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Here’s one way to fix India’s sorry state of philanthropy

Shweta Katti wants to attend Bard College in the US this fall, but she’s hardly the typical foreign student from India. She grew up in Kamathipura, India’s largest red-light district in Mumbai. In 11th grade, an education nonprofit moved her to an apartment to help her better concentrate on her studies. As she was thinking about colleges, she met a US diplomat who happened to be an alumnus of Bard College.

She received a full-tuition scholarship, but still needs another $18,000 to pay for room, board, books, travel and health insurance.

Shweta represents the best and worst of Indian philanthropy. A dedicated volunteer, Robin Chaurasiya, with a local nonprofit called Kranti took great interest in the teen’s drive and promise and moved her from home (Shweta is the granddaughter of a brothel owner and the daughter of a Devadasi dancer) to Mumbai’s quieter north suburbs.

But charity, at least as it exists in India, can only get Shweta—and big-ticket needs like hers—so far. Institutional giving has really only just started. Bill Gates tried to include India’s business elite in his pledge for billionaires to “dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.”  Only one of India’s 61 billionaires, Azim Premji, the billionaire founder of Wipro, took Gates up on the offer. GiveIndia.org is a decade-old charity that tries to develop a culture of generosity by vetting nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and connecting them to India’s growing legions of white collar workers.  More than 250 NGOs have been vetted, and more than 200,000 Indians and 125 corporations have worked with GiveIndia, but there is still a long way to go.

To be sure, Indians are a generous people, but our giving tends to be more limited to local organizations. Even then, donors worry mightily over the so-called “suitcase NGO,” where cash for the nonprofit goes in and out mysteriously without helping anyone along the way. While that is far from the majority of NGO work, this fear has kept many Indians from giving outside their localities. But if you present Shweta’s story to the average Indian with means, chances are high that he or she would want to help.

Crowdfunding might be Shweta’s answer—and many other people’s too. Ketto is one of India’s first crowd-sourcing sites; it’s being used by a group of Mumbaikars in an effort to raise money for Shweta. Another hurdle: Though India’s internet population is a 100 million, internet penetration is less than 15% and broadband penetration significantly less. So Shweta’s well wishers are working in India with Ketto and also US-based Globalgiving.org  to help raise money for Shweta’s education. Shweta’s inspirational story is garnering global interest: Newsweek named her one of the 25 under 25 young women to watch earlier this year.

That is the idea behind crowdfunding. Individuals can choose the charity or cause they want to help. People have options and many choices. They can help Shweta get to college or they can fund clean water for a village or an elementary school. Reputable and accountable crowd-sourcing sites is helping, but not yet totally erasing, the fear of philanthropic fraud.

So far, Shweta has raised $5,000 for her cause. She has until August to raise the rest. In a country where role models outside of Bollywood and cricket can be hard to find, the unlikely Shweta has become an aspirational figure for young girls and boys. It wouldn’t take much for them—and the rest of the country—to help her continue her journey.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com. 

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