Exposure visit to SAATH, Ahmedabad

As part of AIF’s Clinton Fellowship Program, we are allowed to conduct one exposure visit, traveling to another fellow’s placement and trying to learn from them about other experiences with working in an Indian NGO or organization outside of our own, since it is very easy to feel very alone with observations about the organization with which we’re placed.
To see how another social enterprise conducts its business, I chose to visit Michael Schulte’s placement, SAATH Charitable Trust in Ahmedabad, Gurjarat. SAATH is an NGO, but with a strong revenue model.  SAATH has, since its inception in 1989, championed an Integrated Slum Development Approach that combines livelihood training and development as well as health and education standards. Micro Home Solutions (mHS) has also been interested in integrated slum development, but viewing it mainly through the lens of affordable housing. Interestingly for my experience with mHS, SAATH has recently also launched an affordable housing program called Griha Pravesh, which hopes to link its Urban Resource Centre clients with Housing Finance Companies (HFCs) that could finance the construction of housing, focusing especially on incremental housing.

A URC works like this: It is a center embedded in urban areas, staffed by community members who are first trained by SAATH in customer service and project planning. To utilize the centers, clients pay a membership fee and then get all the services of a URC, such as voter registration, pan card registration, government schemes aimed at the poor, as well as other services. The positive feedback loop is constructed because since the usage of the URC depends on membership fees, clients will expect a good range of services and good delivery. Therefore, the feedback URCs gather from clients informs whether the services offered by the URC are working or if they are sufficient to cater to the needs of the slum dwellers. It was through the feedback gathered by its URCs that SAATH chanced on the idea for Griha Pravesh as clients said that traditional microfinance failed to finance home improvement and home construction projects.

During the visit, I was able to talk to SAATH’s chief person responsible for Griha Pravesh and we had a great conversation about the shared problems that both of our organizations encountered in the field of low income housing finance. I was also able to visit a URC and it was great to see a center in action, as there was a class currently in progress for children from the neighborhood. Yet there was also material everywhere on smarter communities, streets and cities, which demonstrated the sheer breadth of services that a URC provides. It is important here to notice that the genius of a URC lies in the fact that it is a facilitation point only, aside from the small classes, nothing actually happens at the URC, save for the disbursement of forms and advice on how to navigate the various processes. This means that URCs can operate with very little maintenance costs and do not need a lot of investment in terms of facilities. However, they are able to make a great deal of difference and I hope to bring some of these ideas back to mHS.

In terms of seeing another fellow at another placement, it was great to exchange ideas about how to properly run organizations, experiences that shaped our understanding of the topics and work at hand and where we ultimately saw ourselves going. It was also very instructuve trying to pin down what a social enterprise is, since both of us work for one, more or less, but both function very differently and with very different results, and operating on very different scales. Is a social enterprise solely defined by charging a fee for a social good, hoping to thereby increase the effectiveness of the good and improve the services for the good? Or is it an entirely different approach to doing good? Though we could not arrive at an answer, the conversation, like the visit itself, was very inspiring.

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