Traveling around India is both an astonishing, thrilling as well as a disturbing experience. Wherever the road takes you, miles and miles of barren land make it impossible to be unaware of impoverished areas, dysfunctional health centers and elementary schools. Dozens of people in line waiting for water and the intense gender disparity are a grim reminder of the hard fact that India is a country of immense diversity and sharp inequalities. How does one make progress when there are so many issues to be addressed?
In 2002, a group of young corporate professionals with a modest small town middle class background realized that it was their responsibility to give back to society. Santanu Mishra went to Delhi along with some friends seeking a job opportunity, and because of the economic liberalization in the 1990s, they reached their financial goals earlier than expected.
“We used to meet and discuss regularly, exchanging our professional experiences. One thing that was common in all our discussions was ‘giving back’. I always wanted to give back to the society once I settled in my life”, remembers Mishra. It was driven by this will that he co-founded Smile Foundation while still working full-time.
But he soon realized that to run the organization on a day to day basis he had to make a choice. “In 2005 I took a calculated risk and I quit my full time job. I began structuring Smile Foundation professionally so that we could achieve a larger vision”, he says.
Smile Foundation is a national level development organization working with a life-cycle approach of development focusing on children, their families and the community, addressing youth employment, women empowerment and healthcare issues. Their core area of intervention, however, is child education: “We truly believe that education is the end as well as the means. However, we realized that a child will never go to school regularly if the family is not taken care of, the mother is not empowered or the family health is not well”, says Mishra.
At the moment the foundation is reaching out to more than 300,000 underprivileged children, youth and women directly every year through 158 welfare projects across 25 states of India. Their initiatives include Swabhiman (women empowerment), Smile on Wheels (mobile hospitals), and Smile Twin e-Learning Programme (youth employability) along with Mission Education (child education) as a natural progression.
One of the most impactful projects led by Smile is the Child For Child programme, which brings together children from both the backgrounds – affluent and deprived, in an attempt to foster a sense of responsibility in the privileged children towards their less privileged counterparts, early in life. “We believed that there was an urgency to sensitize the privileged children too. If this happpens from an early age, they will grow up as socially responsible citizens”, says Mishra. Last year alone the programme reached to 417 districts of the country, engaging more than 900 schools and sensitized about one million children, along with their parents and teachers.
One of Smile Foundation’s major challenges is the difficulty in finding the right professionals such as doctors, teachers, project managers and community workers to work in remote areas. Also, retaining these professionals, is another major problem as tackling development issues are a serious, long term and complex endeavor. “Next challenge is getting right kind of community based partners. As many of our supporters are corporate, achieving the ‘perfection’ outcome according to their expectation can sometime be a challenge within the ‘imperfection’ at the grassroots level”, informs the Mishra.
With over 350 professional working full-time, from managerial work force to community workers at the grassroots and more than a hundred volunteers and interns, they expect to reach 500,000 people on an annual basis by 2015.