Case Study

Swades Foundation: Executing irreversible change at scale


swades logo

Most organisations hold more than one investment engagement and invest in multiple organisations. Portfolio management includes developing a diversified investment strategy with various investment vehicles that achieves the overall social and/or financial mission of the social investor. Some considerations for funders are what kind of organisations are added to the portfolio, how to evaluate each organisations’ contribution, how can social and potentially business outcomes of the supported organisations be maximised, and finally how they can exit organisational engagement at the end of the engagement period. This area is linked to pre-engagement processes, informed by impact assessment and plays into multi-sector collaboration. This process appears to depend on the kind of investment (grants, equity, debt or other), the size of the investment and the social mission focus as well as the performance of the SPO.

In this area, we aim to understand how foundations, grant makers, UHNWI and funds structure their portfolio. In particular we aim to understand how they structure the portfolio to achieve social and financial returns. The case of Swades Foundation describes how an organisation with a single mission professionally structures its own engagement and partnerships to engage and empower 1 million people every five to six years in rural India.

Organisational Portrait – History, aim and current state

Ronnie and Zarina Screwvala founded the NGO, initially known as Society to Heal, Aid, Restore and Educate (SHARE) during their time at UTV. SHARE worked extensively in rural Maharashtra and within the scope of its limited sphere made a deep impact through its interventions in WATSAN.[i] In 2012, when Zarina and Ronnie Screwvala sold UTV to Disney, the Screwvalas increased the stake, renamed the organisation to Swades[ii] and most importantly decided to create a unique model of holistic 360 degree development with the objective to lift 1 Million people out of poverty every five years starting from Raigad district of Maharashtra through focusing on five interlinked sectors:

  • Community Mobilisation
  • Water & Sanitation
  • Agriculture & Livelihood
  • Education
  • Health[iii]

Based on Amartya Sen’s notion of development as the freedom to make choices[iv], Swades Foundation works in a holistic 360 degree model and several stages of “Engage, Empower, Execute and Exit”.[v] Distinctive about this approach are two things: one, it is a grassroots execution foundation, as the Screwvalas’ decided that they “wanted to be a foundation that executed”.[vi] Secondly, change is envisaged to occur at a large scale[vii], namely to create “permanent, irreversible change in the lives of 1 million people in Rural India in the next 5 years”.[viii] Social change lies in enabling a set of linked freedoms and nurturing the richness of human life resulting from these choices. Unlike most other organisations Swades has a strong focus on “Exit” as the model envisaged aims to empower people to make their own choices, exiting the geography on completing five years on sustained interventions.

To that end, Swades aims to touch each human being’s life right from birth to old age, so that their lives, education and career path could be secured. More importantly, Swades Foundation tackles every issue that concerns more than 2% of the population in the Raigad district.[ix] The six blocks of Raigad in which Swades currently operates have an annual household income of 25,000 INR on average, which is around 1-2 USD per person per day.[x] In 2015, three years in, Swades Foundation has already directly touched 4,71,000 people and is well on its way to reach out to the other half million now.[xi]
In less than 3 years Swades has achieved success in five integrated areas:

Screenshot (77)

For the change to happen irreversibly and at scale and to ensure a smooth exit, Swades took a few steps and worked extensively through collaborations between and with partners, internal staff and the community. This involved key decisions encompassing varied issues:

  • Building on trust and finding the right geography
  • Structuring the organisation
  • Finding the right partners for best practices, co-execution and financing
  • Creating a team for the community, from the community: Swades Heroes

Swades 360

Building on trust – structuring the engagement and finding the right geography

In 1999, SHARE commenced interventions in rural Maharashtra by creating savings groups among women in the Raigad district of Maharashtra. The program, however, was poorly received due to the unavailability of these women as most of their time was spent in arranging water for their domestic needs. In 2001, SHARE started working towards improving access to drinking water in the region, through extensive rainwater harvesting. SHARE then went on to implement multiple rainwater harvesting projects such as building bunds, ponds, spring cordoning, trenches and afforestation, gabions, eco-friendly bore wells, rooftop rainwater harvesting structures and more.

SHARE also equipped people with vocational skills such as sewing, kitchen gardening, vermi-composting amongst a host of others. The organisation also facilitated the formation of 111 farmers groups and 276 women’s Self Help groups through which most of its programmes were implemented. In due time SHARE had built a credible name for itself in the entire south Raigad.

