Megha Desai, the president of the Desai Foundation, discusses scaling impact, resilience, and the upcoming Lotus Festival
By Venkatesh Raghavendra and Payton Souders
After over a decade of working in advertising, Megha Desai pivoted to a career in social impact. Through the Desai Foundation, she has leveraged her industry expertise to create transformational partnerships and programming both in the United States and in India.
She now serves as the president of the Foundation, advancing and scaling the efforts initiated by the Desai family.
The Desai Foundation started in 1997 as a small family foundation with the mission of helping marginalized communities in Gujarat. Today, the Foundation is a philanthropic giant, serving nine states in India through their 25 unique programs.
Much of this growth took place during the pandemic, proving that the Desai Foundation is not afraid of adversity. The Foundation currently focuses on increasing opportunities for disadvantaged women and girls.
Venky Raghavendra and Payton Souders sat down with Megha Desai to discuss her career and the future of the Foundation.
Read: Sai Aashraya: Servicing the most marginalized with love (August 6, 2022)
Before we get into the Desai Foundation’s impactful work in India, you have some exciting events coming up in the US. Please tell us about them.
Yes, the Desai Foundation is proud to host two annual events every year bringing together our two biggest communities.
First up is the Lotus Festival on September 24, 2022. This year we are holding it at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. We are thrilled and honored to have celebrity guests join us.
Nina Davuluri, acclaimed filmmaker, activist, actor, and entrepreneur who first gained international recognition by becoming the first Indian American and South Asian to become Miss America 2014 will be there, as will Avanti Nagral, pop singer and content creator on a mission to create songs, stories, and conversations that challenge societal norms. They’re both phenomenal!
We are very excited to celebrate our 25th anniversary and this year is going to be about the people and the community. Details are on our website thedesaifoundation.org..
Second is Diwali on the Hudson on October 12, 2022. This is our ninth year hosting this grand party with a purpose! As most of you know, it is New York’s premiere Diwali party written up as “the Diwali party not to miss!” We are so thrilled to come together without Covid restrictions this time. It’ll be a banging party!
Over the past decade, the Desai Foundation has been transformed from a small family foundation into the robust public foundation it is today. How did you do it?
During those first 15 years, we really wanted to focus on the programs and get them right. So we kept our heads down, kept experimenting and working with the communities we serve to get the program to a place where they would really show results.
Once we realized we had 15 solid programs (we now actually have 30 programs), we sorted out which ones were designed to scale, and which ones were not—and started to grow from there.
We converted to a public organization from a family foundation because we wanted to scale effectively, we wanted to involve more of our community, and we anticipated geographic growth.
We also knew that we didn’t have all the answers. As a public organization we can work with fantastic NGOs, corporates, and people that bring their experience and knowledge to the table.
I think we were a bit naïve on this transition being easy – we didn’t realize how few organizations had done it before. However, my father and I are both entrepreneurs, so we used that experience to help get us through.
Despite the hardships of the transition, it was the smartest thing we could have done. The transition made us more attractive to great talent – we have such a great team at the Desai Foundation! In addition, we are so honored to have partnered with so many corporations, brands, NGOs, institutional funders, and family foundations to help move our work forward.
Read: Furrows in a Field: From a farmer’s son to prime minister (June 30, 2022)
How did you adapt to be so impactful during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Before the pandemic hit, we were serving 568 villages. Today, only three years later, we have seen a four-fold increase in our impact and are in close to 2,500 villages across eight states of India. What makes the growth the most special and effective, is that these communities have invited us to their states and their regions and their districts to collaborate with programs and services.
We did not expand through some premeditated growth strategy or aggressive marketing tactic. We expanded because the community leaders and members reached out to us, literally inviting us into their homes. This is something I am personally proud of.
During the pandemic, these invitations into new locations were the reason we grew. We did not have a roadmap to grow our locations this quickly during a global pandemic, but at the end of the day, what drove our growth was 1) our strong programming; 2) that we are deeply rooted in the communities we serve; and 3) that we listen to the people we serve.
Who does the Desai Foundation seek to help, and how?
The primary target for The Desai Foundation has always been women and children in rural India and that will always continue to be our focus. 70% of the population in India lives in rural communities, but 70% of the nonprofit funds are raised and spent in and for urban communities. It’s a population that is largely ignored by the social sector. There is a myth that rural women will never change, evolve, or advance. I can tell you firsthand that is not true.
We have seen seismic change in the rural communities we serve. We have seen women take the lead in exploring livelihood opportunities and improving their health outcomes. It has just been the most glorious thing for us to watch women starting their own businesses, learning new skills, and taking responsibility of their health.
