How Desai Foundation Drives Social Change for Women in India

Nonprofit ventures each have a unique story and journey, with some expanding their capacities and impact dramatically as they grow and mature. This seems to be the case with the Desai Foundation, now a public nonprofit, which exists to promote health and livelihood for women and children, primarily in India, with plans to expand this work in the U.S. 

Megha Desai, President of The Desai Foundation, served as host of The Lotus Festival, taking guests on a variety of virtual adventures over the course of an hour and a half. (Image Credit: Desai Foundation)

I recently had the opportunity to join the Desai Foundation for its annual Lotus Festival, a fundraiser and educational event that the foundation holds every year. This year with COVID, the event was also offered online, making it more accessible, and prompting the organizers to ensure that participants joining online would get a full experience of all that the foundation is about.

Megha Desai, President of the Desai Foundation, was the master of ceremonies for the event. Desai is the daughter of Samir and Nilima Desai, and has been an integral part of the vision and journey for Desai Foundation from its inception in 1997, when the family conceived of the idea while on a trip to Peru. While experiencing their own gratitude for the advantages and resources they had in their lives, Megha and her family recognized that they wanted to pursue a larger purpose with philanthropy, in order to give back to the communities that had brought them good fortune and wealth — both in India and the U.S.

Starting as a small private family foundation, the Desai Foundation converted to a public 501c3 in 2014. While it now relies on outside donations and grants to fund its work, the Desai family still matches the amounts of all individual donations, demonstrating their ongoing commitment to the work by essentially doubling the funding.

By opening up as a public nonprofit, the Desai Foundation has been able to expand its impact in significant ways. Because the founders maintains deep connections to family and friends in India, they are able to listen deeply to the concerns of communities and find the best partners for their work. As a result, they can feel particularly confident in the work’s value, and can also readily communicate to gain insights about the effectiveness of different strategies and procedures. Unlike some organizations that seek to offer grants in countries foreign to them, yet don’t even translate their grant information into the language of that country or provide translators for conversations, the Desai Foundation has a significant strategic advantage in being able to leverage their existing networks for social change.

“Women are the backbone of any community, and the discrimination that they face limits social progress as a whole,” says Megha Desai, in the nonprofit’s 2020 Annual Report, which came out in July 2020 and reflects the shifts in focus for the nonprofit caused by COVID. “Supporting women is essential to overall growth, as 90% of what women earn is invested back into their community.”

In the first months of 2020, the Desai Foundation was going into the field with great momentum, expanding its reach to dozen more communities, bringing in new partners, and expanding programs. They had ambitious goals of expanding their menstrual health project to the U.S. prison system, and then COVID hit. As a result, the Desai Foundation  had to cancel or postpone over 100 already scheduled programs. 

“We immediately went to work doing everything we could to be a part of the solution – even if it meant stepping outside our usual ways of working,” said Desai. “The pandemic tried to take our health and our livelihoods — the thing that the Desai Foundation has spent over 20 years fighting for — and we aren’t going to stop now,” she said.

Simultaneously Ending Stigma and Growing Vocational Skills

Much of the work of the Desai Foundation has centered around Asani — their signature program that boosts production of low-cost sanitary products with customized manufacturing machines that women workers can use to turn out retail-quality pads in places where the only alternatives are handmade and ineffective. Women across hundreds of villages in India then go door to door, selling these disposable pads at radically subsidized rates.

This work of education, production, and distribution simultaneously ends stigma about periods while it grows vocational skills for women. It also helps women and their families gradually adjust to working outside the home. In discussing the program, Megha Desai recalled one of the women working at distributing the pads who wasn’t making much money at it. When she inquired with the woman about that, the woman said she was doing it mainly for the socializing value and the chance to get out and see other women in the community. In this way, the work is both flexible and taboo-breaking, first about periods, and then about women being economic drivers and drivers of social innovation, in a society where women are in danger of infection from using traditional means to address their periods.

