Supporting your causes

Ruchira from the Accidental Blogger called me up the other day to tell me she was very passionate about a new cause she was supporting called Save A Mother. She asked if I could highlight the cause here on SM (I urge you to check their website for more info):

India Development Service (IDS) Save-A-Mother project aims to minimize suffering and death associated with pregnancy and child birth. We have been working in partnership with local NGOs in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India, which has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Many other regions in India and rest of the world are in a similar situation where this program can be replicated.

Save-A-Mother programs educate women about pregnancy, nutrition, immunization, delivery and care of the child. Save-A-Mother has a complementary benefit in saving the child also.
Our Objectives

1. Decrease maternal mortality by 50% in Sultanpur in 5 years. (Pilot Project)
2. Replicate this model to two more districts in 2 more years and institutionalise the program.
3. Replicate the program to vulnerable districts where mortality exceeds the national average.
4. Partner with NGOs in other high MMR countries [Link]


p>Ruchira said that the Chicago-based organizers are primarily looking for involvement via the donation of money. They have a dedicated core of organizers and volunteers, including Ruchira, but they were having some trouble spreading the word and gathering contributions for their efforts, especially from the younger demographic. This led to a conversation between myself and Ruchira as to why it is often difficult to find donations from the under-40 crowd. I attribute it to several reasons:


p>1) Younger potential donors usually want to donate more than money. They typically have youthful energy and a full supply of idealism. Thus, they want direct involvement, not simply involvement by proxy.


p>I know this is true of me. I give money to charities every year, but I feel like I am making more of an impact (whether or not I really am) when I donate time and effort instead of just money. When the earthquake hit Haiti I read a couple of good articles about how it is often counterproductive to donate anything BUT money.


p>2) There is a greater social (and personal) cache that comes with starting your own cause than in supporting an existing one. And it sometimes looks good on your resume and helps “pick up” guys/girls.


p>In the desi community it seems like everyone I know is starting an NGO or charity or has a cause they are not just supporting, but leading. I am not questioning people’s intentions at all, but I wonder about the overall effect. How many clusters of quite similar desi NGOs/Charities/Causes are already out there but are not cooperating because everyone wants to be a leader or execute a more narrowly focused vision? I wonder if a more cooperative effort would be more productive. There is the old saying that one should “lead, follow, or get out of the way.” In the desi community most people only see two of those three options. In this day and age geography should not limit people. Sepia Mutiny is not an NGO or charity but we have successfully run it since 2004 without all of us even having met to this day.


p>3) There are just too many causes out there. I am overwhelmed. Even picking stocks seems easier.


p>In addition to all the good causes out there (desi and non-desi related) there are also South Asian American politicians asking for our donations. Many of us believe strongly in supporting those whose policies align with our own, but sometimes we also feel guilty. There is so much money in politics already. Do I give to politics and my social causes? What percentage to each? Indecision then leads to inaction which helps no one.


p>4) All our friends (except the really lazy ones) are running in that race for breast cancer/AIDS/MS etc. It slowly saps our attention span and diffuses our giving.


p>I support all those causes and I would give money to sponsor my friends for some of them (I am going to give nominal amounts to several of a large group of friends running the MS150 here in Texas). BUT…most of the people I know run races as much for themselves (goal is to get in shape or ) as the charity they are supporting. That is totally ok. Does that meet one’s yearly obligation though (assuming you believe in an obligation)? Does it then deter one from giving beyond that race?

Those are my thoughts and I have some ideas on how I would improve this “state” we are in. I’d like to hear some of yours though. Do you think there is even a problem or are you happy with the “free market” approach that exists now?

30 thoughts on “Supporting your causes

  1. Abhi:

    Thank you very much for highlighting Save A Mother on SM. I appreciate the write up and your perspective on participation in charitable causes. Much to learn from younger folks.

    The Houston chapter of SAM will have its 2010 annual fundraiser on Friday, May 7th. All those who can make it, please plan to attend. For details of the event, please e-mail me (or Veena Kaul, listed on the web site) around mid April when the program is likely to have been finalized.

  2. I’d suggest highlighting the stuff in the ‘Progress’ and ‘Impact analysis’ sections of your website more in your pitch. You’re making yourself sound like you’re just starting out when this is a pretty well established organization. Take credit for the work you’ve done. A lot of people just don’t give to ‘startup’ NGOs unless they have a personal link to them (probably a good thing since the majority are.. um.. ill equipped, in practical matters).

