Sunday, January 17, 2010

Lessons from TJY for NGOs

[Disclaimer: This article is based on my personal views on the Tata Jagriti Yatra 2009. Nothing mentioned in this post should be considered official. Also, this is not written in the usual Mundane Journey style. This post is, basically, collation of various emails i had written to the members of my NGO, Vriddhi. ]

It's been close to month since i wrote. Actually, i was on the Tata Jagrity Yatra 2009-10. In this 18 day's trip we traveled some 9300 km across the length and breadth of the country meeting some 13 entrepreneurs. More information about the trip can be found in the blogs of other 'yatris' and at During the trip we met some outstanding entrepreneurs and got to know about some outstanding social ventures - Mumbai Dabbawalas, Sabriye&Paul, Vijay Raghaavan, R. Elanago, Aravind Eye Care, Agastya, Industree, Naandi, Gram Vikas, Jagriti Seva Sansthan, Goonj, Bunker Roy and Okhai. While meeting these great 'institutions' was a great experience, experiencing the Tata Jagriti Yatra was a greater learning - perhaps because while we visited these great institutions for a few hours, we lived and worked with the TJY for 18 days. Below are the lessons i have learned from the TJY and how these can be adapted by a start-up NGO.

1. Marketing: If there is single most important thing to running a social enterprise (in addition to the cause) is MARKETING. After the Yatra, i think, i cannot overstate the importance of Marketing. A good marketing is like a positive feedback cycle. If one's marketing is good, it will attract more volunteers. More often than not, people want to volunteer with 'brands'. Given the number of NGOs mushrooming, the volunteers are spoiled for choices and for obvious reasons they want to associate themselves with 'brand'.  So, if the marketing is good, more volunteers would want to join the NGO and this would help in building a better brand . The same logic holds for funds as well. Funders/Donors/Corporates like to give funds to brands so that it gets publicity. So, the more fund an NGO gets the more good work (and branding) it can do and the more funds it can attract.

Theory being laid out, let's see how Tata Jagriti Yatra does it. This yatra, in its present avatar is just 2 years old. But look at the brand name it has created for itself! First they roped in Tata. This, I would say, was because of their own conviction, their idea is unique and a host of other factors.

Once that was done. They got a Jagriti Yatra song composed by Prasoon Joshi, Adesh Srivastav and Babul Supriyo! Then, they got in a professional choreographer (in this case the Chairman's wife) to choreograph the 'chair version' of the song. Check the last year's version out at [This year's choreography is a little different, but this would give a basic idea of what i am talking about]. We performed this 'dance' after every role-model visit. To me, this was a great stretching exercise after listening to the rolemodel for a couple of hours.  This anthem was also used as wake-up call! The point i am trying to make is that this anthem was not only a binding material but also a branding tool. The dance looked very weird to me in the first instance. I had never seen something like it before. And given a choice, i would have never done it. BUT, when you see ALL the organizers doing it 'sincerely' with grace, happiness and love - the steps didn't matter and it became a representation of our feelings. The lesson learned, here, is that we need to believe in and enjoy what we are doing. Only then would others enjoy.

Apart from the song, branding was done everywhere. TJY T-shirts. TJY bags. These really helped. First, when 400 odd people go out wearing the merchandise, TJY gets instant publicity. Second, it helps in connecting - Like, i was sitting in the airport and saw a lady with TJY bag. Immediately we could connect. Marketing and brand building  was there in every little thing they did. They organized a blogging competition for the Yatris. This way they got a lot of content, publicity, etc. Giving the yatris an opportunity to blog was a good way for the yatris to not only share there experiences but also to 'fix' them in their memories.

It's basically, a win-win game for all the stakeholders. Everyone gains from the marketing techniques TJY employed.

A lot of small NGOs can take some lessons from here. At least, we at Vriddhi, are really inspired. It's doesn't take a lot of investments to make a facebook group or an Orkut community. Also, since we all anyways wear T-Shirts, caps, it makes sense to market your NGO through it. And give these merchandise as gifts should you need to give one. Creating an NGO anthem would also go a long way. One doesn't necessarily have to get big names do the anthem. A lot of yatris, created a song for the role-models we visited. Just ask your otherwise unruly neighbor who disturbs you with his guitar. He would be more than happy to create a song for you.

