Bridging the gap between supporters and credible NGOs

Mr. Jerry Almieda
Chief Executive, Action Aid India Society
Founder & Executive Director - Voluntary of iCONGO or Confederation of NGO's on the mission and vision of iCONGO

What is iCONGO all about ?

iCONGO is basically Indian confederation of NGOs. We started working on it 8 months back. Earlier it was called Direct Dialogue Fund Raising Mission. The idea was to promote social investment and social giving, amongst the people of India, where they could give to their favourite cause or credible NGO registered with Direct Dialogue Fund Raising Mission. When we shared the papers amongst various people in the sector, a need for having a Confederation of NGOs that is a voice for the sector came out strongly. That is when the iCONGO vision paper came into being. Today the iCONGO has caught on people's imagination and most people have commented that it's an idea whose time has come. Internationally there are groups looking at starting such alliances picking from our paper. Even the CII has offered to partner us and help us to establish the iCONGO.

How is the iCONGO different from other networks like SAFRG, Sampradaan, VANI, Credibility alliance and other alliances ?

Most of the alliances that you named in your question are great initiatives that work within the development or NGO domain. At iCONGO we would specialise in working for promoting social giving & investment and philanthropy on a wider scale and would mostly work outside the development or NGO domain. Our mission is to mainstream various causes by bringing them to the forefront and getting the great Indian middle class to get involved with their favourite cause. Our vision is to get every Indian who can afford some investment to give for her or his favourite cause. Our plan is to promote philanthropy for social justice by making people aware of issues and sensitising them to get integrally involved with the cause.

Our mission is also to lobby with the government, media and corporate sector to drive social responsibility and action and promote social entrepreneurship for creating a legacy of a better India. Our mission is to compliment all the good work being done by the organisations you mentioned and compliment the same by creating synergies and linkages in other spaces and external domains. For example SAFRG has linkages with the Resource alliance and organises fundraising training programs and workshops in South Asia with speakers or Gurus from the fundraising sector. I- CONGO would like to organise workshops for CEO's, marketing/brand managers from the corporate sector and fundraisers from the NGO sector with brand and management gurus like Peter Drucker, Edward De Bono, Jack Trout to help these people to think collectively on CSR and cause related marketing campaigns. To motivate these people to think collectively about profitability in the non-profit sector for the larger good and a common cause. To create a platform where people from other domains can interact with people from the development domain to create collective strength that would lead to collective wisdom and collective materialism for mutual benefits like brand building and bottomlines for the corporate brands and linkages, more funds and brand associations to promote philanthropy for our sector.

So you will see in the long term that more and more people would get involved with social investment and giving because we would create a vibrant and dynamic social giving marketplace where all the projects of the iCONGO in the long term would be funded by private and independent investors and nor grant making organisations. After all its time we stopped taking grants for granted and became more professional and cutting edge with our fund management skills to keep admin costs and other fringe expenses to the bare minimum.

We would inspire trust with the public if we start proving to them that we are professional fund managers who manage their contributions like dynamic hedge funders or venture capitalists. This would make the giving market grow, as donors who are like our sectors shareholders want to give but are cynical and skeptical (and research proves this). They want cutting edge money managers to facilitate the transaction between them and the community work that they are investing in. So in a nutshell we at iCONGO want to promote credibility for the sector in the larger spaces by mainstreaming the cause and making the social investment and giving process a highly professional, accountable and transparent system that inspires trust and motivates support for the cause.

What is the genesis of iCONGO ?

How it started was that we at Action Aid launched 'Karma Mitra' fund-raising programme about two and half years back. The aim behind Karma Mitra was that we promote social giving amongst people of India. The idea was to also involve people who had never given before in their lives. In India giving is largely to the religious purposes. 85-90% of our giving market is for the religious purposes, whether it is for mosques, churches, temples or gurudwaras. We are 1.05 billion people and around 50 million taxpayers still only 200,000 give to the social causes on a regular basis. We felt the need to expand the market so that more people started to give to social causes on a regular basis. That is how Karma Mitra was born. We called it so, because we wanted to address the spiritual and religious quotient in the people of India. The thought that if you do good you get the same in return.

India the success rate of direct mailers is very low, only around 0.2%. We learnt from the corporate sector, especially the banking sector that employed the tool of direct selling agencies. So, we also adopted the model of employing direct selling agencies and currently work with 30-35 of them all over India. These agencies hire people who in turn are trained by Action Aid to raise resources by using rights based fund raising approach. These sales personnel go to corporates and make video presentations on computers or through flip charts to highlight issues of marginalised communities and recruit Karma Mitra donors.

