In May 2018, Ramesh Kacholia celebrated his 80th birthday. Incidentally, this was also the year the informal group ‘Caring Friends’ that he co-founded with Nimesh Sumati helped desilt over 3,070 dams in rural Maharashtra. The dam helped 31,000 farmers and ended water crisis for 65 lakh villagers.
Executed in association with the Amit Chandra Foundation and Tata Trust, it was the biggest project of the group. NGOs like Anulom, BJS, Manavlok, Vikasganga, Dilasa and SSM also contributed to the project.
Caring Friends was able to achieve this without secretaries, presidents, admin staff or even a bank account. It isn’t even a registered organisation.
And yet, in the last 14 years, this informal group has managed to create a network of 600 donors who have contributed over Rs 200 crore to 80 organisations in 17 states across India. Solely by faith and goodwill.
Almost sounds utopian right?
In an exclusive interview over a glass of lemonade in their Sion office, Ramesh Kacholia and Nimesh Sumati spoke about their journey of finding like-minded ‘friends’ to act as a bridge between outstanding NGOs and donors.
“The idea is not to invest in projects, but in people,” says Nimesh.
How did it begin?
It all began when Ramesh Kacholia came across the work of humanitarian Baba Amte and visited the Maharogi Sewa Samiti (MSS) in Anandwan, near Nagpur in 1981. He was working with the Birlas at the time.
“I stayed there for a day, and the experience moved me. Apart from working for patients with leprosy, Baba’s ashram was catering to the needs of a host of physically-impaired persons, many of whom were women.”
Though MSS did not have much visibility and Mr Kacholia was also new to fundraising, he was able to raise a substantial amount to promote them, thereby embarking on his welfare journey.
Over the next seven years, he took several donors to Anandvan so that they could look at the work first-hand and know how their contributions helped transform lives.
“It was around this time that Baba told me that he was really happy with the work. But he emphasised how there were hundreds of other small organisations and individuals who required my help.”
For the next 32 years, Mr Kacholia balanced his job as well as his humanitarian work. But in 2003, he decided to focus all his energies on the humanitarian work and quit his job.
By then, ‘Caring Friends’ already had over ten organisations in its framework. The exponential growth, as well as a name for the group, came about after Mr Kacholia joined hands with Nimesh Sumati in 2005. Not bound by religion or borders, it was just to invite friends who cared to join the mission.
“It took us 14 years to build the base of Caring Friends. What seemed to work in our favour was that we conducted preliminary visits to the NGOs we were supporting, monitored their work and put in our own money first. It wasn’t a token amount, but a substantial one. So people knew that we wouldn’t ask them to help an organisation until we did it ourselves. Even the logistics, travel etc, for the projects was borne by us,” says Nimesh.
Caring Friends and their work
CF supports diverse issues like education, water, agriculture, women empowerment, animal welfare, conservation, etc. There is a core team of ten volunteers, some of whom are donors and help conduct the visits. CF also has a US Chapter, Arpan Foundation, and another donor base in Singapore.
CF also conducts annual and quarterly meets to get all the founders of the organisations they support, corporates and other donors under one umbrella.
The success of their initiative can also be attributed to the unparalleled support of their families. The journey, though, has not always been smooth. There have been good experiences and bad.
“Sometimes, organisations don’t live up to the expectations despite receiving the funds, some take the help for granted, a few face temperament issues. But none of these roadblocks has ever disrupted what we were doing.”
A strong example of the impact of their work reflects in the story of Nileema Mishra, the founder of Bhagini Nivedita Gramin Vigyan Niketan (BNGVN), an organisation which works towards increasing livelihood opportunities in villages and making them self-sufficient.
When Mr Kacholia first got in touch with her, the organisation wasn’t registered nor had an 80G certificate. Additionally, it had a debt of Rs 1.5 lac. After CF’s intervention, Neelima’s tireless efforts found the financial backing. Today, BNGVN is spread across numerous villages, and Neelima was given the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2011, becoming a Padma Shri recipient in 2013.
Apart from helping projects run smoothly, CF ensures that it also takes into account the welfare of those working in these NGOs.
“Many of these organisations pay modest salaries, cannot afford Diwali bonuses, or even token amounts to their employees. We started helping them with these bonuses and most importantly, interest-free loans. Many of the founders don’t take salaries. And when they face a financial crisis at home, they take loans at high interests from banks or friends. So we created a staff welfare fund.”
Whether it is the renovation of a dilapidated home, the knee surgery of a founder’s father or the education of their children, CF looks after the needs of the hardworking individuals who run these initiatives.
As they bid me adieu, the duo add how their vision is to see people in different states replicate the model in their own ways to help bridge the gap between donors and organisations.
“We have a couple who are trying to replicate the model in Nagpur. Similarly, many others can do it in their areas. All you need is the will to do it,” says Mr Kacholia.
“There is so much to do in our country, if all of us do our little there’s not much to do. Everybody can share talent and skill and time. Do to charity what people do to gossip–Add something and pass it on,” Nimesh signs off.
If this story inspired you, write to firstname.lastname@example.org to build your own version of CF.
Please note: CF is currently not accepting any new NGOs, as they have over 400 organisations on the waiting list.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)