DevX | In conversation with Natasha Joshi, RNPF

Mar 22, 2024


DevX is a video-cast run by Viva Development Strategies, where the host, Varadarajan Rajagopalan, is in conversation with Natasha Joshi, Associate Director – RNPF.


0:00:04.7 Varadarajan: Welcome to another episode of DevX and I’m super, super excited about this
episode that we are going to shoot with and about Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies. The principles of
the philanthropy have been making big news with 100 crore donation to NIMHANS, 300 plus crore
to IIT. But what a lot of people don’t know is that they give that kind of grants anyway throughout
the year to a whole bunch of NGOs. So we are here to learn about that. What informs they’re giving,
who do they like to support? What’s the kind of work that they like to do? And to take us through all
this, we have today, Natasha Joshi, absolutely bonafide young leader and part of the senior
leadership team at Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies. Welcome, welcome Natasha, tell us a little bit
about how you got here and, yeah, about you.

0:00:57.7 Natasha: Yeah, yeah, sure. Thanks. So my journey actually in the development sector is
about 15, 17 years old. I studied…

0:01:06.2 Varadarajan Rajagopalan: Doesn’t look like it, but okay.

0:01:09.4 Natasha: I conceal my gray hair very well. I did my bachelor’s in economics and
psychology and I thought I’d go into banking and things like that. But then I sort of accidentally
started working with the Ministry of Education in Singapore and that got me really interested in the
social sector, the education sector so I went ahead, I did my masters in education, policy and
psychology and then I sort of came to India and started my career working with various
organizations in the education sector. So I actually spent maybe about a little over a decade working
in public education. And then I got really interested in the work that Rohini does, in particular,
because her areas of work are very interesting. I’ll tell you a little bit about it. What’s really
interesting about her areas of work is that they’re very foundational when it comes to society and

0:01:55.1 Natasha: So I’ve been at RNP now for a couple of years. We continue to be what the way
I call, we are sort of like a boutique philanthropy. We are not an enormous team on the programs
aside, we are still a small-ish kind of team, but we have about 120 partners that we engage with
through grants and other sort of relationships. I think my journey at RNP itself has been a huge sort
of learning curve, and the way I have started to understand the core root causes and core challenges
that the civil society these days continues to face learning through all the members of my team but
also learning from Rohini has been really useful.

0:02:30.4 Varadarajan: And tell me why you are here on DevX. What made you say yes? What made
you take the time?

0:02:36.1 Natasha: Well, the thing is, one of the, let’s say, values that we really try to uphold is that
of responsiveness. So as an organization, you’ll find very rarely will you not get any response from
RNP whether you write into our contact ID, whether you write into any one of us, because we
believe that that is our role in the entire ecosystem. Our role is to engage, to participate in
conversations, to learn very actively and listen to others, of course, I think it’s wonderful the kind of
work that you’re trying to do, right? You are trying to build something interesting. You’re trying to
add the create value for a sector that continues to sort of need much more capacity. Every
conversation is a learning process as well. So I think I take away as much as I bring to it. And that’s what brings me here.

0:06:57.7 Varadarajan: Tell me how this, thinking of Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar how it also percolates
to the causes that you work in, the thematic areas, what you choose as your areas of focus from your
work point of view. And even those are very interesting. You have very interesting also, I would
say very creatively title areas of work. So you have citizenship, you have Laayak, which is so
interesting around gender equity, mental health, justice, and conservation. Help us understand that a
little bit. Make it a little real. So what is citizenship about?

0:07:28.5 Natasha: So a lot of these areas kind of are essentially societal areas, right? So when you
say civic engagement and active citizenship, so a big part of our thinking is that it’s rooted in that
same idea that every person should have agency, every person should be able to determine their fate
to some extent you should have access to goods and services, but also you should have voice in the
society that you inhabit, right? So how do you create an environment where citizens can have the
ability to activate themselves, where they can engage in local problem solving, where they can be
authors of their own lives within the kind of country and within the neighborhood that they live in.
So that’s one area.

0:08:07.9 Varadarajan: Can you make that a little real with a couple of examples?

