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Naghma Mulla, CEO, EdelGive Foundation on raising Rs. 100 crores for grassroots NGOs

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We had the pleasure of interacting with a young social impact leader who is not only breaking the glass ceiling but also nurturing various philanthropic collaboratives at the national and international level. Naghma Mulla is the CEO of EdelGive Foundation, the philanthropic initiative of diversified financial services group, Edelweiss. She has developed and fostered EdelGive’s two successful collaboratives: The Collaborators for Transforming Education (in partnership with the Government of Maharashtra) and the Coalition for Women’s Empowerment. Naghma is also a mentor at the Nadathur S. Raghavan Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning at IIM Bangalore, where she provides strategic support to start-ups.
Excerpts from an interview. Watch the entire interview in the video below:

Q 1. As the Chief Executive Officer of one of the biggest foundations in India, what is your role at EdelGive?

Naghma Mulla: What I have really been doing here is to think of better, bigger and more convenient ways for giving to be processed and for it to be received by the right recipients. Thankfully, EdelGive Foundation has great processes, a great intent and a great core. My job is to meet our ambitious goals. We are very clued on to the grassroots in the country. Our work over the decade has really been with thousands of NGOs working in different corners of India, not really visible by the metro-based funders. Our job is to identify these great works and to bring them to the tables of those who need to make decisions. To make that happen, we have to use smart and creative ways because the work is so good.
Of late and recently, a lot of my effort has been going into ensuring good collaboratives are created because I believe when people come together and fund something, it takes a life of its own and the mission becomes much bigger. EdelGive is part of six collaboratives, three of which we have drafted ourselves in education, women empowerment and now GROW which will work with 100 NGOs. This is what I do with a team of brilliant people who are experts in the field as well as communications, compliance and capacity building.

Q 2. Your organisation is anchoring the GROW Fund with the ambitious aim to raise $10 million towards supporting 100 grassroots NGOs. Who are the philanthropists involved?

NM: The magnitude of what happened during COVID-19 to people of our country and the way the social sector responded is commendable. In the first week itself of starvation-related news pouring in and the migrants walking home, NGOs from across the country had turned their systems around and were ensuring delivery mechanisms. The food and relief was reaching the last mile.
With GROW, our intent is that those who have been serving as frontline leaders in ensuring that people of this country are served, should not suffer institutionally. They have a long way to go and we cannot allow these organisations to get weaker. What has happened since last year is that funding has come down for the organisations. People have been giving but funds have gone to emergency relief requirements, as they should be. The teams of nonprofits have suffered; staff has left; people are ill and regular programmes have suffered. GROW is an initiative that asks: Can we hunt for 100 great NGOs from across the country, and as funders can we all come together and support them to manage their core costs?

Q 3: What was the selection criteria for the NGOs?

NM: This is a sector-agnostic fund so our only criteria is that these organisations should be small and medium-sized, not large-sized; they should have been dedicated to serving the requirement of their community, and of course, there should be a strong compliance lens to it. We are hoping to idenity them by December 2021 and then GROW will roll out a two-year grant for each one of them.
When we had started this project, we had set this target of $10 million for 100 NGOs, we have actually upped the target for ourselves. We are looking to raise Rs. 100 crores over the next two years so that we not only help these nonprofit organisations get a grant but also help build some rather strong capabilities within themselves for HR, technology and financial management.

Q 4: Now that you’re looking to raise Rs. 100 crores, it turns out that GROW is actually a lot more ambitious than was originally planned?

Yes, we had started out rather ambitious and then we saw that the universe was responding to us encouraging. Funders such as Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, A.T.E. Foundation, even the international foundations, all rallied behind the thought that the (social) sector needs this kind of support. So we were hugely encouraged. We saw that wherever we would speak in the grassroots about GROW, there was so much enthusiasm. It was not really whether they would get a grant or not, but it was really like the work of the grassroots is being recognised. The top ambition of this fund is whether we can turn the spotlight where it’s really needed; the hundreds of NGOs that have been serving India for years, and especially over the last year.

Q 5: In that sense, Edelgive believes in solidarity with other players. Is that why you’re deeply involved with various philanthropic collaboratives?

No one institution or individual can be good at everything. We all have our strengths. The problems we are trying to combat — whether it’s lack of education, gender inequality or climate change — have been perpetuated for the last many decades and sometimes, centuries. If we have any chance to mitigate or combat them, we have to join forces together. We have to start from a place of recognition that there are many experts in different fields, so what if we all come together? Imagine the force of good that we will be collectively. This is the basic premise of collaboratives. Being part of these collaboratives has really enriched us and our ability to see beyond our core competencies. We’ve been impressed by how collaboratives have shaped our knowledge and shown us a world beyond what we’d have otherwise known.

Q 6: In the post-COVID era, which sectors do you feel corporates should direct CSR funding to?

India has always had this problem of plenty. We don’t have a dearth of issues if one wants to participate. I really feel that wherever one’s heart lies, one should follow. Whether the company’s leaning is towards, or whether one individually believes. The country needs so much that wherever we can participate, it can only help. With that premise if I have to talk about what I am observing and what needs to be done, I’d say digital learning is definite and then there’s women empowerment.
In the last 10-20 years of effort to bring women into the workforce, give them equal place in society has taken a massive hit. Women have dropped off the workforce and I don’t think they will be back very soon. I will give you a small data point: during the 2020 lockdown, there were almost 9 million migrants who moved back to their home towns and villages. This year, we saw only 50% coming back to work in the cities. What we also saw was that 60% of the women who had gone did not return. What will happen to that 60%? They are not in an enabled environment. They are in places where the burden of the household falls on them. The repercussions of this will be felt. We’ve lost a whole generation worth of empowerment. So, thinking of how to enable gender parity will be important. One of our efforts, Udyam Stree, talks about corporate environments accomodating and making space for women’s participation at all levels. Whether it’s at the small vendor level or the workforce.
Migrants will be another important area for CSR to focus on. A million people going back home is not a joke. Their lives have been shook. The communities where they returned have been shook. They have more mouths to feed at home with fewer resources. Some thoughtfulness has to be put in. Most of all, if I have to summarise all of this, “local community empowerment” is going to be key. The country is large but there are local ecosystems that need support. Self-dependency or what we call Atmanirbhar at the village level or district level is how we can repair bit by bit. If we look at it from a country-wide level, recovery is going to be overwhelming. Fixing it at the local level is doable. That is why we are focusing on the organisations that are working at the village and district levels.