Zarina Screwvala, co-founder of Swades refers to SHARE as the ‘first phase of Swades’, the foundation has since evolved and been rebranded as Swades to mark its shift onto a different growth trajectory. When Swades Foundation was formed it built on the trust it had built in this geography.

The newly named Swades Foundation then developed an ambitious plan to transform the lives of 1 million people in Rural India through holistic and sustainable development in Community Mobilisation, WATSAN, Agriculture and Livelihood, Education, Health and Nutrition leading to an irreversible and permanent change for good.

The single minded focus of the Foundation is empowering rural India, explains Zarina Screwvala. “Our unique strategy is to engage, execute, empower and exit: to engage rural communities with corporate entities, young urban India, not-for-profit organisations and governments, to execute programmes that empower our communities to transform their own lives, enabling us to exit (although not permanently) and allowing them to serve as role models and change agents for the rest of the country. The ‘Swa’ in our name Swades embodies this thought and forms the core of everything we do.”

Beginning with tiny steps, SHARE is now the Swades Foundation, a professional organization with more than 1,600 people comprising of 300 full time professionals and experts and over 1,300 trained community volunteers and growing.

Structuring the organisation

With over 300 full-time staff, 1,300 volunteers and numerous partner organisations working on projects ranging from drinking water to education to health, Swades touches 500,000 people’s lives every day in multiple ways.[xii] Swades’ structure comprises of five key verticals (Education, Health & Nutrition, Agriculture & Livelihood, WATSAN and Community Mobilisation) and a few support departments. While Swades has an NGO approach, the organisation has an efficient, corporate structure with full transparency and is KPI and KRA compliant adhering to the highest standards. The needs addressed by Swades Foundation influence the internal diversity yet unity of human resources: bringing unique skills in each of their areas of expertise, they are united by their professionalism and their passion for making a lasting change.[xiii] Zarina and Ronnie Screwvala strongly lead by example: “We run it like a corporation.  Changing that culture to a UTV culture from a social sector culture takes time though.”[xiv] In addition, the level of execution on projects requires all skills level in the organisation and its partners. Skills range from the ability to lay water pipes to teaching health care therefore.

Swades spends a considerable amount of time and money in training its field staff. It identifies with the field staff as an “integral” part of the organisation almost like its superstructure.

Moreover, assessment of output is a critical exercise to understand the effectiveness of the interventions undertaken at Swades. Such understanding, often termed impact assessment, is in itself an input into future policy decisions for the management at Swades. Since Swades is an apolitical organization, it lays a lot of importance on the clean communication with the community and its partners.

Partnerships: Efficient Fundraising and efficient usage of funds and skills

With an initial endowment of a few million from its founder trustees, Swades is well-positioned to fund its goals.[xv] However, to reach the scale and sustainability it envisages, financial and expertise partnerships are critical. More importantly, Swades has a strong belief that solutions lie in collaborations. There is much that the For-Profit and the Not-For –Profit world have in common and there is much that both can learn from each other. To these ends, Swades engages in a number of partnerships.

Financially, a large partner is Tata Trusts.[xvi] The Jamsetji Tata Trust funded a number of projects in the Raigad district. It took two personal meeting with Ratan Tata, “multiple field visits by his team, followed by a strong project proposal and finally a meeting with the governing board of the Jamsetji Tata Trust”.[xvii] While the financial support is appreciated, Swades Foundation matches every Rupee invested in by its partners and sees the “skin in the game” as something that is welcome by its partners.[xviii] What is more important for this collaboration is that Tata Trusts may further be convinced by this model of development and endorse it.[xix]

Beyond the benefits of financial support and endorsement, Swades Foundation is keen to increase the efficiency in using and potentially multiply external funding: all donations are supposed to go straight to programmes and every Rupee/USD is leveraged 2 times.[xx]

Swades also believes in leveraging the expertise of the best in the country. For example, under the education vertical Swades has partnered with Teachers Foundation, to train all Principals and Teachers in 2,700 schools in its geography; FUEL on the other hand conducts counselling sessions for the students.[xxi]

Another example of the collaboration between the for- and non-profit worlds is Swades’ partnership with Reckitt Benckisor (RB), one of the leading FMCG companies of the world, to create an open defecation free society and the partnership encompasses building toilet structures, bringing about behavioural change, including WATSAN curriculum in schools and a host of other activities. Both RB and Swades are leveraging on their individual strengths and working together for a larger impact.

