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Feature January 2002
American India Foundation
Long Distance Philanthropy Brings Donors Closer to Home

January 2001 -- A massive earthquake hits Gujarat, India, registering 7.9 on the Richter Scale. An estimated 20,000 are killed, 200,000 are injured and 600,000 are homeless. Complete towns are devastated and countless livelihoods are lost.

January 2002 -- The American India Foundation has been up and running for nine months, having raised more than $7 million; given grants of $1.3 million, held fund-raising events around the US to highlight its work; sent a team of physicians and surgeons to attend to earthquake victims; and completed a three-month pilot service corps program that matches volunteers who have specific technical and management skills with Indian NGOs that need them.

With a handful of paid staff in New York City, Silicon Valley and India, as well as volunteers, AIF aspires to function as a "virtual" organization that promotes active philanthropy and social involvement. Its Web site, www.aifoundation.org, enables potential donors and other interested parties to learn how they can give, make donations on-line, or sign up for more information on doing service in needy communities in India. AIF also provides information on NGOs in India and regularly publishes updates on how its grants have made a difference in communities affected by the earthquake as well as sites elsewhere in India.

How it started

The genesis of AIF starts with former US President Bill Clinton, according to Jay Philip, AIF's New York program director. Immediately after the earthquake Mr. Clinton contacted India's Prime Minister Shri Vajpayee to ask how he might use his influence to address the crisis. Mr. Clinton garnered significant respect in the Indian-American community as the first US president to visit India in 40 years, according to Mr. Philip. He then initiated discussions with Rajat Gupta, Managing Director of McKinsey & Co., and Victor Menezes, Chairman and CEO of Citibank, both based in New York City, and with prominent business leaders on the East and West Coasts. Following a convening of these leaders and Mr. Clinton, AIF was born. An executive director, Pradeep Kashyap, based in New York City, and a president, Lata Krishnan, who is in Silicon Valley, head it. A strong board of trustees -- including Mr. Clinton (who serves as honorary chair) -- was formed. Each office also has a program director.

The leadership at AIF offered numerous resources to jump-start the foundation. Mr. Gupta organized a team of analysts from McKinsey to provide pro bono services to the new foundation. One team member happened to be Mr. Philip, a 25-year-old Indian-American, who joined the foundation as program director in its New York office.

In March 2001, AIF helped organize a team of medical experts from Stanford who went to India to treat earthquake victims, bringing along sophisticated equipment as well. American and Indian physicians worked side-by-side, providing Indian doctors much needed extra hands at a difficult time.

In April, Mr. Clinton joined a delegation of Indian-American business and civic leaders to visit the earthquake site and meet with local leaders. One participant was James Lee Witt, director of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Association) in the Clinton administration and now a consultant on disaster management. He helped develop a report that recommended how to improve emergency management in situations such as Gujarat.

Giving more than money

A key theme of AIF since its inception is the idea that philanthropy involves far more than raising money and making grants to worthy NGOs. To that end, AIF launched its volunteer service corps to match individuals with NGOs in Gujarat and elsewhere in India. A three-month pilot program was announced last May on the Web site, with plans to send 20 volunteers in June. Word quickly spread and more than 200 applications poured in. Ultimately, AIF selected 21 volunteers, aged 21 to 35. Their backgrounds ranged from those with advanced degrees in development studies and NGO work to professionals in finance and high technology. All were Indian and met three criteria: volunteer experience; at least one month living in a village setting during the past five years; and fluency in Gujarati or Hindi. AIF subsidized the pilot program.

Following a two-week orientation, the volunteers spent June through August in India. But AIF's experience reinforced what other international nonprofits have also learned -- building the knowledge and trust to work effectively with communities takes significant time. Says Mr. Philip, "It takes six weeks just to get to know the community and gain their trust -- and then there were just six weeks left." So future service corps commitments (including one beginning in January 2002, the other in June 2002) will be for at least six months. And volunteers will be required to raise a portion of the funds for their stay. A "silver service corps" for older volunteers is being planned. A key goal of the program, in addition to service, is to strengthen bridges between the world's oldest and largest democracies, says Jay Philip.

Despite the drawbacks of the short pilot period, AIF learned a lot. First, a careful matching of skills with needs is essential. Second, local language mastery is critical to success. Third, AIF needs to manage expectations well: Volunteers need to understand their limitations as well as their strengths, and know how much -- or how little -- they might accomplish.

But even in three months, AIF produced results. Several NGOs extended formal job offers to volunteers, and several decided to stay longer. AIF is also working with volunteers within India who want to participate in projects.

Beyond Gujarat

As participation in AIF's activities has grown, so has its scope. One is to create an All-India agenda to address issues around the country, with a focus on primary education, women's empowerment, and disaster relief. A program called Digital Equalizer aims to make knowledge of and access to digital technologies widely available in India.

Following the attacks on September 11, AIF added a September 11 Relief Fund to its program, because "We felt strongly about our adopted country and wanted to give back," says Anjali Sharma, an AIF volunteer who specializes in marketing. The fund raised more than $1 million.

It is remarkable that with such a slim infrastructure AIF has accomplished so much in so little time. But that's the model AIF has aspired to since its outset, managing with minimal staff but tight planning. "We try to operate like a for-profit business," says Sharma, a former dot-commer.

Another comparison could be to another global nonprofit organization: CARE, which both fund-raises and sponsors projects of its own. But the American India Foundation appears to bring together best practices in philantropy including activism, cultural involvement, and the use of digital technologies to run a slim organization that gets its message across to a wide constituency.


 
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