0:08:11.5 Natasha: Yeah. So I mean, I think our active citizenship portfolio, we at this moment, for
instance, we are working with about 20 different organizations across India, and you will find a
range of organizations. We partner with an organization called CIVIS which is based in Bombay.
And CIVIS is like a digital first organization that’s using a platform technology to get citizens to give
inputs to draft legislations. So a lot of citizens don’t even know that when the government is
drafting legislations on various topics, most of them are supposed to be opened to the public for
comment and for feedback.

0:09:03.1 Natasha: But a lot of citizens A, don’t know that, and B, they don’t necessarily know
which legislation has been opened up. Where is the government soliciting feedback and then how to
give this feedback. So CVIS saw this gap and said that, we could actually use technology as a way
to bridge that gap, get more diverse groups of people to start inputting into the process of policy
making because policy makers are seeking feedback. But if you don’t know this feedback is being
sought, how do you give it? We have organizations like Jhatkaa which works in the campaign
space, right? So they effectively said, we want citizens to have a voice and to be able to express
their preferences on whether there should be a flyover here or not, or whether you should cut certain
trees or not. Because these affects the lives of people who are living in that neighborhood, but there
should be some platform that allows them to voice that concern and come up with constructive
solutions as well.

0:09:41.4 Natasha: I think the idea is not simply to agitate the idea is to say that, how do I take
ownership of the entire problem? So if we do have a connectivity issue in our neighborhood that is
an issue, but if I don’t want to flyover, what is the alternative as well? And if you see, the through
line, the through line will always be the individual or the citizen or a community as the unit of
change and at the center of action, even if we have organizations, for example, like Haqdarshak that
are essentially, they partner very strongly with state governments to make sure that schemes and
entitlements for citizens are reaching the citizens.

0:10:14.8 Natasha: Their unit of action is actually a whole cadre of agents as they call them, who
are essentially women from communities, they’re women, they’re picking up from self-help groups. It’s giving the women the means of livelihood, but it’s not just a means of livelihood, right? It’s
essentially making those women important to people in their communities who are being able to
then co-empower others in the community. So that’s the through line you will find, which is
individuals, citizens at the center of the action as the unit of action. Empowerment really at the core
of the work voice, agency. Like these themes you will find in all of the players that we sort of
partner with. So we have four others. I could quickly sort of tell you a little bit about those.

0:10:40.5 Varadarajan: Please.

0:10:41.1 Natasha: So Laayak is it’s a very interesting portfolio. We just recently supported this
chat show called BeAManYaar. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. It’s on YouTube. Nikhil Taneja is
hosting this show and he is in conversation with various, well-known men, including Vicky Kaushal
and Naseeruddin Shah et cetera. And they are having this very lengthy and deep conversation on
masculinity. Our work with Laayak is all about trying to understand the lives of boys and men,
trying to understand the impact of patriarchy on their lives and really trying to see how can you
involve and engage young men and boys in the movement for gender equity because they are going
to be beneficiaries of gender equity as well, is what we believe in a more gender equitable society
everybody wins, we have organizations in the live portfolio that are looking at like pop culture
media because that really influences gender norms, especially for young people.

0:11:39.6 Natasha: But then we have organizations that are working very much at the kind of field
level with schools and students. The Gender Lab is there which is also based in Bombay. They
work with like adolescent boys on essentially gender sensitization programs. We have several
others like that who are looking at the life cycle of boyhood and how do you basically create better
intersections between women’s empowerment work, girls’ empowerment, and then boys and their
lives. So that’s Laayak. We work in justice. So access to justice is an area that is extremely
complicated. I would say it’s one of our most complex portfolios. There are multiple stakeholders
when it comes to justice making, and there are a lot of barriers to entry also when it comes to
intervening in the justice making process and justice delivery process. But one organization I wanna
give a wonderful example of is PAAR, P-A-A-R and it’s the open prisons project. And PAAR essentially started out as a research project, which was trying to look at how do you take this idea of open prisons and really proliferate it across the country because in Rajasthan, there is an example of an open prison where essentially if you haven’t committed a very heinous crime, and which is most prisoners are in for like something relatively milder.

