What Vermont Nonprofits Can Learn From a Small Town in India – A Perspective Piece

Thank you to Scot Barker for sharing this article. Scot is a consultant and volunteers with Burlington area nonprofits. This is part of an ongoing blog series exploring Vermont nonprofits: 

In 2009 I made my first trip to India. What started out as a business trip quickly transformed into a much more personal experience; an experience that affects me still to this day. I could (and should) write pages and pages about what I learned (and what I continue to learn) from this and subsequent trips, but today I’m going to focus on a specific topic: What Vermont nonprofits can learn from a small town in India. 

First, a bit of background. The small town of which I’ll write is called Yemmiganur and is found in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh, India about a six hour drive north of Bangalore, India. At the heart of this village is a weavers colony, set up in the 1930’s as a cooperative to help the local weavers who were especially hard hit by a famine. Today, however, one can find Indivillage, a rural business process outsourcing center set up by the grandson of the man who founded the weavers colony. While there are still weavers doing their work in the area, the goal of Indivillage is to bring technical jobs based on the information economy to the people in this area.

I was first brought to Indivillage by Ravi, the man who founded Indivillage and the grandson of the man who brought the weavers colony to life. I had met Ravi at another business partner in Bangalore when he said he had something to show me. The next day, we hopped in the car and started the drive through rural India. I was told when we arrived in Yemmiganur that I may have been the first westerner to see the village. It was obvious as we pulled into town just how revered Ravi and his family are in their ancestral town, even before we saw the bigger than life statue of his grandfather, freshly adorned with a jasmine flower necklace.

We toured the village of Yemmiganur and then began learning about and understanding Indivillage, what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it. I’m proud to say that my company was the first company to buy into the concept and have been a client of Indivillage ever since. 

With that very brief description of Indivillage and Yemmiganur, let’s dive into five things Vermont nonprofits can learn form this small town in India. 

 

  1. Starting slow and building momentum wins the race in the long run. My company was the first one to start using Indivillage. They started slow, and so did we. That first contract resulted in our spending less than $3000 per month for almost the entire first year. During that first year, they focused on two things: delivering quality, on-time work to us, and finding customer number two. Over time, they added many customers. This precipitated adding many more employees. Now, this many years later, they are making plans to open the second center, in another rural area, to expand their operations and bring more of these jobs to rural India. They didn’t set out to win the race out of the gates. They insisted (and still do) on building a sustainable business, no matter how slowly (or quickly) that took.
  2. Helping women in a community helps the entire community. From the beginning, the majority of employees at Indivillage have been women. That hasn’t always been easy, as the cultural momentum in this part of India didn’t always embrace that aspect. Yes, there are men that work there and those men do great work as well. But a story about this will illustrate my point. One day, early on, the onsite manager at Indivillage called to let me know about potentially missing a deadline. When I asked why, he responded that many of the women hadn’t come into work that day. He was on it and had called Ravi to come help. He asked me to be patient and he would keep me in the loop. As it turns out, many of the fathers, fathers-in-law, brothers and husbands didn’t like that the women in their lives were going to work outside the home and in some cases, even bringing in more income than the men. But credit to Ravi, Mani and the men of the community. They got together and had some (I can only imagine) difficult conversations about how much better life would be if these women continued to earn money for their families. Ultimately, they all came back to work. Many of them are still there to this day. And walking around the community now, you definitely see the positive changes the success of Indivillage has helped bring this village.
  3. Nonprofits should be an investment — on their part, and on the donor’s part. When I was first at Indivillage, one of the first questions I asked was how I could bring the message back to the United States. How could I help them raise money here to help them there. The response was surprising, I have to admit. Much less surprising now, seeing what they have done. They did not want charity. They didn’t want donations. They wanted work. They were investing in their community and the people in their community. They wanted their customers to be part of that investment. Not by sending donations, but by sending work. 
  4. Doing good means your organization does well. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t get reminded of the work outside Indivillage that organization does in Yemmiganur. Part of that is because I hear from them almost every day. And they are great at sharing what the success of Indivillage has meant to the entire community. Yes, they support more than 65 families through the wages the employees earn. They’ve also built a new freshwater community well, and they run a school specifically committed to educating the poorest of the poor in Yemmiganur. They plow all the proceeds back into either growing the business or improving their community. 
  5. You need proselytizers — and you need to be able to tell a good story. Finally, the only way to grow is to get the word out. And to do this, you need to be able to tell a good story. And find people who can help you tell that story. Sometimes, the best way to do this is to find someone who has benefitted from your service to speak on your behalf. I’ve done that from the beginning with Indivillage. So find people inside and outside your organization who love to tell stories and set them loose telling yours. On social media and in live interactions. Nothing can replace the proselytizers’ passion. And it’s that passion that truly tells your story. 

 

Having shared with you five things you can learn from this small town in India, I’m going to share with you one more thing. I believe that the success I’ve seen at Indivillage can and should be replicated across the United States. I’m in the early stages of talking to some people to formulate a plan to do just that. We’re likely going to start in Vermont. It might well turn out to be a non-profit (at the beginning? forever? Who knows). But as with the points above, we’ll do it slowly, to build momentum, it will be an investment on the part of everyone involved, and I’ll hopefully play the role of lead proselytizer. Please know, however, that I won’t stop supporting Indivillage as I’ve done these past eight years. Success in one location does not preclude loss in another. I’m working from the perspective of abundance, not scarcity (and that last piece is a concept I learned at Indivillage, and I learned how to speak about it from my wife, herself at a local non-profit here in Burlington, VT). 

 

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