Welcome to Episode 39 of the Nonprofit Leaders Network podcast series with our guest Megha Desai who is the Director of the Desai Foundation. Topics we discuss include the transition from a family foundation to a public foundation, an innovative way to effectively get the word out about your nonprofit, connecting your board members to the mission, and building trust and long-term relationships with those you serve.
Megha is the Director of the Desai Foundation, an organization that empowers women and children through community programming to elevate health and livelihood both in the US and in India. She is also the Founder of MSD (Marketing Strategy Dharma) a branding and strategic partnership advisory serving social good and startup brands. Megha sits on the board of NPR’s Generation Listen and is a contributor to publications like Entrepreneur Magazine, Fast Company and Huffington Post.
Listen and enjoy the full discussion with Megha Desai in our podcast, but here are some of the highlights.
Raising Visibility through Targeted Events
When the Desai Foundation made the transition from a private family foundation (of 19 years) to a public foundation, they realized they had to get the word out about who they were and what they were doing. Their major awareness activities are their events, most notably the Diwali party which brings people together to celebrate Indian culture. Their annual Diwali party on the Hudson in New York is now heralded as one of “The” Diwali parties to go to in New York. The parties provide a venue for meeting with people at length and talking about the work the foundation does.
The Evolution of a Board: From Family to Formal
When asked how her board has changed and evolved after becoming a public foundation, Megha explains that they rely much more on their board. It is now smaller and includes non-family members (who now outnumber family members). Because they work in both the U.S. and India, they must have two boards, one for each country.
Connecting Board Members to the Mission
The locality of their board meetings is unique in that they meet in a village they serve and sit in classrooms their students use. This way they get first-hand knowledge of those they are serving. It makes their mission more personal and real. They can see and feel the impact they are making. Another benefit Megha has found is that it motivates her and others when they see the energy and enthusiasm from the women and children they are working with. It really inspires and invigorates the board to see that the recipients want, and are so appreciative, of the work they are doing.
Accomplishing Goals by Staying Behind the Scenes
The Desai Foundation tries to stay behind the scenes, using local talent and local organizations to create change from within. “We go out into a community and find those potential leaders and empower them.” The people in the village do not really see the Desai Foundation name since they are working behind the scenes to empower locals who, in many cases, are already doing some of the work. Desai helps them improve their infrastructure and provides needed resources, enhancing the work they are already doing. For example, the Desai Foundation doesn’t conduct health camps, they help the local community provide the camps. This reduces the appearance of outsiders coming in to help, rather it empowers local community leaders.
In addition, this approach creates a sustainable model for growth. The foundation stays in the village providing assistance for a long time, while at the same time equipping local leaders to continue on without the help of the foundation at some point. Thus, it is not an outsider coming in, doing something and then leaving. It is providing resources to help communities help themselves.
Overcoming Distrust by Getting to Work
The foundation overcomes the issue of distrust of nonprofits and NGO’s by coming in, helping and staying long-term until the community is self-sufficient. Oftentimes, an NGO will come into a village and tell them all the things they are going to do for them, building up hope for improvements. Then an election happens and the interests of the organization change and they walk away. This builds distrust of organizations related to them following through with their promises. Desai combats this by skipping all the talk and promises and just getting to work. This may mean their first health camp in a village may not be well attended. But the word gets out and subsequent ones are more successful.
Their long-term commitment to skills training is a complete program that includes things like negotiating salaries at local factories, and more advanced training for those who want to learn more. Very little of this is “free.” Desai tries to put people in a position where they pay for the training. The fees are minimal, but gives the participants a sense of worth and a personal investment in the training. This provides participants a sense of dignity, knowing they are able to provide for themselves, as well as a feeling that they aren’t in need of a handout.