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Monday, December 08, 2008

Guest Post: Deshpande Foundation and the Sandbox of Social Innovation

By Francisco Noguera

Lesley2Guest Blogger Lesley Pories is a Deshpande Foundation Sandbox Fellow, working with the Water Literacy Foundation in India.

Before taking on this role, Lesley worked as a Research Analyst with the People and Ecosystems Program at the World Resources Institute. A graduate?of Emory University, she double-majored in International Studies and English and minored in French.

By Lesley Pories

Social entrepreneurship is the key to growth in India.? So believes Gururaj "Desh" Deshpande, one of a notable number of Indians who honed their own entrepreneurship skills to profit from India's burgeoning IT sector back in the 1990s.? Co-founder and Chairman of Sycamore Networks, Deshpande is convinced that it is social entrepreneurs who will push India to the next level, and he's doing his part to ensure that this happens.The Deshpande Foundation, the family foundation of Desh and Jaishree Deshpande, is headquartered near Boston, MA and focuses on promoting innovation, entrepreneurship and growth in the northern part of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, the native region of both husband and wife. The Foundation focuses its efforts on five districts of northern Karnataka, which it has nicknamed the "Sandbox."? This name was not given because of the area's desert composition (it's not a desert), but rather as a symbol of what it hopes to achieve through its programs in the area.

A sandbox (a popular playground structure in America which, ironically, does not exist in India) is a space, defined by four walls, in which children use the sand to create.? In the same way, The Deshpande Foundation strives to nurture local people and organizations to create new structures that can lead to positive development within a confined space. ?
Instead of physical walls, however, the Deshpande Foundation encloses its sandbox within three conceptual walls that have been proven to engender positive social entrepreneurship: affordability, accessibility, and scalability. The geographical limit of a certain 5 districts of Northwest Karnataka comprises the final "wall" of the Deshpande Foundation's Sandbox.

By applying these criteria, and adhering to them, they hope to guide budding social entrepreneurs with great ideas to take their activities to the next level and beyond.
By giving grants as well as other valuable resources to local social enterprises that demonstrate the above, Deshpande Foundation is engendering the sustainable growth of people and organizations with innovative ideas. ?

Grant-giving is not the only way in which the Deshpande Foundation promotes social entrepreneurship, however.? A number of its programs are run directly out of its Hubli office, located on the campus of BVB College of Engineering and Technology, one of the premier engineering schools in Karnataka.? The BVB-Deshpande Center for Social Entrepreneurship (BVB-DCSE) oversees a suite of programs designed to inculcate the next generation of social entrepreneurs with the skills they need to bring needed resources to the Sandbox.

Deshpande FoundationDecember will see the graduation of the first batch of Deshpande Fellows, a select group of 24 young and enthusiastic Indians with backgrounds in the public sector who have been undergoing an intensive 6-month course on social entrepreneurship, with modules ranging from media use such as blogs and PowerPoint presentations to economics to legal requirements and ethics. More interactive parts of the curriculum include spending several days in unfamiliar villages to improve contact-making skills as well as assessing and identifying community needs, as well as trips with various successful entrepreneurial enterprises and impact assessments of specific area NGOs.

Another program, LEAD, gives small grants to college students for creating and executing year-long social service programs in their communities.? The students must present their idea and build a team to help them implement their plans, and they are required to regularly report on their activities/progress.Along a similar line, the Social Entrepreneurs In Residence (SEIR) program is an initiative that brings people with ideas to Hubli, where they can take advantage of the BVB-DCSE's technical resources, networks and logistical support for development and incubation of scalable solutions to local issues.

Bridging the West with the East, another method of promoting social entrepreneurship that is utilized by the Deshpande Foundation is its Global Exchange Program, in which it pairs qualified people from the US and UK with the NGOs it supports, and sends these Westerners to live in India for a year to work exclusively with their partner organization.? These "Sandbox Fellows" (of which I am one) work on a range of activities, including: designing and implementing monitoring and evaluation plans, building the administrative capacity of an organization so it can scale up and secure international funding, rolling out a sanitation awareness training and education program, and designing and providing technological solutions for the needs of these growing NGOs.?

The individualized support provided by the Sandbox Fellows and the transfer of skills they are able to impart are yet another means of ensuring that budding social entrepreneurs and their organizations are equipped with the ability not only to make a positive difference in the areas where they live, but also to take their ideas to increasingly bigger spheres of influence.

Deshpande Foundation 2Finally, recognizing that you don't necessarily have to come from India to create solutions to problems in India (and elsewhere around the world), the Innovators Program facilitates the on-the-ground testing of ideas by people from the West. Deshpande Foundation also partners with educational institutions such as the University of California -Berkeley and the University of Southern California to bring student groups to Hubli to test their projects.

While most of us will never have the financial base necessary to pour resources into a geographic area of our choosing, the variety of the approaches taken by the Deshpande Foundation highlights many different ways in which one can approach the enormous challenge of spurring entrepreneurial growth.? Build up the NGOs or the next generation of innovators?? Teach these up-and-comers the skills they need to go about creating social enterprise, or simply fund their existing ideas? Bring in Westerners to develop the people and the organizations or to experiment with their own ideas?? I seriously doubt that any one approach will ever be deemed the "right" one.?

Indeed, the term "social entrepreneur" itself is new enough that the definition seems like a constantly evolving term as people struggle to determine what a social entrepreneur is and how he can best operate for the highest level of success. ?

More likely, as with any kind of subject, you need a wide array of approaches to accommodate everyone's varied learning styles.? Most of these Deshpande programs were started recently, so we'll have to wait a little bit before we can see the results of their efforts bear fruit.? Observing which of the programs seem to have more success than the others may be another valuable tool in the quest to promote social entrepreneurship and empowerment of the BoP.

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