Smile Foundation (New Delhi, India)

I depart Smile Foundation’s office in New Delhi with the Foundation’s Communication Manager, Sayani Bhattacharya, to go to a nearby gas station, where we switch cars. After suffering from excessive levels of pollution and maddening amounts of traffic for years, New Delhi recently began an “Odd-Even” pilot project where only half of nonessential cars are allowed on the road each day. The car we began in had the wrong license plate number for the day, so we are forced to switch cars to complete our drive to the project site.

The drive to the site, where Smile Foundation supports a school for disadvantaged children, brings us past temples, high-rise apartment buildings, and parks all seeming to sag slightly in the intense noonday heat of India’s desert-like capital. As we near the site, the modern highway narrows to six lanes before crossing a wide, sluggish river. However, before we reach the bridge we abruptly turn off the smooth tarmac onto a bumpy, winding dirty road. We pass an elephant and its owner resting together under a canopy of leaves before we start winding our way through farms, orchards, and rose farms. A few minutes later and a world away from modernity, we come into sight of a small, orderly camp of seven open tents and two shed-like buildings standing set alongside the river. School is in session.

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Sayani Bhattacharya leads me down the narrow dirt path to the project site

 

Smile Foundation does not directly run the school. The school is managed by the Samarpan Foundation in coordination with and with funding provided by Smile Foundation. That is the chief business of Smile Foundation. While they do provide some direct outreach, their focus is on monetarily supporting and professionalizing the work of grassroots organizations. They act as the connecting ramp between the wide highways of the major donors and the narrow, winding dirt roads of grassroots organizations.

I met with Santanu Mishra, the Co-Founder and Executive Trustee of Smile Foundation, a week earlier to discuss the Foundation’s creation and its approach to philanthropy.

“We never came to set up Smile Foundation. We came [to New Delhi] to study and take care of ourselves.” -Santanu Mishra

The founders of Smile Foundation came “from a middle-class, government service family background.” They came to New Delhi not to start a non-profit, but simply “to study and take care of [them]selves.” However, as they began their work in the worlds of business and finance during the liberalizing boom years of the nineties, the intense need of India stayed on their minds. As Mishra put it, “We had seen poverty from very close and seen how bad it is on the ground.” “So we… began to discuss among ourselves… in informal groups. One thing was common among all of us: education was everything for us.”

“One thing was common among all of us: education was everything for us.” -Santanu Mishra

Santanu Mishra and the informal group of five or six close friends decided that they, clear benefactors of India’s economic liberalization of the 1990s, should give back and support education for those less advantaged than themselves. First they tried to do so informally, but they soon “realized without having a proper nomenclature it would not be possible to do certain things, so that is why a group of friends founded Smile Foundation.”

They used their contacts within the corporate world to find support for the Foundation, and they planned to “stay on the board and hire development professionals to run the Foundation.” They quickly realized that this method would not work. Mishra and his friends discovered that “you cannot get ready-made professionals to come and create an organization for you. Your dream has to be lived by you.” Mishra decided to leave his day job and make Smile Foundation the organization he and his friends had envisioned.

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“Your dream cannot be realized by someone else.” -Santanu Mishra

 

Smile Foundation as it exists today has strong echoes of its founders’ careers in the corporate world. In fact, this was one of Mishra’s expressed goals in running the Foundation. “From day one our thought process was, ‘Let us bring a culture to this sector which is serious about utilization of resources, serious about transparency, serious about governance.’” Mishra explained, “One thing we learned from corporate [sic] is the best utilization of resources. No one else in the world is as efficient as the corporate. If they spend one million, they will make a return of ten million.” Smile Foundation takes its strengths in utilization of resources, transparency, governance, and, from its contacts in the corporate world, access to resources, and seeks to connect them with the strengths of the grassroots NGO sector.

