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HELPING PEOPLE HELP THEMSELVES
A Successful Fund-Raiser Reminisces

With a reputation as an extremely able fund-raiser for charities, Veera Rao works with the Association for Leprosy Education, Rehabilitation and Treatment (ALERT). Prior to this she worked with the National Association for the Blind. She is also one of the Executive Committee members of the Indian Association for the Promotion of Adoption. She talks to CHANGE about her career in social work that spans 24 years and during which she has raised a total of Rs. 57 crores for various charities.


Former Chairman of the Godrej Group of Companies, Sohrab Godrej (extreme right), inaugurated a photographic exhibition by Ramesh Narayan (second from right) in aid of ALERT-India at Y.B. Chavan Hall, Mumbai. Seen with Veera Rao (second from left) is V. Ranganathan, Advisor, The Indian Express (extreme left).

Since childhood I have felt deeply for two causes ?the blind and leprosy patients. I have seen my parents supporting both, so I suppose that is the foundation for my feelings. After I graduated in Zoology I wondered what to do. The usual thing would have been to do a post graduation in the same field but I wanted to do something that involved close interaction with people rather than spending my life looking through a microscope.

At that time, my good friend and now my husband, Mohan, suggested that I consider a career in social work, and I enrolled at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). The experience really opened my eyes. Growing up in army cantonments in different parts of India I had no idea what poverty was ?I never really experienced or saw it. While studying at TISS I came across a lot of this.

I realized that there was so much potential to do things for people ?apart from just making a small donation to a cause. I specialized in family and child welfare for my Masters in Social Work at TISS. It was very difficult for me initially because of my science background. For the first time I learned about human behavior, how you can make a meaningful contribution, how helping people is not about making them dependent on you. The whole idea of helping people help themselves was opened up to me ?it was a tremendous learning experience.

Thatís how I started my social work. On completing my post graduation I wanted to work for the welfare of the blind. We had been taught how to make proposals for projects. The frustrating part, however, was that each time we made a proposal it was not carried out. We would be told, justifiably, ďThere are no funds?

When I was leaving TISS I told my professor Mrs. Apte, ďI feel I have done so much legwork and so much writing and not much could be implemented in the agencies where I was placed during training.?And thatís when she told me something I have never forgotten. She said, ďWe social workers get so involved. We want to put the best of ourselves and of talent available to us into our work and yet because of lack of funds we cannot implement our plans. This is the tragedy of social work.?/font>

Those words haunted me. I kept thinking that thereís tragedy in social work ?the irony of wanting to do something, having the talent, but being held back by money!

The next day I asked Mrs. Apte if anything could be done about this ďtragedy?in social work. She said that the only thing to do was to learn to raise funds. At that time there was no way to learn how to do this. Now itís so different ?I even lecture about this! Then came an opportunity at the National Association for the Blind. I hesitated before accepting because I didnít want to be a fund-raiser. I was advised to take it on, to learn fund-raising so that I could then learn to make organizations independent. We had such a fine team ?Vijay Merchant, Mahaboob Nasrullah, B. K. Karanjia, Rehmat Fazalbhoy, Dilip Kumar, Brigadier Chainani. We did a lot of successful fund-raising and were able to expand our facilities. I got a lot of encouragement.


A special leprosy control programme was organised for the police. Seated with
Veera Rao (second from right) is Shridhar Vagal, Joint Commissioner, Crime Branch, Mumbai.

Subsequently, I changed over to leprosy control work. Besides this I also help some other deserving charities working for child welfare. I help charities on a totally voluntary basis to raise funds. I give talks on fund-raising and share my experiences. When small struggling organizations learn to raise funds, their work acquires a different perspective. They can begin to plan their work.

It is important that the funds which are donated are used for the cause for which they were donated. Sometimes an organization is tempted to use them for other purposes such as improving their office ?this is something I object to. Our beneficiaries depend on us for this. As a fund-raiser ?as a resource mobilization person ?I have a responsibility to them as well as to my donors. Over the years I have built up a solid relationship of trust with my donors. Proper utilization of funds raised by the Non-Governmental Organization is, in my opinion, a core foundation value which makes or breaks an organisation in the long run.

I feel that one of the vital things we have to do is to convince the donor not just to give money, but also to take a little time to find out what the organisation they are donating to is doing. They need to feel some sense of involvement with the cause. I always say, ďTell people what you are doing and money will come in.?/font>

In my experience I have always found tremendous support... and from the most unexpected quarters. One small example. Some years ago I had helped a blind beggar to set up a coconut stall. After a month or so he came to me clutching something in his fist and gave me thirty-eight rupees. It was his first earning and he wanted to donate it to help the blind. When things like this happen, you feel there is God right here in the midst of us. It was such a touching experience!

When you work with both sections of society ?the affluent and the poor ? you are learning all the time and one of the things I have learned is that people are basically good. They do want to give of themselves. They are looking for opportunities. My fund-raising work has taught me this more than my social work. As a social worker I find I am a catalyst. On one side there are people who have so much to give in terms of money but they donít really have the time to find a good cause ?to research it and see if their money will be well used. When you take on fund-raising you become a catalyst between these two sections.