Is there a way for them to kind of be a part of what we call an open prison, which is a cordoned off physical space where the prisoners can actually leave the spot to go out, do a regular job, and then they just come back every evening and they live in that space with their families, with their children, so when
you think of it, it’s really a wonderful example of restorative justice rather than retributive justice.
They’re working with several prison systems across India. It is economically attractive because
prisons are expensive to run and to sort of shut people up when there’s very little chance of them
really reforming. And then there’s the process of having to rehabilitate them. So PAAR sort of gets
around all of that with the open prison work. A lot of our partners you will find do work at the kind
of action level. So that has concrete implementation. So there’s a lot of strategic and like narrative
building and norm shifting work they also look at, that’s our work in Justice. Yeah.

0:13:30.7 Varadarajan In fact, there’s somebody else that I met who’s doing fabulous work in this
called Mohit Raj Project Second Chance.

0:13:39.4 Natasha: Oh yeah, yeah. So they’re also our partner. They’re our partners.

0:13:42.9 Varadarajan: Oh, fabulous. Fabulous.

0:13:43.0 Natasha: So Mohit is part of our partner cohort for justice. It’s exactly the same idea that
same through line, you will find that consistency where there is a lot of the idea dignity is at the
center of this work. The way voice and action is at the center, the citizenship work, I think dignity is
really at the center of our justice work and all our partners in justice. Then we have of course our
conservation biodiversity portfolio, which is huge. We have several partners there working on at the
level of regions. So there are Nilgiris-based partners. There are people working on the coastal areas.
There are people working in eco-sensitive zones, the Himalayas, et cetera. You have people
working at the level of species. There’s the elephants, there’s the tigers, different types of
organizations focusing on habitat protection, on adaptation, how to help animals and humans
coexist. Our longest relationship is, or almost one of the longest relationships has been with
ATREE, which is of course one of the sort of apex research institutions when it comes to work
around biodiversity conservation research.

0:14:40.8 Natasha: So we have a lot of work in that space, and that is one that Rohini very, very
personally leads because she’s very passionate about that. So these are four of our main areas and
mental health. We’ve just launched with a big grant in NIMHANS. So we are just starting to kind of
get into mental health and starting to make sense of it. What I will say about all of these areas, right,
justice, civic engagement, climate, gender, mental health, they’re all very intersectional. One is
they’re all related to one another. They all talk to each other. They have implications on one
another. So second is they’re deeply complex, like extremely complex areas to understand, to work
in. Therefore, now I will just tie it back to that point of they don’t have endpoints. What is the
endpoint on justice? Right? Because the very notion of what is right and…

0:15:23.4 Varadarajan: There is an endpoint yeah.

0:15:24.9 Natasha: Yeah. The very notion of what’s right and wrong, what’s fair and not keeps
evolving. So therefore you just have to be responsive [chuckle] to that ecosystem.
0:15:31.6 Speaker 1: Correct. That’s very interesting work. It’s very deep, it’s very nuanced to
really, really sink your teeth very deep into a particular area of focus that’s quite unique as a funding
philosophy. Can you also tell us a little bit about what are the kind of NGOs that you partner with?
Who do you look to partner with with this kind of philosophy and yeah, how do you go about that?

0:15:55.3 Natasha: We don’t have an open call for applications. We’ve now kind of built a
community of partners, which is about 120 strong. And I think a lot of people come to us through
word of mouth. So they’ve heard about us as a foundation through the partners that we work with or
some of the outreach that we do when we talk about our work. So we definitely have an in incoming
kind of process where you can reach out to us if you’re looking for support in any of the areas that
we do support. We have a contact email address that you can write into with a query or you could
directly write to one of us on email or LinkedIn. The idea is we respond to requests. So if you
approach us, we will be able to do a kind of, is there a prima facie effect?

So one of course is do you work in any of our areas of work? Often we get requests which are not even from our areas of work, even though they’re on the website. So that’s a prima facie no, that this is not even an area for us. Then there are of course instances where we get a request. We might have already heard of the organization. That’s one. But if we haven’t heard of your work, then we’ll try to look at your website. We’ll try to just get a basic sense on the internet of what this organization’s all about. Also, your query letter, right? Like what do you have written to us with what is the body of the email that you’re wanting to talk about. And on the basis of that, we typically set up conversations where we say, let’s get to know you a little bit based on how the conversation goes. We then formally invite the organization to apply for a grant and that goes through our grant application process. We discuss it and if we think that we’d like to make a recommendation to the board and the principals, we take it up and that’s pretty much it.

