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High Impact Philanthropy: Abraham George Of Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project On How To Leave A Lasting Legacy With A Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

An Interview with Karen Mangia

A clear mission and vision for your work are crucial. Without them, it’s like sailing in rough seas without a destination. With clarity in what you need to accomplish, you are likely to deal with your day-to-day challenges more effectively. A clear mission and vision provides the guidepost for you and your team to return to whenever there are disagreements. It also helps you articulate your work to supporters and others.

For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Abraham George.

Abraham M. George, also known as Dr. George, is one of the most prolific philanthropic voices of our generation. His unparalleled efforts in the non-profit sector began 25 years ago when he founded Shanti Bhavan, an organization highlighted in the Netflix docu-series Daughters of Destiny that provides high-quality education for children born into India’s lowest socioeconomic class. Since then, he has also founded the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media, a leading post-graduate college that promotes free, quality press in India, as well as Baldev Medical & Community Center, an organization that addresses health care needs for over 15 villages throughout India. His work across these organizations has positively changed the lives of millions of underprivileged and underrepresented communities throughout India, and the world at large.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

I joined one of India’s prestigious military academies when I was fourteen years old. By seventeen, I was a lieutenant leading troops in the Himalayas following the Indo-China war of 1962. I was posted to Sela, a mountain pass at an altitude of 14,000 feet through which China had earlier invaded India. My primary task was to construct gun positions for medium-heavy artillery.

During my eleven months in this high-altitude warzone, I encountered several life-changing experiences. This assignment ended when I was injured in a dynamite blast while building a bunker by a rocky mountain slope. It was this accident that led me to reflect on why I was spared in the explosion and the purpose of my life. It led me to think of devoting my life, at some stage, to serving the poor.

Many years later, following my business career in America, a significant part of my continued evolution has been because of my work with the children of Shanti Bhavan (SB). SB is a residential school for children from families who are socially and economically deprived.

Shanti Bhavan brings up children from the age of four in a caring environment. Our children often come from abusive homes. The loving care offered in Shanti Bhavan helps them heal. Over the years, my experience with the kids has tempered my demeanor and has transformed me from a tough businessman to a father figure for the children — a compassionate, forgiving, and loving man.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.

Initiative and hard work are essential for success. You can’t create anything meaningful or lead others without determination and perseverance. During the early days in the company I had founded (MCM), we worked late into the night and on weekends with tremendous enthusiasm. Even though I couldn’t afford to pay my core team members, they were motivated to create a great product. The initial years were hard, but subsequently MCM grew into a market leader in international treasury applications, and later was acquired by SunGard, a Fortune 500 company.

Apart from business skills, one must be capable of thinking beyond oneself — to be compassionate and caring of others. Regardless of whichever endeavor you undertake, your team needs to know that you care about them if they are to trust you.

What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?

When I started Shanti Bhavan, I had hoped that the children of Shanti Bhavan would one day be among the future leaders of India. I believed that they could be just as successful as their well-to-do peers if given the opportunity. After twenty-five years, seeing the accomplishments of our children has been most rewarding. Our college graduates are now employed in major companies like Google, Goldman Sachs, Mercedes Benz, and Ernst & Young or pursuing higher studies in top colleges around the world, including Stanford, Dartmouth, Duke, and the University of Chicago. These achievements among India’s “lowest castes” have no parallel elsewhere.

Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?

Shanti Bhavan has graduated hundreds of children, most going on to top universities in India and in the US. Almost all have obtained good jobs at Fortune 500 companies, making sufficient income to live comfortably and take care of their parents and other family members.

But Shanti Bhavan’s impact is not limited to our children and their families. The values they have embraced motivate our graduates to help others in their communities to solve their problems and address their needs. In time, we believe many of our students will create even broader change by getting involved in the government, developmental organizations, or by becoming leaders of large corporations. The multiplicative impact of their contributions will change the lives of many poor people.

What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?

Since I was young, I cared deeply about the poor. While serving in the Himalayas, I was in close contact with the rural communities and villagers that make up much of India, and regularly witnessed the poverty they were trapped in. This left a strong impression on me. These images, combined with the lessons I learned from my parents about helping those in need, initially got me interested in social work.

As I got older and read about the work of Dr. Albert Schweitzer in the jungles of Gabon, Africa, I was further inspired and could see clearly the value of social work. This planted the idea of creating Shanti Bhavan one day.

Our children come from India’s “lowest castes,” the “untouchables.” I am driven by my desire to address social injustice faced by their families and others from caste-based discrimination. I strongly believe that the path to social justice is through economic opportunity from a good education and proper upbringing.

These days our work at Shanti Bhavan keeps the flame within me alive. Seeing the powerful impact of our projects on the children leaves no doubt about their futures.

Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?

Shanti Bhavan graduates twenty-four students each year. Most of them go on to study at top universities in India and in the US as well. After college, they are employed at major companies in good positions. With each new class, we are transforming the lives of many of India’s poorest.

Like all our five hundred students and graduates, Shilpa came from an extremely poor family. Her father is an “elephant chaser” employed by the government to protect the village. Her younger sister was murdered (or she committed suicide), but the truth about her death is not known. Despite the trauma Shilpa had experienced, the care she received at Shanti Bhavan turned her into a stable and determined young woman. After attending SB for fourteen years, she graduated as one of its top students, wrote a highly acclaimed memoir called The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter, and subsequently received two masters’ degrees. She is currently working toward a PhD in Clinical Psychology at Hofstra University in Long Island, USA. Her story is just one among several others whose lives have been transformed in a significant way.

