The co-founders on how they came up with the idea for Dasra, an ‘NGO for other NGOs’, why they started working with big donors, and the evolution of the non-profit sector over two decades
When Deval Sanghavi and Neera Nundy first began thinking of starting a non-governmental organisation (NGO) focused on strategic philanthropy in India in the late 1990s, they made a little pitch-book and went to Morgan Stanley, their then employer in New York, to raise money.
“I think the original target (to raise) was $10,000 (around ₹8.3 lakh now). When we met the CEO of Morgan Stanley at the time, he gave us a $10,000 cheque and said, ‘Now what’s your goal?’” says Sanghavi, laughing.
Dasra, an “NGO for other NGOs”, is now almost 25 years old. Starting off with the mission of supporting non-profits in their growth so that they could scale impact, Dasra, registered as Impact Foundation India, helps NGOs create three- to five-year plans, besides assisting them with financial management, recruitment, strategy, scale, impact, and assessment. There are a few other non-profits in India with similar goals, like Atma (for education), GuideStar and Arthan, and they form a valuable bulwark for philanthropy and the social sector in India.
In its first decade, Dasra worked solely with non-profits, hand-holding them through their evolution. Subsequently, it began pitching to, and working with, donors, including funds earmarked by companies under corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives as well as personal wealth, advising companies and individuals on how and where to invest. Currently, their partner organisations form a diverse list of companies and non-profits from across the globe, such as Bain & Co., BMW Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Omidyar Network, Tata Trusts, and Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives.
Dasra, supported by donors, is today “deeply entrenched” in 10 sectors or collaboratives; they usually work with NGOs in these sectors for at least a decade at a time. Their goal is to bring together NGOs, donors, governments and other stakeholders on the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs). This could include work on vulnerable children, informal workers, climate sanitation, women in leadership, and other segments that tend to be overlooked by CSR initiatives.
India’s social sector spending as a percentage of GDP grew from 8.6% in 2021 to 9.6% in 2022, according to Bain & Co.’s India Philanthropy Report 2023. But India remains short of NITI Aayog’s estimate (13% of GDP) of the total annual funding required to achieve the SDGs by 2030. CSR, family philanthropy, HNIs (high net worth individuals) and retail cumulatively contributed about 86% of private philanthropy, the report added, with CSR growing at 13% in five years.
“We have a network of a thousand different organisations that we have worked with, funded or supported in some shape or form,” says 48-year-old Nundy, co-founder and managing partner at Dasra, which means “enlightened giving” in Sanskrit.
We met last weekend at their office, half the size of a football field, in a deceptively narrow lane off one of Mumbai’s old mill lands. Dasra, which has a team of about 160, shares it with other NGOs. The office is a bustling hive of activity in the midst of a five-day holiday weekend. Their only other office, in Delhi, opened this week.
The idea for the NGO came to Sanghavi, born in Houston, Texas, during visits to family in Mumbai and the sight of stark poverty. “I would question why this exists, how can we still come here, visit family and be happy when people were living on the streets?” says Sanghavi. Before starting his first job at Morgan Stanley, after a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Texas, he volunteered with an NGO in Mumbai that supported children living on the streets. After spending a few years in New York, he felt he would rather work with groups supporting under-privileged communities than make billionaires richer.
Canada-born and raised Nundy, the daughter of engineer parents, spent three years at Bishop Cottons Girls High School in Bengaluru in the mid-1980s in an effort to get some exposure to her culture and origins. When her mother, Humsa Nundy, moved from Canada to the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, to start a school for tribal children in 1993-94, Nundy would visit and spend time with the children there. After her graduation in math from the University of Western Ontario, she went into investment banking at Morgan Stanley, where she met Sanghavi—she was in mergers and acquisitions, he in the leveraged buyout group.
“When we came up with this idea of Dasra (in 1999), I got into Harvard Business School (HBS; MBA). I was, like, you go save the world. I am going to business school,” she says, laughing.
Sanghavi moved to India in 1999, working with NGOs like Magic Bus and Villgro and sending Nundy passionate emails about his work. She spent a few months in India too, working with Sanghavi, before deciding to join him here in 2003. This was about the time they got married.
