Many funders tend to focus more on documentation and capacity building. But to be a real partner to a nonprofit you must support its people–the founder as well the staff.

Most of the time when I used to accompany the founders of nonprofits to meet different funders, especially corporates, nobody was interested in the story and journey of the founders–the struggles they had gone through, the sacrifices they had made, the challenges they faced; all they cared for was sustainability, replicability and scalability.

But without understanding the founder’s journey, background and mindset, it’s hard to understand the nonprofit and what it will achieve over time. Once you understand the journey, of say, Dr Sunil and Jenny—a couple in Assam who founded The Ant, and understand what they are up against, your expectations will become more realistic. For instance, in the border areas where they work, there are three very different communities that co-exist, and natural floods and riots are frequent. They therefore cannot scale as a normal mainland organisation would.

People who do not understand the context will look at their balance sheet and say, “they have been working for 12 years and don’t seem to have done much”. Donors don’t always understand the local situation and its complexities and will judge the nonprofit by parameters that are applied in the mainland; they must realise that a worm’s eye view is as important as a bird’s eye view.

Invest in people, not in projects

At Caring Friends–the giving network Ramesh Kacholiaji founded and I joined about 13 years ago–we are not focused on any one sector. We invest in people and their passion, and we encourage our network of associates – smaller philanthropists, many of whom are first time givers—to also apply the same lens. In the past 13 years, we have enabled more than 500 people to give upwards of a few hundred crores to more than 100 small and medium nonprofits in our country.

Related article: There is a lack of supporting infrastructure for first time givers

The work of identifying the organisations, understanding their work and impact, conducting the due diligence and then engaging with them on an ongoing basis, is done by us at Caring Friends (CF). And in the process of doing this, we have learnt and unlearnt many lessons along the way.

Go beyond the paperwork

The Caring Friends relationship with a nonprofit typically starts with a token donation from either Rameshji or me, and a few of our friends. We don’t believe in signing MoUs because MoUs don’t protect you from anything. If they are violated, what can you really do? Instead, it makes more sense to spend time with the organisation, see the strength and potential of the staff, the quality of work, the region and circumstances the nonprofit works in.

If nonprofits spend their time doing paperwork, when will they do the actual work?Once these organisations become part of the CF family, we conduct regular visits. We also receive reports periodically, though they are not a condition for future donations.

We understand where the nonprofits are coming from: if they spend their time doing paperwork, when will they do the actual work? Their passion is to work on the field, with the communities. The paperwork is therefore kept to the minimum.

Trust your nonprofit partner from the get-go

Projects can get delayed, costs can increase by, say, 10 percent; but integrity and honesty cannot be measured in percentages. A person is either honest or not. Trust cannot be conditional. I cannot say that I can only trust a nonprofit up to INR 20 lakh. If I don’t trust them, then even one lakh is too much to give. If I trust them, then even INR 10 crore isn’t too much.

We have seen that everything else falls into place when we carry out the due diligence process with a spirit of trust. If, however, it is based predominantly on documents – checking if the 12A and 80G are in place, whether the last three years’ balance sheets are there, if the bills are in place and the funds used – the process can be manipulated, and even the auditors won’t be able to detect it. Figuring out whether you trust the nonprofit or not relieves you from having to worry about the day-to-day.

Indian philanthropy
To be a real partner, support people–founders as well as staff | Photo courtesy: Charlotte Anderson

Help them identify blind spots, and fill the gaps

Once you’ve spent time with a nonprofit, you might see gaps that are invisible to them. Funding both what they ask for and what helps fill these gaps is important. As donors, we might not have the experience that founders have, but we might be able to develop the understanding of what is required; experience and understanding are two different things and it’s possible to have one without the other.

Audit with a view to improve rather than investigate.Auditing nonprofit partners is important, but it should be done with a view to improve rather than investigate. The objective should be to look at their programmes and organisations and see if there are suggestions that can help them.

Organisations are built by people; support them in different forms

A donor’s decision to invest in a nonprofit is driven a great deal by the ability, quality and mindset of the founder. In a similar vein, the areas of support must also focus heavily on people.

At Caring Friends for instance, we have created staff welfare funds at several of our partner nonprofits. At one organisation the second-in-command—working there for the past 25 years—draws a salary of just INR 15,000. Where will he go if he needs INR 2 lakh for his children’s college fees? At another nonprofit we support, the staff are heavily indebted–with some of them borrowing at rates of interest as high as 36%.

So, we created a staff welfare fund for employees who have worked for three years or more at the organisation. This can be in the form of a grant or loan. The nonprofit founder and an internal committee—which must have at least two women–run this fund and allocate money as they deem fit.

Likewise, we also have an informal founders’ trust. We can’t give the money directly to a founder because then they will be indebted to us, they will feel compelled to listen to whatever we have to say. There is no balance in such a relationship. It therefore has to be a trust so that the founders don’t know who is giving to them. The relationship is then not one of indebtedness.

We need more founders’ trusts in the country; it is a tribute to their work, not an obligation.