“We have to use our strength and we have to use their strength, and if our strength and their strength are integrated, then it will actually create the highest return.” -Santanu Mishra

As Mishra sees it, the main strengths of grassroots organizations are their passion and their connections with the community. Smile Foundation helps support that passion with funding and training. “We may be very good at connecting to the resources and at bringing in the corporate [sic], but the social entrepreneur has the capabilities on the ground. The NGO person who has been dedicated working for ten years on the ground – he has the competency. Now his weakness is resources.” The companies Smile Foundation work with are generally unwilling to give money to those organization directly because they “are not ready to satisfy the quality [the corporations] want.” Smile Foundation serves as “the catalyst.” The Foundation builds the NGO’s capacity, gives them direction, and provides training. As Mishra sees it, this method of dispersing resources and implementing projects is the most efficient possible. The money gets to those who can implement it at the cheapest cost with the greatest knowledge of the situation on the ground while retaining transparency, accountability, and good governance.

While Smile Foundation generally uses this non-profit version of venture capital to affect change, it also engages in direct outreach. The Foundation focuses its outreach in places and sectors where it are unable to find suitable partners. They also use their project “to learn so that we can enhance the value of our partners.”

When Smile Foundation was founded, its focus was on education, but the mission soon expanded to include health care, nutrition, and women’s rights. As Mishra puts it, “We thought that education is the means as well as the end. If someone is educated all the problems can be solved by him. He can make decisions in life better… but if you look at it from the ground we realized that if you want children to be educated you have to take care of the family.”

It should be noted that Smile Foundation does not receive any funding from the government, instead receiving money from company’s corporate social responsibility funds and marketing teams. Still though, Mishra emphasized that “all [Smile Foundation’s] activities are complementary to the government.” He understands that with the size of India, a “country of countries,” and the vast extent of poverty throughout the country, Smile Foundation cannot by itself solve these great challenges. They aim instead to serve as a supporting role, lifting up those falling through the cracks of the government system. In health care, Smile Foundation provides mobile health clinics to provide basic screening for those who live far from hospitals, referring those with serious cases to government hospitals. In education, their schools cater to students who have fallen behind their peers and attempt to help them return to government schools.

It was to the one of these schools that I travel to with Sayani Bhattacharya a week after speaking with Santanu Mishra.

The school is set on the bank of the Yamuna River, and caters to children from a few years old to those in their senior year in high school. It is simply built, made up shelters made from bamboo and tarps for the classrooms, two sheds for the kitchen, library, and equipment shed, and a small open area for a playground and cricket pitch. It seems out of place amidst fields of cauliflower and acres of roses surrounding it, with only a faint honking of cars and haze of pollution to remind you that you are in New Delhi. The school is run by the Samarpan Foundation, and I have the chance to speak with a staff member, Shivani Singh, about the work they are doing and Smile Foundation’s part in making it possible.

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Shivani Singh (second from the right) with benefactors of the Samarpan Foundation

Although I refer to the Samarpan Foundation mostly in its relationship with Smile Foundation, but I certainly recommend that readers research the organization themselves. Briefly, the Samarpan Foundation is a global volunteer-based non-profit with a mission to “change universal consciousness by opening hearts and minds” with a philosophy of “love, peace, happiness, kindness, simplicity, and clarity.” While this may sound idealistic or unrealistic to some, the work they do on the ground is, from my experience, both real and significant.

From the moment I arrive at the school, it is obvious that it is well-run. Scores of students sit on blankets beneath the tarps of their classrooms, well-behaved and eager as they study. They happily attend to topics ranging from English grammar to dental hygiene, and smile and wave to me only once their teachers has given their approval. As Singh relates to me, it was not always so easy. “The idea of respect has been instilled” by teachers working tirelessly, day after day with no compensation other than their own personal satisfaction.

