The Power of Philanthropic Complementarity

The Power of Philanthropic Complementarity

January 11, 2019 | Author: Alex Counts, Senior Philanthropy Adviser, Indiaspora

Despite India’s impressive economic growth and growing global influence, it has many urgent unmet humanitarian needs.  The nation’s young and growing population will either emerge as a tremendous asset for the country and for the world (a “demographic dividend”) or as a ticking time bomb (a “demographic disaster”).  Actions taken in the next few years will determine which scenario becomes reality.  Clearly, some of India’s needs can be effectively addressed by leveraging knowledge and resources from diaspora populations and trustworthy philanthropic organizations that can effectively channel their resources to implement solutions.

The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a useful framework for philanthropic work in India.  Of particular importance are goals one through five: end poverty in all its forms everywhere; zero hunger; good health and well-being; quality education; and gender equality.

A growing number of the best organized Indian philanthropies are upholding high standards of philanthropic professionalism.  They also believe in active and pragmatic coordination and collaboration amongst philanthropic actors, such as other non-profit organizations working on similar or adjacent issues, governmental bodies, beneficiaries, academics, volunteers, and donors.

In November when I travelled to Bangalore, I had the opportunity to visit with four such organizations.  Each has areas of strength and distinction in advancing the humanitarian agenda in India; all channel the talent and wealth from the Indian-American diaspora to advance their missions. They were: Arogya WorldFoundation for Excellence, Magic Bus, and Pratham.

What struck me most was how their strategies for addressing the needs of marginalized populations complemented each other.  It is noteworthy that each of these four (and also two others mentioned below) is involved in Indiaspora and sends a senior representative to our annual Forum each year to contribute to vigorous and enlightening discussions of philanthropy.

Arogya World, which I served as a consultant providing training on governance and fundraising, is a leader in preventing non-communicable diseases such as diabetes through promotion of healthy lifestyles and workplaces.  During its eight years in existence, Arogya has used technology in creative ways to reach 4 million adults and children in their homes, schools, and workplaces in an effort to defuse the ticking time bomb that these lifestyle diseases represent for Indian society.  One study showed that children exposed to its cost-effective educational programs significantly increased their intake of vegetables and other healthy foods and there was a 50 percent increase in physical activity and exercise.

Foundation for Excellence, by comparison, is a 24-year-old nonprofit focused on providing scholarships and mentoring to aspiring engineers and doctors who come from families with annual incomes of less than US $3,500 per year.  I spent an afternoon with the impressive leader of their staff team in India, Sandhya Manoj.  She helped me understand how aggressively FFE uses technology, volunteers, and their growing alumni network to stretch the impact of philanthropic donations.  To date, more than 52,000 scholars have received nearly US $20 million in scholarships.  After graduating, 85 percent of their scholars quickly find jobs – far above average among their peers.


Students learn teamwork through a workshop conducted by Magic Bus staff.

Magic Bus works with disadvantaged youth, mainly teenagers a few years before they would be eligible for FFE scholarships, to improve life skills and workforce readiness – including teamwork, communication, and the love of learning – through sports.  One of its strengths is leveraging corporate partnerships for the benefit of its highly engaging programs; ESPN was the sponsor of an outdoor facility in partnership with a school in a low-income neighborhood I visited.  Similar to FFE, they use trained volunteers, which they call community youth leaders, in creative ways.  Its “childhood to livelihood” program has already impacted more than 900,000 young people and is going a long way to ensuring that young adults from low-income backgrounds find a solid foothold in the nation’s growing and globalizing economy.


Visit to a government school supported by Pratham.

Finally, Pratham hosted me for a visit to see its efforts to play a catalytic role in improving the education of primary school students in government schools, which is a part of its broad and far-reaching agenda to address needs and fill gaps in India’s education system.  Its pragmatic and data-driven strategy includes:

  1. Research to drive more effective programs and outcomes
  2. Direct implementation efforts
  3. Government partnerships

Through this comprehensive approach, Pratham programs have impacted over 50 million children since its inception in 1995, and have drawn comparisons recently to the society-wide impact of the Grameen Bank.  Importantly, the impact of all that Pratham does is measured rigorously. Most of its work is at the elementary school level, serving as an effective complement to the work of FFE and Magic Bus, which focus on older children and youth.

In order to ensure that India emerges as a global powerhouse with all of its citizens contributing to and benefiting from its progress, multiple strategies and actors will be needed.  Nonprofit organizations will need to act independently and with governmental bodies, and their thought leadership will be as important as their direct implementation efforts.

My visit confirmed that those of us who wish to work in solidarity with India’s marginalized populations would do best to develop what Nishant Pandey, my very capable successor as CEO of American India Foundation (AIF), has called a “narrative of complementarity.” (AIF was set up in the United States in 2001 as a collective platform for philanthropy and has benefited 5 million people in India through effective programs on health, education, and livelihoods, often implemented through partnerships with corporations and local governments.)

I find it plausible that a condition as entrenched as poverty can be significantly rolled back by the work of any of these terrific organizations.  On the other hand, I consider it much more likely that sustained progress can be made by all of these groups bringing their comparative advantages to bear, together, in a complementary manner.

Echoing these ideas, Dasra, the pioneering strategic philanthropy foundation, has argued: “India’s complex and ambitious development agenda cannot be addressed by a sole stakeholder.  It needs urgent and formal collaboration between stakeholders.”  Indeed, no single organization can do all that is required, but by working together and presenting a united front, a brighter future can emerge more quickly than most of us can imagine possible.


Alex Counts is Indiaspora’s Senior Philanthropy Adviser. He previously served as President and CEO of American India Foundation, and prior to that, worked with Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus in several capacities, including founding and running Grameen Foundation for 18 years. He is author of Small Loans, Big Dreams, published by John Wiley & Sons.