Raising funds with Bollywood actors

During the Change the Game debate Vice Versa explores the opportunities and challenges of local fundraising and claim-making in practice on the basis of several case studies. Today we take a look at India. Are people willing to contribute to development in their society or are there issues that keep them from doing so?

For Usha Menon it’s a fact that there are significant benefits to fundraising in India. Menon is Executive Chairman of Usha Menon Management Consultancy, a training and consulting firm for civil society organisations with expertise in fundraising in Asia. ‘Forty years ago, organisations in India were mostly run as community-based organisations (CBOs). To a large extend they were for locals by locals. However, from the moment that the sector of international development grew, the focus of organisations shifted from focussing on local donors to writing successful project proposals to receive external funding. The large international organisations that brought this new aid mentality all wanted to do good, but in the process created a culture were civil society heavily depended on foreign funding. ‘In the current context, in which we see a decline in funds from bilateral and multilateral institutions on the one hand, and rising economies in some countries in the South on the other, organisations in India have started to look inwards again for their resource mobilisation’, says Menon.


A decline in foreign funding, however, is not the only reason to focus more on local sources, according to Menon. ‘In India, there is a lot of distrust towards relying on foreign funding. Currently, a large scale evaluation is conducted to to determine whether there is a religious or political agenda associated with the substantial funds that ngo’s have been receiving from overseas’, explains Menon. She refers to a recently published report by the Indian Intelligence Agency in which ‘externally funded’ ngo’s are accused of being used as a tool of Western governments’ foreign policy, by stimulating concerns about nuclear energy and coal power.

In addition, there is a big difference in the work ethic between Western ngo’s and Indian ngo’s with a Hindu background. ‘People in the West generally think in a linear way; you are born, you live and then you die. But in the Hindu-ethos this is seen more circular. We come back, life after life. These different mindsets cause a breakdown of both communication and efficiency in development’, explains Menon. She gives an example of the kind of problems these differences can cause: ‘A Western donor would expect a strategy plan for two or three years. The Indian counterpart which requests funding will submit a planning, making sure to use the available matrixes and to meet the expectations of the Western donor. In reality however, Indians are much more intuitive in their work and will carry out the project based on intuition. When asked afterwards to explain certain choices that were made, the Indian counterpart will say; “I just had a feeling that this would work.” And it does. Independence of foreign funding will ensure that Indian ngo’s are able to work according to their own insuights.’

Religion and family

According to the recently published India Giving report of the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), prospects for philanthropy in India are hopeful. The Indian economy continues to show a positive economic growth, making more money available for social programmes. Figures in the report show that Indians generally give more to charity if their income is higher. Currently, 84 percent of the 9,000 Indians interviewed by CAF gives money to charity. But charity in this regard refers mostly to giving directly to an individual within the family or to a religious institution. ‘The concept of family in India differs from the Western one. In India, family is huge’, says Menon. ‘When you help the daughter of your servant, or the son of your third cousin to go to university, you would see it as your responsibility for your family.’

According to Menon giving to religious institutions also contributes to civil society organisations in a way. ‘In India, religion is the biggest fundraiser. Although most of this money stays within religious institutions, there is a trend among these institutions to have their own trust in which they put money aside to do good. Some of the best schools and hospitals are now run by religious movements.’ However, ultimately only 27 percent of the money spent on charities in India, reaches social organisations, according to the India Giving report. 70 percent of the respondents indicated that they would rather give to family or religion, and prefer not to provide directly to social organisations. What makes people so reluctant to use community philanthropy to support ’the greater common good’ in society?


We asked this question to Lakshmi Krishnan of the Indian Society for the Promotion of Women and Child Welfare (SPOWAC). According to Krishnan, individuals are reluctant to give to organisations because they cannot check if their money is well-spent. ‘Indians prefer to give to organisations where they already have a personal connection. Via the people who already trust you, you can appeal other people,’ says Krishnan. ‘A good communication strategy is essential in attracting new donors’, she says. ‘You have to work hard, be honest and communicate transparently about what you are doing to be recognized as a good and reliable organisation. It is important that you properly check your activities and to inform people about that.’

Swatantra Gupta, National Manager Corporate Partnerships of the Indian Smile Foundation, a civil society organisation that works for the welfare of children and their families, agrees that mobilising funds from the Indian population is mainly hampered by a lack of trust. ‘There have been many cases of corruption and problems with irresponsible spending of funds among ngo’s in India in the past,’ says Gupta. ‘This makes people reluctant to contribute to development in a more structural manner through ngo’s.’ He also points out communication as a crucial factor in winning potential donors’ trust. ‘At Smile we try to let the work speak for itself,’ says Gupta. ‘We report on our projects via our website and our newsletter. There are heartwarming stories from the field and a lot of good work is being done. With this information we can reach people. There is a link between credible work, communication and trust.’