Women and children are our focus. Spending on women is a great investment because it has positive spillover effects for their families and communities. An empowered, financially independent, and healthy woman will spend on her family’s health and wellbeing which will further create healthy communities in general.
We spend on children because they are the future of the country and world! If we do not invest in our children, what can we expect for our future wellbeing?
Where is the Desai Foundation headed in 2023?
In the next year we’ll see more refinement in our programming. The Desai Foundation has almost 30 programs in our portfolio. And the reason we have so many is because we listen to the communities we serve: they’ve asked for these programs. If The Desai Foundation just did one thing it would be much easier to market ourselves, but that’s not what is needed in these rural communities if we’re to generate seismic change.
We’re going to continue to expand our Asani Sanitary Napkin Program; our Heroes for Humanity Relief & Recovery Initiative, and ramp up our health outreach.
Before becoming president of the Desai Foundation, you spent over a decade in advertising. What led you to transition to a career in impact? Do you have any advice for other industry professionals looking to make a similar jump?
Ultimately, I left advertising because I felt that something was missing in my life. My experience in advertising was that with every promotion I got, I felt like the product I was selling somehow became more frivolous and that was a strange dichotomy for me.
So, when I left, I started my own business and worked on smaller startups and impact brands. I worked with corporations which had some Corporate Social Responsibility priorities. I discovered that telling the stories of doing good was powerful for me.
In the meanwhile, my parents had been slowly building the organization and when we realized that we needed to make the shift to a public organization, I came on board to help move it forward.
My advice to anyone making any sort of transition is that skills can be learned. But skills like discipline, resourcefulness, hard work, attention to detail, attitude, and drive are ingrained and take much longer to learn.
I would highly advise young people to spend your career cultivating those traits. The rest, you will always be able to figure out. Also, don’t underestimate the skills you are bringing with you to the new industry. You may bring a whole new point of view, or ways of problem solving to the table.
I have now been in the social sector for about 6 years, and I feel confident sitting at tables of people that have had 30 years in the industry. Even when I feel like I don’t know something, my corporate background adds a lot of value to the way I approach things, how I innovate, how I iterate, and how I’m able to push back on some of the norms in the nonprofit world they don’t see as serving either our programming or the nonprofit industry at large.
Read: A home away from home for parents of Indians abroad (January 19, 2022)
What lessons have you brought from advertising to the world of philanthropy?
Not surprisingly, I brought messaging and communications. Many people see our Annual Reports and our Impact Reports and are surprised by their clarity. But the most important part of the messaging that we brought was to the people we serve.
No message sinks in unless it is repeated over and over. You can’t simply teach someone something once and expect their lives to change. We are proud of the fact that once we enter a community, we are there for the long run.
I also brought follow through and deadlines. Much of the social sector can feel like a lot of conversations and research, not a lot of implementations. As an entrepreneur, we lean towards shorter timelines for implementation, and frankly, I think it’s why some of our newer programs have succeeded.
We do plenty of research and analysis, but synthesize quickly, and experiment on the ground. This took some time for some of our partners and friends to get used to, but I think they now understand the value in it.
And lastly, I brought with me a slightly different point of view on collaboration. We don’t always go to the most obvious partner to solve a problem. In advertising, we found the most creative campaigns came from seemingly odd collaborations, and I find the same in our work. We know that what is important is to have the smartest minds around the table, no matter the sector they come from.
There are many people working at the Desai Foundation with no background in the social sector – I hope that can be an example to others in the industry. Let’s make this sector attractive to let the best people innovate, create, and do what they do best – but in an effort to change lives!
Read: Simi Shah dives deep into trailblazing South Asians’ journeys (January 23, 2022)
What are your dreams for the Foundation in the next 5-10 years?
My dreams for The Desai Foundation over the next five to 10 years are to continue to impact the people we serve. By the end of 2023, we will be in nine states, and I want to invest in those regions, in these people that we serve, and ensure that they are able to live healthy and productive lives and can dream and achieve beyond their current circumstances.
I am also hoping to expand our board here in the U.S. If you are someone that thinks you’re qualified and passionate to join a nonprofit board, please reach out. We’d also like to expand our network of communities across the United States to other states and invite interested parties to connect with us if you’re similarly aligned in our mission to empower women and children.
(Venkatesh Raghavendra is a contributing editor to American Bazaar and a global social entrepreneur. Payton Souders is a young professional and social impact consultant.)