    Obv, I’m not saying this is you, but I had to look through your website to convince myself that you’re not just a bunch of idiot teenagers who want to cure world hunger. There’s a gap between “this is a good cause” and giving us a convincing “this is how we’re trying to fix it” that a lot of well established but lesser known NGOs don’t address. Which is a pity, since these medium sized ones tend to do the best work.

    Good luck

  3. Thanks, Anand. Perhaps I came across as too tentative.

    You are right. Save A Mother is a not a “start up” NGO and we are not “teenagers” 🙂 In fact I had asked Abhi to mention that he was writing this on behalf of an “Aunty.” SAM is an established charity whose success lies in the fact that except for the paid educators based in India, every other level involves volunteers who donate their money, time and expertise. It is therefore cost effective and it is rapidly expanding in its reach. The steps involved in pre and post natal care of the mother and new born are simple, common sensical, non-invasive and effective.

    It is also correct that supporting NGOs in India is often best based on personal contact and trust. I myself use exactly those criteria for donating to the handful of Indian charities to which I contribute regularly. In the case of SAM, I was delighted to be contacted by its founder Dr. Shiban Ganju, who took the time to meet with me and explain the organization’s work to me in detail. His hands-on involvement in this effort is impressive and reassuring.

    So again, SAM is NOT a start-up NGO. It has been up and running for some time. Its Houston chapter is relatively new and we want to spread the word around as best as we can within the local community and beyond, including among the younger crowd.

    All suggestions from readers are welcome.

    Thanks again.

  4. abhi,

    it also may be due to the fact that the younger generation has better tools available to assess the opacity and effectiveness of a given charity or NGO. the critera can change for a given situation–i donated to ACT Lanka instead of Vanni Mercy Mission because the former had access to the people I wanted to help and did not harbor abettors of terrorism–but the opacity issue is always relevant and soluble if you can read financials.

    Regarding #2, I don’t think the proliferation of ‘I was here first” causes has much to do with the cachet or dating advantage referenced but more to do with socioeconomic status and what one thinks is possible. I have a limited set of anecdotes but for high income desi households, i’ve found a fairly large proportion have at least one child who has gone the, “i’m a career activist/helptivist” route. When the margin for failure is large (parental bankroll however attenuated by tough talk) there is a good chance the kid will be a career helper.

  5. We’ve been writing a lot about this at our site – The South Asian Philanthropy Project. We’ve done posts on all the points you raise above and hope to build a network of resources for donors.

    One of the other reasons that financial giving is a challenge is that we lack a “meta-narrative” – a South Asian philanthropic story or identity. Because we’re so diverse on so many levels, it’s hard to find common values around organizations to support. I agree that there’s also a lack of sophistication around collaboration and assessing impact – instead, everyone starts a new organization for their cause. Great observation.

    Keep in touch – we’d love to collaborate with SM!!!

  6. “In the desi community it seems like everyone I know is starting an NGO or charity or has a cause they are not just supporting, but leading. I am not questioning people’s intentions at all, but I wonder about the overall effect. How many clusters of quite similar desi NGOs/Charities/Causes are already out there but are not cooperating because everyone wants to be a leader or execute a more narrowly focus vision?”

    Unfortunately a lot of the NGOs in India right now are kind of “sham” NGOs.. often times people are siphoning off money or just running them so poorly while paying themselves well. NGOs are a real business in India these days, and it is very important to know who you are donating to and that you can trust them.

  7. And it sometimes looks good on your resume and helps “pick up” guys/girls.

    And now the truth about Abhi starting SM comes out! But pray tell… is it guys or girls?

  8. Abhi,

    There are a large number of NGOs seeking money to help someone in India or somewhere else. Also in my area there are a large number (more than 100) of desi associations who ask for money for various “causes” like building a new temple, renovating temple, making parkig lot in Gurudwara and so on.

    Besides the reasons you mentioned, few other factors that a lot of Desis consider for donating to NGOs

    1. Overhead:- How much money actually reaches to the people who need it? Overhead tends to be very high with larger organization.

    2. Trust:- A lot of people don’t trust NGOs to be real.

    3. Return on investment:- A lot of desis see donation as an investment to gain publicity for thier business or personal fame. A large number of desi businesses donate money to the temple here with the condition that thier business name appears on the temple name plates.

    4. Already tied up:- A lot of honest and sincere desis are already tied up directly with NGOs in India where they send the money directly or indirectly through parents.

    5. Already providing social services:- I know few desis who don’t donate because they provide non financial social services and consider that to be good enough society. (I fall in this category).

  9. Any idea if I can lookup an index of all the NGOs – both here in US and in India? The original article is right – there are too many charities looking for help and it is tough to decide which one or two to get involved in.

