Toybank is an NGO which promotes a cause many may not have heard of — the right to play. It teaches empathy, educates and empowers children who are at risk through the medium of play. Toybank founder, Shweta Chari, speaks to us about how play can effect change in a tangible way and about building a career in the non-profit sector.
How did you come up with the idea of Toybank?
Toybank is 13 years old. I started it when I was 21. I knew I wanted to volunteer after I finished my engineering degree, but I had no idea how to go about it. I started volunteering at a local organisation, teaching math to young boys. After a few weeks there, I realised that the kids were not excited to see me and that demotivated me. I took time off to understand what was going on with the kids. I realised that over the course of the day they had many teachers come in, and barely had any time to play. I then took permission to do different activities with them.
I reinvented old games like ‘land and water’ and even taught them about music. In the process, the kids started opening up to me and trusting me. The experience showed me how powerful play can be. Many of these children had become adults too soon because of their life experiences. Through play, they could become children again.
I started off with a distribution drive. Within a few weeks, we had received thousands of toys. I remember the kids held on to the toys like they were Oscar awards. I felt the need to do this over and over again
On registering as a charity
Until 2009, Toybank was something I did on a voluntary basis. In 2009, I decided to quit my corporate job and register it as a charity. It was scary because we had no money and were clueless. However, we had many great volunteers and managed to put together a wonderful board of trustees.
How do donations work? How do you go about getting them and how difficult is it?
We always say that it is better to build strong children than restore broken men. We have seen how play can bring about behavioural changes in kids. However, development through play is not something that India promotes. A big part of how we attract funders is the way we communicate the effectiveness of play. We speak to corporates and even elite schools, educating them on the power of play
It is challenging — because we are last on the list, when it comes to causes. Hopefully, things change. I have seen changes in people’s perceptions over the years.
Managing money is another task. Luckily, our board of trustees helps us meet compliances and makes sure our aspirations align with reality.
How do you measure impact?
We work with play therapists and behavioural analysts who have created parameters that measure a child’s motor skills, emotional skills, and language sills. We assess children before and after our programs on all the parameters
We have seen dramatic changes. Childrens’ social and emotional skills have improved the most drastically. We continuously conduct teachers training. field officers, and have 300 to 400 volunteers.
We use premises of communities, schools to set up our highly curated play centres. We work with 47,000 children, in over 3,000 centres across India.
If our kids are happy, then the world is happy.
Is there one particular story or incident about a child that has resonated with you?
In our early distribution drives, we used to give toy guns to the children. I remember an incident where a kid came up to me and said ‘I want to be a gunda’. I realised the power of play in that moment. His parents were petty thieves by profession. It was normal for the kid, even though it seems blasphemous to us
It is important to be responsible with what we give. We have to constantly push ourselves to as if we are really solving the kids’ problems and properly addressing their needs.
Advice for those who want to make a career in non-profit sector
A lot of young people want to start up before working at another organisation. It is hard to run an NGO — you often end up doing everything but the real thing. I would advise young people to volunteer, work for a charity, understand that it is important to be passionate and mad.