Bollywood actors

Smile Foundation uses Bollywood actors in their communication strategy to get people enthusiastic for their work. Among these ambassadors who connect their name with the cause of Smile are the in India immensely popular Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor. These actors support Smile by attracting attention to the work of the organisation. However, linking famous names to an organisation has more advantages, explains Gupta: ‘We have recently organised an activity on Father’s Day with Shah Rukh Khan. Before Khan linked himself to us he had his team investigating our organisation thoroughly to make sure we are actually doing a good job. Stars are trademarks, and they only want to work with other credible brands. By associating with Smile, actors like Khan show the public that we are a credible organisation.’

According to Menon, Western strategies to raise funds are not always suited for the Indian context. ‘Direct mail, for example, leads to poor results. In India, the postal system is slower, and there are many different languages ​​throughout India, which presents huge disadvantages to using this strategy,’ says Menon. Tele-facing, which presents a combination of calling someone and meeting them face-to-face is a better option according to Menon. ‘We call people, explain them what we do and ask if they are interested. If this is the case, we send an employee on a motorcycle to the potential donor, to speak to him personally about the specific foundation. This employee also carries all the forms necessary to make a donation. We have a location-based app which finds out which motorcyclist is closest to the customer.’

‘However, for such fundraising strategies to work a rather large budget is needed’, Menon says. Smile Foundation trains smaller partners to raise funds on their own level. Gupta: ‘Our local partner organisations are small, have their roots in the community and are therefore less able to organise large-scale events. However, there are other ways in which they can benefit from their personal relationship with the community. Their strategies focus more on local shop owners and small businesses in the neighborhood.’ Currently, the amount of money raised by Smile’s local partner organisations is still small. ‘But we are working hard to train these organisations to mobilize more funds in order to promote their sustainability,’ says Gupta.


An important morivation for people to make a donation, according to Menon, is gratitude. ‘One of the tele-facing motorcyclists came to visit a potential donor who lived in a dingy little place and irons clothes for a living. He and his wife eventually donated an amount almost four times higher than an average donation and asked the employee to come back later for an even greater contribution. He said to donate simply because life has been good to him.’

A fairer distribution of wealth is generally not a reason behind giving according to Menon. This is endorsed by the India Giving report, which shows that many of the richer Indians do not see the development of the country as their responsibility. According to Lakshmi Krishnan many people support an organisation because they have affinity with the target group. ‘People are more likely to contribute if an organisation’s focus is on an issue they have somehow encountered their own lives.’


In India, a law which obliges companies to contribute two percent of their profits to charity has passed recently. According to Gupta, this is a positive step undertaken by the government. According to Menon, the Indian government is very supportive towards local fundraising. ‘The government wants to get rid of foreign funds, so there is no influence that can be exerted through those funds from abroad.’ This is also evident from the leaked report by the Indian Intelligence mentioned earlier.

But Menon also sees benefits in local fundraising for civil society organisations in terms of lobby and advocacy activitiets. ‘To have a more effective lobby we are forming a network of organisations and individuals from different Indian states, to be in a stronger position when we negotiate. To grow even stronger, we raise funds among the Indian population. Once we have a database of a million individual people supporting us, it will improve our position even more. ”

Krishnan sees lobbying the government mainly as a way to receive funds. ‘Seventy percent of our funds are provided by the government. Since the government only pays money for a project once it is completed, there is a disadvantage to depending on these funds from the state. If the project is run in a way the government does not agree with, chances are in the end the fund is not distributed. We take this into account during the implementation of the project.’


Some international ngo’s raise local funds in India as well. Do they compete with local organisations on the fundraising market? Krishnan does not think so: ‘International organisations have their own networks in which they raise funds. They do not get in our territory’. Gupta does not entirely agree with this view. ‘Since large Western organisations have a strong international reputation and have more money available for communications, they actually do compete with local ngo’s’, he states. ‘This should not be a problem as long as this money is spent on good work in the field, but a lot of the times I see that a significant portion of funds raised locally is spent on administration, or that not much is happening with it.’

So should International ngo’s retreat from India completely? Gupta does not think so. ‘At this point, external aid is still indispensable. There is a lot of money available in India, but as long as there is distrust from society, the full potential is not being reached. In the interim period between now and the moment that there is sufficient confidence we still need external funding.’ Gupta believes there are other ways international ngo’s can contribute. ‘Organisations from the West often come up with innovative ideas to raise funds, such as the Action for Children program. Such concepts can help a lot. Parties from outside have more overview over the situation and can contribute with advise from this position,’ says Gupta.

Menon also believes that international ngo’s can still contribute to development in India. ‘Instead of being independent I would like to see interdependence between local organisations and international ngo’s. International ngo’s have an important added value to development sector in India. Technical advice, for example, can be of great help, but only when coming from someone who understands the Indian context of giving.’
This week Vice Versa explores different case studies within the Change the Game debate. Next week we will focus on the role of Dutch ngo’s in local fundraising and claim-making.