  10. Ashwani, a while back I came across a website that was analyzing NGOs and categorizing them based on a bunch of criteria.. it was very interesting but in it’s beginning phases. The link is here:

    Also, if you are interested in charities specific to India, I have personal experience with a few, if you are interested in other people’s experiences. If so, just let me know what kind of organization you are looking for. (i.e. helping street children, education, nutrition)

  11. And to give credit where credit is due, I got the givewell link from this article by gori girl:

  12. Several charities provide names of children, names of patients treated, phone numbers of teachers running schools and so on. Once you’ve checked out the financial on say Guidestar, I would suggest that people just pick some organizations and initially give the minimum amount they need for their activity. If you are satisfied with the amount of data the charity gives back about what your money was used for, contribute more the following year.

  13. LinZi, I’m looking for NGOs in India that focus on education. Could you help me find legitimate NGOs.

    Abhi, great post as well. I remember donating to the ‘I have a Goat’ project you discussed a while back. I plan on donating to SAM as well, once I have the money.

  14. JD,

    there are a TON of NGOs dealing with education in India. I’m sure there are a ton more out there, but I will let you know a few that I have dealt with personally.

    Barakat: Barakat is based out of Camrbidge, MA (if live near there they LOVE people to intern and help with events, I was an intern there for sometime). They have schools in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. I have meet both the founders, who are great guys. They are still relatively small, and have only established their U.S.-side office recently (for fund raising and community building). You can check out their website here: They have a yearly Walk for Literacy, cultural event, and I believe they are planning to start a cricket tournament. The world they have done with education is pretty great (they use local people in the community, and they use local people’s suggestions to decide how to move ahead in each place they work. They have used a lot of techniques especially to get girls in school).

    Pratham- As far as I know, Pratham has a decent rating on Givewell. I have seen a few presentations by them (which weren’t so impressive) but hey, you can check them out too:

    Nanhi Kali- This organization allows you to sponsor girls education. You have one individual child that you sponsor and you will get a photo and updates on their educational progress. I have known about them for awhile, but I recently donated to sponsor one girl for a year ($65 or $85, depending on where they are in school). So I don’t have a vedict yet on how transparent, etc they are. (They also have a chapter in Boston)

    Children International- this is a very large org. and has some overheard, but if you would like to sponsor a child in India (or quite a few other countries) you do get some benefits. I sponsor 3 girls through CI and I visited the first one, so I know that the money is going where it should. In addition to monthly sponsorship cost ($22 per child) you can also send special gifts (monetary or packages), letters, photos, etc. If you want to have a relationship with a child, this is the way to go. All the children in India in this program like in and around Kolkata, so if you know Bengali, Hindi or Urdu, you can see which language the child speaks before sponsoring so you can communicate more easily in letters and if you visit. (They also translate everything)) You can also help do extra things for the child, like pay for tuitions (tutoring), sponsor further education, and help their family improve their home, or earn extra income through income generating projects. The thing that stands out for me is that the are NOT a religious organization. At the same time, from the U.S. you will be sending out “easter” and “christmas” cards and make a small donation. I inquired about this at the beginning and they said the kids are told this is just a special time of year when they receive a gift (usually somthing like a radio, new clothes, etc that they might need).

    I-India: I-India is a home for street children in Jaipur. It also sponsors their educations, as well as additional classes and vocational training. I volunteered with them for 10 months and did my masters research on them. They do many good things, but like most organizations, also have some issues. One is a need for the older kids (who can only live their until age 18) to continue with school and get continued support after leaving. If someone wanted to donate money towards tuition scholarships for older kids, this would definately help them (You can also sponsor children who live at the home to help support their education and daily needs)

    That’s all I can think of at the moment, if you want to know any more details about any of these, let me know. 🙂

  15. Oh I forgot a very important one.

    The Masihi Gyanjyoti Ashram in Dobhi, Bihar. This is a small org. run by ONE woman. I lived with her for 2.5 months and she is amazing. She is “Sister Jessi” or Didiji to everyone who knows her. She was born and raised in Kerala and became a Catholic nun. After being a nun for awhile, she got realized it wasn’t what she wanted, as she was teaching well-to-do kids in a Catholic School in Patna. She decided to leave the nunnery and became a sunyasini. She wandered the country side for two years, taking a vow of silence. She reached Dobhi and decided that that area needed help with education. She has informal schools that teach over 2,000 children (last I checked). She lives an austre live, with a temple to Jesus and Buddha. But her organization is not faith based. In fact, I learned some nice Sanskrit shlokas while living there. She has devoted about 25 (maybe 30 now) years to helping the poor in this area of Bihar. The website is a bit old (she doesn’t have internet at her house, or electricity. A volunteer made this site a few years ago) but it summarizes all the different projects she has going She also needs volunteers to come who can teach groups of older girls (she does intensive schooling for older girls, who she then can pay to teach children in the village. This helps the families, and also keeps families from marrying their daughters off at young ages).

