An acquaintance pointed out that this wasn’t in my website. Given it is the Giving Season, putting it back here.

The diwali generosity challenge

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan
Comment E-mail Print First Published: Thu, Oct 28 2010. 11 57 PM IST


Money-wise: Caring Friends makes charity easy, doing due diligence on your behalf.
Updated: Thu, Oct 28 2010. 11 57 PM IST

This one is for the NRIs and if any of you feels impelled to pass it along to, say, a Pandit, Khosla, Jain or Harilela, be my guest. This one’s for all you Silicon Valley and Wall Street titans; the Singapore and Hong Kong bankers; and the European jet-setters out of Antwerp and London.

Remember those diaspora Diwali parties when a group of us would sit around, lamenting about how to give back to India? About how to find a transparent, accountable NGO that worked without massive overheads?

When I moved back home five years ago, one of the goals I set myself was to find such an organization. It’s taken me this long but for all my do-gooder friends in the Indian diaspora: I have an answer for you. Read on.

I am sitting at home, serving upma and lemon sherbet to a bird-like, smiling man. His name is Rameshbhai Kacholia and he is here to persuade me to visit Kolkata to see two of the NGOs that he is associated with. I have invited him over to check him out; do some due diligence. We have exchanged sporadic emails for the last two years and finally are meeting in person.

Kacholia, 73, and his close associate, Nimesh Shah, co-founded Caring Friends, a Mumbai-based humanitarian organization that supports over 30 NGOs all over India. They expect to raise Rs 10 crore this year from all their “Friends” across the globe. The money is channelled directly to each NGO depending on donor interest.

“There is no legal entity called Caring Friends so we can’t and don’t accept cheques in our names,” says Kacholia, who pays for his office, travel and related photocopying costs personally. “The goal is to operate with zero overheads so that every paisa reaches the NGO that it is intended for,” he says.

Their American partner, the Arpan Foundation, is federally registered for tax deductions. If you donate $10,000 (around Rs 4.45 lakh) earmarked for, say, Baba Amte’s Maharogi Sewa Samiti, the money is transferred to India in full. Arpan bears the bank transfer charges. Isn’t this what we were all looking for?

Kacholia and Shah (who arrives the next day) are in Bangalore at the invitation of Trilochan Sastry, dean of IIM Bangalore and a long-time “Friend”. They are meeting students from IIM; the Wipro Foundation; the Infosys Foundation’s Sudha Murthy; and the Arghyam foundation. They want to introduce Arghyam to an NGO called Dilasa Sanstha, which does watershed development in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district, the area with the greatest number of farmer suicides. Dilasa’s founder, Madhukar Dhas, is travelling by bus to Hyderabad and then flying to Bangalore to meet the Arghyam team. Dilasa needs Rs 1.45 crore for a project. Caring Friends plans to raise Rs 60 lakh and is approaching Arghyam for the rest.

As we chat, Kacholia receives a phone call from a Friend, Srikanth Belwadi, a product manager at Google. The Google Inc. Charitable Giving Fund of Tides Foundations has just donated $150,000 to Snehalaya, one of the NGOs they work with.

After leaving me, Kacholia and Shah plan to visit Unnati in Bangalore, an NGO which provides vocational training with guaranteed job placement for underprivileged youth. Caring Friends has pledged to help Unnati grow to 300 centres all over India in the coming years. Already, they are connecting Unnati to NGOs in Bharuch and Ahmedabad where there is a natural fit. “When we approach NGOs, we tell them that we are not merely a cheque-cutting agency,” says Kacholia. “We want to help them grow and often they help each other.

For instance, two Friends in Singapore wanted to give Vinayak Lohani of Parivaar in Kolkata Rs 40 lakh. Vinayak told them that he only needed 20 and the other Rs 20 lakh could be given to Mamoon Akhtar, who also works in Kolkata.”

Shah heaps praise on Lohani and calls him the “reason that we are all here, doing what we do”. Usually, he says, NGOs are very proprietary about their donors and keep the names to themselves. Not Lohani. “In this last year, out of the Rs 10 crore we raised, about Rs 2-3 crore of (that) came from donors who were sent to us by Vinayak. He is very generous with sharing his donor contacts to other NGOs.”

Lohani and Akhtar are their “two gems in Kolkata”, they say. Kacholia heard about Akhtar and his organization Samaritan Help Mission over 10 years ago. An article in The Asian Age praised Akhtar’s efforts to educate the underprivileged in the slums of Tikiapara, Howrah. Kacholia got his son to visit the area and thus, their association began. “Most of our founders don’t even take an honorarium from the organizations that they started and serve,” says Kacholia. “Mamoon worked as a librarian for a few hours every day to earn the Rs 3,500 he needed for his living expenses. Vinayak Lohani is an IIT, IIM graduate whose father was in the IAS. His mother sends money for his living expenses but he banks it and gives it away during tsunami and other crises. Girish Kulkarni teaches at a university and gives 50%of his salary to Snehalaya.”

I call Akhtar in Kolkata to verify this. Is it true, I ask, that he doesn’t take money from his organization. “Yes, didi,” says Akhtar, even though this is the first time we are speaking. I am oddly touched. “But did Ramesh uncle tell you that he has been paying me an honorarium of Rs 6,000 per month for the last several years?” I also learn that Kacholia is paying Rs 15,000 per annum for the education of Snehalaya founder Girish Kulkarni’s daughter.

Every NGO that Caring Friends works with is resolutely secular; not bound by caste, creed or religion. Each has been “audited” by Caring Friends. Once an NGO comes to their attention, Kacholia and Shah follow it for a full year before bringing the NGO in to make a presentation to the larger group. “Either my family or Nimesh’s family donates money to these new NGOs, not ad hoc amounts like Rs 50,000 or Rs 60,000 but substantially—in the six figures,” says Kacholia. “So that in case the money is misused, it is only ours that is lost. Thankfully, none of the organizations we have worked with for the last 10 years have misappropriated even a single paisa.”

“Why don’t you visit Kolkata and meet Mamoon in person, beti?” he asks. At some point during the last two years, I have gone from calling him Mr Kacholia to the Americanized Ramesh bhai to uncle. He prefers uncle; he is an old-fashioned Indian gent and he has taken to calling me beti.

I may go to Kolkata but it is far easier to simply write a cheque, particularly if catalyst organizations such as Caring Friends can do your due diligence for you. All you need to do is tell them your passions. Is it environment, sanitation, education, vocational training or preserving traditional crafts? Whatever your interest, Caring Friends can cherry-pick a cause. You donate your money and get some good karma in the process.

The point here is not to endorse one agency, although I do endorse them. The point is that there are numerous such agencies that are doing excellent work in a transparent, accountable manner. Finding the right one is always a challenge, particularly if you live abroad. Caring Friends is one way to route your money to the right cause but there are several others. If you come across any, please bring it to my attention. And please do consider giving generously this holiday season. Happy Diwali!

Caring Friends can be contacted at [email protected] or [email protected]

Shoba Narayan may visit Kolkata for the first time in her life fairly soon. She has a Parivaar there that she wants to see. Write to her at [email protected]

(Disclosure: Shoba Narayan’s husband is a trustee at Arghyam Foundation.)

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