0:17:30.7 Varadarajan: Interesting. It seems to me also because you work in such nuanced areas very, very deeply, it seems to me that you also support organizations that are all in to a particular course or in a particular area where the entire organization is working towards largely one thing. As opposed to an organization that says we do likelihood programs, we do programs in health, we do something else, we do something else, and hey, here’s what we can do in your space that seems to be the case. Is it right or off the mark?

0:18:01.2 Natasha: I would say that we have partners who are working at the nexus of issues for us. I don’t think it matters whether you are working very thematically, whether you’re working cross thematically, whether you’re working in urban, whether you’re working in rural. We don’t have filters like that. I think the question that we ask really is one, what has brought you to your own work, right? How have you arrived at this work, right? So what has been the journey of the founder, the member, the leader? Why have you come to this particular approach versus any other? So if you are working in a kind of integrated saturation way, then why that? Or if you are working very deeply at a thematic level, then why that? Then we also really want to understand whether you see the system within which you’re working, right?

0:18:43.2 Natasha: Like you may not be working at the systemic level, or you may not be taking on the entire system, but what is your articulation of the system within which you exist and do you have a sense of where you are located within that system? What is going to be your role in that particular ecosystem? What is your idea of progress, right? How do you learn and how do you test hypotheses? And in all of this, if there is clarity of thinking, then I think we are quite drawn to that. Like we are very drawn to people who are able to articulate the problem statement, the root cause analysis very clearly. We don’t necessarily want you to have an answer. Because I think if you have a very, if you’re very certain about what you’re doing, then there isn’t enough openness and curiosity about other approaches. So I think this is something we suss out in the conversation and once we feel like there is that sense of alignment and that culture of it as well, we then take it to the formal application stage. I don’t know if that answered your question.

0:19:33.9 Speaker 1: It does. And the analogy that jumped at me was it’s almost like dating and then you’re kind of figuring each other out and seeing are you the right fit and then before you commit to each other, you’re like, yeah.

0:19:47.6 Natasha: Yeah, we do a vibe check. Yeah, we do like lots of vibe checks. No, but it’s true. I think that you’ll see that like our whole team, I think we really kind of, we push ourselves to up our own emotional intelligence game, right? We recognize that this whole social space, it’s so deeply relational. You have to have a sense of the people that you’re going to be on this journey with. And the best way to understand people is really to talk to them. I don’t think there’s any shortcut.

0:20:10.5 Varadarajan: And that’s so difficult to do because most people and organizations in your space would say, Hey, how do we templatize this? What’s the form that we can create that kind of helps us do this? But you’re like, no, we have to talk.

0:20:23.3 Natasha: I’ll give you an example. One of the most recent approvals that we’ve done is for Sahjani Shiksha Kendra. This organization is a grassroots organization based in UP. The founder reached out to me in Hindi. I replied in Hindi. We went back and forth a few times. We did a call. I spoke to her and I understood her life story. This woman who’s gone through extraordinary difficulty, walked out of an abusive marriage, raised children on her own, has set up this institution, is now empowering other women who are at the receiving end of violence, but recognizes the role of boys and men. So I think she had such a powerful story. And I said, how we have an application process. But I said, look, why don’t you just tell this whole story on video again? So just send me like a two minute video about everything you said to me and then just send me the budget on Excel.

0:21:13.1 Natasha: And she did that. And we have gotten the approval on the basis of that saying that this is this person and she’s an incredible person. Also, because it’s a learning grant, we don’t need to visit the field for the full for our learning grants. We don’t actually have to go to the field. So just prima facie, like this is the prima facie thing that I and of course, it came through one of our partners. So there are certain checks and balances that we do have in place, which is that it’s a strongly referred person. They have sectoral credibility for sure. And that’s good enough.

0:21:40.1 Varadarajan: I love stories like this. I love stories like this. And I love it that you’re so inclusive in your process. And that also brings me to the next part that I wanted to understand from you. You spoke of learning grants. So you have a very interesting model as well. So you have learning grants, then you evolve into deeper unrestricted grants and you even go beyond grants. Tell us a little bit about that. How does this flow? What’s each section like and how does it flow?

