Founder's interview in leading European Charity magazine

Beyond child sponsorship – raising funds in India Jerry Almeida Interview

For the first 32 years of its existence, ActionAid India Society received its funds mainly from European branches of ActionAid, raised through child sponsorship. In March 2004, they started raising funds from individuals in India, but they have rejected the child sponsorship approach.
Instead, ActionAid India head Jeroninio (Jerry) Almeida explained to Alliance, they decided to pioneer a completely new approach and tell what he calls ‘the real story’ – an approach which has succeeded in raising around €300,000 from 40,000 individual donors in the first nine months.Jerry Almeida’s starting point was that very little money is raised in India except through child sponsorship and for religious causes. ‘There are probably 10,000 to 15,000 NGOs trying to raise funds from individuals today. But unfortunately they’re not doing anything innovative, they’re all trying to show the same face of the child in order to raise money.’

One of the most successful of these is CRY – Child Relief & You. ‘When CRY started raising funds 25 years ago, it was a new model and it made sense. But now there are all these NGOs trying to grab each other’s share of child sponsorship.’ So ActionAid India decided to try something different.

‘There was pressure from international headquarters to do child sponsorship,’ Almeida admits. ‘That’s the ActionAid model for raising funds internationally. We wanted to try to raise funds from individuals by telling them about the real issues communities face. It’s not just about children – you can’t just sponsor a child for three or four years and expect that the child will have a bright future ahead of him or her. You have to improve the community where the child lives and ensure they get their basic and fundamental rights like education, safe drinking water, healthy food, shelter and health care. With Karm Mitra we try to educate donors from the beginning about a rights-based model of sustainable development, empowering communities to engage with government and civil society to get these basic rights.’

The new approach

The product they designed is called Karm Mitra. ‘Karm(a), as the word suggests, has a religious undertone of spirituality.’ The idea is to create ‘friends in action, who come together because they want to work for a just and caring humane society by helping children and communities to get their basic rights.’

They decided not to use direct mail. According to Almeida, this is no longer working well in India. ‘It worked perfectly well seven or eight years ago but the hit rate is now very low, less than 0.02 per cent.’ Instead, they decided to create a direct selling structure. This consists of agencies in 12 cities which employ a large force of sales professionals which ActionAid India calls ‘social giving consultants’. The agencies pay their salaries and receive a certain percentage of all funds raised. The social giving consultants are young people fresh out of college or MBA school ‘and they are first trained by ActionAid about how we work with communities and things like that’. The next step is to create employment for men and women from marginalized communities within these agencies.

The target audience

Out of India’s 1.05 billion people, there are about 30 million who pay very substantial taxes. Out of these, the number giving for social issues is just around 200,000 or 0.2 million people. The ActionAid India approach is not to try to capture these same 200,000 people but rather to target people who have never given to social causes. ‘We are trying to address people who give money to temples and churches and mosques, or to beggars and poor relatives, but who do not give to any social organization.’

So far ActionAid India has managed to raise funds from over 40,000 such people. A small fraction of these, about 10-12 per cent, are people who were already giving to social causes and are now converted to Karm Mitra, ‘but that is not our focus. Our focus is to convert people who have never given in their lives.’

Karm Mitra was formally launched in September 2003 but selling only started properly in March 2004. So far, they have raised over a crore and a half rupees, around €300,000.

The message

ActionAid India has put together a 20-minute film called The Joy of Giving. The film presents the eight communities that ActionAid India works with – sex workers, dalits, urban homeless, riot victims, street children, disabled people, tribals and scavengers. It shows members of these marginalized communities talking about the issues they face – ‘children dying of chronic hunger, not being able to afford medical aid for their child, and so on. In India there are a whole lot of moral issues,’ says Almeida, ‘and people often don’t even see the children of sex workers as children.’

Individual donors are found through companies. The social giving consultants visit their offices and show the film and ‘try to talk to people through the film. These are communities that people in urban India may not even have heard of before, and people often have tears in their eyes as they watch.’

The film also shows what ActionAid India is doing to try to deal with these problems. It describes ‘in a nutshell’ how they work with communities to help get them their basic rights.

Karm Mitra – getting something in return

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 ?

Karm Mitra works like a donor loyalty programme, the philosophy being that when you do good things you get good things in return. A group of five or six partner companies provide the holiday packages, mobile phone connections, credit cards, life insurance policies, theatre tickets and so on that constitute the rewards.

Doing one’s duty without any consideration of reward has been a guiding principle of Indians for thousands of years, so is there any sort of cultural resistance to the idea of getting something in return for giving?

‘Not at all,’ says Almeida, ‘because Karma is itself a word which says if you do good you get good in return. So the transaction is more like a feel-good factor or getting a place in heaven. In fact, people who don’t want any of the gifts can just become a Karm Mitra member and say that they want to donate because of pure charity.’ Apparently about 35 per cent of Karm Mitra donors do that.

Another objective of Karm Mitra is to promote more transparency and accountability. ‘A lot of middle-class Indians feel that NGOs do a lot of talking and don’t actually do what is required on the ground.’ To counter this perception, ActionAid India has introduced ‘live reporting’. They don’t send donors newsletters or printed reports; they take them to meet the communities and hear exactly how the money has been spent.

‘This is when the conversion process comes,’ says Almeida, ‘when a person sees how he or she has improved the life of the community just by giving a small amount. That is the real joy of giving. So we expect quite a lot of people to say that they don’t want gifts at around this stage.’

