Notes from Bangalore
As soon as I stepped out of the airport, I could smell the curries. The warm and humid air thickening their intensity. My second trip to India was about to begin. Instead of simply being a tourist, I was joining my husband Will to help start Social Venture Partners in Bangalore.
Bangalore is a huge, teeming city of 8.5 million people. But not a tourist city. I watch the people – the women colorful, families with children laughing, young lovers on park benches heads together, stick-skinny old men, young men in sneakers, jeans and t-shirts joking with each other, Muslim men with tight skull caps and veiled Muslim women.
I inhale the smells – curries from street vendors I wish I could eat, pungent garbage, bitter exhaust, stale bare feet pattering quietly in temples. I listen to cars honking, languages I don’t understand, lovely Indian-accented English. The chaos entices and exhausts me.
We have dinner with Ravi Board Chair of SVP Bangalore, his wife Sonali, and Arathi the Executive Director. We begin our evening planning for the next day: a Prospective Partner event followed by an All-Partner meeting. Ravi is strategic. He and Arathi identify other potential board members. A few calls later and half have already agreed to serve. I am impressed, but know that Ravi asking is also important. He understands leadership and his role.
Monday & Tuesday
Arathi and I meet. I recount SVP’s history and our vision of a social sector filled with caring, engaged philanthropists and resilient, impactful nonprofits; my pride in our accomplishments is evident.
We have 35 people at the Prospective Partner event. We are asked lots of excellent questions. Interest is strong. I can tell people are inspired and excited. Arathi closes by asking people to join and several do immediately. Others will sign up before I leave back to the States.
About 20 people attend the All-Partner Meeting. The room is abuzz with energy. Ravi introduces the board. Arathi talks about what had been accomplished. I list decisions to be made going forward. The group quickly agrees on a geographic area –Bangalore and perhaps into broader Karnataka.
Arathi had surveyed partners ahead about what issue area to focus on and she shares the results. After some discussion, the group agrees on poverty alleviation and livelihoods. Committees are formed, individuals step forward to chair each one, and others volunteer to serve.
Wednesday & Thursday
Wednesday is National Day. Will and I are up early to visit Shravanabelagola , a Jain Temple, and Belur and Halebeedu, Hindu Temples. The temples are about 150 miles away so lots of driving – took over four hours each way. But the villages along the way are what really spark my imagination.
Every school has a little parade for National Day and we see parades of all sizes – some with only a couple dozen children following two or three with musical instruments; others with hundreds including a full band and “floats.” They are charming, festive, happy and remind me of parades in small towns in the US on the 4th of July.
The roads are crowded and we see all the contrasts of India – fine Japanese or European cars driving alongside oxen-pulled carts piled high with produce or hay. Large cities and small villages with women carrying water from wells back to their homes on their heads. Men laughing with their children or chatting together in groups. All the women wear traditional dress. We also saw many men also wearing traditional clothing.
Friday afternoon, we are back meeting with partners of SVP. I describe grant committees and funding, lead partners and volunteer matching, yearly work plans and the Organizational Capacity Assessment Tool (OCAT) that we use. We discuss what needs to be customized for India. There is resistance to giving unrestricted funding. We talk about how that could be done and still have checks and balances against abuse. We talk about evaluation and refunding. People ask lots of questions. We start developing baseline criteria for grant guidelines. Everyone is engaged.
The SVP Bangalore partners are anxious to get started and to make a big impact. India’s challenges are great and SVP is a small player. Still, I feel that our model – making each individual more impactful and increasing the capacity of each NGO – is a good one for India.
I’ve been an SVP partner for 15 years. I will always be a partner and returning from Bangalore only underscored my commitment. The investments we make through SVP are leveraged. But more important, the people I meet are compassionate, action-oriented. The enthusiasm I witnessed in Bangalore was energizing.
We have that vitality here too. So I challenge our partners to be involved, to take the initiative, to expand our partnership, to stretch. Change requires strong organizations and passionate people. That’s what SVP is all about.
Janet Levinger is SVP Seattle’s Board Chair. She is passionate about early learning and education advocacy, believing that investing in children, and especially young children, will not only improve their lives but will also have enormous positive outcomes for our community. Janet and her husband Will Poole joined SVP in 1997.