When Vasudev Markad began flinging his pomegranates on the ground and the ripe fruits spilt open in an angry red mess, people at the Nivdunge village mandi were not surprised. Markad had grown the fruit with hope on his five acres in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar. There was acute water scarcity, so he had taken loan after loan to pay water tankers to keep his 1,200 shrubs alive and protect the fruits from a cruel rabi season. Spending ₹500 for a 5,000-litre tanker every two days, his loan mounted to ₹70,000, and yet his pomegranates refused to grow in size. At the mandi , he couldn’t find anyone who’d pay him even ₹10 a kilo. It proved to be Markad’s breaking point. His friend Sharad Markad, who happened to be around then, captured the farmer’s act of desperation on his phone’s camera. Sharad is the Pathardi taluka president of Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghtana, one of the largest farmer unions in Maharashtra, and he shared the footage on WhatsApp. It soon spread on social media and, the next thing he knew, senior journalist Sucheta Dalal had launched an appeal to raise money for Vasudev on Money Life Foundation, a crowdfunding platform. Within three weeks, ₹1.9 lakh was credited to the farmer, who used some of it to repay his debts and prepare for a fresh cropping season, and shared a chunk of it with 20 other peasants in distress.

Crowdfunding — a means of raising money for a cause or person/group from a large number of people who each contribute a relatively small amount, typically online — is the new Good Samaritan in town. Today there are a host of platforms that connect the needy to willing donors around the world. A 2017 World Bank report states that “crowdfunding has emerged as a multibillion-dollar global industry”. In India alone, there are 15 crowdfunding platforms (there were 10 in 2013), according to the report. The number of donors, meanwhile, surged by 100 million over the past decade to touch 249 million. The India Philanthropic Report of 2019, released earlier this month, states that “philanthropic funding from individuals remains the brightest spot”, growing by 21 per cent annually over the past five years. Individual donations account for nearly 60 per cent of all private funding, namely ₹43,000 crore. Several Indian celebrities have raised successful crowdfunding campaigns in recent years — actor Hrithik Roshan’s 2014 campaign raised funds for the flood victims of Jammu and Kashmir, human rights activist-turned-politician Irom Sharmila crowdfunded a campaign for free and fair elections in Manipur, actor Akshay Kumar campaigned to provide underprivileged women clean sanitary napkins (it raised over ₹23 lakh) in 2018, and filmmaker Rajat Kapoor’s recently called for funds to back his upcoming film RK/R Kay .

Democratising giving

It’s no secret that in India, inequality is rampant. An Oxfam report earlier this year said India’s richest 1 per cent hold 58 per cent of the country’s wealth — higher than the global figure of 50 per cent. It was as late as in 2013 that the Indian Companies Act was amended to make corporate social responsibility (CSR) mandatory, to ensure big businesses use a part of their profit to fund causes ranging from rural development and women’s empowerment to arts promotion. Except for some big names in philanthropy, individual donors were never in the reckoning for long.

That is beginning to change, says Anoj Viswanathan, co-founder of Milaap, a crowdfunding platform that has generated ₹500 crore in donations since it was founded in 2010. He credits two broad changes — behavioural and structural — for persuading the average Indian to loosen their purse strings.


Teaching to give: Anoj Viswanathan, co-founder of Milaap, says altruism is an evolving process, where you first give to those you know and slowly graduate to support even complete strangers


“Earlier it was the Indian diaspora wanting to make a difference. But in the last few years, 70 per cent of our 2.5 million contributions each year are from donors back home,” he says. This is a significant figure, especially given that rules have been tightened for foreign funding of non-governmental organisations, or NGOs, under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.


Health help: Vikram Rathore, a blind schoolteacher from Bundi, Rajasthan, is asking for donations on Milaap for his six-year-old son battling cancer


The structural change is that today it’s easier to make digital payments. “PayTM [digital wallet service], UPI [instant inter-bank payment system] and BHIM [UPI-based mobile payment app] have significantly driven more contributions. There was a time when we wouldn’t accept any amount less than ₹500 because the transaction costs were so high. Today donors can contribute even a rupee. Crowdfunding has tremendously democratised the act of giving,” says Viswanathan.

Milaap is seeing a significant increase in contributions from tier-two and three cities. “People relate to the local causes they want to support,” says Viswanathan.

Some platforms such as Milaap and Ketto host campaigns for several categories of causes ranging from health, education and women empowerment to sports and animal welfare. Others tend to focus on just one cause. Wishberry, for instance, crowdfunds only for creative artists and has raised ₹13 crore so far to support 500 projects ranging from films to music and books. P Shravan Kumar’s Research Funders connects scientists with potential donors for their research projects; Fuel-a-dream raises seed money for innovative start-up ideas; and CrowdNewsing has campaigns for political activism and investigative journalism.

“With social media shrinking our world, today we are more comfortable giving even to strangers, rather than restricting ourselves to local charitable or religious organisations, or our domestic helps, office boys and drivers,” says Varun Sheth, founder of Ketto, which has raised over ₹300 crore in donations since 2012.

