Kick starting the Joy of Giving

By Sara Adhikari

Philanthropy in India is as ancient as its gods. Donating to religious institutions and for spiritual redemption comes naturally to pious Indians. Charities Aid Foundation’s 2012 report shows that the largest chunk of charitable giving in India goes towards religious purposes.

Many have mooted ideas to engage Indians in different kinds of benefaction. One such project that stands out is the Joy of Giving Week, now called Daan Utsav.

It all began when a group of like-minded individuals got together to brainstorm ways in which every Indian could become a “giver” – regardless of class, creed, religious affiliation or political bias. Initially the CEOs of CRY, GiveIndia and HelpAge conceptualized a National Philanthropy Week. Four years later, in 2009, the Joy of Giving Week was born as a festival to celebrate giving – starting on October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.

What is unique about Daan Utsav is that no organisation runs it. Instead, a bunch of dedicated volunteers evangelise the idea. The hope is that eventually individuals, communities, companies and institutions will celebrate it without being prompted – much like Christmas or Mother’s Day.

The concept is not without precedence. Some countries have giving days or weeks – there was the National Giving Week in the UK and the current Red Nose Day, and Giving Tuesday in the US.

But to get such a movement started in India is no easy task. However, faith and persistence have paid off: last year more than three million people celebrated Daan Utsav in 100 towns and cities – from “tuk tuk” drivers to schoolchildren to company bosses. There is no blueprint about who can participate or how – as long as the main objective is to give for someone else’s benefit.

For instance, in 2012 about 6,000 poor women from self-help groups in Chennai collected 15,000kg of grain, oil and other supplies to donate to local hospitals. At the other end of the spectrum is a popular fundraiser called “Shadow a CEO” by the Indian School of Business. Students of ISB and other business schools bid in an online auction, which runs during the Joy of Giving Week, for the chance to spend a day with their chosen CEO from those in corporate India who have agreed to give their time. The winning CEO then matches the amount raised and donates the total to charity. These are just two examples of giving events – estimated to be over 1,100 in 2014 – that take place during the festival.

My involvement with Daan Utsav began in early 2013. I was returning to India after 20 years with the thought of setting up Small Change – a communications agency to champion India’s non-profit organisations. Keen to learn about this sector, I was introduced by a friend to GiveIndia founder and director Venkat Krishnan N, now a Daan Utsav volunteer and the fire behind the initiative. In his earlier avatar, Mumbai-based Venkat, 45, fulfilled corporate management roles in two media houses, before co-founding two educational initiatives.

As I was relocating to Kolkata – the one metro where Daan Utsav hadn’t taken off – Venkat roped me into being one of its core volunteers and to help put the city on the DU map. I, in turn, persuaded long-term friend Roma Mehta who had also recently returned to Kolkata, to join. Both of us were outsiders looking in. We soon gathered a band of merry women (in the main) to carry out Venkat’s remit.

But Kolkata had its own particular problem with participating in this festival. The Kolkatans celebrate a traditional festival, Durga Puja, which falls around the same time as Daan Utsav.

Durga Puja consumes Kolkata and Kolkatans.  It’s a five-day jamboree. Preparations begin months in advance.  From shopping for new clothes to “pandals” erected in every locality to house the idols of goddess Durga and her children; to rivers of people pandal-hopping and creating traffic snarls; to a media frenzy about the annual carnival. Everybody is on holiday, every institution is shut, every advertiser’s paisa is spent on fighting for marketing space. In this scenario, throw in an appeal to give time, money, skills or anything for another festival…and it falls on deaf ears.

This is the biggest challenge Daan Utsav Kolkata volunteers face. That first year, it became clear early on that corporates, hotels, restaurants or any institution with a commercial interest in Durga Puja would be hard to get on board. So by default, rather than by design, our attention turned to children and NGOs.

And within that focus, the most successful giving programme we could persuade people to adopt and adapt was the Wish Tree. An NGO puts up a “tree” in a public space inside an institution during the week, bearing wish tags on its branches such as “Mira needs a schoolbag worth Rs 150”, which are fulfilled by individual donors.  During Kolkata’s first tryst with Daan Utsav, about 30 trees were “planted” in various buildings. One small charity for differently abled children raised over Rs 60,000 (US$900). In the rest of India there were 1,000 more trees which raised more than Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million).

One of the most rewarding, if frustrating, projects that I personally pushed hard to implement in Kolkata was getting students to gift new Puja clothes to disadvantaged peers in an NGO or government school. It seemed an easy way to marry Daan Utsav with Durga Puja and would have been simple if one size fit all. In the first year, one school gave 1,200 sets of clothes to children in less privileged schools. In 2014, we decided to involve as many schools as possible. This followed our decision at a national meeting of volunteers earlier that year to concentrate on increasing the number of givers rather than receivers.

So 100 children giving to 100 others was more desirable than one generous donor giving to 100 children.

We collected about 8,000 gift-wrapped clothes in all sizes but the logistics of distributing them to the requirements of each NGO that had signed up was like trying to solve an 8,000-piece jigsaw puzzle! Without the help of the Kolkata office of Goonj, whose founder Anshu Gupta has just won the Ramon Magsaysay award and is a DU volunteer, we would have been sunk.

We came up with ideas for a myriad programmes over tea and “jhal muri” (a classic Kolkata street food) at our bi-weekly meetings. These included free heritage walks, yoga sessions and a river cruise for children in NGO care. The meetings also yielded a big insight: don’t become event managers. Micro-managing citywide events would be a prescription for burnout – a state that Roma and I came unnervingly close to – that would extinguish the “joy” of giving. So as volunteers for this wonderful giving initiative, we seek to bring givers and receivers together.

Sara Adhikari smallchange.ngo@gmail.com is the founder of Small Change, a Kolkata-based trust that champions the non-profit sector. The former journalist, in a 30-year career, worked for major publications in India, the UK and Dubai, including The Times of India in Delhi and The Sun newspaper in London.

Make a comment on this article (Please name article in your comment)