not be a success," Narain says. “The kids absolutely loved it. We used to ride a bike everywhere wearing our Magic Bus t-shirts and the kids would come running up wanting to sit with Matthew."
The organization grew quickly, starting with its first permanent activity ground an hour outside Mumbai near Panvel, built in 2006 with funding from the Kadoorie family and Donald Lobo, part “of Yahoo’s first management team, who paid for our equipment", Spacie says.
“We were treated so badly by some of the resorts we visited, because these kids would turn up in their chuddies, that we ended up building our own 30-acre outdoor development centre for slum children, with kayaking, sailing, high ropes, low ropes, 200 beds." But there were still problems—to get parents to agree to send their children away for three days was difficult and the organization relied on the reputation of partner NGOs until it built up teams of local volunteers to intercede on its behalf. There was also a money issue. “One of the big difficulties in start-ups in the non-profit world is that as a board member you can’t be paid, so from 2001-06, I was working in an executive capacity but with a board role. I was spending a lot of my personal funds on Magic Bus and essentially I ran out of money," Spacie says. “It was a very difficult time. So, between 2005-07 I co-founded Cleartrip with two other guys, and worked three days a week on each. It was a bit of a nightmarish environment for me really...making ends meet."
One of Spacie’s co-founders and the current CEO of Cleartrip, Stuart Crighton, had watched Magic Bus’s evolution from the beginning and has been an early investor in the NGO. Crighton was a fellow rugby player and shared a flat with Spacie from 1997 to 2003. “We were all playing rugby with these kids, but Matt was the one who really picked it up and took it on, he was very excited about it. He just took the plunge and went for it. Not everyone believed in where it was going but Matt’s a very infectious character."
The two men had been mulling over the idea of a travel website since the late 1990s, Crighton says. But in 2004-05, the time seemed right. The airspace was being deregulated, low-cost carriers were coming to India, credit card payments were becoming popular, the domestic market was opening up. With funding from Ram Shriram’s venture capital firm, Sherpalo Ventures, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers (KPCB), Spacie, Crighton and a third founder Hrush Bhatt launched the site, a stripped-down version of other travel sites, simply designed, with a light page load to run on India’s irregular Internet speeds. Shriram also supported Magic Bus: “Ram is also our US chairman and supports us financially every year with a matching grant programme," says Spacie. Cleartrip pays for the Magic Bus website and “pretty much all our flights as an organization", he says.
At Cleartrip, Spacie’s role was to define marketing proposals. The only one of the team with experience in the travel industry, “it was always understood that his passion was continuing to build up Magic Bus", Crighton says. “When you’re doing a start-up, everybody does everything. It’s quite hectic. Matt had a desk and a chair and he would be there most days. The key from the beginning was to identify his successor, you want to make yourself redundant."
By 2007, Spacie was back at Magic Bus full time and it was then, Narain says, the scaling up accelerated. “There were a lot of international reports, and researchers, who were coming to study the curriculum of Magic Bus, saying they’d never seen anything like it before," she said. “I think he hadn’t considered what all this meant—he was just doing it. Suddenly people were telling him this is a unique thing, not just in Bombay but internationally as well. Then, he became keen to find somebody who could take it national."
The hunt for the man who could take Magic Bus to scale took a year, Narain says. Eventually, Spacie head-hunted Pratik Kumar, an Indian Institute of Technology graduate and a former Indian Administrative Service officer who had quit a job in the ministry of health to work for the United Nations. Kumar joined Magic Bus in 2009 and began to look at opportunities to establish it in other Indian cities and expand it into rural areas.
In the Indian philanthropic community, it is well known that sport doesn’t sell, and at first almost all of Magic Bus’s funding came from abroad. This seems to be changing, albeit slowly, according to Deval Sanghavi, co-founder of philanthropic organization Dasra, who says that Magic Bus has been able to leap this hurdle for two reasons. “They realized early on that they needed a solution which would engage youth directly and I think Matthew coming from a business background has been at the forefront of hiring high-quality professionals into the organization. They have one of the strongest management teams in the community today," he says. Spacie is a board member of Dasra.
Kumar had never heard of the organization when he was approached for the job. “I did three months of research into the idea of learning through play before I joined, trying to understand how the outdoors is a place of learning. For me, that was the first of its kind because I’d not been exposed to anything beyond the classical pedagogy."
He was not alone in his bemusement, according to a yet-to-be-published study by Dasra, in association with the Omidyar Network and the Australian Sports Commission, called The Power of Play. The study says that only 14% of Indian youth has access to a playground, that one in four adolescent girls is married and that 70% of employers find Indian youth unemployable in spite of a degree. These facts are related, it says.
“In the past few years, sport has proven, more than any traditional medium, to effectively attract and retain youth in development programmes, enabling long-term sustainable change," says the report.
And sport is fun, Kumar says. “It’s something they never get bored of. I get the opportunity to exchange knowledge as a given, because I can call upon them again and again to be my audience."
The organization relies heavily on its volunteers to grow, says Kumar. “Magic Bus is not a rich organization, so we needed a cost-effective solution to grow. Unfortunately, I don’t know half the people who work for me, but every volunteer is my baby, you have to be worried about their goodwill all the time," Kumar says. “If we don’t take care of them, why should they bother about us? Matthew is a visionary but then the beauty of the thing was that he let me do what I wanted to do, which is unheard of, especially in a founder-led NGO."
However, the next challenge for this founder-led NGO is removing the founder from centre stage, according to Spacie. “Now, we are getting into the danger zone where I’ve been there 14 years and it’s crucial someone else runs the organization. I think it’s very dangerous when organizations rely on one person—that’s part of my obsessive succession planning. How do we fund-raise differently? We’re going to be looking at retail funding, different ways to take the dependence off my relationships with funders."
While Magic Bus continues to expand, moving into Singapore and Pakistan within the next few months and eventually Indonesia and China, according to Spacie. “Our expansion model will be a franchise one," he says. Spacie himself is busy planning his next move: “I don’t like to put a date on it, but it’s imminent. My role will change into an executive chairman role for a time to oversee the transition. In five years time, maybe I can play a strong strategic role in terms of fund-raising, I think there’s things I have to do, go back, write the book, make the movie as they say."
For now, though, Spacie and 20 of his friends are pooling their resources to build a village outside the training centre in Panvel. “We have all bought plots and it’ll be a respite from where we are with a common green and pool, everyone has to bring something different. I’m doing bees. I don’t know anything about bees, but I’m going to learn," he announces, beaming. “It’s my new hobby. I need a hobby. I’m 46!"