Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Sonal Sachdev Patel, writer, activist and CEO of GMSP Foundation.
1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?
So much. I wish I had known to go straight to the grassroots. The civil society leaders on the frontlines know what their communities need and know how to deliver it. But they’re constrained by a funding environment that is too often inflexible, impatient and imperialistic in terms of who drives the agenda. When we started in 2006, we were giving project-based funds. After listening to our local partners, we shifted to unrestricted funding.
I also wish I had known it was okay to not have all the answers. With my business background, I thought all we needed was a good strategy, an experienced team and funding. Now I understand it’s all much more complicated than that – both the problems we’re seeking to address, and their solutions. What matters is using philanthropy’s comparative advantages including agility, flexibility and even tolerance for failure to respond with humanity and compassion every day.
2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?
It has to be Covid-19. Specifically, the impacts on voluntary and civil society organizations. Of course, we are immediately concerned with mobilizing an emergency funding response; accelerating payments, allowing for full flexibility with when and how funds are deployed, and making additional grants available to some of the organizations we already fund. We’re a small piece in the funding ecosystem, but private philanthropy can often move faster and more flexibly than the rest. That’s what our partners need from us right now. But we also need to look ahead; there will be a long tail to this crisis, with far reaching consequences for civil society.
We’ve already signed two joint statements (Charity So White’s “Relief Packages for the Charitable Sector” and London Funders’ “We Stand with the Sector”) demanding more of ourselves as a funding community to ensure our partners can recover, build resilience and be there for their communities in the years ahead.
3. What inspires you most about your work?
There are two groups of people who continue to guide and inspire my work. First, it’s the grassroots leaders who work tirelessly every day in pursuit of equality, justice and dignity for the communities they serve. They bring bravery and imagination to some of the world’s biggest challenges. The most we can hope to do is hold ourselves to the same standard, aspiring to a bolder, more thoughtful kind of philanthropy that can help these leaders succeed.
And my parents, Ramesh and Pratibha Sachdev. They came to the UK from East Africa with very Little. They built up a successful business and have committed to spending down their wealth within their lifetimes. They are deeply generous people who always guided their business, foundation and family with love, kindness and compassion. As we were growing up they said, “Forget about what you have, or what you have not. Always think about what you can do for others – then you will be happy and you will have a successful life.”
4. How does your gender identity inform your work?
We can only see the world through our own eyes. I’m the mother of two girls. A British-Asian woman. The child of immigrants. A woman of color. And a philanthropist who knows that girls and women, especially poor girls and women of color, are too often the most marginalized members of our society. Despite the incredible privileges that protect me from some of this discrimination, I am driven by the shared humanity that connects us all. After all, a mother who worries for her children is the same no matter how much money she has or where she lives. A girl who wants to make her own decisions about her body or her education feels it just as fiercely whether she is in a small village in India or here in London. This sense of connection and solidarity is reflected in our philanthropy.
5. How can philanthropy support gender equity?
We don’t believe in silver-bullet philanthropy. Instead, the best we can do is genuinely listen to the experts on the ground and support them with all the tools we have as funders. That means flexible gap funding so they can direct resources wherever the need is greatest, often toward things like rent, reserves and staff well-being. These are things many others don’t want to fund, but it’s become clear during the Covid-19 crisis that these are also the things that local organizations need to survive. Movement building and normative behavior change takes resilience, passion and patience. Our job as philanthropists is to support the leaders who make change possible, and to do so in a way that provides space and builds power for underrepresented groups. That’s why most of the organizations we fund are led by women, and women of color. We’re funding the world we want to see.
6. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equity movements taking us?
I believe the world is going through a collective trauma with the coronavirus. Once we emerge from it, we must take a moment to reflect, then get on with the important work of reimagining the future. This cannot be about getting “back to normal.” Returning to the status quo is simply not an option. All this money from philanthropists and governments over all these years, and yet we still have wretched inequality, people living in slavery, people facing unspeakable violence, people left unhappy and alone. If there is an opportunity to shape a different kind of world, we should be looking to the leaders of our solidarity and social movements to guide us. It is their imagination, energy and ideas we need now more than ever. A gender-just future is only possible when we center marginalized groups.
As Arundhati Roy says, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
More on Sonal Sachdev Patel:
Sonal Sachdev Patel is the CEO of God My Silent Partner Foundation (GMSP) Foundation, a family foundation established by her parents, Ramesh and Pratibha Sachdev, which supports strong frontline organizations working to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in India and the UK.
After graduating from Cambridge with an MA in Economics and Management Studies, she started her career as a strategy consultant at Bain & Company, working in London and Delhi before moving back to the UK to join GMSP. She serves on the UK board of Dasra. She co-authored Gita: The Battle of the Worlds, published by Harper Collins, which brings the universal messages of the ancient Hindu text the Bhagwad Gita to children of all faiths and none. She was awarded the 2019 Influencer Award by DSC Awards for her work in social change.
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