Founded in 1999 by then Cox and Kings chief operating officer Matthew Spacie, Magic Bus was conceived as an initiative that used sport to impart learning and self-confidence to underprivileged children. Twenty years later, it’s a globally recognized poverty alleviation NGO, influencing the lives of over 375,000 children and young people in 22 Indian states, as well as thousands more in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal. It claims to have helped lift over a million children out of poverty. Spacie and Magic Bus CEO Jayant Rastogi spoke to Lounge about the organization’s 20-year journey, and plans for the future. Edited excerpts:

Magic Bus has grown from a sports-led activity camp to a complex, multi-pronged development programme. What are the key insights that guided this evolution?

Spacie: When we first started working with young people from the street outside Fashion Street (in Mumbai) and some of the slums nearby, nobody was using sport as a tool for development. Especially in India, it was very difficult for people to comprehend, because middle-class India hasn’t played sport. But it was really powerful, it worked. You can go to the poorest village in the country with a football, and if you throw it in the air, every child will gravitate towards the ball. It gets you a captive audience of people who are engaged, in a place they want to be in. That’s an amazing environment where you can do a lot of things for children.

Right now, we focus on three things we can do. The first is getting the child in school till class XII. The second is for a child not to get married—we think that is a great indicator of social and emotional competence. And the third is a commitment to get young people out of poverty by getting them into jobs. I think that’s a huge differentiator for Magic Bus. We’re taking you on this journey, and we’re not going to leave you hanging. We’re not gonna say you’re educated, you’re not married, now good luck. Everything we do in our programme, which we call childhood to livelihood, is designed for those three impacts.

In 2013, you told ‘Mint’ that your programme cost 1,200 per child per year. How have you been able to achieve these results in such a cost-effective manner?

Spacie: It’s approximately 1,800 a year now, but we also do a lot more things now. In India, we are—in the social entrepreneurship context—probably the best in the world. Because we’re trying to solve a 500 million child problem and you can’t do that with an expensive product. You need to be pragmatic, cost-efficient and still prove impact. And we do that by leveraging a lot of things—our youth leaders, technology and partnerships. We believe that we can only succeed if we adopt a collaborative approach, working with all the actors and stakeholders, whether it’s the community itself, other NGOs, the government, corporates.

What has your experience been in terms of support and collaboration from the government and private sector?

Spacie: It’s been very good. I think there’s an increasing understanding that everyone needs everyone. The government recognizes that there’s a mountain to climb for all of us, and generally in any of these areas we’re not winning fast enough. So I think the multi-stake approach has been accepted quite well. In the last few years, the government has been quite keen to tie up. And with corporations now mandated to do CSR (corporate social responsibility), everyone’s been forced to think about it more. I like to think that there’s a lot of good people in CSR in corporates now thinking of how we can make this a better environment for everyone.

Rastogi: Building trust in the community is part of our DNA, we always work with people from the community to deliver the programme. That really helps us get the support we need. And the government is looking at parameters like dropout rate and youth employment, so there’s this right reinforcement for local government (officials) to work with us.

Youth unemployment is obviously a major challenge facing India, so how do you help the young adults in the programme find employment?

Spacie: What we’ve done well is that we’ve tried to integrate corporates into the training process. We focus on retail, hospitality, the IT and financial services sector, and we identify companies around these communities that we feel good about and that could enhance the experience of a young person in classes IX-XII. How can they get exposed not just to the company but also the kind of skills that they need? So it’s much more seamless when we start placing, because we already know the companies in the area and we’ve done our due diligence in terms of the demand.

Rastogi: We provide life skills to the graduates of our programme that are transferable and applicable to any job. So what we’re seeing is that a lot of larger organizations are taking a significant chunk of new employees from Magic Bus, because they see a better growth rate, better customer engagement. There’s a study by one of the large retailers that says that their basket size actually increases when Magic Bus employees are there.

As you celebrate the 20-year mark for Magic Bus, what are the success stories that have kept you going?

Spacie: For me, I’ll walk into any one of our livelihood centres or programmes and talk to 500 young people a year, and the stories are just immense. And there’s never an occasion when someone doesn’t walk up to you and say that Magic Bus has changed their lives. It’s incredible. Every time I feel a little bit low, I just need to go on a programme or meet a graduate.

In recent years, you’ve expanded beyond India and now have affiliate programmes in Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh, among others. What is your vision for the next 20 years?

Spacie: Whilst we’re growing internationally, we have a really massive plan here in India. We’ve got to 400,000, how do we now take the next step? How do we start thinking about changing systems so that we can shift the numbers in the next few years to 1.6 million? We’re going into the system now, we’re going into government programming and into institutions that provide a massive audience to our programme.

Rastogi: We’re also looking at technology as a huge enabler. We’re putting together a job exchange where we can mobilize the youth, the skill providers and the employers on a single platform. We’re rolling this out, we’ve just signed an MoU with the government of Maharashtra.

Spacie: We know that for a very small amount of money, we can get a child out of poverty. If you invest in a child at the age of 12, and you spend 1,800 per year on that child, they won’t be poor any more. Isn’t that amazing? Why wouldn’t you do it? And I think our job now is to communicate that to as many people as possible.