Charity Gets an Image Makeover

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There’s something Biblical about the usual ways of ‘doing good’ by your less fortunate brethren. It can be a lot of fun too. Meet the innovators.

On 21 August, Ashok Mahadevan scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak. An unpredictable climb, it took six days. Not all members of his group made it to the top. But among those who did were two friends, 62-year-old Ashok Mahadevan and 64-year-old Sunil Nehru. Ashok is a cancer survivor. Sunil caught a cough and cold right at the beginning of the trek, and the climb tested more than just his physical endurance. It tested his emotional strength. Another friend, 65-year-old Gurdeep Singh, made it to Gilman’s Point at the rim of the volcanic crater.

“When I called up my friends and told them I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro, they said I’m mad,” recalls Gurdeep. “I said I’m mad, but I’m doing it for a cause.” As they went along, the trio also raised money, pegged to the distance they climbed, for charities. Friends and family were donating anything from a rupee to a dollar for each metre they achieved.

“In the West,” says Sunil, “people do difficult things for charity.” In their case, friends and family knew how difficult this climb would be for the sixty-somethings, and were generous with funds as a show of support. Ashok raised about Rs 3 lakh for the NGO Mobile Creches, Sunil got Rs 1.5 lakh for the NGO CanSupport, and Gurdeep, Rs 16 lakh for Operation Smile India, an NGO he is a trustee of. “I set myself audacious targets,” says Gurdeep. “Climbing Kilimanjaro at 65 is as audacious as raising a million rupees.” He fell only 300 metres short of the highest point, but he managed to exceed the fundraising target he had set for himself.


Fundraising in India, usually a sterile exercise involving a dozen applications for grants, or sometimes a practised form of emotional blackmail, will never be the same again. Not satisfied with writing cheques and getting back to everyday life, people are experimenting with innovative ways of raising money. Ways that are more intimate, challenging or plain fun. Running a city marathon for a cause is now a popular way of tying in personal goals with a social cause. This is the first time that Ashok, Sunil and Gurdeep climbed a peak for a cause, although they have been actively volunteering for NGOs for some while. And it has got them thinking about other such possibilities: Sunil wonders if religious climbs like Amarnath or Mount Kailash could evoke a greater response.

Then, there’s the idea of nudging wedding guests towards making charitable donations instead of giving the couple gifts. When Hilde Marte Games, a Norwegian, married Akshat Gupta a few years ago, she asked their Norwegian guests to donate money to an organisation she volunteered with: it got Rs 1 lakh for the education of street children. 

But guests at Indian weddings are not always compliant. Shrikant and Gauri Sarda also asked guests attending their wedding reception this year to donate money to causes chosen by them. While friends living abroad happily did so, many in India ignored their request, preferring to give them token gifts. New charitable concepts, it seems, will take time before they find acceptance in India.

A few weeks ago, I was forced to open my cupboard and confront the cardinal sin most women are guilty of—over-hoarding clothes. We buy to wear. We buy to feel better. We buy without even knowing why. The heart skips a beat at the thought of letting go, as one has spent hours and thousands on shopping. It isn’t always possible to give it away either; would flood victims consider sequined halters and short velvet skirts ‘relief’?

A desperate thought occurred to me. How about a garage sale to raise money for a good cause? It would also be more fun than filling a 12-page grant application for the community group Hamara Footpath that I volunteer to raise funds for. It turned out that most of my friends shared my plight, and were willing to donate clothes and volunteer. Nobody knew if people would buy second-hand clothes in a country that tends to equate purity with brand newness. But we Indians also harbour a love for good bargains—and double standards. As Evita Fonseca, a volunteer, points out, “People say something and do something else.”

So, on Independence Day weekend, a few of us organised a garage sale in Bombay called Fashion Street, selling unused donated clothes at throwaway prices to support children living on Fashion Street that runs from Churchgate along Azad Maidan to Bombay Hospital.

In just a week of the donation drive, we had several women drop off sacks of clothes that took over our apartments. Crumpled in the pile were big brands like Esprit, Mango, Benetton and Manish Malhotra. But there was lots of junk to sift through: from thongs and corsets to pyjamas and Akshay Kumar’s pants (donated by a film producer). The worst lot came from ad production houses. It was in such bad shape that we refused to lay our hands on it.

We had requested our friends and family to donate generously, and was I surprised to find a kurta I’d once gifted my aunt given away with its label intact! I had no right to feel bad, though, since I too was guilty of donating a dress she had once bought for me, and with its label still on. Seeing women haggle over that kurta a few days later, however, came as reassurance of my good taste.

It wasn’t just college kids who were excited by the idea. A senior citizen travelled a whole hour to drop off her clothes. Married couples volunteered together as a weekend activity. An especially enthused schoolboy called and volunteered to donate his mother’s clothes.

Social apprehensions were discarded at the sight of the prices: Rs 50 to Rs 500. The sale was covered by local papers, heavily tweeted and popularised on social media networks. Some shoppers returned as often as thrice a day, landing up an hour before we opened. Ladies argued over who saw what first, and enquired about new stocks coming in. In just one-and-a-half days, the garage sale raked in a hearty Rs 80,000. Clothes considered unfit for resale were given away to other charities; one such charity saw what we’d achieved and promptly copied the idea for a rival sale of its own.


Successful fundraising isn’t just about the intention. It is also about spotting unlikely opportunities. Anyone in the habit of chasing celebrities on Twitter would have noted their fondness for speaking on social causes. Chandni Parekh, founder of Fund-a-Cause—which exploits Twitter, Facebook, blogs and e-groups to garner resources for such causes—has taken it upon herself to help celebrities respond to the tugs of their conscience.

Shweta Bachchan recently tweeted her desire to help Leh cloudburst victims. Chandni instantly mailed her a relevant list of NGOs to contact. Shweta called up the numbers and mobilised a whole lot of medicines. Similarly, Smriti Irani responded to one of her tweets and is sponsoring a student’s college education in Chennai. Likewise, another Bollywood personality is anonymously sponsoring a 10-year-old’s heart operation in Kolkata. “When information spreads like wildfire,” says Chandni, “you witness the power of Twitter.” Her own account on this network now has 895 followers and is part of 59 web lists.

India’s problems may not have changed, but attitudes sure have. You could donate money to the schoolgirl who rings your doorbell on behalf of Missionaries of Charity. Or you could climb Mount Kilimanjaro, clean out your cupboard, or just hound celebrities on Twitter with helpful links. If nothing, at least you’d have an anecdote to tell. As Ashok Mahadevan says, “As a byproduct of my fundraising effort, I can say ‘Hey, I climbed Kilimanjaro!’”