Notes From The Road

Mulago in India.

Notes from the road india

I just got back from a jam-packed visit to India – 6 states, 6 organizations (Noora, Digital Green, Dost, SaveLIFE, Kheyti, and Educate Girls), the most internal domestic flights that I’ve ever taken on a single trip, and – just to keep things interesting – we helped design and deliver an event with VisionSpring for CSR funders. Not bad for two weeks!

I’ve visited India a few times so was excited to return for another glimpse into this massive and diverse country. And while I realize that a few days scattered across India is far from a deep dive, there were some notable differences since my last visit in 2014. A few things really stood out:

1. The pace of development

The most obvious developments were around infrastructure. The quality of roads, hospital and school buildings, and power was a visual reminder of India’s 7+% annual growth rate since 2015. Such visible growth made me wonder if we were moving too upstream from our target population - the poorest of the poor. But what’s not as immediately visible from the smooth urban and peri-urban roads we traveled on is that India is still home to about 50 million people in extreme poverty. And as our portfolio organizations remind us, the nature of social and economic development is varied across states and brings new challenges, like hazardous levels of pollution and a growing burden of NCDs. Which brings me to my next point…

2. The state as a unit of scale

India’s population figures astound me. Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India, has over 200 million people. 200 million people! It’s no wonder Educate Girls and SaveLIFE are expanding there – scaling impact in UP is the equivalent to (if not a multiple of) national-level scale up in many countries. Perhaps it should have been obvious, but I’m coming away from this trip with a new appreciation for the state as a unit of scale and the work our portfolio organizations are doing to target states with the greatest need.

3. CSR funding is a big deal

I value CSR (really – I used to work in it…), but it isn’t the main game in US domestic funding. This is not the case in India. Nearly everyone we visited shared that CSR funding is integral to their 2020 fundraising goals. And it makes sense – foreign contributions in India were down 40% in 2018, while mandated corporate giving (thanks to the 2013 Companies Act) led CSR to rise to 16% of total domestic funding. For comparison, that’s 3X the share of corporate giving and on par with the share of foundation giving in the US in 2018. It’s a big deal!

The VisionSpring event gave us a chance to both learn from and share with this growing network of Indian CSR funders. We learned that Indian CSR is generally project-specific, output-oriented, and geographically focused near their business operations. We made the plug for low-hassle, unrestricted, long-term support and – with a little help from our friends at Dasra and The Nudge Foundation – shared ideas on how to collaborate with other funders to have more impact. There’s huge potential here and we’re curious to see how it evolves.

I learn something new every time I travel, and this visit to India reminded me just how quickly things can change and how important it is to keep our perspective fresh. While I just got back, I’m already looking forward to our next adventure to Togo, Ghana and Zambia for another glimpse into our portfolio organizations’ work. Stay tuned for more notes from the road.