What would you do if you were offered a million dollars? Many would typically think of buying a house or a fancy car, while some may be tempted to test the stock market. Twenty-one-year-old Deval Sanghavi said he would move to India and start an NGO, when Morgan Stanley interviewed him for a job after his University education in the US. Struck by his zeal they gave him the job. Sanghavi accepted on condition that he could travel to India for six months and work with an organisation involved with the rehabilitation of street children.
So began the journey of a passionate and stubborn middle-class boy who, backed only by a desire to help others, went on to create Dasra, a firm that has mobilised funds exceeding $7 million for over 150 NGOs. Dasra's services include running the Indian Philanthropy Forum, which brings the well heeled of society together in one room to combine their resources and make each rupee go further than it would on its own. Dasra acts like a PE fund, creating a pool of charitable donations called Giving Circles. These circles identify viable NGOs and Dasra helps them articulate their vision. Once funding is in place, the firm, with its team of high-calibre consultants, helps the organisation optimise resources.
Magic Bus is one such NGO that helps marginalised children rediscover the joys of childhood through play activity. Dasra spent 3-4 months talking to the NGO staff and understanding their needs and limitations before suggesting ways to fine-tune the organisation, which reaches out to more than 20,000 children.
Today, apart from the clipped accent and the button-down shirt worn over a vest, there is very little to hint at his two-year glamorous stint as a young analyst at the strategic finance group at Morgan Stanley. “Being in investment banking, the money gives you confidence. I knew if I stuck around I could make a million dollars, but I was more interested in how I could use some of those skills to work in the non-profit space,” he says.
The non-profit space had long beckoned Sanghavi. As a young boy growing up in Houston, in the US, each summer he travelled to India to spend three months with his grandparents in Vile Parle, Mumbai. The extreme disparity and poverty he witnessed gnawed at his core and he strongly desired to do something about it. He found his opportunity in the six months he spent at the community outreach programme offering day shelter to street children living near Grant Road station.
The children were provided informal education, showering facilities and medical assistance. “The experience was fairly transformational for me. I also learned a lot from the children. I remember on the first day I took the children out to buy them chai and pav … one of the kids came up to me and gave me half his portion, saying, ‘ Bhaiya aap nahi khayenge tau mein nahi khaoonga ” (I won't eat if you don't have some too). I was like, I don't even do this with my own family, and an 8-year-old who hasn't eaten for possibly 12 hours is giving me his food. And then I went back to Morgan Stanley, where everybody complained all the time… I began wondering why I was working with clients of this nature when I could be working with a different set of clients using the same approach, process and philosophy.”
So he packed his bags and left for Kharagpur to work at a school for tribal children. Within three weeks he found himself building a boarding house for the school, as there was chronic absenteeism. He observed that the girls could not attend school as they had to look after their siblings and the boys had to work to keep the family fire burning. Sanghavi had an offbeat solution — the girls could study with their young siblings napping nearby or even on their laps! Also, the children were given meals at the school.
Such early success clearly showed the need for thinking outside the box. “I realised what the world needed was not more NGOs but more efficiently-run and better-funded organisations.”
The school also brought into his life the woman he was destined to marry later. Canadian-born Neera Nundy was the daughter of the woman running the tribal school. The couple have three children — a set of twins and a boy.
Neera says she took her time deciding to join him in his newfound mission and that initially she was quite content pursuing the big-bonus career. Neera, however, took the plunge immediately after graduating from Harvard. “His passion is so strong that he wins everyone over with his commitment,” she says. While he wins the donors over with his confident charm, she works behind the scenes to keep the machinery humming efficiently. It is quite evident that their combined vision and long hours have been critical to Dasra's success, alongside their talented team of 25 people.
Sanghavi says, “In this country we have some of the best globally-recognised and respected NGOs. But they are not respected here. That is frustrating. There is little communication between those doing the good work and those who have the money.”
People like Sanghavi and Neera are trying to bridge that gap and, in doing so, bringing us closer to acknowledging the countless unsung acts of humanity.