This doesn’t cost much. So far, in the five years since setting it up, we’ve spent INR 15 lakh. Most founders—even those working on grassroots issues and drawing a modest salary—just don’t ask for their personal needs; but the idea is that if they do need this money, it’s available to them. I believe that we need more founders’ trusts in the country; it is a tribute to their work and their sacrifices, and not an obligation.

Funders rarely look at staff and founder welfare; they look at capacity building and encourage people to attend workshops, but sometimes fail to look at people’s needs. This is particularly needed in older, more traditional nonprofits who do great work on the ground but are not necessarily able to present their work in a way that today’s funders expect.

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Nimesh Sumati

Nimesh Sumati

Nimesh Sumati has spearheaded the growth of Caring Friends since 2005. His main focus is on quality and to strengthen the organisational fundamentals. A keen social entrepreneur, he recognises a social problem and undertakes painstaking research and background checks to identify credible and efficient social organisations in that space for ‘Caring Friends’ to support, nurture and grow. He is very passionate about visiting all CF associated organisations in different states in India on a regular basis, many times with new potential donors and supporters.


  1. It’s really great tribute to founders. Thanks to the writer.
    Whether it is Government officials, pvt individual donors, or Corpoeates the understanding of non-profits and their founders is increasingly negative mindset. With the
    constantly changing value system in society, working with underprivileged or for any common good activity in the society, is becoming herculean task to achieve trust among the stake holders. In this difficult situation too, non profits are trying to continue their efforts for a better society.
    Nimisham Jo’s compassionate approach to people working under these difficult situations is a great respite to founders and an eye opening to donors if they can understand it positively.

  2. (1) If nonprofits spend their time doing paperwork, when will they do the actual work?(1)
    (2) Audit with a view to improve rather than investigate.

    Dear Friends,
    Myself is Mamoon Akhtar founder of Samaritan help Mission, we work in the slum of tikiapara howrah , Samaritan Help Mission is the sole organization in the fold of Caring friends that have reached to a stage that has been supported 100% by its friends and well wishers, Nimesh Bhai thoughts are now been written and read by the whole world, what he has written , he used to say, whenever we meet, in CF meetings, thanks he was now written his thoughts.

    I like to focus on the two points he has mentioned, (1) when we spend time on paper work when we will do the actual work, ? and in 2012 we faced a great challenge of mis management and accounting, It was seem that this would have been the end of the organization, since we did not have any expertise, Than I received a mail from Nimesh bhai, with strict guidance with encouragement , and than CF supported us with point no (2) Audit with view to improve rather to investigate, this action from Caring Friends, Changed the complete scenario of SHM since 2012 to 2018, we become very strong in sense of governance and was been able make the system driven organization. The Founders, Corporate and funders of the world must read this, His experience of guiding the social sector his unique, I think he is not a master Degree in social sector but he has much knowledge of heart from which people do the work, I am the living example of his guidance., I think his article now will give message to the whole world, as the letter of Abraham Lincoln wrote to the teacher of his son still guiding the world, May Almighty create more heart and eyes like Nimesh Bhai.
    Mamoon Akhtar
    Founder Secretary
    Samaritan Help Mission

  3. Wonderful article by Nimeshji. He put forward some very basic & fundamental issues related with NGOs style of working & the spirit of the founder behind. Ultimately whatever activities are carried out by the NGO are the reflection of the founder & the key decision makers mindset. Without understanding & respecting that, anything done may not be relevant & fit to their spirit.
    The spirit of the person behind NGOs can not be measured in a very objective way with well defined indicators which are used for measuring other physical development parameters. The funders need to give more time to sit & understand it in a subjective way. Also they should be ready to invest in individuals & their aspirations. Otherwise they will be loosing some great change making opportunities. Just like business, they should take the appropriate risk while investing, in the person.
    Specially in the life journey of most of the change maker’s, the initial part is the most challenging one. No one believes on them, as they don’t have much track record. But believing on them at this stage, by someone is very crucial for the whole journey ahead. Otherwise we will be loosing many of them.

  4. Pravin Mote Reply

    Wonderful article and inspiration. It is a need as most of the donor doesn’t support core activities. Its very important to understand where ti invest, investing in a person is big support to nurture organization

  5. This is a realistic perspective on donor grants. Development has to be holistic and understanding people working on the causes will reduce negative perceptions on NGO work. Financial and other irregularities in their work has to be checked but not at the cost of benefit being received by poor communities dependent on NGO work. Donors should put in place easy to operate checks and balances to prevent such deviance. Most often donors/their staff are not involved and do not understand the ground realities of developmental work..

  6. The article shared by Nimeshji is actually the journey they have traveled during these years. The amount of time they have invested in organisations and capacity building of these small organisations is commendable. The combination of Nimeshji and Ramesh uncle is a boon for NGOs. Many companies with a lot of Governance needs may not agree to some of the statements expressed but I totally agree to the spirit in which this should be done. I have personally met many of the founders and it is extremely energizing and inspirational. We pray to the Almighty to continue to create many more people like Ramesh uncle and Nimeshji.

  7. Subhash macha Reply

    Measure people’s strength and their passion.
    Very practical approach and article

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