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Making time....


While our work actively involves developing, planning and implementing volunteer service projects for our clients, as an organization we have also consciously decided that each employee will take time out from work to engage personally and become an active volunteer in their own community.

More recently a lot of my volunteering had taken the form of involvement and interactions at a board level with non profits and NGOs. While this type of volunteering is also a significant contribution requiring ongoing commitment and measurable output – it does not result in too much hands-on volunteering directly with the clients of the Non profits themselves. So in January I decided to change that and signed up for two projects locally – one at the Bridge and the other at North Texas Food Bank, right here in Dallas.

On Martin Luther King Day, I volunteered with member companies from the Entrepreneurs for North Texas at the Bridge, a multi-purpose facility based on a unique Public-Private Partnership dedicated to serving homeless men, women and children, with the primary focus being the chronically homeless in Dallas.

We arrived in the evening and I was amazed at the clean, large and welcoming facility that is intended to offer an environment that is non threatening and can hopefully lead the homeless out of their homelessness over a period of interventions and by offering them a warm meal and a safe place to spend the night. Dinner is mainly served to the homeless that are going to be spending the night there so it’s a much smaller group relative to the morning breakfast and lunch queues.

The group was split up with some behind the counter filling up the dishes and others serving water to the homeless as they sat down. I remembered my grandmother telling me that to give water to a thirsty person would get me a lot of blessings so that evening I knew I was gonna likely leave that place much richer…

We were given a brief orientation about the program and then were ready to get started. First the people that were in wheelchairs or needed some special help were allowed to come in. We helped them with their plates, and got them seated. Then others kept coming in through the hour and half after that. We had people of various demographics – the face of the homeless was very different from what I had expected. Maybe comparing in my own mind a homeless person in Dallas and Mumbai was going to clearly bring about stark contrasts.

They were old and young, men and women – of all colors and likely professions. I saw a man with a laptop and others carrying their entire life possessions with them in a trash bag. They were all well covered thankfully with warm clothing and shoes but I am sure bearing the cold through the night with just that much on you can be very brutal.

“Hello, would you like some water?” or “would you like a refill”’ “how are you this evening” or “Enjoy your meal” – these were predominantly the greetings we used – but I guess how and with what level of genuineness and humility you can deliver these questions is important. I was struck and very pleased with the dignity offered to them and how important it was for them.

They were all very polite, very nice and very approachable and at some level I hoped they thought the same of me. When one of the men said that night “you have a great personality” – I was so touched. Another man asked me my name and what I did. He wanted to know if I could take him to India or fill his pockets with money! The smiles, the nods, the people I interacted with that evening – I might never see again – but each one of them in their own way made a difference in my life. I am waiting now for my son to become old enough so I can take him there so he can serve with me.

I learnt about a young man in my son’s school who decided at the age of 6 that every time the temperature goes down below freezing – he shops for and prepares meals for the homeless about 150-200 meals – mostly including his own special foods and delivers them with his family along with socks to them. What a special thing to do – and what a wonderful commitment on his part. Today he must be 12 or 13 and he still continues with it.

I had planned a small service project around my birthday and invited a few friends and family that could come join. It being a Tuesday morning we had limited participation. The few of us that kept our commitment ended up getting very close to completing the job a larger group would have set out to do. When we arrived at the Food Bank this morning there were a group of 5th graders from a private school in Dallas with some of their teachers. Collectively, we packed 6 pallets which meant 180 boxes filled with 1260 bags of weekend meals that would feed 5040 kids.

The North Texas Food Bank (NTFB) is a nonprofit hunger relief organization that distributes donated, purchased and prepared foods through a network of 1,184 feeding programs in 13 North Texas counties. The NTFB supports the nutritional needs of children, families and seniors through education, advocacy and strategic partnerships.  Close the Gap is the NTFB’s 3-year initiative to unite the community to narrow the food gap by providing access to 50 million meals annually by 2011. $1 = 4 meals. The NTFB’s goal is to distribute 10,000 Food 4 Kids backpacks each weekend by the end of the school year.

What struck us was how dependent organizations like these are on volunteers and how tough it is for them when volunteers who commit do not show up. They have food but need hands to help sort and distribute it. Without these hands, the food does not get to the people that need them.

Please do your part in your own community – find an organization near you or one you can visit on your next family or business trip…Experience the joy of giving your time!