0:22:06.7 Natasha: Sure. So we do have a category called learning grants. The purpose of the grant is twofold. One, it is for us to be able to give a sort of low diligence upfront grant and it’s small in size, but we can give it to organizations that we don’t know. We don’t really know you and we don’t know your work, but we’d like to understand it better. And like I said, there’s a prima facie check and you meet the various criteria. Then we give you this learning grant and then through the year, we understand and interact with you. And then many of the learning grants convert into multi-year grants. But this is not to say that we have to do a learning grant with everybody. There are many organizations who upfront, we do multi-year untied partnerships with because we’ve had a chance to really understand their work. They also have great reputation and credibility. Those are our core grants and all of those grants are essentially untied. So you can use the money for whatever your purposes are. You have to, of course, do the usual reporting utilization certificates, et cetera. So you have to do that stuff. What we do care about on the reporting side is not that you report to me about where you spend every piece of money, but what have you learned in the process? What are you able to tell us about this?

Has my understanding of, let’s say, justice making as a funder, has that increased or improved or
enhanced as a result of my partnership with you? What are you able to explain to me that actually
fine tunes my own understanding of what it really takes to sort of deliver justice in India as a
whole? And then there is this idea of beyond grants. So we support all our partners with several
capacity building initiatives, through lots of exposure learning circles that we set up. It could be
something as simple as somebody is doing something really interesting in AI, and we will ask them
to come and do like a session for all of our partners where we will pay the person. And our grantees
just get to sort of learn about Generative AI. We also do paid sessions in the sense that there will be
specialists and experts, whether on the communication side and the technology side, they will be
willing to kind of work with a cohort of grantees for like, let’s say six weeks, eight weeks, three

0:24:06.5 Natasha: Many of our partner organizations have applied for fellowships or programs, or if they want to submit a paper to a conference, for instance, we have paid for that because our whole idea is that we have all of these things that we call other supports, which is that it’s hard to get money to do these other things, whether it is attending a conference. Sometimes we also support partner organizations in throwing their own events because we believe that that strengthens the ecosystem. And it is really all about trying to put wind in your sails and help you do your work a little bit better.

0:24:35.5 Varadarajan: I think those are some very, very interesting points on capacity building. There’s another area that I wanted to get a sense on, or let’s say beyond grants. See, there’s a huge challenge, Natasha, in our sector where fundraising itself is such an important task. It is existential to a nonprofit, but at the same time, there is a cost to fundraising. And that’s where most NGOs struggle very, very, very hard. So what’s your take on this? Do you support as part of your unrestricted grants, do you support fundraising? Do you help them with the cost for fundraising? What’s your take on this?

0:25:10.3 Natasha: Well, I mean, see, because our unrestricted grants are there for organizations to use as they feel is the most urgent need for themselves, they can actually use a portion of that money for fundraising, hiring a fundraising person if they want. Like I said, we have supported people by underwriting the cost of them attending programs at ILSS, for instance, which is also at the forefront of trying to better the fundraising. We have actively also tried to connect our partner organizations with other donors.

0:25:40.3 Varadarajan: So that’s interesting to understand as a funder, but Natasha, I also know you are an advisor to nonprofits in that capacity and wearing that hat. Any tips, any advice to nonprofits out there beyond your grantee network on how to navigate the whole fundraising challenge in this space better?

0:25:58.2 Natasha: I think that there are certain untapped spaces. So one is of course retail giving, right? Retail fundraising, nobody wants to do it. It seems very painful. It seems very low ROI. I know of certain organizations that have at least used the retail channel to do stock gaps, small amounts, and it really depends on your operating budget. But if your operating budget isn’t very big, if you’re a slightly early stage NGO, you can get a little bit of oxygen from retail. There are also platforms now that are trying to, of course, aggregate a lot of the retail funding and you could partner with them. I think one of the things that really burns people out is this feeling of failure on fundraising, right? The truth is you are going to have lots of doors slammed in your face, and if you

take every piece of rejection as personal failure, if you think that I was not able to raise this money, I wasn’t able to tell the story better, I wasn’t able to show my impact, you’ll burn out at some point.