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“Parents used to come to us and ask us for things. They would ask for this or for that. Now they come and talk with us about their problems.” -Shivani Singh

As Singh describes the working of the school, it becomes easy to imagine how a workforce of volunteers could create such magic. They are dedicated to helping these children and give unconditionally. Even though their commitment leads them to “arguments with their parents, spouses, and children,” and constant exposure to the sun, whose skin-darkening rays have real-world negative effects on marriage prospects, they continue to volunteer. While government school teachers get summer and weekend holidays, “here, [the teachers] come every day.” “We can’t not ask them to come to school,” she explains, “because we have to engage their energy. Otherwise they will likely get involved in stealing and crime.” When the teachers need something, from a holiday to sports equipment, they simply get in touch with Singh or other volunteers at the Samarpan Foundation, and it is taken care of.

“We at the Foundation, we do fine with the work, but paperwork… listen, I want to come to the project and play and teach. Paperwork is the last thing that I want to do!” Here the impact of Smile Foundation became more apparent. Sayani Bhattacharya confesses that Smile Foundation both pushes and helps the Samarpan Foundation to complete paperwork to measure success and track spending. “We have to answer to the corporations that we work with,” Bhattacharya explains, “so our work has to include all the numbers and everything.”

Here the strengths of the two foundations become apparent as well as the success of the model on which Mishra has built Smile Foundation. The volunteers of the Samarpan Foundation clearly have passion for their work and a deep connection with the community, but corporations would be understandably unwilling to give money to an organization that lacks accountability and transparency. Smile Foundation provides training in accounting and good governance, and monetarily supports the Samarpan Foundation’s work with funding provided by corporations. Smile Foundation “raises the funds and does the paperwork,” or as Singh candidly puts it, “they do all the bad work.”

“Give me the money and I’ll do the work! What’s so difficult about that?” -Shivani Singh

Singh also believes that Smile Foundation provides structure and a means of assessment to the organization. “It gives us form,” she articulates, “We were there like a collage, but it makes us a beautiful picture.” Assessments have also added to their success. Singh points out that, “Now we know that there are no dropouts. Now we know that the children are being admitted into age-appropriate grade at government schools. Now we know that if we don’t have this number of children, then we need to mobilize.” All in all, “it is a beautiful relationship with Smile Foundation.”

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Yamuna River school students and teachers

 

What, then, are the challenges that Smile Foundation faces in its work? Back in Smile Foundation’s office, the answer came easily to Mishra, “This is really the only challenge – getting the right people. Otherwise opportunities are huge… Although fundraising is very tough, but I think if you do a good program on the ground within a reasonable amount of time you will be able to raise money. But do you have the right people who can run the program? Do you have right people who can present, who can write, who can do great work? Who will tell the story? Who will implement the program? They should all be professionals who should be getting adequate compensation to stay because the business world is very tempting in respect to the size of money. So that is one challenge that I always feel: retaining manpower.” With around four hundred employees and more than two hundred projects being implemented around India, Smile Foundation has been remarkably successful despite this challenge.

“It is matter of actually dealing with a different set of one perfectionist – they are the corporates [sic] – and on the other the most passionate, unorganized [people]… and playing a role to balance it out so that we create a synergy.” -Santanu Mishra

Mishra noted that they had faced another interesting challenge in dealing with grassroots organizations: a reluctance to publicize stories. “Many times passion has this negative effect,” Mishra explained, “They will say, ‘I don’t want publicity,’ and I say, ‘No, this is not publicity. Tell the story so that more and more people will be inspired to do like you.’” Mishra continued, “It is a very different set of mechanisms required to inspire [NGO workers.] You cannot inspire them like a normal management professional. Most professionals can be inspired through money and comfort. But these people are so honest to what they do on the ground. They have sacrificed their lives for the betterment of people… so they do not want to take money from X or Y company.”

From its birth as the brainchild of Santanu Mishra and his friends, Smile Foundation has come a long way and is likely, with the help of organizations like the Samarpan Foundation, to continue growing until it has filled the cracks through which children are falling in official system.

(Author: Dylan Kolhoff, Ed: IK)

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