We were clear from the beginning that if this model became a success we would share the BIG idea with the sector albeit the other organisations in the sector adopted a wait and watch attitude and said we were making this too commercial. With this approach we also made entrepreneurs see the light of the day and today various DSA's are open to promoting fundraising although a year ago they were skeptical about it. Thus a new vehicle for fundraising in India was created through direct sales.

Now what has happened? On seeing the success of our Direct Selling Agency model, several other NGOs also adopted it. They started approaching our agencies and started promising them higher commissions. Our agencies in turn started asking us for more. This made us think that if some standard practices were not evolved in the sector than we would end up competing with each other. At the same time these agencies would start taking advantage of the model. We also wanted to share our knowledge and experience of raising funds through direct selling model. All this thought process has now become part of the vision of iCONGO.

When you say it is confederation, do you mean you have members ?

iCONGO would have member organisations. There are four membership types namely the Founder, Patron, Privilege and Special members. iCONGO would be like NASSCOM and CII for the NGO sector in the long term to address issues of the sector and lobby with the Government, Corporate and other sectors to join hands with the NGO sector for bringing about change together and develop ethical practices and standards in synergy with each other.

How would the iCONGO members benefit ?

The benefits for iCONGO members can be defined in multiple terms and include tangible and intangible benefits all of which can be quantified in Rupee value. For example all members would be getting a share of the pooled funds, which would amount to atleast 6 times of their initial admission investment toward creating a collective fund. So if founder members have invested 5 lakhs they would get at least 30 lakhs in return in the next 3 years. Besides all members would be entitled to highly discounted rates in newspapers, magazines and other media, which would include discounts as high as 85- 90%. Now this is a huge saving and I am sure you would agree that money saved is money earned. Besides we are empanelling various agencies (Advertising, PR, Events, DM, Promotions, Printing and designing) that would work with iCONGO members without the exorbitant fees that they charge the corporate sector.

For example Pardada Pardadi, a school that works with girl children has benefited by getting free marketing and franchising consultancy and PR for their retail outlets and are now breaking even in just 4 months and would soon open their first franchise at Bombay (saved over 1 lakh of Rs. on their consultancy and more as they save on the retainer fee that they had to pay a consultant every month of INR 25,000/-. Plan International who were planning to appoint a creative agency with a retainer @ 6.0 lakhs per annum have saved that as we gave them one of India's top agency's to work on creatives sans any fees and only earn on media releases of which they give them 5% back as a donation. Similarly in Bangalore a grassroot NGO organised a play sans any costs or headaches or event management fees and raised a fund of over 8.0 lakhs.

So the benefits are multi fold and also include space and branding in the CONGO SHONGO retail outlets, free ad space in the iCONGO magazine, free consultancy for fundraising and cause related marketing, training and expertise for raising funds from official funding agencies and various other such services and facilities. I am sure you would agree that it's a win-win for all our members.

What are the constituencies that iCONGO would address ?

It would be a lobbying body in the long-term. It would lobby with the government to promote philanthropy and social giving in the country. It would also work with the corporate sector, media and people of India to practice philanthropy with social justice, which means not just plain giving but social giving with involvement. So, that we bring about a change amongst children and communities who need to be provided better opportunity to develop themselves.

What is the need for such a confederation ?

The sector has been working for very long, but all this while there has not been a body that lobbies with the government or work with people with one common vision. We all have our different fund raising missions that compete with each other. So, we felt the need for having an umbrella organisation that works for the sector and provides it the strength in the long-term. The idea is also to drive accountability and credibility for the sector in the larger domain with the people of India. The base of donors who give for social causes can only increase if people start trusting the NGO sector and start getting closely involved with our work. The idea is to mainstream the cause in a professional manner with cutting edge and drive social investment and social entrepreneurship by involving the people of India to see an opportunity to bring about change. Only when we prove our ability to be professional, credible, transparent and accountable, we would have more and more people of India giving and getting involved with the cause. The overall opportunity for the development sector is 5,000 crores if we get the 5 crore tax paying people of India to invest for social action thus creating a just, equitable and responsible society. We have to drive the vision of social investment as all well to do Indians have a responsibility to fulfill by creating a legacy of a better India and a humane world. We can do so by creating some standard practices for ourselves in the sector and driving the vision of a common cause where people come together to "RIGHT EVERY WRONG" by supporting their favourite cause be it children, communities, environment, wildlife and stray dogs (who most people take as a trivial cause and do nothing when they see the dogs being kickedů but is not a society known by the way it treats its animals). The mission and vision of the iCONGO in a nutshell is to mainstream the cause by bringing social issues to the forefront by sensitising the GREAT INDIAN MIDDLE CLASS OF INDIA to come forward and take action to bring about change by using this opportunity to RIGHT every WRONG.