From among the many India-specific campaigns live today, one can choose to help fund Pune-based doctors Abhijit Sonawane and his wife Manisha, who identify themselves as “doctors for beggars”.


Street saviours: Dr Abhijit Sonawane, along with his wife Dr Manisha, treats the poor in Pune; the ‘doctors for beggars’ duo has raised over ₹7 lakh on Milaap


Each morning they set out with basic health check-up devices and medication, and search the streets of Pune for ailing beggars unable to pay for their treatment. You can pitch in to keep the last Sanskrit school in Melukote (Karnataka) running; or chip in for Bengaluru-based Satyarup Siddhanta’s ski trip at the South Pole — a feat that will fetch this youngster who battles severe asthma The Explorer’s Grandslam Title.


Crowd-puller: Bengaluru-based environmentalist Satyarup Siddhanta raised ₹6.65 lakh on Ketto to climb Mt Vinson Massif in Antarctica and ski the last degree to the South Pole in 2018


You could lend a hand to Rajni Basumatar, who wants to make a feature film about a tribe that is in danger of being wiped out due to a land conflict in the North-East or back the efforts of engineering students from Pune’s Vishwakarma Institute of Technology to design and fabricate a Formula One-category vehicle; or fund Aam Aadmi Party’s Aatishi’s election campaign for the East Delhi constituency in the upcoming general elections.


Changing the game: AAP candidate Atishi is among the few politicians whose electoral campaigns are being crowdfunded


Tell me a story

So, how hard or easy is it to get a crowdfunding campaign up and running? Ketto’s Sheth puts his faith in a “strong story”.

“We look for a story that is genuine, honest, with documents and photos in place, and where plans of fund use are clearly laid out,” he says.

The crowd that funds Ketto campaigns is largely made up of young millennials (aged 21-30), mostly male, from urban metro families that could be anything from high net worth to lower middle class, and who sometimes want to donate just a few rupees.

Milaap typically sees older male and female millennials (aged 30-35) from urban metro and, increasingly, tier-two and three cities. The average donation is ₹2,000 per cause. Medical emergencies attract more donors, because of the “strong emotional pull”, says Zaheer Adenwala, Ketto’s co-founder, especially in a country with one of the highest out-of-pocket healthcare expenses. Women’s empowerment and education come a close second and third.

A typical crowdfunding campaign starts off with an applicant filling out the details of the cause on the company’s webpage. A verification team gets in touch with the applicant to cross-check the facts and help draft a detailed, compelling story. At this point, care is taken to ensure the campaign does not promote hatred or crime. It’s then time for the campaign to go live online and spread through social media.

Crowdfunding platforms typically charge around 9 per cent success fees (on funds raised), which includes a payment gateway fee of 3 per cent and GST taxes, as applicable.

It takes a campaign anywhere from 24 hours to a week to go live, depending on how quickly the campaigner provides paperwork such as identity proof and other evidence. Most campaigns have a lifespan of four to twelve weeks. The campaign can either be discontinued after reaching the target amount or carry on, in rare circumstances, for a cause that requires a continuous inflow of funds, as adjudged by Ketto. It helps if the beneficiary continually provides updates about the cause, including photos and videos, as that may convince more donors to step up. Sometimes the print and online media picks up an interesting campaign and weaves it into a story, which ends up furthering the cause. Take the story of Mumbai resident Dadarao Bilhore, who lost his 16-year-old son in a road accident caused by a pothole in 2015. Bilhore made it a personal mission to fill every pothole he came across, and logged on to Ketto for support. “The one thing I noticed was that the authorities took action only after someone died. I realised that if I made an effort to fix the problem, people would give duas (blessings)to my son,” he said in an interview two years ago. In three years, he filled 600 potholes and won many more hearts and supporters along the way.

Alms race?

One of the biggest challenges for crowdfunding platforms is the perception that their campaign is akin to holding out a begging bowl in public.

The worry about ‘what people would think’ holds back many potential beneficiaries. This is also why it is usually friends or relatives who pitch a crowdfunding campaign for a beneficiary and spread the word on it. In recent times, however, perceptions are changing thanks to several successful campaigns by well-known names.

Moreover, once the donors establish a trust with a platform, they are comfortable giving even to complete strangers. Viswanathan says that after seven years in the business, Milaap can today proudly claim that 35 per cent of its donors confidently reach out to unknown beneficiaries.

In 2010, when Shivansh Gulwadi, 31, returned to India after working for years in the US, one of the first things that struck him was how a single dollar went a long way for someone back home. “I grew up in Mumbai and moved to a first-world experience. The first time you go back you realise the disparity in basic needs between the common man here and there, and feel compelled to do something,” he tells BL ink over a WhatsApp call from San Francisco. Earlier, all he could hope was that his stash of converted dollars would safely reach the needy. Today, he is a regular donor on Ketto and can actually see where his dollars are going and how they are benefiting the recipients. “It’s my way of staying connected with home.”

