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Philanthropy in hard times
Sreelatha Menon in New Delhi
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November 17, 2008

LG, the Korean company, was till a couple of months ago struggling to make its corporate sustainability efforts come right. It first tried to adopt villages and started little programmes there. It didn't like the results. Then it began to run dispensaries near its Pune and Delhi plants. It wanted more. It wanted to impact on a larger scale and not as another start-up.

Many companies want to assist in social change but do not wish to reinvent the wheel, least of all in hard times such as these. Last week, LG in Delhi decided to join hands with many other MNCs, industry leaders and NRIs. They came together on the platform of United Way International, an American NGO that has on board 25 members belonging to 10 different countries, most of them heads of companies like Samsung and Procter & Gamble.

It was an NGO conceived in bad times, in the 1880s, when silver mines closed down in Colorado in the US and thousands were left jobless. Charities didn't stop giving when things went wrong. They wanted to give more. So they put together funds and volunteers and United Way was born, recalled an old board member, Suku Radia, of Indian origin and the president of the Bankers Trust, Iowa.

Soon, the model was replicated, with more industries and charities joining the chapters in other countries, he said. Today, they have chapters in 47 countries. Wherever United Way goes, it tends to spread like a Rotary Club chain, with local industries and NGOs becoming its many limbs.

United Way opened its latest chapter in New Delhi as part of a huge expansion plan for 11 Indian cities that was started with the opening of a chapter in Bengaluru a few months ago. The economic slowdown has not changed their plans, says Radia, who was in the capital for the launch.

The foundation for this plan was laid last year when some NRIs and MNCs joined hands to form the United Way India Leadership Council to raise money in the US to support United Way's work in India. The council has business leaders from the US, including Nishith Acharya, executive director, The Deshpande Foundation; Barry Griswell, chairman, The Principal Group; Hemant Goradia, president, Vinmar International; Sheela Murthy, founder and managing attorney, Murthy Law Firm; Sunil Wadhwani, chairman and co-founder, iGate Corporation; and Radia.

United Way has been in Baroda for the last 22 years and in Mumbai for six years. New chapters are opening in Hubli-Dharwad by December and later in Pune, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Chennai.

In New Delhi, the NGO has on its board companies like AT&T, Agilent Technologies, LG, Amway, American Express, Cargill India, Carlson Hotels and Hughes Networks.

The network's goal is to create long-term solutions to local human needs with funds raised locally but with a strong accent on accountability in service (which lures industry to pitch in).

Most ideas of social change emanate from civil society, whether it is micro-finance, which started with small credit given by a Sewa (Self-Employed Women Association) or a grameen bank or a community-based social security fund.

But do these ideas lead to social fortunes equivalent to the yields from an investment made by Mukesh Ambani?

United Way is a recognition of the potential of merging the geniuses of the business mind and the social worker, says Radia.

Radia believes in United Way as much as he believes in the role of the man of business in development. He says United Way is not about pooling the money of the rich but involving each member of the community in giving and deciding how the money is used in good and bad times. As its website says, economic distress doesn't stop philanthropy, which finds new ways of giving. United Way is one such expression of a people giving despite hard times.

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