What is the status of progress that iCONGO has made ?

The current status is that over 80 organisations have already signed on. As mentioned we have Founder, Patron, Privilege and Special members. We have provision for 15 Founder members, 20 Patron members and this is where our major emphasis would be. There is a one-time investment of Rs. 5 lacs for Founder members, Rs. 2.5 lacs for Patron members, and Rs. 1.0 lacs for Privilege members and Rs. 50,000 for Special members. The idea is to have an overall cap of 155 members for the first 3-year charter. Each member would get at least 6 times the investment in next 3 years. So, the initial charter is for next three years, where we would be creating exclusive direct selling agencies that raise funds for our members. It would be a very in-the face kind of marketing, where the team would make presentations in the corporates, giving choices to the people to support their favourite cause from amongst our certified credible member NGOs

We also plan to give recognition to DSA's, as an iCONGO certified agency. This would ensure that these agencies would not then go and start demanding high commissions from us. We have with us Director's of the top highly specialised DSA's who work for banks like Citi Group, ICICI and HSBC. These friends and supporters are working for us as a part of our proactive task force to set up exclusive agencies for fundraising.

We also had a major initial success with street face2face fund raising in Chennai, where within two month we raised 60 lacs of rupees. It was a team derived from the home less sections and commercial sex workers who went on street and asked people to contribute a small amount of Rs. 100 per person for the cause. In return they were given a donation and raffle coupon along with literature to educate them about the plight of the homeless and street children at Chennai. This was followed by the DSA executives going to these people who had given 100 INR on the streets and to convert them into long-term donors and raise further funds for the cause. The same model we plan to replicate in 12 cities with iCONGO and raise around 6-7 crores which would form the pooled fund that we would share with all iCONGO members. This would also give us a huge database of donors who have been introduced to the cause on the streets.

What are the future plans of the iCONGO ?

On future plans, iCONGO has a governing committee. The governing committee comprises of members from 5 advisory sub-committees. These sub-committees are like media advisory sub-committee, that would have people from print and TV media who would work with us to create socially responsible media. We have also invited various captains from the corporate world, people like Anu Aga, Deepak Parekh, Ashok Kanwar, and other socially responsible corporate heads. The idea is to promote corporate philanthropy and corporate social responsibility. We would also have people from the government. The reason being that we need to lobby for ethical standards to promote philanthropy on a mass scale cut out the money laundering and siphoning of funds happening in the name of Aid. We need to get the government to relook at the benefits given to donors and also to match individual and corporate donations. For example at Action Aid we have an agreement with the Commonwealth Education Fund where the British government would match whatever resources we raise from the corporates in India. For example 3.5 crores we got from ICICI bank became 7 crores as the Bank of England topped it. If the British government can do this to create mainstream and inclusive education for all left out children by 2015, why cannot the Indian government?

This in long-term would also promote accountability in the sector, because a donor who is donating Rs. 1000 and if the same is matched 100% by the government, the donor would ask NGOs accountability for the full 2000 rupees. We would have people on the board like public servants, IAS, IPS who within the government circles lobby to make the system of social giving more lucrative and accountable.

We would also have people from the bilateral, multilateral organisations and NGOs. The idea is to promote credibility and accountability with in the sector. The credibility of the sector is very low in India. The India people currently see the NGO sector as a set that speaks a lot and does not act. It is also seen as a highly corrupt and money laundering system. It is also not seen as a professional sector delivering cutting edge, due to mismanagement and high administration costs. That is what the charter is.

We also have an operational sub-committee which will have members from the retailing and direct-selling agencies. The mandate would be to create a number of direct selling agencies that raise funds for our 155 members. The idea would be not to create agencies that also raise funds but exclusive fund raising agencies. Each agency would have to pay a one-time solidarity fee, which would be there contribution to express solidarity with the cause. This fee we have kept for iCONGO at Rs. 100,000 as against Rs. 50,000 kept for Action Aid, as they get to represent a large set of organisations.