Itís very important to bear in mind that you are asking for money for a cause. You are not a beggar. Begging is asking for yourself. This is a nobler deed. You are asking for money for someone else who needs help to improve his quality of life. When seeking donations you should get the person involved in the cause before you ask for money. If you ask for money directly, you will not get it... and you donít deserve to get it ?but if you tell them about the organisation, educate them, inform them, then by the grace of God, Iíve found that people always respond. Recently I approached Shubha Mudgal and invited her to one of our charity dinners. I also told her we would be very happy if she would sing for us. She said that as a rule she doesnít sing for dinners, but she said that she would support us and, believe it or not, she said she would do an entire show for us totally free of cost. I have seen this time and again ?people donít just want to give money, but want to give of themselves.

It was the same with Amitabh Bachchan. He is a man who keeps his promises and is so accommodating! There is no fuss about him, no airs. He is absolutely professional. And I can also say the same of so many other stars who have donated so generously of their time and talents - people like Amrish Puri, Jackie Shroff, Rani Mukherjee.


(L-R): Film star Rani Mukherjee, a committed friend and supporter of ALERT-India with
Veera Rao at the ďLittle Wonders?show at Nehru Centre, Mumbai.

Charitable events draw attention to the cause and can be an opportunity to spread information. Take the example of my work with the Association for Leprosy Education, Rehabilitation and Treatment (ALERT). We are committed to the control and eradication of leprosy by identifying early cases of leprosy, treating them and enlightening the public about the problem. In a span of 21 years we have cured 19,690 leprosy sufferers as of December 2001. The majority of these were detected at the early stages of leprosy and hence are not socially known leprosy patients. Among these 30 per cent are children. Five per cent are detected with disabilities and deformities. We began our work when the prevalence of leprosy in slum communities was 11 to 15 cases per 1000 people. Annually we continue to detect 800 to 1,000 cases. Since its inception ALERT has been working in the N, S and T wards of the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation providing treatment through 27 clinics in the far eastern suburbs of Mumbai as well as in Navi Mumbai and 40 villages surrounding Navi Mumbai. We cover a total population of 23 lakhs.

Until recently leprosy was regarded as a curse of God. We want to dispel fear about this disease. It is 100 per cent curable at any stage. Not many people know this and they are still fearful of it. Many other causes like cancer research, the blind and the handicapped have the advantage of emotional appeal while fund-raising. Leprosy doesnít have this. Leprosy has stigma and fear. An educational campaign becomes all the more necessary to convince donors that leprosy problems at the community level need their concern and support. Heightened levels of awareness of this disease will combat many misconceptions and social stigmas.

We have realised the need to reach out to the younger generation. As part of our educational campaign we approached Sachin Tendulkar. He listened to us for about 20 minutes and then agreed to be a part of the documentary in which he would endorse the message that leprosy is curable. This was just a few days before his Zimbabwe tour. He was to be away for three months. We asked him when he would be available for the filming and he immediately suggested the next day!

Events get us a lot of mileage. They are one way of publicizing an organization and its aims. Once a woman called me at ALERT. She said she had seen an advertisement about an event we were planning. She said she wanted to donate some money. Of course I accepted and ever since then she has been a regular donor. A donor is not just someone who gives money. They can give time or help us in any way. I always make sure that I keep everyone informed about what is happening in the organisation. They must know what they are donating to. They must feel a sense of involvement. Another thing I learned was that you have to spend money to collect money. In a fund-raising event the donor expects entertainment in return?it is a two-way street.

It is very important for organisations to raise their own resources. When ALERT started they depended 100 per cent on foreign grants. Then they got a bit of a jolt when the foreign organisation decided to stop funding leprosy. That is when we started raising our own funds. Today, 60 per cent of our funds are from our own resources.

Self-reliance should be the goal of fund-raising. Thatís the only way to make plans and to be able to go in the direction that you want.

In the past 24 years I have come across some of the finest human beings. Many of my donors have been supportive right from the beginning of my career. Fund-raising is like a business activity ?it requires all the management skills.

Two things are very important for successful fund-raising. One is total belief in the organisation and the other is innovation. We have done a variety of things ?film star cricket matches, chartered trains that went to Pune for the races with guest film stars on board, charity dinners, sponsored events, auctions, charity film shows, photographic exhibitions. We need to plan tailor-made projects. We need to be in touch with what the public wants. Novelty is important.

The responsibility of fund-raisers doesnít stop at raising money. You have to follow through and see that the money is used for the purpose it was collected. Fund-raisers are accountable to that extent. When I work with an organisation I look for two things ?the organisationís integrity and how wisely they utilise their resources. ALERT is one of the finest organisations I have studied and been involved with. We are extremely careful with the funds that come in and we are probably the only charity organisation that has asked for an external team to assess our work every five years.

I remember reading once that fund-raising is all about luck - the harder you work the luckier you get. I am a great believer in God and that is one of the reasons I stayed with what I am doing. I love my work. There is instant appreciation and satisfaction. You feel so happy doing your job that you donít think of rewards. I have some friends who make fun of me and this faith of mine but I truly believe that God sends us well-wishers. I think Iím doing what I was meant to do.