Ronnie Screwvala summarises Swades Foundation’s role as “a catalyst in most [social services].  We have buy-in for each one.  For the toilets and sanitation, we’re paying a certain percent, the villages are paying a certain amount, and there is a grant that’s covering the remaining part of the cost.  The local community have their skin in the game.”[xxii]

The crucial part: empower and educate Swades Heroes

For Swades, the ultimate aim of development is to increase people’s freedom in the sense of Amartya Sen.[xxiii] To achieved this, Swades needs to exit the region and in order to exit, Swades aims to empower and educate the people in rural areas so that they learn to make their own decisions and choices. Building community heroes, who are selected from the community, are an important part of Swades’ exit roadmap. Their journeys, occupations and roles in these communities are diverse. To view more details, please visit http://www.swadesfoundation.org/swadesheroes.htm Here are a few snippets on some of a selected few Swades Heroes in entrepreneurship, health, water and agriculture:

Manali Sawant – Extraordinary Entrepreneur

Manali Sawant has displayed extraordinary passion and determination in everything she has done. Manali has been leading the Jhansi-Chi-Rani Women’s Self Help Group as its secretary for the past seven years.

She participated in a sewing course initiated by the Swades Foundation and today is running her own successful tailoring business. She set up the first vermiculture unit in her village and has supported the setting up of 75 new vermicompost units in her community. Manali is proud to be earning her own living and supporting the education of her two daughters.

Vidya Vinayak Kule – Widow, Health Crusader, Swades SwaRaksha Mitra (SRM)

Becoming a widow at a young age can certainly set back a life but there are a few who take such setbacks in their stride. Vidya Vinayak Kule is one such shining example.

After completing the Swades Foundations’ SRM program, she became aware of the number of TB deaths in her village and became an Anti-TB crusader. Vidya identified Gulab Ghag, who had recently lost her husband to TB and re-initiated a referral. Gulab was found to be seriously ill, but today, thanks to Vidya she is well on the way to recovery. Vidya indeed is a true life-saver.

Baburao Dongre – Water Warrior. Village President

Four years ago, Baburao became a part of the Swades Foundation as a voluntary labourer giving Shramdaan for his community. With the help of the Swades Foundation, Baburao activated the pending water projects in his village. He knew that the success of this would enable his community to grow their second crop, which would mean increased incomes and enhanced livelihood. Baburao’s persistence and passionate efforts led to the implementation of Swades water projects in his village. Today, Baburao serves as the President of his village and showcases true virtues of empowerment that the Swades Foundation stands for.

Chandrakant Pawar – Proud Farmer by Choice

As inspiring entrepreneur, Chandrakant holds a diploma in agriculture; he moved to Mumbai in search for a better life but returned when he experienced the harsh reality of city life. He enrolled in the Swades Training Program and today is a proud farmer by choice. He uses multiple new agricultural techniques and has put his previously barren two acres of land to good use. He is a role model in promoting agriculture as a lucrative career option amongst the community. His dream is to teach every child the joy of farming, hoping to start a wave of reverse migration. He is currently working on a project to promote Rural Tourism.

Rupesh, Nitesh, Jitesh & Rajesh Diwale – Progressive Farmers

These four brothers moved to Mumbai at a young age but found living conditions in the city unbearable. Distraught, they moved back to the village where they resumed cultivating rice on their small plot of land. The Swades Foundation reached out and supported these young farmers to experiment with the Watermelon Crop. This experimentation increased their income manifold in two years and renewed their faith in farming as a livelihood option. With a step-by-step guidance & financial support from the Swades Foundation, these progressive farmers have today adopted new technologies like farm pond and micro drip irrigation to increase their land’s productivity and cultivate rice, watermelon and multiple vegetables earning almost the whole year round.

These Swades Heroes exemplify how true empowerment lies in executing choice.  The ultimate aim of Swades is to prevent creating any kind of a dependence of the community on Swades, but to increase the options all community members can chose from. Now community members have choices when it comes to the ways in which they can generate their livelihoods.