“He was very charming,” she says, smiling, on why she decided to join him “Once you reach a six-figure salary so early in your life, you start to wonder what motivates you. For me, it was the confidence that came from going to HBS. I was, like, worst case, if this whole thing at Dasra doesn’t work out, someone will hire me and I will have a job.”
The couple quickly became aware of the challenges, not the least being that they were two Indian-Americans/Canadians trying to make a difference in India. They had read about Priti Patkar’s Prerana, which had set up a night shelter for children of sex workers in 1986, and met her. “The first thing she said is: This is not a zoo. NRIs come here all the time to ‘find themselves’,” Sanghavi, 48, remembers.
He also recollects meeting someone from a big trust who said the sector was doing just fine without their help. “I am sure we came with ego. We had multiple (experiences) that made us realise we have to prove ourselves, just like we had to when we were at our first job.”
Dasra today has two main divisions, one focused on collaboratives and funds that are issue-based, where it pools money and support organisations. The other is advising companies, or the family philanthropy network GivingPi, on where to contribute. In response to the pandemic, Dasra launched the Rebuild India Fund with the Tarsadia Foundation to support grass-roots NGOs; it also initiated the ClimateRISE Alliance, a collaborative platform for climate action.
Nundy says that in recent years, they have consciously shifted focus to work with family philanthropy, which they feel is a longer-term play. Family philanthropy (ultra high net worth individuals worth over ₹1,000 crore) grew at 12% to $3.6 billion in 2022, according to the Bain & Co. report. While CSR may have triggered an ecosystem that can support philanthropy, it’s bureaucratic and offers only limited grants. “Unfortunately, often CSR wants quick fixes and they will fund what’s closer and easier. But that’s actually not what is required—you need to take long-term bets,” Sanghavi says.
About 80% of the 267 families they work with, which plan to donate about ₹1,000 crore annually, are Indian; the rest are from the UK and the US. “If you look at the philanthropy narrative out there, there are a lot of questions to why is India, as a middle-income country, getting so much more in aid? But we (donors here) give quite little as a percentage of our wealth,” adds Nundy.
In the beginning, Nundy, with her easy smile and direct manner, would work behind the scenes, while Sanghavi, with his hearty laughter and storytelling abilities, was more front-facing. Today, Nundy deals with donors and Sanghavi works with organisations—a spousal arrangement for harmony and efficiency.
“I approached things a lot more with, ‘I need to know how it is so that I can speak to it.’ I was not at that time as great at winging it. Now we both realise that we need to be out there much more,” she says.
The Dasra founders believe all the organisations they support are playing a critical role in narrowing the wealth gap. It takes a generation to perform well in school, get jobs and then play a critical role in moving a family out of poverty, says Sanghavi. They have seen success stories, like girls who grew up in a shelter getting jobs at Morgan Stanley and going to a US college. “It shows that in one generation, a real shift can happen,” he says.
The non-profit sector has its challenges, with perceptions, scepticisms and doubts over accountability. Besides, India has tighter regulations for the non-profit sector than for several other businesses. “There’s a trust deficit in our sector, right?” says Nundy. “But it’s an excuse when someone says, oh, we can’t find legit organisations. They exist. Hundreds of them exist.”
Sanghavi and Nundy have been part of a journey that has seen the not-for-profit sector evolve, particularly in aspirations of scale that did not exist in the early 2000s.
Their own next-gen of three boys is ready to step into adulthood. The eldest, Ayush, is a freshman in Pittsburgh, while twins Laxman and Akbar are in high school. In the past, the children used to ask them why they gave up lucrative careers abroad, prompting the question of whether they ever regret the move.
Sanghavi says one of the things they used to do for the first few years was draw comparisons between the impact they had and how much they would have given to charity if they had stayed in banking. “In the first year or two, we were, like, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this. But never to go back. It was: Can you do more with what we are doing?”
I ask them if it’s challenging for a couple to work together. “Oh yeah,” says Nundy quickly before Sanghavi adds: “A lot of our friends who have children going to college have grown apart with their spouses because they have just been so busy. We have been so lucky to have the children and work that have kept us together.
“One of our good friends was here a few months ago,” adds Sanghavi, his grin getting wider, “and he’s like, ‘wow, y’all still like each other? I don’t see this with any of our other friends.’”
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle. He tweets @iArunJ.