Interview: Smile Foundation

As a Social Venture Philanthropist, Smile Foundation promotes and catalyses universal education among underprivileged children, create the process to embrace these children into mainstream in a sustained manner, facilitate them to emerge as productive assets, and set the foundation for nation building. Their current project concentrates on the displaced children in Kosi. Mr. Santanu Mishra, Managing Trustee of Smile Foundation, answers some of our questions.

VP: The Smile Foundation calls itself a Social Venture Philanthropist. Could you elaborate a bit on that?

SM: Smile Foundation has introduced an innovative delivery model probably for the first time in development sector and named it ‘Social Venture Philanthropy’ (SVP). The model is inspired from a successful business concept widely known as ‘Venture Capital.’

The organisation has been locating genuine grass root initiatives focussing on underprivileged children all over the country and subsequently supporting them through financing and handholding till they become truly self sustainable.

The model has the multiplier effect particularly in the distribution of resources. Why put Rs. 1 crore in one school when you can set up 10 schools from the same amount? SVP model seeks to broad-base investment consciously in the belief that this will maximise reach and optimize returns.

By doing this Smile Foundation hopes to be able to reach an exponentially large number of children than it would have done with the conventional single project infrastructure model. The result is the flowering of the breed of ‘Social Entrepreneurs’ who are passionate about what they are doing and whose commitment to their cause is virtually a guarantee of delivery. It is a possibility that social entrepreneurs supported by Smile Foundation will go on to support other such individuals.

Smile Foundation found that financial resources and organisations meant for all subjects and social issues are in plenty in the development sector of India. These include both the government as well as non government initiatives. Nevertheless, the country is struggling to get rid of the same problems over and over again – be it child welfare, education, health or any other issues. The reason is that rarely any development organisation follows a ‘delivery model’ which is crucial on how to achieve the objectives.

Similar models are always followed in the business world, that too successfully. Smile Foundation thought, then, why can’t it be followed in the development sector?

Social Venture Philanthropy model of Smile Foundation has four basic objectives to achieve in the sector namely; accountability, sustainability, scalability and leadership.

VP: What is Smile Foundation’s stand on child labour?

SM: The issue of child labour is one of the major hindrances for an emerging country like India. It is also linked to violation or non-fulfilment of many other child rights principles like right to education, healthcare, proper nutrition, equity and dignity etc.

Of late, these problems are being taken up both by the civil society as well as the government with seriousness.

I would again reiterate children should be prepared to take part in nation building, rather than languishing in the cycle of misery. We all have to take initiative, beginning with our immediate neighbourhood.

Smile Foundation is supporting many such organisations that are fighting against the cause.

VP: In this budget, education was allocated Rs 24,115 crore and health was allocated Rs 12,546 crore. But more than many children still do not have access to both. Where do you think lies the problem?

SM: The problem lies in the delivery model. I agree, that it is not the shortage of resources but much gap in the delivery system, which is because of innumerable reasons that it does not trickle down uniformly thus affecting underprivileged the most. Large amount of energy and abilities are consumed countering other negativities widely prevalent in the society thus affecting the distribution system.

SVP model of Smile Foundation has the multiplier effect, particularly in the optimum distribution of resources. The delivery model has helped Smile Foundation to reach out to exceptionally large number of beneficiaries in a short span of time.

VP: How can education help solve the problem of unemployment? Don’t a lot of educated poor people end up having to do menial jobs?

SM: Let us not take education directly proportional to employment. Isn’t education important for a housewife? Or a cobbler? Or a petty hawker on streets? In Smile Foundation office itself an office boy has been raised to the position of an Administrative Officer, would you call it power of education or not?

Education is much more than just getting employed. It gives you power of sustaining self and dependents, to overcome negativities of life and stand out, to correctly manage and plan life ahead and to secure the future above all. It can be an irony if an IIM graduate land up in petty job but if an underprivileged after six months of STeP course is occupied by ICICI phone banking service at a monthly salary of Rs. 10,000/-, it is no more a trivial job.

VP: Smile Foundation children have had the opportunity to come on TV and meet some of their favourite stars. How was their experience?

SM: Indeed, these interactions have been memorable for our children. The central idea of bringing them to platforms like Sony Boogie Woogie, Zee TV Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, Zee Antakshari, 9X Chak De Bachhe, Zee Ek Se Badhkar Ek, Rock n Roll Family, etc was to highlight their latent talent whereas they do not have ample resources to meet their necessities and to increase their acceptability within the privileged class. These are also attempts towards treating such children as equal with privileged children, bringing dignity and equal opportunity.

VP: Smile Foundation has managed a wide reach in the country. Was it difficult to achieve this?

SM: Initially yes but much before the birth of Smile Foundation, we were clear about the development needs of our nation and world as a whole. Above all we are always open to learning thus, integrating grass root level initiatives, disbursing funds, evaluating and monitoring performance of our programmes etc, all was handled efficiently. Our SVP model is the strength of Smile Foundation. We have a battalion of more than 100 partner organisations that is conscientiously involved in realising our sensitisation and development process.

However, convincing individuals to work in SVP model was not an easy task initially. The sector is unorganised and people are use to work in a 100% government funded programmes. Where as our SVP model lays stress on self sustainability and the multiplier effect, which people would never give a thought upon. I doubt if they have the management bandwidth or the mindset to work in a partially funded programme with a broader vision. Nevertheless, our conviction in SVP model made all the difference.

VP: What are your short-term goals? Any special events which the readers must know of?

SM: Smile Foundation would aim to make development a sustainable and localized phenomenon.

A few specific future plans include establishing a feasible rating system for the development sector as well as for corporate social responsibility in India and thus bringing a culture of good governance. Smile Foundation also aims to function as a development support organisation by acting as a catalyst between development organisations, government and corporate sector.

Every year Smile Foundation organises a free multidisciplinary annual mega health camp for the poor and needy in Bhilwara, Rajasthan spanning 10 days. This is beyond the 104 ongoing projects across India. We started this from 2002 and the cumulative number of beneficiaries has reached a figure of 33,000. We plan to organise such camps across India for the maximum benefit of the underprivileged.

Other short term plans include adding 50 more Smile Twin e-Learning Programme (STeP), 100 Mission Education centres and adding 20 Smile on Wheels projects.

Smile Foundation is also planning to spread wings in other South Asian countries, such as Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh this year.

VP: Smile Foundation has got a lot of recognition for its efforts. Could you tell us a bit about the various awards and press coverage which the Foundation has got?

SM: We have been accredited as a credible organisation time and again by our large stakeholders. However awards are just a means that add value to our good work and make us more accountable. The most recent award is ‘GE Healthcare- Modern Medicare Excellence Awards’ where Smile Foundation was conferred as ‘NGO of the year’.

Year 2008 has been special for Smile Foundation in a way as we were also recognised as the only nodal organisation from South Asia by a consortium of three Dutch organisations supported by the Government of Netherlands for their flagship programme, ‘Action For Children’.

VP: How can the educated Indian citizens help in forwarding this cause?

SM: Only the well informed and educated citizen can see the real development that nation is going through and what are the lopsided sections where the country need reforms and development. The 9% GDP growth of the country represents the augment of upper class, it is the increase of per capita and standard of living of the less fortunate that is to be considered for the true progress of a nation.

Smile Foundation believes that it is not by donating a part of your income to NGOs or the like to use it for the community instead individuals need to step forward and take active part in the development process of the underprivileged. An educated citizen has the right knowledge and is aware of various platforms and techniques of how and what information is required to trickle down. They rightly know the importance of education thus it becomes easy for organisations like ours to achieve the said mission for the needy.

Compiled by

Shravya Jain