Sudhar Krishnamachary is a TC-I Education Correspondent.
Just like any campus recruitment, it starts with rather lengthy information session about DHAN. A little over hundred graduating students are eagerly waiting to hear the part about salary and responsibilities. Much to their dismay the type of work or the salary is not what they expected. The biggest revelation comes at the very last minute. A soft-spoken gentleman named Vasimalai ends the speech with “If you want to just help yourself, you can leave. If you want to help others, you can stay to work for DHAN!” Most of the students escape within minutes wishing they had known sooner. About six or seven muster the guts to check out more. DHAN just found few more youngsters who might dedicate their careers to reducing poverty in India.
“If superordinate goals guide people, it will automatically make human society better,” says Vasimalai, who, as DHAN’s Executive Director, mothered it from conception. Development of Humane Action (DHAN) Foundation was initiated in the early 1990s with a mission to care for the rural poor communities and to empower them with tools for poverty-reduction and self-reliance.
Though relatively unknown outside of the NGO sector, DHAN has pioneered the business of operating a professional grassroots developmental organization for two decades. “The operating model is enablement and not just delivery of basic necessities.” Its development approach is rather straightforward, but phenomenally effective: Identify development ‘themes,’ build grassroots social organizational structure to operationalize the themes, and provide an enabling environment for the organizations to build capacity and integrate with public and private sectors. “We [DHAN] consider ourselves as a human resource organization that mobilizes people to establish contextualized grassroots institutions, which ultimately sustain itself with little help from outside,” says Padmavathy, CEO of Kalanjiam Foundation, the longest-running, successful microfinance theme spun off from DHAN.Theme-based rural development
Another success story from DHAN Collective is Vayalagam (translates to ‘living fields’), a theme for revival of
small-scale water bodies that strengthens the livelihoods of the farmers. Over the years, DHAN has been trying out a lot of themes using its community organizations as test beds. To highlight a few, It recently operationalized two model schools for primary education which practice activity based learning. It is reviving panchayats (village-level local governance) by promoting its purpose and participation amongst the villagers while providing training for panchayat leaders through visits to model Gram Panchayats in Kerala.In picking up themes to promote, Vasimalai says “The sustainability factor is not just from a financial perspective but from a concept and people’s livelihoods perspective as well.” What started as a community radio service for disaster prevention (think tsunami!) has now morphed into a formal Community Media Centre, piloting development-focused audio/video broadcasting, and even hosting a Development Film Festival. DHAN’s comprehensive 2009 annual report highlights all these themes and their impact quite nicely.
Professional development, inverted
The flagship program of DHAN may as well be its Development Management Academy. After spending many years building grassroots organizations, DHAN’s experienced members figured they need more development professionals, like themselves, to scale and reach millions of poor. With seed capital from Tata Foundation, the Tata-DHAN Academy has so far churned over 100 graduates who are emotionally and intellectually equipped to work with rural communities, donors and businesses promoting all sorts of development initiatives. A non-profit career is slowly becoming a viable alternative to mindless flocking to engineering and IT jobs. Interestingly, the rural community organizations eventually absorb 100% of the cost of DHAN’s professional services. “That’s one way we prove the self-sustainability model of our grassroots initiatives, when the people organization itself is able to pay for our professional services and support.” It also proves DHAN’s professionals add value to communities on an on-going basis.
Securing 100% fellowships for Tata-DHAN students remains the priority need. It costs Rs. 0.25 million for a student to graduate, including their entire living expenses and field travel. “Students taking up development work are as such a rarity and only deviants take the courage to pursue it. As a principle, we don’t want them to carry any financial burden, so we provide 100% fellowship to all Tata-Dhan students and ensure paid jobs in the sector for each one of our graduates” says Umarani, the Academy’s Director. With prospective students enquiring from Manipur and Assam, they are now constrained by financial ability to provide fellowships and physical capacity to provide boarding.
The academy has a 30-member staff including Ananda Mahto, an American who moved four years ago to teach communication skills at the Academy. With students from all over India, English is necessarily the teaching and communication medium. Besides, the bulk of research published for the development sector is available only in English. Beyond teaching verbal and inter-personal communication skills, Ananda has been encouraging the students to use new media for documenting and sharing experiences from the field work. He hosts a student blog promoting healthy debates. He even helps some students produce short films. “I live mostly through my students stories, short of doing the grassroots work myself,” he says with mixed feelings.
Development management with a business rigor
As a 700-person organization, DHAN is managing annual grants over Rs. 175 million. Based in the heritage-rich Madurai, Tamilnadu, DHAN has secured a stellar roster of professionals over the years. Umarani says with pride, “We have over 120 senior associates in DHAN who have 10-15 years of field experience and almost everyone started from the grassroots with a passion for working in the rural development sector.” The senior staff manages individual programs (such as Kalanjiyum) besides teaching at the Academy. All of them acknowledge that they could be working in high-paying corporate jobs but instead consciously chose to work as social entrepreneurs, deriving tremendous satisfaction in seeing their work directly impact thousands of people. Vasimalai, an IIM-A graduate, is improvising DHAN’s management systems; he is “enhancing the quality of governance through leadership rotation, performance-based appraisals and visioning exercises” – practices unusual to Indian NGOs until recently.
For instance, Rahini, an IRMA graduate, was leading the Center for Development Communication for many years and recently transitioned to head one of newer initiatives, Center for Development Philanthropy. Without realizing it, she had already started DHAN’s version of Kiva.org, allowing donors to directly participate on an individual basis in reviving neglected ‘ooranis’ [drinking water tanks saving rain water]. When GoodNewsIndia.com first wrote about the ooranis and DHAN’s initiative to revive them, one great soul from Bangalore sent a check to Rahini for Rs. 0.5 million with a simple note “please do what you feel fit with it.” In a world flooded with marketing and branding, the development sector is indeed surviving on trust and word of mouth. “We need is more ambassadors across the globe who can help build awareness and good-will for our work,” says Rahini, with a deep sense of gratitude.Tough road ahead
They are many challenges, though, outside of money! Building capacity and field presence across India sound easier in words. Though they have been very successful in southern states, growth in other states needs more experimentation and patience, given the diversity in culture, politics and village structures. Retention of the students as well as graduates is another critical issue. Some students are attracted to the academy primarily by the fully paid fellowship and guaranteed placements. They take it up without knowing the gravity of work and drop out after a year or two.
Janakiram, alumni of the Academy, admits that he stumbled upon DHAN almost by chance, unable to make a living after a degree in pharmacy. “But, I came out of the Academy realizing that it’s not just a course, but a place to shape my way of life. We learnt more from just observing the faculty who practiced what they were teaching. The care and mentoring we got from the faculty makes me say it was more like a modern-day gurukul.” His path thus far has not been without hurdles as he continues to shape the expectations of his family and society on what it means to be successful in life. He recollects how at every stage of his life, Vasimalai and other senior DHANites still continue to provide mentorship, without which he feels he would have strayed for other less-gratifying pursuits.
What he said towards the end of our conversation hit me like a lightning. “Generally speaking, the best students passing out of high school go on for popular careers like engineering, medicine or go abroad, and the next cadre pursues economics or marketing or settles for government jobs. Unfortunately, those who couldn’t find any other opportunities, explore this sector. I really want to see more high-caliber students pursue development sector as a profession to achieve the scale and impact we need. As reference points, they will inspire younger generations to follow.”
How much I wish I could make that happen in a single stroke! Until then, DHAN will endeavor to eliminate poverty through fishing the few who stay past its recruitment sojourns.