Sanjay Bapat has created a full-featured virtual space for individuals and groups promoting development and social progress in India, making it easy to share ideas, form effective partnerships, and build momentum for positive social change.
The New Idea
Sanjay’s idea is based on the knowledge that effective social change work rarely happens in isolation, that all efforts are deeply enriched by partnerships and the sharing of information. He has created a categorically new tool for citizen sector organizations in India to form such partnerships through his Web site IndianNGOs.com. The site offers a virtual meeting ground for a wide range of groups—citizen sector organizations, underprivileged communities, funding agencies, corporations, government departments, and global citizens interested in India. It provides a wealth of information on citizen sector organizations and the experience, ideas, and resources they bring to the table, fostering connections and networks that help each member reach their individual and collective goals.
Poor information sharing leads to a huge amount of wasted energy in the citizen sector. Organizations spend months working out solutions to problems that have already been solved by like-minded groups; with the connections they make through IndianNGOs.com, they can stop reinventing the wheel and direct their attention to more worthy problems. The site also gives journalists an easy and compelling resource from which to write about social and development issues, and improves the speed and confidence with which nonresidents invest in Indian programs. Best of all, Sanjay’s idea is easy to replicate on a global scale.
Because of India’s large population and vast geographic spread, formidable language and communication barriers stand in the way of effective information sharing. At present, it is extremely difficult for any person or group to access knowledge on the needs of the underprivileged and underserved groups in India and the 1.5 to 2 million social sector organizations trying to meet those needs. Readily available information about groups working on similar issues could spread best practices rapidly and widely, but so far it does not exist.
This information gap prevents millions of dollars in support from flowing to even the most effective development projects. Corporations of all sizes, along with several thousand entrepreneurs, would like to support development work in India, but without centralized information it is hard for them to know which projects to support. They would like to know where their money will be best utilized and so would international and national funding agencies and Indians living abroad who want to give back to their countries.
The information gap hurts everyone involved: Just as potential donors are frustrated by the lack of information about ongoing projects, the citizen organizations that lead those projects are frustrated by the lack of knowledge about potential donors. They want information about which corporations support which issues and how specific companies want to be approached. Civil society organizations need to know about various international funding agencies—their roles, their visions, and their focus. Citizen organizations also need to establish partnerships with media to advance their social causes, but to do so they need to know what types of issues and stories the media will support.
In the past, face-to-face meetings have been the only mechanism for connecting citizen organizations to each other and to potential supporters. This method is sometimes powerful, but it is also costly, time consuming, and impractical in a country as large and populous as India. The energetic citizen sector of India calls out for a mechanism of connection that is quick, reliable, and affordable.
Sanjay builds this mechanism and unlocks its potential in four cohesive steps. First, he develops the site IndianNGOs.com, immediately exposing organizations and donors to worlds of new information. Second, he promotes the site far and wide through Internet and print media. Third, he works through the site and on his own to build a strong, responsible reputation for the citizen sector so that corporations, foundations, and other donors will have confidence in contributing. Fourth, with the help of technology partners, he introduces modern communication and information tools to civil society organizations and creates a strong pool of managers to support future networks.
When Sanjay was first hatching his strategies in 1998, the Internet was just emerging as a prominent means of communication in India. The cost of access was dropping rapidly, and the number of users was rising in proportion. The medium provided a cheap, fast means of information transfer and offered vast opportunities for learning and sharing resources and ideas. Sanjay saw that the citizen sector, with its ability and desire to share strategies across regions and fields, could reap huge benefits from this new technology.
He designed his site to bring people together around the discussion of specific issues faced by the citizen sector. It will eventually provide in-depth coverage of over 30 social and developmental issues, including media reports, writings from experts, and forums for open conversation. The depth and breadth of his platform gives donors a broad view of the social canvas of India, allowing them to make informed decisions to support particular programs.
To support the expansion of his site Sanjay has started to identify freelance representatives in 35 States and Union Territories across India who will cover social sector issues. By 2006, he hopes to have representatives in 100 cities. He is negotiating with the Economic Times, a leading financial daily, and India Today, a leading magazine, about the possibility of bringing IndianNGOs.com information to the world of print and electronic media.
IndianNGOs.com is different from other socially conscious websites in that it is self-sustaining. Most other sites are either supported by funding agencies or run by volunteers, but Sanjay created IndianNGOs.com to be one of the very few sites in India to support its work through membership fees. The success of this strategy is evident in the high rate of renewal among members, who have access to an impressive suite of resources. For example, a nonprofit engaged in education can get a select list of all Fortune 500 companies interested in supporting education in India, complete with names and addresses of contact persons at those companies. Better yet, larger fees for corporate members help subsidize fees for the citizen sector, which are based on the capacity of the organization to pay.
The resources that Sanjay brings to bear for the citizen sector have already produced tangible results. For example, employees at the company Mastek found an inspiring education program through IndianNGOs.com and are now funding the education of 10,000 girls in the town of Mumbai. Their donations brought 12 million rupees of new money to that needy town in one year, and established long-term relationships that will fund education for years to come.
This pattern is being repeated for organizations throughout India.
Sanjay Bapat was born into a middle-class family in the city of Thane. His father was a government official with the Reserve Bank and his mother ran a Montessori school from home. Growing up, Sanjay played cricket and football and excelled in his studies, eventually choosing to pursue a college education. It was in a local college of management in Mumbai that his thirst for learning truly awakened. Intrigued by the possibility of establishing and running his own institution, he began to spend a great deal of time in the college library reading. He participated in, and often won, intercollege management competitions in elocution, skits, and dramatics; he delighted in any form of interactive presentation.
Sanjay decided that he would take up advertising as his area of work and one day own an advertising agency. While in college, he started freelancing and doing part-time shifts in various agencies. In 1988, with an MBA under his belt, he learned the trade through jobs in advertising agencies in Mumbai. While working with Bobby Sista, a well-known entrepreneur and advertisement professional, Sanjay ventured into social advertising, and he was immediately captivated. During this time he met and spoke with many entrepreneurs who owned leading companies. This close interaction with entrepreneurs fueled his own entrepreneurial dreams, and he soon launched IndianEntrepreneurs.com. In 2000, with a small investment with his own funds and an equity stake from Mahindra and Mahindra—one of India’s largest corporates—and Bobby Sista, Sanjay launched IndianNGOs.com.