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At the invitation of then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the Ford Foundation became the first international non-profit organization to establish an office here in 1952. It was the programme’s first office outside the US. Since then, the New Delhi office has deployed more than $502 million (Rs1,973 crore) in grants to 1,200 institutions and remains the foundation’s largest overseas programme.

The foundation’s influential president, Susan V. Berresford, who ranks 77 on Forbes’ magazine’s 2006 list of ‘100 Most Powerful Women’, has taken an active role in Ford’s work here over the years. In town for the 15th anniversary of the National Foundation for India, she spoke to Mint about the need for India’s development sector to make strategic improvements and how regulation may help it grow. Edited excerpts:

How has philanthropy changed in recent years?

Now it’s about getting at the root causes. It’s more than just giving money. Strategic philanthropy addresses systemic issues behind the problems.

Influential woman: Susan V. Berresford, president, Ford Foundation.

How does philanthropy in India compare with the rest of the world?

Philanthropy in India is growing tremendously. It’s a very exciting opportunity and the question I think is how—as it is to an extent in every country—it can be increasingly effective; how it can get to structural issues; how it can support new ideas, marginalized voices and get at the equity questions every society has.

You helped establish the National Foundation for India 15 years ago and you have been involved since then. What changes have you seen over that time period?

Today there are many, many more foundations interested in social change and social justice but they are still small in number and a small resource against the problems they are battling here. The question is how they well they work with the government, the business sector and with civil society.

The government recently approved the first official policy on the voluntary organizations here and has indicated regulation may be on the way. What makes effective regulation in this sector?

The first thing is information. It is very important for there to be accurate data about foundations and what is available to people. Sunshine is the best preventative measure. Second, I think it is important to have regulators who understand the field well and can interact with people who study the field. Policies should be arrived at with both neutral information as well as an exchange of views between neutral information and the exchange between the sector and regulators.

What kind of role should the corporate sector take in development?

The corporate sector has wealth that can be deployed but can also mobilize the voluntary time of its employees and the resources beyond cash of the corporation to get at systemic issues like education. Then, the corporate activity itself can take on some function that is charitable and change-oriented. Financial services companies can begin to work with people who are marginalized, have no access to financial services, and so forth. Everything from the corporate activity itself to corporate philanthropy is very important.

You said during your speech here that establishing a successful non-profit sector is a function of leadership, courage, money and time. How does the non-governmental organization (NGO) sector here stack up?

It certainly has a lot of courage, it has time. It does not have the resources that it needs and that’s part of what more organized philanthropy can bring. The question is really whether there are good partnerships between people who have resources, the NGOs who have good ideas and then policymakers. We need to hear the voices and ideas of people who are marginalized but we also need to talk to people in government and business who make structure and who make policies and create systems.

Does the non-profit sector battle a perception problem of scandal and corruption here?

I think the media all over the world likes to focus on things that go wrong rather than things that go well and there is a lot that goes well here. We certainly need to do things that establish the legitimacy of the field. We need standards, success stories and most importantly honest discussion about what works and what doesn’t work. Not everything works and we have to be honest about that.

What works well in India and what doesn’t?

We have seen development funds that are stunning and lead the field in work with marginalized communities, such as Dalits and Adivasis here. There are good laws on the books, there are good programmes but they don’t always deliver at the bottom level. Implementation remains the biggest challenge.

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