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Nimble Nonprofit Pivots to Fulfill Its Purpose During the Pandemic

The Desai Foundation’s advice to purpose-driven organizations dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is to look beyond the immediate practicalities and be open to new ways to deliver on end goals.

As purpose-driven organizations dig deep to keep their mission on track during a global pandemic, can being open to change help them meet their goals?

For the Desai Foundation, a nonprofit organization delivering health and livelihoods programs for women and children in India and the US, the increased demand for face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic presented an opportunity. Megha Desai, President of the Foundation, told Sustainable Brands about the decision to create the Masks of HOPE (Health, Opportunity, Perseverance and Empowerment) campaign to make face masks for those in need, while providing an income for the women making them.

“When the pandemic hit, we assessed our programs and asked: What do we continue, what do we shift and what do we pause?” Desai explains. “We decided to be laser-focused on our health programs.”

One of these is the Asani Sanitary Napkin program, training women in rural India to manufacture and distribute sanitary products. The Desai Foundation created the program in 2017 to meet a need for sanitary products for girls in rural India. It has been estimated that one in five girls in India drop out of school when their periods start, and 71 percent do not know what their periods are when they get them.

“Periods don’t stop for pandemics, so we knew that this program had to continue,” Desai recalls. In fact, it was providing sanitary napkins and having a focus on health and hygiene that allowed the Desai Foundation team to move around during the Indian Government’s lockdown restrictions, something that became vital for the success of the Masks of HOPE program.

The sudden and expansive need for face masks presented an opportunity to re-connect with women that the Foundation had previously served. Through its vocational sewing program, the Desai Foundation has trained over 10,000 women in rural India to earn a living through sewing. At the end of March, the team put out a call asking these women if they were interested and available to sew face masks. The team provided face mask patterns, samples and digital tutorials to teach how to make the hand-sewn, reusable, cotton face masks. Within the first month, 150-200 women had sewn 100,000 face masks, far exceeding expectations. The next stage was to distribute the face masks, for free, to the communities that needed them.

“We activated our networks to action,” Desai explains. “The Asani Sanitary Napkin program distribution agents said they would distribute the masks when they were ready.”

Image credit: Desai Foundation

The face masks were initially distributed to the villages already served by the Foundation’s programs. Distribution expanded to meet the need in local urban areas, and will be assessed to ensure the face masks go where they are most needed.

The Masks of HOPE program is now providing 200 women in villages in Maharashtra and Gujarat with a regular income, as they produce and distribute 100,000 face masks each month. Without this income, many of them would have been struggling financially, but now have the financial means to meet basic health and nutritional needs for themselves and their families. The Desai Foundation has committed to keeping the program running for eight months. “I’m most proud that we were able to involve so many of the people we serve in the program,” Desai says.

However, it is not just about providing financial income.

“At the heart of everything we do is cultivating dignity,” Desai enthuses. “At the end of the day, we believe that dignity is the most important thing. We hear from women who tell us their kids are watching them make face masks and are so proud that their mother is helping other people. The program helps women find purpose and dharma.” (Dharma is a tenet of Hindu philosophy about finding one’s life purpose.)

Thinking laterally helped with another mask-production problem. On hearing that a manufacturer in Gujarat was having difficulty attaching ear loops to surgical masks, Desai realised that the hand machines used for making sanitary napkins could be used for this purpose. A partnership was struck, enabling the surgical masks to be completed, and providing income to more women.

Desai’s advice to other purpose-driven organizations dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is to look beyond the immediate practicalities and be open to new ways to deliver the end goal.

“When the world is in a crisis, we all have to suspend practical notions and think how we can get to our goal. We can get caught up in how we are delivering services. You need to suspend the vehicle by which you are providing the service; readjust, and think about the goal,” Desai concludes.

Being open to turning a challenging situation into a positive opportunity in this way might be just what is needed to keep a mission on track.