Besides, these 100 DSA we also plan to have 20 promotion agencies that do face-to-face street fund raising. We have a target of raising Rs. 6 crores from this within the first year. This would be equally divided amongst all the members. These promotion agencies would also promote the concept of street giving where people are sold coupons and given badges that say, "I invest for a just and responsible society". The agencies would also work on the school fundraising that we have planned in association with 3 large groups of schools through which we plan to raise another 3-4 crores.

We also plan to promote December 27, starting from year 2005 as 'Social Giving Day' and in future possibly 'World Social Giving Day'.

What role does Direct Dialogue Fund Raising Mission has in iCONGO ?

Direct Dialogue Fund Raising Mission besides others has a very important agenda to serve in iCONGO. The agenda of promoting social fund raising amongst the people of India, especially the youth and children. Infact, we receive lots of youngsters who come to us and tell that they want to volunteer at the projects, because they feel that volunteering for fund raising is like going with the begging bowls. This is not at all true because even the President in US has to raise resources to fund the campaign money for their elections. They don't understand that fund raising is done in a highly professional manner. In US and Europe, the children right from the age of 7 sell lemonades or baked cakes in their gardens or church compounds to raise money for their favourite cause. So the idea is to promote a culture of social fund raising in India. Although, it has already started in India where a young boy, Akhil who is also our friend and actress Amala's (from Animal Aid) son, raised over 30,000 from within his school in a day for the cause of Children in Andhra Pradesh affected by fluorosis, we need to promote this proactively.

What would be iCONGO's work in the field of media and communication ?

We plan to start 'Media for Change'. Under this we plan to create a fund through which we would produce movies and serials on TV on social issues (At AAI we produced the first Hindi feature film Ek Alag Mausam to mainstream the issue of HIV positive people. We also produced the first music video "Khushii- The joy of giving" to highlight the issues of Child Rights). At iCONGO we are planning to have a Reality TV show on Harsh Mander's book 'Unheard Voices'. This would be human rights reality show where voices of commercial sex workers and people like the ones who lost everything during the Bhopal gas tragedy and still await compensation are raised.

We are also looking at producing a movie on the life of a girl who was sold in the brothels of Mumbai at the age of 9 and burned alive at the age of 15. This movie would bring a whole lot of issues to the forefront like trafficking, drugs, cop brutality, HIV Aids, child abuse and other issues. For these entire ventures we are attracting investment from external sources like Movie houses, Distribution companies and private investors with a clear Return on Investment model.

Within Media for Change we have also associated with a media concessionaire to publish a monthly magazine titled Backpage that would report social issues in Page 3 style.
Please tell us more about iCONGO awards that you plan to initiate. We are planning to institute something we call 'Karma Veer Puraskar'. This would recognize social action and responsibility from the NGO sector to the people in the corporate sector, bureaucratic sector, politicians and media. We would have media partners like Outlook, Business World, Tehelka, Hard News, and other region wise dailies and probably NDTV to promote these awards. We would make it a high profile media event, with the main function in Siri Fort in the month of August 2005. This would reward people of India for their cutting edge work to promote social responsibility and action. The idea is to make this an annual feature and a property event.

What is the action plan that iCONGO has in the field of NGO retailing ?

This would be another function of iCONGO and can be called 'Retail for Change'. In this we would create shops like Hallmark and Archie's galleries, to promote gifts, greetings cards and other products made by our NGO members. These would also provide platform to our 155 members to build their brands. We plan to brand them as CONGO-SHONGO, where SHONGO implies Shop of NGO products. We plan to start 2 shops, one each in Delhi and Mumbai. The Delhi shop would be a mobile shop, shop on wheels. The Bombay shop will be a shop in the mall. We further plan to take the franchisee route to start 40-50 shops in the next three years. We have already got mall space in Calcutta, Bhubaneshwar and Delhi. We do not plan to use the CONGO corpus funds for this but would attract external investment to promote all our social ventures.

We have also got space from the Cuffe Parade Resident's Association to start a marketplace and cultural hub like Delhi Haat in Mumbai or Dakshina Chitra at Chennai. We have 24000 sq. meters of space and would call this as CONGO HAAT that would only retail products made by marginal artisans on a A2C or artisans 2 consumer model.