Challenges and Solutions

Although Swades Foundation is overall successful and is steadily helping the community to help itself, there are challenges to its path. Some of the challenges are scale, cost efficiency and slow pace[xxiv]. Paradoxically, Swades’ aim of scale is also its toughest challenge. Because of scale, Swades often incurs high variable costs which cannot be eradicated by the economies of scale. Finally, while Swades aims to structure itself like a professional corporation, often the pace of its partners and simply the operating environment induce a lag.

While Swades Foundation’s modus operandi is completely replicable and scalable, its biggest challenge has been mind-set change and receptiveness towards importance & utility of the interventions. Curiously, while Swades advocates community empowerment, the initial push comes from Swades and the reception and the sustaining development is often an effort.

Liaising with the community and local government has been a challenge at multiple occasions. Organisations like Swades often encounter the social phenomenon described by anthropologists as the “insider vs. outsider problem”. Interestingly, in the last three years Swades has done very well on this front. According to the Community Mobilisation team at Swades their biggest asset as of today is the trust of the community.

The health and sanitation vertical illustrates how this pervasive challenge is overcome. Various steps have been taken towards generating demand for household toilets etc. Through a series of interaction on problems of open defecation, improved sanitation practices and functional toilets, hence, emphasis on proper sewage disposal, the community is mobilized to get toilets constructed in their houses.

Swades Foundation also created awareness among people through a Swachhta Rath- a toilet prototype mounted on a vehicle that goes from hamlet to hamlet motivating people to end open defecation and adopt good sanitation practices. Over a period of 45 days, this rath travelled to all 2,000 villages in the 6 blocks of Raigad. Actual toilets were also constructed in public places so that people could use them and get a feel of the same. 36 Social Workers have been appointed by Swades, each in-charge of 10 Gram Panchayats, covering all 6 blocks and regularly going into villages to create awareness around cleanliness and hygiene.

Swades realised that sub-standard or make shift-toilets prevented villagers from using them, hence they started building aspirational toilets – bigger in size, with internal tiles, walls up to ceiling, proper doors & ceiling. This ensured over 99% usage.

To sustain the initial effort, the trust and the ownership of the communities that Swades serves is paramount. The Social Workers from the Community Mobilization team organize monthly village meetings to review if toilets are being used properly and advocate good sanitation habits. The village health workers called SwaRaksha Mitras go door-to-door to teach hygienic practices. A village sanitation committee is also formed to monitor the proper use of toilets.

To create a sense of ownership among the people, Swades Foundation seeks active participation of the community in every activity. To this end, each household contributes INR 4,500/5,000 towards the construction of the toilet and partakes in the construction activity in the form of Shramdan (contributing labour to create a physical structure). The households realize the worth of possessing a toilet and have assumed complete responsibility of maintaining their toilets on their own.

In sum

The foundation’s strategy began with developing programs and creating community-based organizations in those villages where the field teams enter with their rural developmental programs so that the communities do not require further resource investment and financial investment. The steps taken towards this are to build on trust in the right geography, structure the organisation accordingly and find the right partners for best practises and co-execution as well as create a team from and for the community through the Swades Heroes.

Swades has a mission of empowering and creating a permanent positive change in the lives of 1 million in five years and is very clear that it needs to be done strategically and with accountability. To that end, Swades plans to leverage financial and non-financial resources of the government, corporates and other institutions to maximise its impact and continues to locate and work with the right partners.











[i] Water and Sanitation projects

[ii] Swades means “[One’s] Own Country” in Hindi and the foundation is named after the 2004 film Swades, which tells the story an US-based NRI who finds meaning (and love) when he returns to rural India. Swades was produced by Ronnie Screwvala, starred Shah Rukh Khan and resonated apparently strongly with Indian NRIs globally (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swades).

