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Happy Mother's Day!


Happy Mother's Day!

With all the love being showered on moms, i thought we could highlight some of the amazing women NGO leaders around India (and a few who work on India from the US).  By no means is this list a ranking, or exhaustive - just fifteen women I have met or learned of over the last few years whose leadership is really impressive, and in whose care the future of civil society in India seems well.  Check out their organizations and see the wonderful work they are doing.

Nafisa Barot, Utthan
Suniti Solomon, YRG Care
Ila Bhatt and the members of SEWA
Kathy Sreedhar,UU Holdeen India Fund
Kavita Ramdas, Global Fund for Women
Rema Nanda, Pathfinder International
The women of Sharmjeevi Mahili Samiti
Yamini Aiyar,Accountability Initiative, Center for Policy Research
Sunita Krishnan, Prajwala
Laila Tyabji, Dastkar
Anjali Gopalan, NAZ Foundation
Shaheen Mistry, Teach for India
Sushmita Ghosh, Ashoka
Rani Bang, SEARCH
The women of Anandi


Azad Oommen



Is Social Incidental? There are No Social Businesses, Social is Just Incidental!

One of the panel discussions at Sankalp, India’s largest social enterprise and investor forum, this week is about Social Businesses and whether they truly exist or is the social agenda merely incidental?
A social business, as defined by Prof. Mohammad Yunus a cause-driven business.  His definition, allows room for investors/owners to gradually recoup the money invested, but he advocates that they not take out any dividend beyond that point.  The objective for the investment should be to promote the social goals of the organization and not personal financial gain. ClearlySo on their website offer a variation on this definition in that social businesses can, in the case of financial surplus, return all or a portion of it to investors (in the form of capital appreciation or dividends) as well as what is known as the ‘social return’. ,  
For most businesses that typically exist to maximize shareholders wealth, the avenue for attainment of social goals within such businesses has been through their Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives or Corporate Foundations. For many companies these initiatives are not necessarily strategic but they still contribute to the greater good. Some might argue that many of these initiatives are set up to detract from the negative impact of their for profit business. A cigarette company for example investing heavily in anti-smoking campaigns and awareness. A beverage company focusing on water.
The distinction between a pure social business and one that happens to pursue some social goals - is quite clear. At least in definition. But do businesses whose predominant reason for being is to further a social cause actually exist? Businesses that are striving towards a sustainable, scalable model through financial efficiency but their reason for being is purely social. The answer is Yes.
As a social business, SevaYatra believes in the double bottom line of financial viability and social impact objectives. We embody the principle that doing good and generating financial surplus or wealth can go hand-in-hand. The wealth can be reinvested in the same social business or likely in other social ventures. It’s a point of view that we would like to offer up. If social businesses create a surplus over and above the investment amount, why not consider investing any additional amounts beyond what might be needed for re-investment, into some other viable social businesses/ventures. This decision of how to reinvest however can be either undertaken by the existing social business in conjunction with the investors or simply by handing back the returns to the investors so they can make their own independent social investment decisions. We do realize that this is a rather long timeline for the most part. It would take a social business at least 5-7 years to return the investment most likely and then create financial surplus thereafter. The timeline therefore is long enough to make it difficult to predict outcomes.
For now, however we know that social is not incidental to us but is ingrained in everything we do at SevaYatra. We offer short term service projects, voluntourism trips, service learning and philanthropy consulting. Each time we work on a project – it serves a social need, fills some gap, creates a new resource, or inspires someone to do good. We measure ourselves based on well defined metrics that include social and financial objectives.
The success of social businesses will depend on the adoption of this model as opposed to the traditional non-profit model. Will individuals look at the choice of making a one-time donation still more favorable than an investment opportunity that allows them to be continually engaged with a business as an investor opposed to a donor, but when the money is returned they have the ability to reinvest it in the same social business or others? Thus the money keeps giving. Fundamentally, social businesses want investors to consider forgoing an upfront tax deduction and instead have the ability to get their money back. In doing so they do undertake a small risk – which can be quantified to the extent of the tax deduction forgone. But isn’t the social return enough to compensate for the same?
As an early stage social business do we have many other social businesses to point to or take precedence from? Not really. Prof. Yunus’s new book which will hit the stands in mid-May might have more examples and ideas for us to look at. Most of the projects currently cited on the Yunus Center website however are backed heavily by funds from larger conglomerates. Joint Ventures with organizations like Danone, Intel, BASF and the like. These organizations are making significant upfront investments in their own social businesses that will initially embark on product development, testing, market validation to create unique products/services targeting the underprivileged sectors for the most part.
Can the Yunus Center help provide more visibility to social businesses that do not have this kind of backing but have the same or likely higher chances of success given their relatively lower investment needs? Will Dr. Yunus's new book spur a heightened interest in social businesses similar to what happened in the area of microfinance? While this can only be positive for the social business sector in general, is there a chance that the term social business will become the next big thing to start attracting more capital that can be placed meaningfully and thus result in some bad investment and business decisions along the way....and if so, investors and businesses need to ensure that social does not run the risk of becoming incidental.

Learning By Doing


“When do you feel most alive?” is one of my favorite questions to ask the participants and students in the programs that I facilitate.  People respond with a variety of answers, from the times that they have spent in fierce competition during an athletic event or to simple moments, such as playing with their children.  Over time, I noticed that many people expressed that they felt most alive when learning something new or when helping others.  These two themes, learning and helping, are what draw me to Seva Yatra.


As an educator, I advocate “learning by doing”.  However, I also know that simply “doing” something doesn’t mean that I actually learn from it.  Unfortunately, I have made the same mistakes a number of times before finally learning my lesson or figuring out how to do it right.  My “learning” is often the result of getting advice from someone who knows more than me, researching, asking questions, listening, observing, and applying a greater consciousness to what I am doing.  The “learning by doing” happens not just as a result of a specific activity, but from also increasing my understanding of the context in which I am acting.


Exposure to a greater context, both macro and micro, is one of the key components of Seva Yatra (SY).  In addition to providing resources and assistance to social sector organizations, a Seva Yatra project strives to enhance citizen participation through increasing the level of knowledge and sophistication that volunteers have regarding social issues.   Whether through discussion with the founder of the NGO while onsite, reading a pre-service article provided by Seva Yatra, or listening carefully during a reflective session at the end of the day, Seva Yatra builds in opportunities to connect the service-based interactions of the actual volunteer project with the context in which the actions took place.


In a recent conversation with a former colleague at DukeEngage, I learned that the available research on civic engagement is demonstrating that one of the key differentiators in service programs that actually lead to the desired outcome of increased citizen participation is reflection.  The programs with the most impact on participants are those that incorporate “thinking” into the structure and the heart of service activities.   In this conversation, I was reminded how critical it is to Seva Yatra’s vision of catalyzing citizen service in India to help connect volunteers with the policy dilemmas and social dynamics that come to bear on the people that they are helping.


Joy Mischley