0:26:50.6 Natasha: But if you just sort of be a little bit more stoic and just stay true to the process, the tide will turn. Something will turn in your favor at some point. That’s a little bit kind of woo woo, but I really do feel like I have worked with a few founders, and I think sometimes they really just need that reassurance that you are not doing anything wrong. You just have to do it for a little bit longer and it’ll happen. And I have seen this happen. I have seen the money come in eventually, just because they have stayed the course. Finally. Yeah, of course. I mean, everyone is talking about communications. How are you telling your story? So I think that’s a really important piece for sure. It isn’t about doing X number of Instagram posts or doing Y number of videos or newsletters. I think it is really spending a lot of time asking yourself, what is my story? I think story discovery is the actual gap, not storytelling. Once you discover what your story is, you can tell it. There are ways to tell it, but I think people aren’t necessarily hitting upon what their real story is. So spend a little bit of time in story discovery, which happens through pausing, reflecting, thinking, listening. What is the feedback I’m getting from the people around me?

0:27:48.8 Speaker 1: So two takeaways I would take from that. One is storytelling, story discovery, and then story articulation. Two parts to that. And the second is what I term perhaps a sales approach to storytelling, and I mean that in a very good way. So the way a salesperson in the private sector would look at it, just keep at it. There is a process, trust the process, follow it, and it’ll happen.

0:28:12.7 Natasha: Exactly.

0:28:18.4 Speaker 1: When it’ll rain, it’ll pour. Then I think one more thing that this is something I believe. I think we don’t spend enough time in understanding the work. We’ve done fundraising for non-profits in the past earlier. I think a lot of the time it’s more about saying how many, how many, how many. Not really understanding the donor, the nuance in terms of what they want to fund, and if you can and should align with that, because otherwise it’s a few time effort, and that’s one door slammed, and you don’t know why.

0:28:43.5 Natasha: And I’m gonna go ahead and say this from the best of my intentions with the hope that this helps nonprofits that are listening. I have been in many many conversations where I’ve come onto a call and I’ve had to listen to a monologue for 45 minutes before I have been asked, is this what you’re looking at? So I’m not gonna sort of cut you short. But the truth is that you say all of that, which is myself, my work, my team, my thing. Then I’m like, well, you know the thing is I run a strategic pause, or it’ll be like, actually, we don’t really work with women. It’s really important to get a quick sort of introduction first and then ask the donor, where are you at? Because sometimes yeah, we might just be on a strategic pause. So it’s a little bit bad also that somebody said this, right? That the best fundraising strategy is listening. But if you can get the donor to talk, if you get the other side to start talking, you will be able to steer that meeting in a much better way than if you do most of the talking.

0:29:45.6 Varadarajan: I’m so glad to hear that. Genuinely, it’s a bit of personal validation ’cause that’s the guiding principle with which we started DevX, right? We started it thinking, can we demystify this? Can it be one hour with a donor where they talk about what they really wanna do and if you wanna work with this organization, hey, what are the ways in which you can increase your odds of doing that? So that’s why we are doing this. I’m so happy to hear somebody else say it as well. So, another thing that I wanna get, you’re an unrestricted funder, and there’s a lot of things that I’m diving into because you’re a rare breed. One of the things that’s a really big challenge in the social sector is really pay, what people are paid. It’s a little sad that somewhere as a sector itself, we tend to propagate the belief that, hey, if you’re working here, there’s a personal price you have to pay for pursuing your passion. So as part of your unrestricted funding, have any organizations, for example, use that to correct the salaries of their resources or to hire the right talent? Has that ever happened?

0:30:52.1 Natasha: I may not have sort of concrete examples because it’s not something we check for necessarily, but I’m fairly certain that that would’ve happened. People should not be working for free no matter what they’re doing. I fundamentally believe people come into the social sector because of genuine passion, interest, desire to contribute. Do we believe that we have to match corporate salaries? I personally don’t believe that because I think that it’s one thing to say that you need to have respectable pay. It’s another thing to start benchmarking against an industry that has a completely different metric and a different organization structure. I have seen salaries sort of getting a little bit better in certain types of non-profits, in certain types of intermediary organizations. But yes, grassroots organizations still operate on extremely lean budgets. A lot of people don’t get paid as much. So I think pay is complicated. I agree that people should be compensated reasonably. I just think that there isn’t a very clear benchmark for the social sector as to what that means. I think a really interesting metric for organizations, I think also on the for-profit-side, but definitely in the not-for-profit side is retention. There are organizations, we have some partner organizations. We know where people are like, I have been with this organization for 10 years, 15 years, 8 years, and there is something a little bit beautiful about that.

