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In Conversation With Sanjay Sinho, CEO, American India Foundation

Nirmala Garimella

Dr. Sanjay Sinho  joined AIF in April 2008 as its Chief Executive Officer and is based in New York.  Prior to joining AIF he has spend 13 years with CARE, one of the largest private voluntary organizations, working in 70+ countries in the field of poverty eradication.  During his recent visit to Boston on the occasion of  Nandan Nilekani's new book 'Imagining India', an AIF sponsored event at MIT, Lokvani had the opportunity to talk to him about the work of AIF which was followed by an email interview.

Could you describe your journey into philanthropy?

I was studying for my MD in pediatrics in Bhopal , when our Professor sent our whole batch of 7 residents to meet with a renowned American social pediatrica, Dr. Stephen J. Atwood, who was the Director for public health programs in CARE. Our group met with him and had a lively exchange of ideas.  A week later CARE offered me a job.  They were willing to wait for four months for me to complete my MD and were paying me a good salary so I accepted the offer.  After a couple of years of working on public health,  I left CARE and practiced medicine for almost 7 years . During this period  I realized that I actually enjoyed my work in public health and seeing the large scale impact of one’s work.  So in 1996 I rejoined CARE and then moved with them from Bhopal to Delhi to Atlanta, where I was Director of their International Health Programs.  I left CARE in 2008 to join AIF. 

You joined AIF in Aril 2008. What is your first year been like, and what do you hope to get accomplished in the next twelve months?

The last year has been an exciting journey, since I am leading a dynamic organization and also learning about new issues in the development sector such as education and livelihood.  Similarly given the network of AIF supporters, consisting of very accomplished people of Indian origin and other Indophiles, I have had the opportunity to widen my horizons by learning from them about how they view philanthropy.   

In the last 12 months AIF has moved from being a volunteer led organization to a staff led organization.  This has brought the challenge of maintaining the energy and passion that comes from volunteers while instituting organizational systems that can enable the organization to grow and flourish.

In the coming 12 months I hope we will be able to further strengthen AIF in certain critical areas such as impact assessment, measurement of program outcomes , integration of programs and strengthening of organizational systems and processes.     

From the perspective and previous experience that you bring to the table what do you see in the mission and philosophy of American India Foundation that will  bring about change in social development?

Strategic philanthropy, collective philanthropy and secular philanthropy are the hallmarks of AIF’s approach to mobilizing the community and its resources here in the US.  Through this we have been able to raise the awareness levels towards the key issues that India faces vis-à-vis development.  Many philanthropists have been working through the AIF platform as we have been able to demonstrate the strength of this collective effort.
On the ground we have laid emphasis on the thorough due diligence of the NGO partners we invest in.  We are aware of the limitations of our resources in a country as vast and complex as India and so we use the resources in a very targeted manner to have the maximum impact.  We are working towards strengthening the measurement of our impact and efficacy all the time.   There is a very seasoned team in Delhi and other parts of India that works closely with our partners so that resources and networks can be leveraged from the private and public sectors.  One example is our partnership with Punjab National Bank to make the rickshaw drivers bankable and credit-worthy thereby enabling them to become owners of rickshaws as opposed to renters.  This has improved their quality of lives and provided economic security like never before.

Share with us a human interest story in your personal experience where AIF has made a difference?

Earlier this year, on a visit to Hyderabad, I met Saritha Reddy, a 10th grade student in the West Marredpally Government High School.  She has an older sister and two younger brothers.  Their father, a plumber, is the family’s sole source of income.  She aspires to be an engineer.

Saritha’s interest in school was hampered by her parents’s refusal to support her and her sister’s education.  Her mother had told her the family would support only the boys’s education and the girls had to fend for themselves.  

In order to support her ambitions, Saritha began doing embroidery work in the evenings and started getting orders from neighbors.  As the orders grew, she began to parcel work out to some women in her community, and created a full-fledges small business enterprise.  She now is able to pay the fees for her older sister to attend a private college and also to support herself.  She plans to attend a beautician course this summer and gain an additional source of income.

She is an active learner in the Digital Equalizer Center in her school.  She can use various MS Office applications proficiently and has been using the Internet to understand her lessons, especially in Science and Math.  
Despite her success as an entrepreneur, Saritha still intends to pursue a degree in education saying, “there is difference in people who are educated and who are uneducated.  I feel if the elders of my family were educated, I would not have faced so much of hardships and I would have gotten their support.”

What are the Modalities of spending the funds that you receive from donors? 

American India Foundation is an operating Foundation.  This means we have programs we directly run and we also provide funds to credible NGOs on the ground in India.  However we are not a typical  donor agency.  We are invested in the implementation process to bring in additional resources to the projects we support, to help with geographic spread and to that extent establish key partnerships.  So we see ourselves as program-partners rather just a donor.  Funds are spent across the pillars of work – education, health and livelihoods – that AIF has strategically chosen.  It is also linked to the pledges and specific grants we receive from our supporters and funders.

What is the involvement of the Government of India in AIF?
   We work to engage senior government officials and policymakers at the national and state levels to both enable policy shifts and to leverage existing government resources.  In our work with children of migrant laborers we were able to impress upon the government to allocate funds in the Union budget exclusively for the education of children of migrant laborers.  Or for instance for the Digital Equalizer program (which creates digital access for underprivileged children) we have partnered with several state governments to pool our resources and reach out to more schools and a greater number of children.

 What factors impede development in a country like India and how does one navigate these issues?

There are a million reasons one could assign to why development has been slow to happen in India.  For me, there are two important reasons.  
First is the silo-based approach to development.  The health professionals focus on the health, the education ones on literacy etc.  Yet, there are few efforts to coordinate and focus on the total needs of the populations in need.  At AIF, we have adopted a common minimum program approach, where regardless of what issue is our main focus with a particular community, we are actively assessing other needs of the community and how we can meet those needs.
Second, is the relative lack of true public-private partnerships, where the government, private sector and civil society are working together as partners to achieve change in a community.  Very often, the three sectors have an antagonistic approach toward each other which can result in a lack of coordination of efforts, and repetitive spending of resources.  At AIF, we have actively partnered with state governments and the private sector on many of our projects as we feel the synergies from these partnerships greatly boost the chances of success in achieving sustainable change.

 What are your impressions about Indian or Indian Americans in the community toward Philanthropy?

Generally speaking, philanthropy and service are parts of the Indian ethos, and part of every cultural tradition.  We have been fortunate to have had the support of many leaders in the Indian American community and also thousands of other donors who feel that AIF is an effective way of giving to India.  
One of the ways in which we feel like AIF can make a difference is to take this desire to do good and transform it intro strategic philanthropy.  At AIF, we call it moving donors up the philanthropy curve from charity to strategic philanthropy.  Many in our community are still stuck in the mode of giving a hand-out not a hand-up.  We think that it is important to find ways for interested donors to think of ways in which they can create systemic change through their philanthropy in a way that we creates a level playing field for those who have been historically disadvantaged and living on the margins of the economic boom in India.

What is the best way to get involved in AIF? 
  AIF is an organization that is owned and driven by the community that cares about India.  There are multiple ways to get involved in the organization.  Boston, for example, has an active chapter with people from all walks of life involved.  We have programs and events on a regular basis, the annual fundraising gala being the biggest one.  People can volunteer their time and help raise awareness and resources.  Other ways could be through our Leadership Trip that we organize once a year.  We had Venkat Srinivasan and Ravi Mantha of Boston on our trip this time.  Or interested people can  associating with our NGO partners in India or can  join our Young Professionals’ Network.


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