In conversation with 'Dasra'- The catalysts for social change and partner with Mahindra's Spark The Rise


Dasra was started around 13 years ago by two investment bankers intent on improving the professionalism of the nonprofit sector in India. Noting the inefficient allocation of resources in the sector, they sought to bring private business strategies to the nonprofit space to yield greater impact results. Their model works on two levels: on one hand they work with philanthropists to educate them on how to allocate their money more strategically, to approach it as if one were investing someone else’s money; on the other hand Dasra works with social enterprises and nonprofits to help them build their capacity and be able to absorb more growth capital moving forward.The misallocation of resources is a big concern in the nonprofit space and an impediment to sustainable development. According to Aakif Merchant, Social Impact Associate at Dasra, one of the biggest issues is that while so many NGOs in India are doing similar things, they are all competing for the same limited funds. “You hear of mergers and acquisitions in the private sector, but you never hear of that in the social sector, so there is a lot of duplication of efforts,” said Aakif. “I think that if organizations consolidate and share best practices then they can make the best use of those funds.”

While Dasra does not play a matchmaking role explicitly, their Social Impact Program is designed specifically to bring social entrepreneurs together, to educate them, to exchange ideas, to network and pitch their ideas to investors. The program allows social innovators to share best practices, and to understand how they can work together to create sustainable impact. For an NGO, this can sometimes mean that a transition to a for-profit structure makes more sense.

“We encourage NGO’s to think about how they build sustainability into their model. There are certain models and certain instances where you can’t really always be self-dependent, and you have to depend on philanthropic capital for that,” Aakif explained. “But for models that make sense, organizations have to think about sustainability, because you get into situations where donors will make an initial investment, will support an organization for the first couple of years of its life cycle but then will look for the organization to sustain itself.”

Dasra’s experience in educating philanthropists and social entrepreneurs, as well as their emphasis on capacity growth and sustainability, makes them a natural fit as a partner for the Mahindra Spark the Rise initiative. Their experience has been leveraged to create a unique and critical role for them in the campaign process.After helping the Mahindra team screen and shortlist the organizations, Dasra works with the shortlisted organizations on how to pitch their idea to the jury. They work with them on their presentation, their language, and their business plan before they are placed before a jury panel. The panel then picks two projects and one idea to go to the finale. “Everyone that comes to Bombay looks to get picked for the grand finale,” explained Aakif. “Our job is to make sure that the contestants are adequately prepared to pitch on pitch day.”

The greatest takeaway from the event, however, is not the chance to win funding, per say, but rather, according to Aakif, the exposure to big players in the social ecosystem, and the opportunity to interact with and learn from investors and other entrepreneurs. “If you are going in with the mindset of, ‘I’m going to win the money,’ then that could be myopic and self-defeating. But if organizations come with the mindset of ‘I’m going to learn,’ then in the long run that will pay more dividends. The knowledge, tools, and skillsets we give them throughout the campaign will help put them in a better position to pitch to future donors and investors going forward, not just the specific panel of jury that will be there at the workshop.”

Perhaps the best indicator of Spark The Rise is the confidence that Dasra, an organization with years of experience helping both philanthropists and social entrepreneurs create an effective and lasting impact, has for the initiative.

“I think it is a fantastic initiative by Mahindra,” said Aakif. “For one, it really gets these organizations up and running, because it’s 2 lakhs they get for winning each round, so that definitely gives them a little push from a financial point of view. But also, it’s exposing them to what’s out there in the ecosystem, what’s going on, who are the other funders and entrepreneurs. When you come together like this, it clicks in your mind that there are so many organizations that are doing incubation services, acceleration services, that these are the funds I should be looking for, maybe I need debt and I don’t need equity… All these thoughts come to mind.”

The opportunity to work with Mahindra has also given Dasra an opportunity to further its own mission. As a company with a desire to help as many high-potential, high-impact organizations scale as quickly as possible, the Spark the Rise campaign gives them an avenue to do just that. With only a few months left in the campaign, eyes will be on the grand finale to witness the social innovators that will emerge from this powerhouse partnership.

Wesbites: Dasra and SparkTheRise.

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