How was CAF India born?

Posted by : | Posted on : January 19, 2022

The word ‘charity’ to me always had a patronising ring to it. So one might find it odd, when I say that I am the founder trustee of Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) India. This article is about how I was able to change my mind and play a part in the creation of one of the most trusted non-profits in India.

The origins of CAF India can be traced to a happy coincidence. Between the years, 1995 and 1999, I was the chair of the board of CIVICUS – a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society. In 1996, Michael Brophy, who was then the CEO of CAF (UK), came on the board of CIVICUS.

Michael often talked about his plans of expanding CAF. The frequency of such conversations grew and then during a CIVICUS Board meeting in Washington DC, Michael introduced me to the CAF liaison in the US. They talked about their plans of setting up CAF America, and soon the conversation veered towards Indo-British partnerships. Michael was keen on creating an Indian entity of CAF. The idea had a lot of potential as a new generation of middle-class and professionals were increasing in India. Taking it forward, Mathew Cherian, who went on to become the first CEO of CAF India, did some background research on what areas should the organisation focus on.

In April 1998, I was in the UK, when Michael invited me to meet the chairperson of CAF Board –an aristocratic gentleman, who had gin and tonic during lunch. This was followed by meetings with other staff members of CAF.

At that point, I was still sceptical about CAF, owing to my misconception about the word ‘charity’. These meetings, however turned out to be an eye-opener.

I was very impressed by the way they explained their Give As You Earn (GAYE) programme. They focused on the small giver – who would give as and when he or she earns. Philanthropy in traditional sense had always been related to accumulated wealth that was often dumped on the beneficiary. Payroll giving, on the other hand, had the power and potential to be more strategic and impactful, making sure that there is a real connection between the giver and receiver.

For this, they invested on ‘donor education’, where they spent a lot of time and resources, making the donors aware of the issues that were pertinent in the UK back then. However, small the donation, the donors could take an informed decision after being sensitised about vulnerabilities in the society.

It was post-Margaret Thatcher era, and there was a lot of disgruntlement among the labour class in the country. Coal mines had shut down and the country was facing several labour issues and leading to unemployment, homelessness, and deep-rooted poverty.  So CAF worked extensively on homelessness in the UK in the 1990s.  They supported reskilling, which enabled the youth in improving their job prospects. 

My misconception about the word, ‘charity’ was finally dispelled. I was impressed by CAF’s work. When I came back to India, I told Michael that I would help them set up CAF in India.

By September, we had completed most of our legal documentation. We finally signed the trust deed on October 15, 1998, with four signatories – Michael, Late Shankar Ghose, Late Manju Bharatram and I. Mathew Cherian became the first CEO of CAF India. And this is how CAF India was born.  

In the initial years, CAF India played a very critical role in advisory research. This initial first phase was spent in understanding the social development sector. Then in the next phase, CAF India grew by leaps and bounds. The Companies Act 2013, had made CSR mandatory, which gave the much needed impetus. Now, I am happy that CAF India is entering the third phase of its life-cycle, which will look at ‘shaping’ philanthropy, which is precisely the reason why I have been requested to write about CAF India’s birthing story.

To enter this third phase, which will focus on real on-ground impact, the team at CAF India is going back to the past, to its roots. One of the key founding principles of the organisation was, ‘Economic and Social development of people irrespective of caste, creed, religion, particularly Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe, other landless and other underprivileged people.’ These communities had formed the organisation’s focus groups. Even though the Dalits, tribal communities and women-headed households had always constituted the most marginalised households in India, they were getting further excluded in the new era of liberalisation and globalisation. Women’s exclusion was further intensifying due to continued gender discrimination.

Now taking a critical lens, the team is answering some very important questions. How intentionally are they furthering the abovementioned cause? How intentionally are they furthering the issues of intersectionality?  There is a belief that SC/ST have benefited a lot from reservation. But what about the people living in remote areas?  

The world has metamorphosed in the past two decades. 2022 is not same from the point of view of philanthropy. Huge grants are given away to developmental projects, but are they reaching the last mile communities? And what role is CAF India playing to ensure that? This calls for programming with a human face, programming with understanding of basic needs. Education and sensitization of the donors is paramount.

CAF India is creating a new identity for itself and I am delighted to be playing a part in it – as a blast from the past that recapitulates the founding principles of the organisation. After all, no matter how much organisations grow, their founding principles gives them their identity— their space in the world. I wish CAF India all success in this endeavour.

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