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The W.J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India Blog: March 2010

Sunday, March 21, 2010

On Serving in India

With the number of young non-resident Indian (NRI) volunteers at India’s NGOs today, it seems coming to India for service work is a new rite of passage. Manju Sadarangani first came to Kutch, Gujarat to provide relief in the aftermath of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. She has fond memories of the village boy who wanted to marry her and of the impact she made with just a laptop and a spreadsheet program. Manju was a member of the first group of fellows sent to Indian NGOs by the American India Foundation. Today, Manju is a political officer for the American Embassy in New Delhi.

The2001 Kutch earthquake proved to be a galvanizing moment for pan-Indian philanthropy. In the decade since, a steady supply of young NRIs has come to India’s NGOs to work on service projects, not necessarily in areas where they have familial or linguistic ties. Motivated by the opportunity to be a part of India’s phenomenal growth story, they are enhancing India’s vibrant civil society institutions. In the process, they are finding out a lot about identity, development and what it means to “serve.”

The NRI supply meets a demand among Indian NGOs for professional managerial skills, transparency and fundraising capacity.[1] Young NRIs help apply for funding, set up evaluation systems, and professionalize processes. Their expertise in everything from Excel to English is valued for shaping strategies and implementing programs. However, both the organization and the individual deal with the frustration of unmet expectations. Indian NGOs can struggle to effectively maximize an outsider’s skill and time, or resist change from an external source. Former volunteer Sanjana says, “I sort of got lost trying to figure out how to use my skills [at the NGO].”

NGOs are equally frustrated by the assumptions and priorities of these well-intentioned individuals. In general, they have knowledge of how things “should” work, and may not be as open to figuring out how things can and do work in the Indian context. NRIs in particular carry assumptions about India they’ve picked up in the India-in-exile of their birth. But because channels are open, learning takes place. The greatest, albeit tangential, contribution NRIs are making is enhancing NGOs capacity to utilize outsiders. For example, Seva Mandir in Udaipur hosts over 100 volunteers each year, and has a formal training program, housing and support services for volunteers.

To meet a need for structured support on both sides, fellowships and other formal exchange programs for young people from the West facilitate service opportunities in India with financial and structural support. Among the more professionally-oriented programs are the American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellowship, the Deshpande Foundation’s Sandbox Fellowship and the Asian Foundation for Philanthropy’s Paropkaar Volunteers program. Identity and the search for self is a motivator for many NRIs. Programs like Indicorps and the UK-based ConnectIndia have a more explicit focus on personal development through service for people of Indian origin. As former fellows and volunteers go on to work in the development sector, exchanges help launch new organizations and social ventures, bolstering India’s vibrant civil society institutions and changing attitudes towards philanthropy and volunteerism. Back at home young NRIs are also moving the diaspora’s giving to India away from financial support of religious and education causes towards strategic engagement for social and economic development.Kerala Site Visit

Meghna Shah is a Clinton Fellow of the American India Foundation working on capacity-building projects for SAATH, an Ahmedabad-based NGO that creates market linkages for India’s urban and rural poor.

This posting is also available at South Asian Philanthropy Project (SAPP)

[1] “Investing in Ourselves: Giving and Fundraising in India,” Asian Development Bank, 2002.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Two-Sided Markets


SAATH is a non-governmental organization that utilizes market-based strategies to create inclusive societies by empowering India’s urban and rural poor.


Visa is a global payments technology company that connects consumers, businesses, banks and governments in more than 200 countries and territories.

What does that mean? Okay, if you take nothing else away from this please understand this. Visa is not a credit card company. They have absolutely no say over what your credit card limit is, what your interest rates are, or what kind of non-Visa rewards your bank gives you (However use Visa, you’ll be better off all around =)). Therefore, please, please stop asking me or any other former or current Visa employee to fix these issues for you, you will only find our answer frustrating. Instead, go find your friends at CITIBANK, BAC, or ICICI and ask them to deal with your credit card woes.

