Brew Magazine (January 2016 Issue)
Peter Senge is an American systems scientist who founded the Society for Organization Learning. He wanted to help large corporations find sustainable solutions to their problems. He also believed that social equality and environmental issues were business problems, and it was up to corporate leaders to solve them. His philosophy inspired a group of professionals in India, and the Smile Foundation was born. They started in 2002 with the aim of empowering children, youth and women via education, health care and relevant livelihood programs. 15 years in, Smile Foundation is doing a wonderful job. Ajay Srikanth speaks to its co-founder and Executive Trustee, Mr. SantanuMisra, about the organization, successes and plans for the
Ask him about the beginnings, and he says “Smile Foundation was established in 2002 by a group of friends- well established corporate professionals, who came together with the sole aim of giving back to the society. Smile Foundation has always thought of its role as a catalyst in bringing sustainable change in the lives of underprivileged children, and their families, by working effectively on the ground and encouraging civil society to be a part of the development process.”
Smile decided to begin with child education, but soon realised that it could not be done without ensuring the total welfare of the child’s family. It is a familiar story; the child wants to go to school to learn, but has to earn a living so that his/her family can live. Once they realized this, they adopted a life-cycle approach of development, keeping children at the centre, but looking at familial well-being as well.
Regarding Smile’s working, Santanu says “Smile Foundation is now working largely in, but not limited to, four subject areas- education, livelihood, health and women empowerment. We have 158 welfare projects on the ground, spread across 732 villages and slums in 25 states of India, directly benefitting more than 3,00,000 children and families.”
The foundation has core programs in all of these areas. Their flagship program, Mission Education, aims to provide basic education and healthcare to underprivileged children. More than 2,00,000 children have been a part of Mission Education since its inception in 2002. The program currently reaches out to 19,000 children via 90 projects in 21 different states.
Smile On Wheels is their national level mobile hospital program. It is essentially a travelling hospital. Mostly active in rural areas, the aim is to discharge direct healthcare to regions that need it the most. Smile On Wheels also made an appearance during the Chennai floods, dispending medicines and other medical supplies.
Step (Smile Twin e-Learning Program) is a livelihood programme that trains urban underprivileged youth with job and soft skills. Participants learn English, basic technical literacy, personality development and similar things. 11,5000 people have been placed in 140 odd companies via STeP.
They also run an empowerment programme for the girl child and women, Swabhiman. Swabhiman runs on the ‘4 S Model’, which means Seeking Healthcare as a Behaviour, Support through Education, Support from Men through Male Involvement, and Sustaining Change in the Community.
Regarding the issues Smile faces, Santanusays “For any development organization, the major challenge is to sustain its projects on the ground to ensure maximum SROI (Social Return on Investment), while also scaling up to reach out to a large number of people.In a country of size and diversity of India, this challenge becomes intensified.”
Smile adopts a service delivery approach of development, rather than the advocacy based one, which means their projects are operational 365 days in a year, with the situation on ground being far from ideal. He says the journey, while challenging, is definitely rewarding.
He also says that the CSR mandate has been a boon to NPOs and NGOs across the country, as this guarantees some amount of funding. However, he claims that individuals are prone to religious giving than social giving. He believes that a change here will be a huge boost to social causes across the country.
Smile has a rather unique feature called “Social Venture Philanthropy”. They train grassroot NGOs across the country to function better, and have trained over 500 organizations via their Empowering Grassroots Program. Which makes sense when you think about it. Change always begins at the roots, and these organizations have played a large role in bettering the lives of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Training and giving these NGOs the tools to perform better is undoubtedly the best way to level that pyramid.
Smile Foundation has won quite a few awards for the conception and handling of their programs. As of date of writing, all four programmes focused on their core areas have been awarded and recognized by organizations such as ASSOCHAM (Education Excellence Award 2013 and Best NGO of Skill Development and Placement Training 2014), Institute of the Chartered Accountants of India (Best CSR Project in Women Empowerment 2015) and GE Healthcare (Modern Medicare Excellence Award).
Smile Foundation has been evaluated by some of the most reputed Indian and International evaluators including INTRAC London, KPMG, India Development Foundation and PRIA, and has met their expectations and norms. Santanu stressed that credibility and accountability have always been the benchmark for Smile Foundation, and are achieved through the promotion of principles of good governance in its processes and practices. “We have a four-tier audit and evaluation mechanism which reviews programmes and projects, internal operations, compliance of statutory norms and conducts an external evaluation to ensure the impact of various welfare projects, as well as complete transparency and accountability in utilisation of funds.”
Regarding the future, this is what he has to say. “In the coming years, Smile Foundation will be making further efforts to benefit a larger population with its projects, at the same time enhancing the existing ones and turning them into model grassroots projects, that are scalable and replicable. We will also be taking up more initiatives to reach out and sensitize the civil society, particularly children and youth, to be change makers.”