Vidya Shah, like many others in the corporate sector, began her philanthropic journey by writing cheques. She is the founder and CEO of EdelGive Foundation, the CSR arm of Edelweiss Group, a leading financial services conglomerate. The MBA graduate, soon found herself travelling and personally searching for nonprofit projects in the sectors of education, livelihoods and women empowerment. In 2008, she started EdelGive to have a more structured approach to Edelweiss’s philanthropic initiatives.

“From our experience at Edelweiss of working with early-stage, high growth enterprises and entrepreneurs (and our own experience and challenges with growth and scale-up), we believed that we could be more than just a capital-provider to NGOs.”

She says, “Around 2007, after a few years of supporting about 10 NGOs, we realized that the real challenge for NGOs is not just their financial sustainability but also their very limited organizational capacity. This was partly due to limited management bandwidth but largely due to lack of funding for essential organization-building costs – finance and reporting, HR and training and administration; costs or investments that we take for granted in the for-profit world. From our experience at Edelweiss of working with early-stage, high growth enterprises and entrepreneurs (and our own experience and challenges with growth and scale-up), we believed that we could be more than just a capital-provider to NGOs.

A bridge between providers and users of philanthropic capital, bringing our experience with the for-profit world to help the development sector become more effective, efficient and sustainable.”

The first decade of Shah’s career was in investment banking, advising corporates in Capital Raising and M&A transactions. Her bosses in ICICI, Peregrine and NM Rothschild pushed her to focus on quality work, attention to detail, financial modelling, a strong work ethic and discipline. In Edelweiss, however, she experienced a very sharp learning curve. What were the challenges she faced in the day-to-day operations of EdelGive Foundation?

She informs, “The challenges are not different from those that most good organizations face – building a good team requires effort and focus on people development. Similarly, what works when you’re a small team, does not as you grow; so processes and building institutional memory becomes very important. We have also expanded our mandate from being an effective and strategic funder to building the sector’s capacity to both deploy and absorb funds. This means a lot of sector development and advocacy work and that is not easy.”

Edelweiss Financial Services was recognized as the Leader in Employee Volunteering 2017 by iVolunteer. In October 2017, they were awarded the FICCI CSR Awards among other earlier accolades. More than the awards, she feels that they have made an important contribution to the sector both in terms of convening a more meaningful dialogue on effective philanthropy as also in building the capacity of our NGO partners.

“I think my father was the ultimate feminist — every single memory of him is tinged with his constant essaying of the importance of financial independence for women and the need to pursue a career of choice, not compromise.”

Shah adds that in the ’60s when she was born, feminism was a bold, new concept, much decried by both men and women – “I think my father was the ultimate feminist — every single memory of him is tinged with his constant essaying of the importance of financial independence for women and the need to pursue a career of choice, not compromise. He taught me the importance of hard work, focus and commitment.”

And although she had not envisaged a career in development, she says EdelGive has given her a great second innings. She is particularly committed to the organization’s work in women’s empowerment.

“Unless women consistently challenge and disrupt oppressive norms, they will continue to be subjected to dominance and limited growth. Significant examples are visible in EdelGive Foundation’s work with MannDeshi Foundation for a cash credit doorstep program to empower and enable poor women vendors to become entrepreneurs. Aiding them via financial inclusion, developing their entrepreneurial abilities, making them financially literate and facilitating market linkages truly empowers the community.

CORO’s work with building women’s leadership in poor communities and AALI’s work in enabling access to legal justice to women victims of violence and assault are exemplars of some of the great work we have supported in the sector.”

“Corporations must, in my opinion, through CSR, contribute much more towards nation-building, and not just tick boxes on CSR compliance.”

Shah feels that corporations must focus their CSR beyond compliance to the Companies Act. They perform an important economic role not only by manufacturing goods and services, but also providing jobs to millions of Indians. This is not enough, however, in today’s world. Companies are required to worry about eco-systems around their manufacturing plants, their impact on climate and the environment, the health and well-being of their employees, and about the abject poverty and deprivation that large parts of India still experience – “Corporations must, in my opinion, through CSR, contribute much more towards nation-building, and not just tick boxes on CSR compliance.

Importantly, the balance that corporations can bring when you have people who can marry talent and passion is quite immense. One of the things that people like us can bring to this sector is focus and efficiency because we come from that mindset. The sector definitely needs help in being more data-run and evidence-based. Our ability to think through that with empathy is something that we can do when we have talent and passion.”

As India sees rising prosperity, Shah hopes to build India’s leading foundation in terms of size, significance, and influence. She adds, “We believe that collaborative philanthropy is the only way forward; we need to help all the actors in the philanthropic ecosystem, funders, NGOs, corporations and resource providers, overcome risk-aversion and trust deficit to aid the rapid development of a stronger Indian social sector.”

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