Visa is first and foremost a technology company. They use technology to support payment transactions between those who want to buy with those who want to sell. Visa gracefully capitalizes on the notion of a two-sided market, allowing it to make more than $6 Billion in revenue in 2008.

By now you are thinking, what does this have to do with SAATH…

Two Sided Markets:

As soon as I walked into the door at Visa, my mentor (Chris Sweetland) handed me a book called “Paying with Plastic.” Although the notion of two-sided markets is all around us, it wasn’t till this book that I internalized the power of the two-sided market - two or more customer groups that receive value only if all sides are actively engaged. It’s the notion of the greater good. If we collaborate we will all be better off. The issuer brings the cardholders, the acquirers bring the merchants, and Visa brings the network to be able to connect any combination of issuing and acquiring institutions.

Let me break this down less technically with the help of “Paying with Plastic” for those of you who are still like: what the heck.

This is a classic example used to explain two-sided markets, I’m just going to put my own spin on it.

Let’s rewind to 2002. You’re waiting in line to enter the “hottest” nightclub in Philly – Transit (Penn, please laugh). When you approach the door, you realize it’s free entry for ladies  “AWESOME”, and $20 bucks for the gents. The club is the “network.”  Men are one side of the market, and women are the other side of the market. To bring men and women together, the nightclub (network) decided to charge the men, but not the women. Why?

A nightclub is a great destination to meet the opposite sex (assuming that is what you are into). If that is the case, women for some reason are harder to come by in nightclubs, therefore to attract women, and meet the opposite sex’s demands, nightclubs offer their services (a forum for meeting others) free to one side of the market. Genius (and extremely convenient for me =))!

And there you have it: Bring the women and many men will come, and pay to come.

Two-sided SAATH:

SAATH applies the same logic, except to the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP). SAATH’s Urban Resource Center (URC) serves as a network hub, physically, instead of electronically. It connects service providers in Ahmedabad, to those who need or want it, specifically those in underprivileged communities. The URC offers more than 130 services from acquiring a ration card, to finding a driving instructor. It charges a membership fee to get users to sign up and then allows them to access all of the URCs different services (again for a fee). It helps service providers like the government, other NGOs, and private companies to access this relatively untapped market who is willing to pay for goods and services, but who currently don’t have exposure, access, trust or the knowledge to use them.

The Gap:

Currently, SAATH runs the URC on an NGO model as opposed to a social enterprise. This is where my skills (expertise?) come into play. How can the URC be revamped into a social business which still meets the needs of the bottom of the pyramid, but become self-sustainable (with a surplus) in the process?

The Solution:

Visa charges both sides of the market, why can’t SAATH? Instead of just charging the customers to be linked to services, SAATH should charge private institutions, NGOs and the government to leverage its network platform. Its ability to connect the customer to the supplier is just as or even more valuable to the service provider as it is to the customer.  Therefore this linkage, and capitalizing on it, is what will help the URC be sustainable and more importantly scalable. If a service provider had to build its own center or outlet in each underprivileged community, just as if every bank had to build its own payment network, the service provider would make less progress, and so would the bank. The banks realized this in the early 70’s and formed NBI and IBANCO, the predecessors of what is now VISA Inc. SAATH realized this and formed the URCs, and now needs to capitalize on its value proposition.

The Takeaway:

If you want to reach the bottom of the pyramid, tap the URC. If you want to purchase things GO World, GO Visa.

Fun Fact:

Until Early 2008, Visa was a not-for-profit organization, which then successfully converted into a corporation with a p/e multiple of 38.9. The URC currently runs in a not-for-profit status… think of the possibilities.



Bijal Shah is based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat with SAATH. Bijal  is interested in converting nonprofit’s into social enterprises, and is currently helping SAATH flip some of its signature programs into sustainable entities under the brand Anveshan Catalysts.