the art of giving back

May 25, 2017

There seems to be an intangible spirit that drives Akshaya Patra. How would you define it?

We began our journey with the vision, ‘no child in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger.’ Over a period, like-minded people came on board and we grew in strength. They are from various walks of life, including—but not restricted to—the Government and corporates. It was their unwavering support which helped us scale from 1,500 to over 1.6 million beneficiaries in a span of 16 years. It was the determination of these compassionate people that helped us reach the cumulative two billion meals’ milestone last year. Together, we have been able to form a strong system to tirelessly feed children, and in doing so, provide them an incentive to come to school.

Akshaya Patra is rooted in a noble vision. How do you ensure that the various stakeholders share the goal?

Our vision being noble, people readily associate with it and come on board. We consider ourselves fortunate that there is no dearth of people who can relate to our cause.

Apart from those with a missionary zeal, Akshaya Patra is also run by professionals. How has roping in of corporate talent helped?

Ours is a unique initiative in the sense that it has both missionaries and people from the corporate world coming together for a common cause. In essence, it harnesses the energy of both worlds.

Ours is an organization with the heart of an NGO and the mind of a corporate. In fact, our organizational structure replicates that of a corporate. There are various departments, such as operations, projects and infrastructure, resource mobilization, and donor care management. Each of these is headed by a person with expertise in the corporate field.

With the social sector fast emerging as one of the major sectors as far as employment is concerned, more and more individuals are coming forward to do their bit for society. If non-profits show inclination to pay better, i.e., meet industry standards, there is no reason we cannot have the best of the corporate world joining the social sector.

One of Akshaya Patra’s strengths has been the PPP model it has adopted. How do you view the power of such partnerships with the government in tackling social issues, especially in developing countries like India?

In developing countries like India, with immense diversity in terms of geography, demography, languages, etc., there is an urgent need to foster public participation to tackle social issues. One way to do this is to adopt the public-private partnership model. There are several examples of such successful partnerships in the infrastructure sector. That in itself makes a case for similar collaborations in the social sector too. The Government, no doubt, has a crucial role to play in nation building, but that does not mean civil society should just be a bystander.

The active participation of public and private players has vindicated our belief in the ‘giving back to society’ principle. The midday meal programme is a common platform where the central government, state governments, non-profits, and individual and corporate donors have come together.

Akshaya Patra operates at the intersection of operational efficiency, logistics, and funds flow. How do you ensure a smooth, uninterrupted flow vis-a-vis these three aspects?

Considering the scale at which we operate, there is no questioning the fact that these three aspects need to be given due importance, which is why we have put certain measures in place. Standardization of recipes, for instance, helps maintain quality, and ensures nutrition and good taste, while the FIFO (first in-first out) method helps ensure that all perishable items are used efficiently. Right from supplier quality management systems for supplier selection to route optimization—to ensure that delivery vans reach school in time with piping hot meals— measures are taken at every stage to ensure that children get nutritious meals every school day.

All our kitchens use a toolkit to ensure that the food safety and management system (FSMS) rules are complied with, and hygiene is maintained. We meet the highest standards of safety and efficiency—the ISO 22000 certification should vouch for the same.

We make it a point to utilize funds received in the form of donations in the most efficient manner and communicate the [details] to anyone interested. The break-up of funds received and funds utilized is made available on our website and in our annual report.

Embracing technology and an innovationcentric culture have been game changers vis-a-vis your growth—be it state-of-the-art kitchens, logistics, and so on. How have these helped you scale?

Feeding over 1.6 million children every school day is not an easy task. It is the cumulative result of innovative technology, smart engineering, and good management. We believe in leveraging technology to make the best possible use of resources and reach as many children as possible. Some of our state-of-the-art centralized kitchens are equipped to prepare meals for 100,000 children at a time in just under four hours.

These centralized kitchens have served as a blueprint for the expansion of the program, which has helped us reach over a million children in 27 locations across 11 states. Technology and experience garnered over a long period have put us in a better position in the pursuit of our mission to reach five million children by 2020.

Transparency and quality often tend to be elusive in ventures of such a humongous scale. How do you ensure these are not compromised?

We are of the firm belief that transparency and accountability are key to trust and reliability, and therefore, we make it a point to ensure that we do not fall short in this regard. While the annual report, audit reports, internal and third-party evaluation reports, and impact studies help us ensure transparency, adherence to FSMS, standardized recipes, beneficiary feedback, and use of best raw material help us in guaranteeing quality. We also comply with IFRS and Indian Accounting Standards.

How do you market Brand Akshaya Patra? Is marketing a strategic imperative for a not-for-profit venture?

Yes, it definitely is. It is not just important to do something good, but equally important to communicate it to others. There are many who wish to do their bit for society, but do not know where to begin. It is important to reach out to these people with the cause you are pursuing. That makes marketing important for a non-profit venture. Branding helps determine how we are perceived as a non-profit—that is why due importance is attached to this aspect. Being the largest NGO-run school lunch program in the world makes our initiative a brand in itself. Our brand communication wing creatively communicates the cause to the target-based audience by running campaigns such as ‘India Ke Hunger Ki Bajao’ and ‘Back to School’, and organizing events like ‘Chords of Giving’ and ‘Outride Hunger’. We also use social media to reach out to those interested in our cause.

Akshaya Patra finds place among Harvard Business School case studies. What is the big management takeaway from your story?

We believe that the big management takeaway from our story would be that intention backed by competency is the most important ingredient of a successful venture.

(As told to Anitha Moosath)