According to Social Progress Index 2014, India ranks way below its neighbouring countries on social development indicators. Social Venture Partners (SVP) India, launched in 2012 by Ravi Venkatesan, former chairman of Microsoft India, aims at improving social welfare of India. SVP India brings together philanthropists who want to address social problems through venture philanthropy. He speaks to Reghu Balakrishnan on SVP’s journey so far and how it can improve the quality of life of underprivileged Indians. Edited excerpts:
What was the rationale behind launching SVP India in 2012?
India ranks pretty low on most social development indicators and ranks at 102nd position among 150 nations — well behind Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. Half of India’s population lack toilets and two-thirds lack access to safe water. After I stepped down from a full-time corporate career, I met a fairly large number of people who felt a strong desire to “give back” to society — to contribute money, time and expertise to worthwhile causes and organisations. We needed a model that would allow us to pair up good non profits with people who have the relevant expertise and who can help them really scale up their impact. After much searching, we found such a model in the US and a few of us came together to start Social Venture Partners in Bengaluru in 2012.
How has the journey been in the past two years?
We have 80 donor-partners in Bengaluru and we are shortly going to give our second set of grants. We have worked with several NGOs and social enterprises, not just in funding projects but working on core capacity-building. We have engaged with corporates on their CSR (corporate social responsibility) strategy, and made a start in rolling out partner education programmes, to inform and educate our partners and make them better philanthropists. We have already started our chapter in Pune and Mumbai and hope to get going in Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Kolkata next year. Recently, we have set an audacious goal for ourselves – to help create one million jobs and 1,000 philanthropists by 2020.
What are the criteria for choosing NGOs and which are the key areas of focus?
We have a proven grants process, which all SVP chapters around the world follow. A group of partners gets together every year to form what we call the Grants Committee (GC). Acting as stewards of the pooled grant funds, the GC represents the partnership in choosing new NGOs to work with. Nationally, we focus on the livelihoods sector and within this broad umbrella, each chapter can choose where it wants to work and which NGOs it wants to work with. Additionally, each chapter can also choose a local focus area, which it will fund. For example, in Bengaluru, we have chosen to intervene and work with the government in the waste management space.
Other than waste management, what are the common issues that need to be addressed in India?
Collectively, we believe that fixing governance in this country is very important. Otherwise, we are just addressing the symptoms and not the disease. We are fortunate in having credible and influential partners in each city where we operate. Therefore, we believe that we could potentially play a constructive role over time in working with organisations that are doing good work in governance — be it in justice, legislative process, sanitation, etc.
How can SVP India play a crucial role in the background of regulators demand for more CSR from India Inc?
We have started engaging with companies on helping them develop their CSR strategy and align this with their business goals. We are also working with one company helping them build a more robust employee engagement platform through CSR. Over time, there is an opportunity for companies to co-invest with us in worthwhile organisations in the livelihood space. Many companies are well-intentioned but have trouble finding the right credible organisations to partner with.
How much has been deployed by SVP India so far?
In Bengaluru, nearly Rs 1 crore was committed last year and a similar amount this year. This does not include thousands of hours of free bro-pono consulting provided to NGOs by SVP partners. If you put a monetary value on this, the figure would be greater. This year, the Pune and Mumbai chapters will also be making their first grants.
As more corporate leaders are coming with philanthropy ideas and the space is getting crowded, how can SVP India differentiate itself?
The scale of the problems in India ensures that more is always better. However, we do not believe that money is the most fundamental issue. Creating professionally-run, credible organisations that can scale and be sustainable in the long run is more critical. This is where our model of engaging with our investees and helping with capacity building is important and that is the differentiator. In addition, being the catalyst that can leverage our connections and networks to help grassroots organisations in the livelihood space will be our niche.
What’s the role of SVP Academy?
SVP Academy exists to make our partner-donors better philanthropists. We induct, induce and immerse our partners into issues and challenges facing the country. We currently do this through speaker events and on-the-ground experiences. Going forward, we want to create more programmes to educate our partners on giving philanthropy and social issues. We hope this will make many of them contribute much more and much more meaningfully; not just through SVP, but even outside the SVP network.