Running schools for slum kids anywhere is not an easy task. Most government-run and NGO-run schools typically face funds crunch and are run in dilapidated buildings. You seldom get to see the spark in the kids’ eyes.
Are there better models – financial, operational and organizational – which can transform these schools into fountains of joy for underserved children? Troy Swanson, Founder, AlphaBet Club, is beginning to show that it is possible. Excerpts of his chat with Benedict Paramanand
In 2006, Troy had just quit his job in Microsoft where he was into enterprise sales, and was on a three-month footloose trip to India. He was about to leave Bangalore when someone asked him to go with him for a celebration in a slum school. Since he didn’t have anything to do he joined him. That was his epiphany moment.
Troy had already launched his expatriate club in Amsterdam and he thought that would be his best platform to raise funds for schools in slums around the world. He started with 30 people monthly fund raising events first in Amsterdam, replicated it in Madrid and recently started another in Arizona in the US. The size of the fund raisers has grown huge with invites going out to more than 10,000 people each month.
He founded the AlphaBet Club (ABC) as an international not-for-profit organization to help children break the cycle of poverty through education. ABC works with 50 volunteers. Troy calls himself one of them.
ABC has so far funded four urban slum schools – two in Bangalore, and two in Cambodia. The plan is to add three more schools shortly.
We Are Like VCs
Troy’s story is not merely that of a compassionate westerner collecting funds from the rich and giving it to the poor. “We don’t just write a cheque; we work with several partners in the ecosystem. We sometimes pilot with them and help them in their operations as well.”
Troy comes to India three months a year to work with his charity and also to offer consultancy to other charities for free on better partnership management and more effective implementation.
ABC is not the typical NGO which does almost everything to run a school or a project. It has chosen to fund only early stage infrastructure of a school, fund operating expenses only for a few months and exit. The logic behind this strategy is that ABC will be able to work on several projects this way and not get stuck running only a few schools.
What this approach does is put these start-up schools on their feet in nine months and they become eminently fundable by several other agencies, including the CSR funds of Indian companies.
“When companies see a well furnished school with good building, good teachers, good number of students and a healthy relationship with parents, they will be very happy to fund the operational expense of these schools. We have, in a way, created a de-risked model for them.”
By now, ABC, Troy says, is seen as a credible and transparent NGO which has skills to train other NGOs in best practices. More importantly, he says, they have tolerance for risk which has helped them grow in India in the last six years. “We are only one piece in the passing of baton in a relay race and work with other good partners. This is our differentiator. We minimize risk for everybody because of our partnership model.”
More Funds Chasing Fewer Projects
By now, Troy has become an expert on Indian NGO and funding space. He says: “What I find in this space is there are a lot of credible organizations that are looking for good projects.
The problem is not lack of funds but lack of credible, experienced projects with good reporting standards.”
Troy says he and his volunteers can help bridge this gap. Other than running their schools, ABC identifies projects to enhance their value with funds or expertise.In the future ABC does not want to depend fully on events to raise funds. Troy says a lot of people want to give us funds now because we have built a transparent reporting structure and report our impact.
NGOs Work in Silos
Troy’s key learning by being hands on is that to run projects successfully, many organizations provide their special sauce to make it work. “The key is to smartly draw others’ expertise and do less of
He finds Indian NGO leaders, especially in the education space, passionate but work in silos. “When you visit their projects, you will be amazed because they are doing it alone and no one knows that they are doing it.”
“People who run projects like these don’t know that there are others who can massively add value of their projects. It is not always funding but things like connecting category leaders in this space. I run into a lot of such people here.”
Is it a good idea to turn NGOs into professional organizations if they are to scale and become sustainable? “Indeed. Regardless of what so many Lunch at Edelweiss School, Bangalore NGOs are doing, it is still a drop in the big problem in India. We want to be involved in multiple projects which are both depth and breadth projects.
ABC is identifying new school education infrastructure projects. “We are doing four now, two in India and two in Cambodia. We are working on three more in the next 12 months. We want to be in a situation where we have a pipeline of good projects.”
Troy is advocating a matching model between foreign funding agencies and Indian CSR funds.
While the foreign agencies invest in physical capital of social projects, Indian NGOs with CSR funding can look at running them with operational costs. They can bring in professional expertise to running NGOs as well.
Troy considers his experience during the last eight years is equal or more than doing an international MBA course. “I’m learning and growing and I’m happy that I, along with our partners, are making a positive impact.”