0:32:19.2 Natasha: The people are wedded to the idea they’re happy with one another. They have a deep sense of community with each other, and they aren’t interested in hopping around and sort of looking for something that will pay them like 5% more because they’re actually really satisfied with the quality of the work. And they meet their sense of purpose there. I think that is really important. How do we keep that sense of purpose alive? I think sometimes I would not trade, you know, this peace of mind and this like authentic connection with the cause. I would not trade that away for better salary. Even in the social sector. You know, [laughter] sometimes.

0:32:49.3 Varadarajan: Yes, yes. That’s basically speaking to culture, right? And I think that’s something that our sector has, that private sector can learn from us, because there’s a far greater median of better culture in the social sector where people are…

0:33:02.4 Natasha: Interesting.

0:33:03.5 Varadarajan: Actually, they wake up with purpose. So Natasha, I’ve asked you a whole bunch of questions and you’ve given me some deeply insightful, amazingly articulated answers. I have a question or a question if I have to ask you, what is your most dreaded question as a funder? [laughter], what would that be? Do you have any question that keeps you awake at night?

0:33:27.9 Natasha: I think a lot keeps us awake at night, but the question that I personally have a lot of…

0:33:34.3 Speaker 1: Okay.

0:33:34.9 Natasha: Dread for as a funder is how do you measure your own impact? Because we have a certain lens on the work that we do. Why we do it, what brings us to this work? And we also have a certain way in which we engage our partners. We don’t necessarily have a log frame for it. We don’t have a metrics based sort of approach both to grant making as well as sense making. So I think the way we look at not just the impact of our partners, but actually more so our own impact, ’cause I think before you ask another person what they’re accountable to you, you also have to ask yourself, what am I gonna hold myself accountable to? So what is the role of funders? What is the role of philanthropy? Right? We’ve come up with a few things, but this is not an exhaustive list. We believe that as funders who have social capital, financial capital, we should be advocates for the causes that we support.

0:34:18.7 Natasha: We should be advocates for the fields that we support. We should actively strive to bring more capital and opportunities and do these fields of work that we are interested in. We should naturally platform the work of all of our partners in its rich and kind of abundant nature without reducing it. Because this is the articulation of what we are actually waking up and holding ourselves accountable to. It’s very hard to say, what is my metric, right? ‘Cause It’s not like, have I failed as a foundation if I didn’t manage to get grants for my own grantees from external funders? Naturally not. ‘Cause My job is not to fundraise on behalf of my grantees, but at the same time, how do I understand whether I’m being able to enable the entire ecosystem a lot better?

0:34:55.3 Natasha: So if for instance, we are working in the space of civic engagement, do we have a contour for what civic engagement as a space looks like? Who are the organizations working in this space? What are the headwinds and tailwinds for organizations trying to build anything in this space of civic engagement? What are organizations that are trying to enable justice making? What are the challenges they face? You know, what is the larger field of justice making? Who are all of the players? Who are all of the actors? And therefore what is required at the level of ecosystem building for this field? So because our loyalty is to these fields and to the thematic areas that we support, I think our interest in progress is also at the level of the field.

0:35:34.0 Natasha: If there are shifts that are happening and in gender, gender equity is something that we don’t see as the gender lab’s job or alone because all of us are striving towards a society that is more gender equal. And if I’m gonna hold gender lab accountable, I have to hold myself also accountable for how much gender equity I was able to bring about. But the idea that eventually something has to, some needle has to move at the larger thematic level and not so much at the level of each individual grantee. We have conviction that if we enable more and more actors to come in, participate, procreate, enter the field, strive towards this mountaintop, then something will move. And so again, our interest is in like how do we create an enabling and environment for more and more actors to join in and come together to try to solve that same problem? How do we enable collaboration a little bit better? How do we surface knowledge from this community of practice so that people aren’t replicating or reinventing? Those are the kind of metrics that we use and we have many sense making tools and methods, but it’s a little bit, yeah, it’s a little bit hard to kind of quantify.