2. Scale: Another lesson learned from the TJY was that SCALE is very important. Let me start with a few examples.

Naandi Foundation is serving mid day meal to thousands of school in various parts of India. The 'function' of Naandi in the mid-day meal is similar to TCS or Infosys. Mid-day meal is a central government scheme and govt has outsourced the work to Naandi. So, the govt pays Naandi and does the work. Fair enough. But, if you try to think how could Naandi get such a contract from the govt, it would appear impossible. Manoj Kumar, CEO of Naandi foundation said that the government outsourced them the work because of 'scale'. Had they gone to govt. saying that we'll do the mid-day meal for 50 schools, govt would have turned them down. Another advantage of scale is efficiency. As per Kumar, out of Rs 100, Rs 97 reaches the beneficiary. Food for a lot of schools is prepared in a centralized kitchen from where it is distributed to different schools. such centralized approach which is highly efficient wouldn't have been feasible without scale.

Let me go back to my favorite role model - The TJY itself. Taking 400 youngsters is a huge responsibility in itself and very difficult from management perspective. However, the effectiveness of the trip wouldn't have been there had the train not been chartered. And to charter a whole train you need volume. 400 is an optimal number in that respect. The point I am trying to make is that in today's business or social sector, one cannot remain small. Scaling up and expanding is nothing but survival. You need to attain a critical mass.

3. Fun: Another thing which i saw in TJY was fun. Fun was part and parcel of the life for the 18 days. We had 3 explicit dance parties! When we started from Mumbai Central, the train was delayed by some 5 hours. The Yatris and the admin, instead of cribbing took this opportunity to network and socialize by having fun.We had a group of yatris singing to a guitar when Swapnil, from the admin, came and joined and entertained the yatris with his strums. Then, there was this other group who was busy learning rubik's cube while there we others busy chatting away. Whether it's train delays, bus rides, new year or Mithapur. The people didn't leave a single opportunity to have fun. Here, I should emphasize on the platform that the admin had given to the yatris for having fun. And while partying - everyone was alike - the yatris and the admin.

Apart from the all-work-and-no-play, 'Fun' has manifold implications. First, since the trip was for 18 day and with almost 400 unknown people, a fun-less trip would have made it impossible for the yatris to go on especially when the climates and amenities are so uncertain. Second, this made the 400 yatris enthusiastic - the enthusiasm which lasts even after  the trip. This enthusiasm would cause the yatris to speak about it, tweet it and blog it. The reason i am blogging about the yatra, perhaps, is the fun i had there! Third, and probably the most important, implication is that a lot of yatris would go back as volunteers for the next yatra!

Small NGOs face a problem of retaining their volunteer base. Perhaps large NGOs also face it. One way to solving this is to add a lot of 'fun' activities for the volunteers. Please key in any low-cost-high-impact fun activities you could think of for the volunteers in the comments section.

 There are many other big-small things i have learned form the Yatra. I may post my personal learnings in case i find that the readers would find it interesting.

[Note: There are a lot of other, perhaps, more important things for start-up NGOs such as - product design, devising a good model, multiple sources of funds, etc. But. from my personal experience, there is a consensus about the importance of these. However, there is negative or neutral inclination towards the things i talked about above.] 

Yaaron Chalon...


pallav January 18, 2010 at 2:39 PM  

that is a very interesting post, especially the fun part of it, sounds fun :)

though i would like to point out that for a startup ngo, reaching scale can be difficult, meaning they should always keep that in mind, but should be prepared for scale to be achieved after a good amount of time.

very nice blog :)

Megha Mandavia January 18, 2010 at 8:59 PM  

nice... i like !! :)
interesting observations

Amresh Sinha January 18, 2010 at 11:41 PM  

wow u said wat i wanted to say in almost every mocking manner it can be done ..i hope TJY team read it and get inspired by the yatris also !!

Prashant Mehta January 19, 2010 at 12:37 AM  

pallav ji,


Yes, scaling up is a big challenge in itself. Nevertheless, it is necessary.

Megha Mandavia ji


Amresh Sinha ji

Thanks! Yeah, you and I had similar views on this.

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