We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?

My main focus is on addressing social injustice and poverty.

  1. Vote and support politicians who are thoughtfully trying to create a more equitable future for all.
  2. Donate, volunteer, or create an NGO to bring about long-term economic and social change. Don’t normalize or be numb to poverty; help whenever and however you can. The more we practice compassion, the more comfortable we become in serving others.
  3. When shopping for products, try to support businesses that create social value. Cooperatives, B Corps, those engaged in fair trade products, and companies with third-party certifications for social contributions are generally organizations that cast a broader net for social good than those focusing only on profits.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.

First, clearly identify the beneficiaries and the nature of assistance that will benefit them the most; this foundational step will go a long way in creating a positive impact right from the start. From an understanding of the challenges they face, you will gain insights into what they need most. Also, by researching the help currently provided by the government and other sources of assistance, you will be able to craft the services your planned organization may provide to fill the gaps. In the case of Shanti Bhavan, we focused on rural poverty and social discrimination. We could see that local government assistance wasn’t sufficient. We felt that we could have an immediate impact in a positive way by focusing on the education of children from very poor families.

Secondly, a clear mission and vision for your work are crucial. Without them, it’s like sailing in rough seas without a destination. With clarity in what you need to accomplish, you are likely to deal with your day-to-day challenges more effectively. A clear mission and vision provides the guidepost for you and your team to return to whenever there are disagreements. It also helps you articulate your work to supporters and others.

At Shanti Bhavan, a part of our mission is about bringing dignity to our children from very poor homes. The children find a safe and caring place that encourages self-exploration and personal growth alongside excellent education. With the support of our educators and volunteers, our students learn to face their future with confidence and dignity. We have created a longer-term positive impact with our services.

You need a small dedicated team right from the start. Like building any business, creating a philanthropic organization is incredibly hard (maybe even harder). A small dedicated team who are passionate about the cause is critical. Committed teammates will help you avoid mistakes, develop creative ideas, divide work among them, mentally support you during challenging times, and much more.

Your team must buy into the cause and work together to bring your vision to reality. While this may sound obvious, noble causes often attract people who have their own ideas of the change they want to see. Their differing vision and focus might interfere with and diverge from your set mission, causing conflicts within your organization. Be mindful that not every person interested in your work will be a good fit. Your leadership skills will determine whether your team will stay cohesive enough to help bring your vision to life.

Focus initially on small achievable goals. While your longer term vision might take time to achieve, it’s important to meet attainable goals at each stage. Continue to chip away at your to-do list and appreciate each day’s hard work. For me, it was organizing a founding team, finding land for the school and putting together the rules and values of Shanti Bhavan that were initially important.

Finding the initial required capital is essential. Develop a plan to seek support from those who might be willing to help you get started. Raising that first bit of seed capital is often the hardest and the most important, so work diligently to reach that initial funding goal. Work within the limited available resources to carry your project forward for a year or two.

In time, it’s essential to diversify your funding sources. Networking to broaden your donor base is vital, but until you demonstrate the impact of your work, this might be challenging. Your success in this depends on your ability to communicate your organization’s message. Your cause may feel obvious and logical to you, but learning to speak about it in a way that others can understand and are motivated to help is no easy task.

It is essential to develop realistic impact metrics for a sufficient length of time. Target dates for accomplishing your goals at each stage will help you assess your progress and help define success all along. It will assist you in determining where improvements are needed and the hurdles you face. It also helps you to present your work to potential donors to generate more significant support.

At Shanti Bhavan, we capture metrics like student retention rates, college graduation rates, and success in gaining employment.

How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?

We learned to pursue the mission while adjusting to the constraints placed by the pandemic. We broadened the nature of our assistance to the villagers around us who found themselves unemployed because of the pandemic. Our success is defined by the impact we create for those in need around us as well.

How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?

From a young age, I have been persistent. Seeing my mother’s determination from a young age helped reinforce this nature within me. She was a true maverick for her time, always gracefully overcoming life’s challenges with hard work and persistence.

My tenure as a young military officer in the Indo-China border instilled a certain mental fortitude that has stayed with me to this day. When you are faced with grave danger, you develop a certain level of grit and mental toughness.

I am fueled by different forces these days — the love and affection of the children of Shanti Bhavan. I am driven to accomplish whatever I can to support the cause and overcome any setbacks.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

To be very specific, we would love to get the attention of MacKenzie Scott, who has been incredibly swift and efficient in making large donations to various organizations. But in reality, we’d love the support of individuals and organizations who care about social justice and poverty alleviation. Regardless of the level of support, we are sincerely grateful to every donor. Thank you for asking!

You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?

The best place to follow what we are doing is on the Shanti Bhavan website. You can also find Shanti Bhavan via major social media platforms — Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. You may enjoy the award-winning Netflix documentary Daughters of Destiny (https://www.netflix.com/in/title/80092926) that describes the early lives of our five girls.

Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.

About The Interviewer: Karen Mangia is one of the most sought-after keynote speakers in the world, sharing her thought leadership with over 10,000 organizations during the course of her career. As Vice President of Customer and Market Insights at Salesforce, she helps individuals and organizations define, design and deliver the future. Discover her proven strategies to access your own success in her fourth book Success from Anywhere and by connecting with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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Karen Mangia

Karen Mangia

VP at Salesforce | Author | Keynote Speaker