[iii] http://www.swadesfoundation.org/journeysofar.htm accessed on 3 Sept 2015

[iv] http://www.uio.no/studier/emner/matnat/ifi/INF9200/h12/readings/papers/Sen.pdf accessed on 25 Nov 2015

[v] http://www.swadesfoundation.org/ourwork.htm accessed on 3 Sept 2015

[vi] http://www.forbes.com/sites/eshachhabra/2015/06/28/ronnie-screwvala-indias-latest-evangelist-for-entrepreneurship-and-failures/ accessed on 3 Sept 2015

[vii] http://www.forbes.com/sites/eshachhabra/2015/06/28/ronnie-screwvala-indias-latest-evangelist-for-entrepreneurship-and-failures/ accessed on 3 Sept 2015

[viii] http://www.swadesfoundation.org/visionandmission.htm accessed on 3 Sept 2015

[ix] Conversation with Ameya Dabli, Director – Fund Raising and Corporate Communication on 25 Aug 2015

[x] Conversation with Zarina Screwvala, Founder & Managing Trustee, on 25 Aug 2015

[xi] Conversation with Zarina Screwvala, Founder & Managing Trustee, on 25 Aug 2015 and http://www.swadesfoundation.org/journeysofar.htm accessed on 3 Sept 2015

[xii] Conversation with Praveen Aggarwal, Chief Operating Officer on 25 Aug 2015

[xiii] Conversation with Praveen Aggarwal, Chief Operating Officer on 25 Aug 2015

[xiv] http://www.forbes.com/sites/eshachhabra/2015/06/28/ronnie-screwvala-indias-latest-evangelist-for-entrepreneurship-and-failures/ accessed on 3 Sept 2015

[xv] Conversation with Ameya Dabli, Director – Fund Raising and Corporate Communication on 25 Aug 2015

[xvi] Conversation with Ameya Dabli, Director – Fund Raising and Corporate Communication on 25 Aug 2015

[xvii] http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2015-05-03/news/61768246_1_ratan-tata-tata-sons-tony-fernandes accessed on 3 Sept 2015

[xviii] http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2015-05-03/news/61768246_1_ratan-tata-tata-sons-tony-fernandes accessed on 3 Sept 2015

[xix] http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2015-05-03/news/61768246_1_ratan-tata-tata-sons-tony-fernandes accessed on 3 Sept 2015

[xx] Conversation with Ameya Dabli, Director – Fund Raising and Corporate Communication on 25 Aug 2015

[xxi] Email conversation with Manie Mehrotra on 3 Nov 2015

[xxii] http://www.forbes.com/sites/eshachhabra/2015/06/28/ronnie-screwvala-indias-latest-evangelist-for-entrepreneurship-and-failures/ accessed on 3 Sept 2015

[xxiii] http://www.uio.no/studier/emner/matnat/ifi/INF9200/h12/readings/papers/Sen.pdf accessed on 25 Nov 2015

[xxiv] “One of the first challenges Aggarwal says is that of scale. Let’s take the regular haemoglobin check-up. 70% of my population is anaemic. There is no technology which is available in a cost effective manner which can test people’s haemoglobin level and give me instant result, say in Rs 2. The current test is costing us Rs 20 or so for each individual, and in a day these laboratories don’t have capacity of doing more than 200-300 tests. These are issues affecting us, so scale is one. Second challenge he says is cost efficiency – for instance, the spectacles that they were delivering to kids and adults who needed eye care were costing them Rs 150, but with a lot of in-depth research, they have been able to take it down to Rs 50. So there is a great need to cope with these challenges of cost and time. The third challenge that he faces is that NGOs have a tendency to work at a slow place. So they are trying to change the culture in the organization by bringing in corporate governance, corporate efficiency, and management routines, reporting, etc.” (- See more at: http://www.thebetterindia.com/7602/swades-foundation-building-capacity-in-rural-india/#sthash.pm0uVlKz.dpuf [sic])




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A. Environmental Stewardship
To protect the environment, we organize programmes like mangrove nursery and Reforestation, Coastal and River Clean-Up, Community Based Environmental Solid Waste Management, Environmental IEC Campaign and Eco-Academy

B. Food Security and Sustainable Livelihood
To ensure a sustainable livelihood for the community, eco-tourism include Buhatan River Cruise Visitor Center Buhatan River Mangrove Boardwalk are run by the community. Others include Organic Vegetable and Root crops Farming, Vegetable and Root crops Chips and by-products Processing and establishing a Zero waste store.

C. Empowered Communities
To empower the community, we provide product and Agri-Enterprise Development Training, Immersion and Learnings Exchange Program, Earth Warrior Training and Community Based Social Entrepreneurship Training

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