Altruism, too, is an evolving process, says Viswanathan — graduating from giving to someone you know or care about to finally helping someone you may never encounter in your life.

Giving with politics

The general elections are arguably one of the biggest fundraising exercises in the country, with crores of rupees spent on electing a new set of lawmakers every five years. This funding is opaque and usually forms part of the dark economy of India, says former journalist and activist Bilal Zaidi, who has co-founded a startup called Our Democracy to bring in more transparency.

“It is estimated that at least ₹80,000 crore will be spent on this election, and we are hoping that at least some of the money circulated would be above board, in white,” he says.

Zaidi, who had campaigned for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders in the 2016 US presidential election, is bringing home several learnings from that crowdfunding campaign. Our Democracy (ourdemocracy.in) was launched in January, but it has already collected ₹60 lakh towards political fundraising. “Crowdfunding for political campaigns entails more rules and regulations compared to other causes. There cannot be anonymous donations, for one,” he says. On the plus side for political parties is the fact that crowdfunding generates a mine of voter data that they can tap to their advantage. “Bernie Sanders’s team could raise a record amount of $5.9 million (₹40.6 crore) in 24 hours for his 2020 campaign by just reaching out to the people who had supported him in the earlier election,” says Zaidi.

Jignesh Mevani, dalit political leader and MLA from Vadgam, Gujarat, managed to raise ₹20 lakh for his campaign in 2017 on crowdnewsing.com. AAP candidate Atishi has raised over ₹43,15,604 so far.


Next generation: First-time Lok Sabha candidate Kanhaiya Kumar managed to raise ₹31 lakh in the two days after his campaign went live, according to Our Democracy co-founder Bilal Zaidi


“Kanhaiya Kumar’s candidature has been declared, and his fundraising campaign is live on ourdemocracy.in,” says Zaidi. “There were attacks on our server since his campaign went live, so we decided to take the website down for a few hours,” he added. Zaidi claims a sum of ₹31 lakh was collected in two days after Kumar’s campaign went live. Others on their roster include AAP MP Dharamvir Gandhi, who won against Preneet Kaur, wife of Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, in Patiala in 2014; and Nana Patole, who is running against Union minister and BJP leader Nitin Gadkari, and is supported by the Congress.

Irrespective of political and other affiliations, the platform is open to any candidate who has not been barred by the Election Commission, says Zaidi.

The start-up recently launched the White Money Challenge, which involves asking all candidates for the Lok Sabha elections to sign up for a campaign on the website to raise clean funds, and rid politics of black money.

The idea for Our Democracy was sparked by the success of its sister crowdfunding platform CrowdNewsing. “CrowdNewsing made ₹2.6 crore in the last two years,” says Zaidi.

Our Democracy goes beyond elections to cover other campaigns, such as the Artists Unite event held across India on March 2 and 3, which was supported by over 700 artists who registered their protest against divisive politics. The cause managed to raise ₹11 lakh on the platform. Film-maker Rahul Roy, one of the organisers, says crowdfunding works best when there is an emotive angle. “People want to be associated with any cause they believe in, and crowdfunding is a way to give them that sense of validation. The India chapters of #NotInMyName, an organised citizens’ protest against the public lynchings of dalits and Muslims, was also entirely crowdfunded, but it wasn’t so well organised, and mostly happened offline through the friends and family of the people involved.” Though it is still early days for crowdfunding in India, Roy believes it is favoured by many who want freedom from institutional funding and the restrictions that come with it. The transparency in crowdfunding is another attraction, he says.

Dr Kafeel Khan, who was suspended from BRD Medical college, Gorakhpur, in the wake of the death of 30 infants in the hospital, has managed to raise ₹20 lakh on Crowdnewsing. “It was a blessing, since I have been suspended for over 18 months now, and spent close to a year in jail. My practice in Gorakhpur is also close to finished,” he says. Dr Khan currently advocates a programme called ‘Healthcare for All’, urging political parties to support inclusive health in their manifestos. His crowdfunded campaign will lobby, among other demands, for doubling the budget allocation for health to 3 per cent of the GDP for the next five years.

Not all rosy

Seeing how crowdfunding changed Vasudev Markad’s life, Sharad decided to canvass for support not just for farmers but also starving cattle. He wanted to build a shelter for the cattle that distressed farmers could no longer afford to care for. Sharad shared the news with his WhatsApp sources, but has drawn a blank.

“It’s easier to garner support for wasteful expenditures such as weddings,” he says over the phone from Nivdunge. Donation drives for weddings in Nivdunge fetch at least ₹10 lakh from nearly 2,000 people. “But there is no help for a genuine case such as farm distress. For that, it needs the support of the elite and educated in metro cities,” he says.

Has he thought of approaching crowdfunding platforms on his own? “We don’t have a voice like people in cities do,” he says.

But, the platforms hope, if people like Sharad cannot reach out to city folks, they — the funders — will extend a helping hand to those who need it.