Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Give (Or Take) India

I was recently flipping channels, and uncharacteristically stopped at an episode of Tech Toys (August 13th), because they were interviewing Venkat Krishnan, Director of GiveIndia. Venkat is a friend of my cousin and I've met him once or twice, and knowing a little bit about his work, I was intrigued to find out what he was doing on Tech Toys. It turns out Venkat was there to introduce the Joy of Giving Week, conceptualized by GiveIndia. While giving money is of course one option, Venkat emphasized that habitual "givers" tend to increasingly give more of their time, to better understand the causes that they are giving to. To help them, GiveIndia has a strict set of criteria through which they have whittled down over 3,000 NGOs or non-profits to about 200 that are worthy, or credible enough, to give to.

Venkat's interview was spliced with a step-by-step guide to starting your own cause. It went something like this.

"Step 1: Buy your own domain name. Step 2: Create a Facebook page. Step 3: Make sure you keep your Facebook page updated regularly. And if you're going to be travelling, make sure you buy this laptop and the Tata Photon Plus data card to enable you to stay connected to your cause while travelling".

And then we reached the climax, the laptop and data card displayed on the TV screen with the price tag boldly beneath them. The format, and presenter, of this segment were clearly working off the Tech Toys template that they use for all their other episodes.

However, Step 4 provided me with a glimmer of hope because it was, "Make sure your cause doesn't just stay online".

"Aah," I thought, "now's where they're going to talk about what you can do to volunteer, whether it's travelling to rural communities, cleaning up city beaches or whatever".

But no. Step 4 was organizing a meet-up of the fans of your cause on Facebook, and then posting those photos online using...you guessed it - the new camera that's a must-have for starting your cause.

There was an obvious contradiction between this segment and the interview with Venkat, where he emphasized giving. In contrast, for the folks at Tech Toys, any cause begins with buying, for yourself, a new laptop, data card and phone.

However, there was also a less obvious contradiction between the two segments. The "Start A Cause" segment suggested that any cause, if it has an up-to-date, photo rich Facebook page and is marketed right, is worthy of and will receive funding. While NGOs have long been criticized for being publicity-hungry, in India there is now increasing pressure for them to appear "professional". This can lead to a bloated marketing budget, and neglected work on the ground. In contrast, GiveIndia, through its due diligence process, emphasizes that it is credible NGOs that are worth donating to. Another element of credibility for NGOs is a robust impact assessment methodology, which I've been talking about in other posts.

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