Apart from providing the gifts for Karm Mitra supporters, the partner companies also contribute in other ways, for example by allowing ActionAid India to use their marketing infrastructure. ‘I don’t have the kind of money required for marketing in my budget, so I’m actually piggybacking on their budgets for things like that.

Given the very good response to the Joy of Giving film, why has it always been assumed in ActionAid that you have to raise money through child sponsorship? ‘When ActionAids in the UK or other places in Europe started raising funds about 20 years ago, child sponsorship probably was the best model,’ concedes Almeida. ‘The rights-based approach only came into practice around four years ago. ActionAid internationally has done phenomenally well with child sponsorship.’

There is now a lot of interest in the Karm Mitra model in places like Brazil, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. ‘Wherever there is a great middle-class base, I think there is potential for something like Karm Mitra.’

Mainstreaming social causes

According to Jerry Almeida, Karm Mitra not only helps to engage people with the cause and with the rights of people, it also brings about some kind of campaign, almost a crusade. ‘It tells people that we need to come together; there is an awakening of democracy.’

ActionAid India is now committed to taking all this further with the Indian Confederation of NGOs (iCONGO), spearheaded by ActionAid India. iCONGO’s basic mandate is to mainstream social issues. ‘We need to take fundraising on to the streets, get people involved with the cause, so they don’t just give money and forget about it. That’s what happens when people look at the face of a child: they give the money, they take a tax receipt, and at the end of the year they say, OK, fine, we’ve given to a charity called so and so because they work with children. But that’s not the point. The point is how involved are you with the cause? So we want to get people involved with the cause, slowly but surely.’

Credibility is one big issue for the entire NGO sector in India, so iCONGO will promote the credibility and integrity of the entire sector. ‘We want to say that there are some very good NGOs in India who are doing very good work.’ iCONGO will raise money for any NGO that is part of the Confederation because these are all credible NGOs. Thus people can give to their favourite cause – it need not be to ActionAid. If someone wants to support the environment or animals, for example, they will need to give to another iCONGO member as ActionAid doesn’t work in these areas.

Almeida is also hoping iCONGO will be able to persuade the government to match whatever funds they raise. ‘There is a huge fund for social empowerment lying with the government. They might as well match what individuals or corporates give and create an added incentive for them to do so.’

Working with other organizations

Although iCONGO will be different from the Credibility Alliance – whose aim is to devise a self-regulatory mechanism that enhances the accountability and transparency of the voluntary sector – in that it will ‘go out on the streets’ to promote credibility, both organizations will have systems of ratings. How will these relate to each other?

‘Wherever there are synergies, we will work with the Credibility Alliance,’ says Almeida. ‘And wherever efforts are already being made by other good organizations in India, we will work with them – whether it’s on training or credibility or rating points. But our main focus is mainstreaming social issues.’

Making social giving a culture and a religion

‘We also want to make social giving a culture,’ says Almeida. ‘We want more and more people to say that they give for a social cause.’ The iCONGO operation will have four parts. The first is called the Direct Dialogue Fundraising Mission. ‘This is about making social giving a culture and a religion. The reason I use the word religion time and time again is because in India 85 per cent of giving is for religious purposes. We are not saying don’t give to religion, but we are saying understand social issues too. Also understand that money given for religious purposes sometimes gets used for communal purposes.’ In India, ActionAid started raising money after the Gujarat riots, so they understand what communal issues are all about. The aim is to create around 60 to 100 bases in the next three years, and they’ll be raising funds for all 150 members of iCONGO.

As well as raising funds from offices, they plan to go out on the streets. People who give 100 rupees will get a badge saying ‘I give for a just, caring and humane society’. ‘We want people to wear those badges as a matter of pride because they are giving to a good cause. This is all about trying to generate enthusiasm among people who become supporters. We are also going into schools trying to get children to raise funds from their relatives and friends. So we’re doing various pilots.’

The second part of iCONGO is the recognition programme. This means that for the first time anywhere in the world, NGOs are going to have their own awards for individuals who demonstrate outstanding social responsibility. This will be called the Karm Vir Puraskar – National Award for Social Responsibility. iCONGO already has ties with the foremost news television groups and with publications like The Times of India and Hindu Indian Express to promote the awards, so it will be a high-profile event.

The idea is to get more and more people involved in social issues. ‘This culture probably already exists in Europe and the US but not in India. In India everyone thinks that fundraising is going out with a begging bowl. So I say no, we are not going out with a begging bowl, we are doing something very dignified, very noble. So let’s go and ask with pride – we are giving people the chance to experience the joy of giving.’ They’re planning to promote 27 December as world social giving day, where everybody will wear their badges ‘and walk with us for a small solidarity walk and say that I give for a good cause’. iCONGO will be formally launched on 1 January. Various NGOs have already pledged their membership.
The third part of the iCONGO programme is to start a retail outlet called Retail for Change. In India a company called Archies markets greeting cards and gifts on behalf of charities and makes a profit of almost €200,000 every year. What they give to HelpAge or CRY is just around 7-8 per cent. ‘We will form our own retail outlet under the brand name Congo Shongo. All member NGOs will be able to display and sell their wares in this shop, and all profits will go back to the particular NGOs who put their cards or gifts on display.’

The last part of the iCONGO programme, at least in phase one, is called Media for Change. ‘We want to make commercial movies, like Philadelphia with Tom Hanks, to talk about issues like AIDS and disability.’

Jeroninio (Jerry) Almeida is Chief Executive and Director, International Fundraising, of ActionAid India Society, and Founder and Executive Director (Emeritus), iCONGO (Indian Confederation of NGOs); he joined ActionAid India three years ago. He can be contacted at