0:36:35.1 Varadarajan: Okay. That very clearly keeps you up at night. I was not expecting such a long answer, but…

0:36:42.8 Natasha: Yeah.

0:36:44.2 Varadarajan: Wow. I think that the benchmark that you create for your, you’ve said for yourself is, oh, torturous.

0:36:48.1 Natasha: No, but you know I think you know can I be honest, I can tell you this, that if you tell…

0:36:54.5 Speaker 1: Yeah.

0:36:55.1 Natasha: And I can probably on this speak on the behalf of my team as well. If you tell any one of us that from tomorrow onwards, you are going to have to measure your every grantees, like, you’re gonna have to basically go to your conservation portfolio and ask them exactly how many, how much forest cover they have increased, I think that will torture us much more. I think we’ll be like, forget it, [laughter], we’re not gonna do that. [laughter] This other stuff, yes, keeps us up at night, but I really feel it feels a bit more real than going and asking somebody, you know what percentage of like gender norm have you shifted? I’m not so sure. I’m not saying anybody else is doing that. I’m not saying other funders are doing that either, but I’m just saying that this is the only way we know to make sense. So it’s not that torturous for us. [laughter]

0:37:36.0 Speaker 1: What’s the most hilarious part of your job? You obviously think a lot and then some about what you do. But tell me if there’s any part of your job that you find that has you in splits.

0:37:48.4 Natasha: Well I think that we have a great time as a team, but the splits part, I think we do, I think the, it is true that our team gets, we all laugh quite a bit about some of the kinds of queries we get on our contact ID. Once I remember somebody reached out to me wanting to talk about mental health and then they started telling me about past life regression and how they are helping women’s release the ghost of their ancestors from their properties [laughter], you know? So…

0:38:21.6 Speaker 1: Yeah.

0:38:21.9 Natasha: And like I said, because we are very responsive, we’ll sort of say, be like, yeah, sure, let’s have a conversation. What do you want? Like, what exactly is this? And you know, the thing is even on mental health, right? Like who am I to say that What works or doesn’t work? And ultimately if there is a cult that gives you some joy, you know, maybe that’s fine. So we get like really interesting solicitations, which sometimes we’ve had instances where we’ve gotten faults. Like there are some very, very, very lengthy emails, which is a very long and horrific story about somebody being kidnapped, and I’m writing from the inside of this vehicle, et cetera. So you get all kinds of emails into the contact email address, and I think that’s what sometimes makes us laugh.

0:38:57.1 Varadarajan: Natasha, this has been truly, truly amazing. As we kind of begin to wrap up and come to a close, really, really wanna thank you for taking the time, answering all my questions and really giving us an insider’s perspective into working in Nilekani Philanthropies. I’d like to know if you have any parting words for us, if you have any feedback, any advice, anything it would be greatly appreciated by the team and, I think very encouraging.

0:39:23.2 Natasha: I really definitely like the idea of using conversations as a way of building discourse. So if you are talking to donors and foundations, it’s nice to do a kind of long form genuine conversation about what they care about, where they’re coming from. Because like you said, I think a lot of people don’t necessarily engage especially principles and donors for all of the convictions they themselves have. And so I think it’s great. I mean, I’m very curious to see where this goes. It takes stamina to build things and I’m always on the side of people who wanna build things. So it’s [laughter] it’s always a pleasure.

0:40:00.8 Varadarajan: And I think there’s a statistic somewhere that says that most podcasts don’t go beyond episode three. And you are our fourth episode. So…

0:40:08.6 Natasha: Oh, am I?

0:40:09.1 Varadarajan: Yeah.

0:40:09.6 Natasha: I was like, this is like the ending.

0:40:10.5 Varadarajan: Thank you so much for that. [laughter]

0:40:13.5 Natasha: I mean, nothing after this [laughter]

0:40:14.9 Varadarajan: No, no, no. We’re not ending it. That’s definitely the opposite direction of where we wanna go.

0:40:20.7 Natasha: Oh, that’s nice.

0:40:21.6 Varadarajan: But thank you, thank you so much genuinely, and I will keep you posted.

0:40:24.9 Natasha: Yeah let me know.



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