Within Retail for Change we have also tied up with few exhibition companies. This would help us organise a traveling exhibition know as "Taste/Vision of India". The exhibition would have besides stalls of other branded products and food courts; NGO stalls. The idea is to have maximum footfalls in the four metros plus Hyderabad and Bangalore. All this would be outsourced with no funds invested by the CONGO. All profits would be shared amongst the members and would be a part of the pooled funds.

How do you plan to fund all these ventures ?

We have a corpus that we have raised of almost 2 crores. Besides we are getting support from various associations and funding bodies. However we have put this all on hold and have attracted private and individual investors to team up with us to fulfill this vision. We plan to keep our corpus intact and even moneys we get as grants would be matched with external investments, as that is the best way to get people involved with the sector. This is a paradigm shift that the entire NGO sector would see on an international scale in the next few years as it's the only way to grow the fund and bring about a change.

How would Action Aid and iCONGO retain separate identities ?

iCONGO is not an Action Aid body, associate or subsidiary. It happens to be that I am part of Action Aid and iCONGO both. Action Aid is just one of the Founder members, like other with 14 other Founder members to come. We have Animal Aid, Deepalaya, Plan, Pardada-Pardadi, United Way, Population First, Population Foundation, Spastics Society and other credible, transparent ad accountable international, national and grassroot NGO's to name a few who have come on board. We have over 75 other NGOs who have become part of us. We also have formed strategic alliance with organisations like Give, Vani and CII. The CII also wanted to fund iCONGO, but we refused because we did not want interference with the governance structure. It is looking good because it is a widely accepted concept now

I met with several people in Bombay a fortnight ago like Bobby Sista from Population First, Ingrid from CRY, Venkat and Mathan from GIVE, Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan from Dignity Foundation, Maneck Davar of Make a Wish foundation, Dr. Mithu Alur and Shri. Sathi Alur from Spastics Society India, Mr. Kedia from GCPD, Kajol Menon of Childline, Shibhani Sachdeva from United Way and Ms. Vipula Kadri of Save the children. I was to meet with Shaheen Mistry from Akanksha too but could not do so. (Apologies Shaheen definitely meet when I get to Bombay next) Most of these people were very gung ho about the vision of iCONGO and felt that it is an idea that is timely and also saw Nishit and me as assets to drive the vision. However there was this threat they felt as they saw iCONGO as an Action Aid body and that I would only concentrate on promoting ActionAid.

I would like to clarify here that it happens that I sit at Action Aid and the idea came from me while I was at ActionAid but iCONGO is not an Action Aid body. In fact ActionAid like others is just 1 of the 155 members and 1 of the 15 founder members. iCONGO is a collective ownership of all the 155 members and would benefit all on equal terms based on the charter outlined for each category of memberships. The initial charter is for 3 years and each member would benefit monetarily as they would get 6 times as ROI (through the street face2face and school fundraising, advertising and exhibition revenue that would comprise the POOLED FUND) in the next 3 years and also benefit with the infrastructure we would provide as a confederation.

In fact here I would like to break news that I in a strategic move have decided on moving out of Action Aid (Though I would work as friend with the team) and concentrating on iCONGO and thus would be a neutral party working for the benefit all members. I would be working voluntarily with the iCONGO for first two years and consulting with a few NGO's who have invited me to join them to fulfill their fundraising vision. I would also available as a voluntary consultant for all iCONGO members and whatever infrastructure we had built in terms of ad rates, empanelment of ad agencies, event companies, DSA's, Printers etc on the most reasonable rates at ActionAid is being passed over to all iCONGO members. So all members' benefit hugely as various things were worked out by us at ActionAid and are now being made available for the whole sector. Therefore ActionAid's contribution to the iCONGO is selfless and huge as we are passing on the resources we developed at AAI for the benefit of the entire sector.

Strategically it makes sense for me to move on so that I work for making social giving and investment workable and lucrative for the entire sector as a volunteer consultant pushing the vision of iCONGO to set up the DSA's, promote street face 2 face fundraising, develop the awards property, set up retail outlets and the iCONGO magazine and push the overall vision to make it a huge success business wise and as a lobbying body for which I would work closely with Nishit Kumar the marketing stalwart and Management Guru who has come on board as Director General for a paltry salary of 35,000 INR per month. Hopefully, by the third year when iCONGO has established itself, then I would negotiate a salary with the iCONGO board and come on as a full time salaried functionary and I am sure they would agree as we would (Nishit, Kunal Verma and I with all other functionaries) would drive it to make it a BIG success by then.