  16. People want to adopt kids from abroad but they don’t want to nothing for their own immediate community. People are afraid to adopt black babies or something? Because they’re are plenty of them right here, right now.

  17. I’m looking for NGOs in India that focus on education. does mid-day meals. which gives you the phone numbers of teachers and pictures of the village, and you can visit the place if you’re up to it. Those are the larger one’s that have visibility and the systems in place to give feedback, but I’m sure there’s a ton of smaller one’s doing good work too.

  18. Oh yes,and if you want something very personal, you can participate in the programs fun by

  19. AJ, I have never heard of Ekal before, are you involved with them? Would love to hear more about it, it’s a new org for me, it looks like is has a lot of chapters int he U.S.

    That brings up another topic for people to consider– when sponsoring NGOs that work in education, there are two different main sections- formal schools and informal schools. Looks like Ekal has informal schools, as does Sr. Jessi’s schools in Bihar. Other programs, like Barakat run formal schools (I-India sends it’s children to formal school and also has vocational classes). Informal schools seemed more focused on the extreme basics- literacy, basic math etc. But of course the students do not benefit from having any official school certificates.

    I think there can be some positive and negatives to this system. On one hand- informal schools are easier to create- no need for all the administrative tasks involved in certifying the schools. Additionally, since they are teaching basics, they do not need highly trained teachers, and can also pay the teachers less. Also, for example, Sr. Jessi explained to me that her students are almost always the first literate people in their family. She feels that education, even if informal plants the seed for the importance of education, and therefore the children who attend the informal schools will be more likely to view education positively and send their own children to school in the future.

    But it also brings up the question of class. Do informal schools keep poor children poor, by not giving them formal recognition of their achievements and therefore unable to have the choices to continue education or gain many types of employment that children from higher up classes have? Do informal schools embrace the separate and unequal system of schooling in India? The same considerations can be thought about in terms of formal education versus vocational training as well. Of course, there is really no right answer, but it is important to consider all these factors too. 🙂

  20. I know people who are volunteers and have data about the schools I give to, but then again that’s not the same as actually going to the village and checking it out. When it comes to the formal vs. informal question, I’d say that results achieved mostly depend on how dedicated the teacher is. That is why you can go to a formal school and end up needing a tutor and likely why much of Pratham’s data shows poor achievement in the early grades. As for qualifications, that is really not a problem if the students have the skills and the option to enter formal education when they want to. Thinking about how the unorganised sector works, I’d say basic literacy would have the greatest payback followed by a smaller relative payback for 10th grade qualification.

  21. “hen it comes to the formal vs. informal question, I’d say that results achieved mostly depend on how dedicated the teacher is. That is why you can go to a formal school and end up needing a tutor and likely why much of Pratham’s data shows poor achievement in the early grades. As for qualifications, that is really not a problem if the students have the skills and the option to enter formal education when they want to.”

    You’re absolutely right. Teacher quality is a big deal. One other consideration with informal school though is, say a student who is poor goes to an informal school for 3 or 4 years, but they didn’t get a certificate. They may have the qualifications they need to start formal schooling as a 4th or 5th grader.

  22. sorry, pressed the button too soon.

    They may have the qualifications they need to start formal schooling as a 4th or 5th grader but not the proper documentation. Then they are left with the decisions to either start over at grade 1 with small children or not continue shcool.

  23. I see. There is an open school system in India up to high school level. When they are ready, students from informal schools appear for exams starting grade 3 (A level) for certificates that are recognized by the government. I remember reading this was a UNESCO program, but I may be mistaken.

  24. Thanks to everyone who took note of this post and shared their opinions here.

    Dr. Shiban Ganju, the founder of Save A Mother has a post up about the organization on 3 Quarks Daily where he is a regular contributor. My comment below points out some of the recent advances of SAM.

  25. Its nice to see initiatives like these. We would surely love to cover these kind of NGOs on our blog as well. They are fighting for a great cause and these causes should be shared with the world and we’d do every bit to highlight these causes.

  26. Returning here once again to remind readers that the Houston fundraiser of Save A Mother is on May 7. Those interested in attending, please contact me or find out the details here.

    Thanks once again to Abhi for introducing the charity to SM readers.