Corporate Philanthropy in India

A few months ago the Vodafone Foundation launched its flagship World of Difference (WOD) program for the first time in India. This program is one of the most high-touch corporate philanthropy programs in the world, and arguably is the most high-touch program of its kind in India. Through the WOD-India program 20 selected employees take leave from their normal jobs at Vodafone to undertake six-week assignments with twenty non-profit organizations across India.

Because Dasra’s expertise lies in providing strategic hands-on assistance/consulting to non-profit organizations in India, it has partnered with the Vodafone Foundation to deliver this program. As a fellow at Dasra I’ve helped our partner NGOs articulate and develop six-week assignments based on their needs, and I’ve helped select Vodafone participants for each NGO. I’ve also kept in close contact with the participants during their assignments. Last week I conducted my first site visit to one of the WOD-selected NGOs, the BAIF Development Research Foundation in Vansda, Gujarat. BAIF takes a holistic approach to sustainable rural development by structuring interventions based on the needs of the community at hand. Arvind, the Vodafone participant at BAIF, is working on agro-business development for local farmers.

In spending time with Arvind at BAIF I’ve become (even more of) a proponent of corporate philanthropy programs like the World of Difference Program. Sitting in on meetings with Arvind and his colleagues at BAIF I was pleasantly surprised to see him infuse the discussions with a fresh perspective on BAIF activities. “How can we create the shortest linkages between farmers and markets?” he asked. He listened patiently as they shared stories from the field, and then encouraged them to think innovatively about decades-old processes and procedures to cut down on time and cost while maximizing impact. In doing so, Arvind was creating links of his own – he was linking BAIF’s sectoral knowledge and community rapport with his own experience with risk-taking and entrepreneurship.

Before and after the work day Arvind takes long walks with BAIF colleagues, often to a mountaintop where sunrise and sunset are particularly spectacular. He’s enjoyed his respite from daily work and city life – he says that he’s been able to reflect and think about what’s important to him while in rural Gujarat. Even still, he has chai with his wife every evening over the phone.

Arvind plans to stay involved with BAIF even after his assignment has formally been completed and he is back at Vodafone. He wants to develop a Management Information System (MIS) to track farmer communication and market price fluctuations so that work is not replicated and all information is easily accessible. I’m confident that Arvind will follow through on his plans. His commitment is strong, his ideas are sound, and he has developed lasting relationships with BAIF colleagues.

At the same time, Arvind has expressed that his learnings from his time at BAIF will make him a better manager when he returns to Vodafone. He’s learned to concentrate on what he values in life rather than getting lost in small details. He’s learned to empower his juniors at Vodafone – he now gives them assignments and deadlines and asks them to think creatively about the best way to complete them. “I offer them my support and show them that I’m on their side, but I don’t micromanage them. I want them to be innovative and take risks. That’s the only way to make change.”

I’m amazed by how much Arvind has accomplished in the three short weeks since he’s joined BAIF and by how comfortable he was speaking about the organization. He’s been able to provide tremendous value to BAIF, and he said that he’s a changed person as a result of this experience as well. Over the next few weeks I’ll visit other Vodafone participants at their host NGOs and I am sure, from my phone and email communication with them, that their experiences will be similar.

It is truly commendable that Vodafone has invested so much in its employees – they will go back to their jobs refreshed and with new ideas that will create a wave effect within the company. The non-profits that received Vodafone participants have also benefited enormously from six weeks of strategic full-time hands-on assistance. Moreover, they’ve benefited from support on issues that they themselves articulated as important to their mission/operations.

But perhaps most important has been the personal changes that the Vodafone participants have experienced. They’ve said that they’ve been exposed to new realities and experiences, and that they’ve had to confront countless unforeseen challenges. And as a result, they say (and I can confirm!), they have emerged stronger on the other side – they are more thoughtful and insightful human beings.

And this type of change – personal change from within – will have a ripple effect not just on Vodafone, but on our world. The World of Difference Program is a testament to a new way of thinking about corporate philanthropy and its impact on the host company, the non-profits, the individuals involved, and our society as a whole. I hope that other corporations use this experience to re-invent their philanthropic strategies as well.

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