Sejal Desai

Everyone can be great because everyone can serve


On the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, we remember his important words, "Life's most important question is: What are you doing for others?"


I spent some time today reading about MLK Jr's visit to India in 1959.  I knew of the tremendous inspiration that he had drawn from Gandhiji, but it is remarkable to think that he spent a month traveling around India (had SevaYatra existed, maybe engaging in some service projects) to learn firsthand about the Indian non-violent struggle and where it had led the country.  He wrote a reflective article following his journey, which can be found here.


I was particularly struck by his observation:  "I left India more convinced than ever before that non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. It was a marvelous thing to see the amazing results of a non-violent campaign. The aftermath of hatred and bitterness that usually follows a violent campaign was found nowhere in India. Today a mutual friendship based on complete equality exists between the Indian and British people within the commonwealth. The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But, the way of non-violence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community."

Although these words of his were written in the context of a liberation struggle, I find them a source of inspiration for engaging in service.  Through service we create a "beloved community," where we work together to actively find solutions to societal problems that affect us all.


While MLK Jr. and Gandhiji set the bar high for us in terms of their commitment to a better world, we can all do our bit to overcome inequality and injustice.  As MLK Jr. so eloquently put it, "Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve."


Azad Oommen

Investing in a Social Business – Are you really ready?



When SevaYatra was started a fundamental decision was made to let it function in a for profit environment but with very clear social objectives. The basic idea was that we create a model whereby our existence was based on a self sustaining revenue stream that came from services we provided in the social responsibility solutions segment. This would help us expand our reach through the profits we would eventually make and not create an ongoing dependency on donations and grants. A simple approach based on sound business practices that still had the do-good potential.

Common Definition: A social business is a cause driven business and is more commonly defined as a non-loss, non-dividend company. In a social business, the investors/owners can gradually recoup the money invested, but should not take any dividend beyond that point. Purpose of the investment is purely to achieve one or more social objectives through the operation of the company; no personal gain is desired by the investors.

The idea of social businesses while not entirely new was first put forward in a well defined, more accepted way, by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus in his second book "Creating a World Without Poverty." In this book, he establishes the specific ingredients of a social business by laying out what he considers a social business to be or not to be. He offers a comparative analysis with various social entrepreneurial ventures in different countries and thus lays out the legal and financial frameworks required for a social business to thrive.

In his more recent book, Building Social Business, he emphasizes the importance of the impact of business on people and the environment, and not the amount of profit generated.

Is there really a softer side to capitalism?

While there are institutional investors that are making social investments – be it the Acumen Fund or Aavishkar, if one thinks about this from an individual investor’s perspective the following questions come to bear:

-Does an angel investor commonly understand the difference between making a simple one time donation to a nonprofit (and reaping immediately the benefits of a tax deduction), versus making a social investment in a company where you forego the tax deduction for a longer term investment relationship? In the same way as they have buckets for high risk or moderate risk investments and also separately for charitable donations – will social investments eventually find a new bucket for themselves and will conscious investing become part of an individual investors normal framework of investing?

I grappled over the idea of convincing a group of individuals/professionals with a desire to be involved in the social and development sector be motivated to:

-Provide a $15,000-50,000 loan/investment to a social business

-Potentially expect a return “of” and not “on” investment over a defined period of time

-Consider a social investment which allows them to actively track their investment over a period of time likely 4-5 years versus making a one time or annual donation in a non profit

-Collectively define a strategy for reinvestment of profits into the social business for growth and expansion of mission, but also in the creation of new social business ideas to be funded or supported through profits generated beyond those needed for reinvestment

SevaYatra has thus far managed to be a self funded organization in the early stages of its journey. As we prepare for growth the debate around investment vehicles raises some interesting questions. Can a kiva type model work for example to help fund a social business? A model wherein the individual investments are clearly higher than a typical kiva investment but we offer a level of transparency and purpose that can commit an investor for a 4-5 year period at the minimum, to the business in general. Can we in the process create a host of savvy social investors?

Another common debate which is currently ongoing in the microfinance industry is around whether one should allow entrepreneurs and investors to make some return to reward their efforts and risk. As this segment evolves…clearly new definitions and more creative models will emerge.

But if you had $$ to invest or donate today, what path would you more likely chose? Are you really ready to do something different with your own money? 


Sejal Desai