Lotus Festival Highlights

The Lotus Festival was an action-packed evening, and included Jill Ellis, two-time world cup champion, discussing the importance of focusing on women and girls with commitment and teamwork. “Persistence is dealing with the hardship, growing from it, and pushing forward and through to a better place and a better space,” she said, is one of the most important characteristics leading to success.

“I’m continually in awe of how the courage of women shape and influence our world. Mothers sacrifice to feed their kids, young women speak out against violence, and girls strive and push for an education. We are surrounded by examples of women’s strength.”

In closing, Ellis reiterated a quote she often says to her 15 year old daughter, words from the poet and activist Maya Angelou:  “Each time a woman stands up for herself, even without knowing it, possibly without claiming it, she stands up for all women.” 

Impacting Women’s Lives and Livelihoods in India

The Lotus Festival took guests right into the real world of women’s work in India. Mittal Gohil, Executive Director for the Desai Trust in India, which administers much of their programming, interviewed Sheetal while she was working at her sewing machine creating masks, entering her home in the small village of Vassa in the Gudrath region of India.

Sheetal is participating in the Masks of Hope Campaign, the foundation’s response to COVID of employing women to sew masks for Indian communities.

Sheetal talks with Mittal Gohil, Executive Director of the Desai Trust, India. (Image credit: Desai Foundation)

Sheetal discussed how she is doing the work for Masks of Hope, which is employing women on an at-will basis, so they do not need to spend specific hours doing the job, but can fit it into their schedule when possible.

“In these times of rising inflation, it is very difficult to run the house with the income of a single person. It is very difficult to meet even essential expenses,” said Sheetal. Through the mask-making work, Sheetal is able to contribute to some of the household expenses, adding that this was more sewing work than she had been getting regularly, and she was glad to have the extra work.

Sheetal also talked about the reactions of her two children to her sewing work, and how they were surprised to realize that her work would have an impact all over the country, with the masks she was making providing protection to other members of their nation far away.

Watching this conversation between two women in a rural Indian village, replete with sounds of cocks crowing and motorcycles roaring by on a nearby dirt road, brought me into a very different mind space — one of sudden awareness of all of the furnishings of middle class life in America that do not exist in these other contexts. It also conveyed so tangibly how this work is creating different ways of life for traditional cultures.

Indian Matchmaking Guests: Desai Once Again Wades into Controversy

For the next adventure of the Lotus Festival, the Desai Foundation took us into a very complicated and controversial realm — that of Indian marriage. Four members of the cast of Indian Matchmaking joined by video to discuss their experiences being on the show. For those who may not have heard, Indian Matchmaking took the world by storm with its raw presentation of the caste, class, and physical appearance considerations that go into the traditional matchmaking experience in India. Some have criticized the show as reinforcing Indian stereotypes, while others felt it was a healthy revealing of how traditional matchmaking shapes the culture, and how the traditions are changing.

Four members of the cast of Indian Matchmaking joined the Lotus Festival event to discuss their experiences on the show. (Image credit: Desai Foundation)

“Indians can be very othering,” said Megha Desai, of the Desai Foundation’s decision to invite these guests to present at their annual event. “There are so many different regions, languages, casts, and colors. I liked that Indian Matchmaking sparked conversation about all of this.”

This segment of Lotus Festival provided a striking hybrid of entertainment and education, as the guests discussed their experiences on the show.

The Lotus Festival ended with an hour and a half dance party online led by DJ Rekha, offering attendees a great opportunity to let loose and enjoy some wild Saturday night dancing in their own living rooms.

More about the Desai Foundation:The Desai Foundation was born in 1997 as a family foundation started by Samir A. Desai and Nilima Desai. The Foundation had one simple goal: to serve the communities that had served them. In order to keep up with the pace of its growing organization, the Desai Foundation became a public foundation, and refocused its mission. The Desai Foundation is now a robust public and programmatic organization working to empower women and children through health and livelihood in India and the U.S. The Foundation believes that empowering local community members to run projects leads to the best results. And that restoring dignity is at the center of helping people to dream beyond their circumstances.

Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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