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This week’s blog features Chander Thareja and Shaheen Madraswala ,founders of DonateItems– one of India’s first web-portals which enables users to buy material items and donate it directly to the NGOs in need. Chander and Shaheen recently joined UnLtd Delhi as investees, and through DonateItems they wish to create a market place for in kind donations- both old and new and bridge the inequality between the have and the have nots. Besides DonateItems they also run a very innovative initiative called ShopDilSe where customers can buy common donation items like blankets, toiletries etc. at extremely low prices.
I met with Chander and Shaheen to learn more about their unique initiatives, their entrepreneurial journey and plans for the future.
Tell us a little about yourself and how you started DonateItems?
Chander: I have over 19 years of experience working in the IT & Tech industry. I last worked with Royal Bank of Scotland as Vice President- Markets and International Banking. In November,2014 I left my job at RBS and started DonateItems. The decision to quit my job wasn’t an easy one though. Working as Vice-President at RBS had its perks. I led a very comfortable lifestyle and had an easy life. But what I realized was that I was essentially working to help the richest of the rich people of London become even more richer. I was only widening the divide between the rich and the poor and my work wasn’t adding any value towards the betterment of the society. So, I took a leap of faith and quit my job to begin DonateItems.
Shaheen and I met through LinkedIn. Since I had experience in technology and IT, I figured that I could comfortably manage the technology part of the our start-up. However, I needed someone who could bring in the necessary expertise in social development space, someone who could build relationships with various stakeholders involved. So I searched LinkedIn and I came across Shaheen’s profile. I shared the concept of DonateItems with her and asked her if she would like to work with me on it. She really liked the idea and joined our team as co-founder. Now I work full-time at DonateItems while Shaheen works on a part-time basis in addition to her full time job at J-Pal as a Research Associate.
Shaheen: I work in the development sector and have over 3 years of experience working with multinational organisations, governments and nonprofit entities in India and abroad. Currently I work as a research associate with J-PAL. Chander contacted me through LinkedIn and told me about his idea of DonateItems. I thought his idea was a brilliant one, using technology to create an online platform enabling donors to make in-kind donations directly to the NGOs. He was looking for someone who knew social development space. DonateItems excited me and I thought I could add value to it, so I joined the team as a co-founder. I have helped in putting together a set of NGO on-boarding criteria and have also set up alliances with well recognized NGOs to drive forward a proof of concept pilot.
What is ShopDilSe? Tell us something about it.
Chander: ShopDilSe is another initiative that we have recently started. It is an e-commerce website which lets the users buy common donation items at extremely affordable prices with desired quality. We choose our vendors very carefully. For us pricing and quality of the product are two deciding factors. Any vendor that we choose has to satisfy these two factors and only then they are chosen to list their product on our website. ShopDilSe considers people at the base of pyramid as the primary consumers of its products. All the other e-commerce websites target the middle and upper-middle class as their customers and if someone wants to buy items specifically for donating it to the under-privileged it’s not very easy to buy those items at optimum costs, especially when people are looking to donate in bulk. So with ShopDilse we are trying to create a platform where people who wish to donate can buy high-quality items at very reasonable costs and can gift it to the under-privileged people. For e.g.: Suppose if someone has a budget of 2000 rupees and with that money he wishes to distribute blankets to homeless., First he would have to search for a shop from where he can buy low cost blankets of desired quality, then haggle for a good price, then finally buy them and distribute them. So that ease of transaction wasn’t there. Thus we came up with this whole concept of ShopDilse and created this platform where with just a few clicks donors can buy items in bulk and can gift them. ShopDilse I believe will also prove to be a very good proposition for us in terms of revenue generation, we charge a transaction fee from our vendors who sell their products on ShopDilse. Also, since it targets people living at BOP as its consumers where market competition is fairly less, we figured that ShopDilse would become a good source of revenue generation for us.
What was your inspiration behind starting Donate Items.? What model does it work on?
Chander: Four years ago, one of my friends invited me for a blanket donation drive in one of the economically disadvantaged sections of Delhi. I participated in that drive and immensely liked the experience. I remained part of that group and continued participating in various donation drives. Gradually we started expanding and more volunteers started participating. Our model was really simple. We would go to the impoverished communities, talk to the people there to get a sense of what their requirements were, then our volunteers would collect those materials from family, friends and supporters and we would then go back to the community to distribute them. However, I realised that in order to scale this model and ensure that more donors and beneficiaries can become a part of it, technology would have to be used and a platform would have to be created to bring donor and beneficiary together. I started doing a lot of research and conducted a lot of surveys to find out if there was an already existing digital platform that enabled material donation and found that there was none! There was GiveIndia, of course but it facilitated cash donation to the NGOs. So, that’s how I came up with the idea of starting DonateItems- an online platform dedicated to connect NGOs committed to the social cause with the ones who want to give to the deprived section of the society in a transparent and well administered manner. Its working model is similar to your typical e-commerce portals. NGOs list the requirement of items they need to serve their purpose. A donor can easily donate new items against the requirements of the NGO that she supports. They buy from any E-commerce sites, pay in full and give the delivery address of the NGO directly on the shopping site. We get a small referral fee from the e-commerce portals from where the users buy the products.
What do you think is unique about DonateItems?
Chander: The USP of Donate Items lies in it being one of the first web-portals in India which facilitates material donation to the NGOs by donors. Since there’s no cash involved, the donor also gets an assurance that his contribution has a very high chance of reaching the intended beneficiary. He knows that the money will not be used by the NGO to cover their operational expenses. The NGOs who post their requirements on DonateItems clearly document their need of the items and once they have received it, the donor receives a feedback on how their donation is being utilized. There is no other initiative that has leveraged rapidly growing E-Commerce for item donation.
Shaheen: What excited me most about the concept of DonateItems was how it uses technology to facilitate donations, letting donors directly interact with the NGOs. The model is scalable and has the potential of benefiting hundreds and thousands of beneficiaries in the near future.
How did you seek help from external resources?
Chander: Well initially there obviously were a few questions in everyone’s minds. Lots of doubts, lots of ifs and buts and hows- as in how to manage, how to sustain etc. When I began this journey even I didn’t have a very clear picture in my mind as to how I would go about implementing my idea. But it has been a great journey so far. I have full support from my family and friends now. They believe in the idea and are excited about the work that we seek out to do. Right now, we are proud investees of Unltd Delhi and we are getting incubation support from Startupwave. We were selected by Facebook in Bootstrap track as part of their FBStart.com initiative. We were selected by ‘Bridges for Enterprise’ (a student society of University of Cambridge) for support. Our story was covered by CNBC TV18, Asian NGO magazine, StartupWave and IndiStart. We are lucky to have Dhaval Udani, ex-CEO GiveIndia as our advisor.
Shaheen: I think it is extremely important to network and reach out to people especially when you are just starting out your enterprise.This was something that Chander and I have been doing from the get go. We have consulted with organizations like GiveIndia, whose model is similar to ours, regarding various aspects like logistic management, how to ensure transparency and accountability in our transactions etc It certainly helps when if you can become a part of a supportive ecosystem and can learn from those who are already experienced. Then mentors, if you are lucky to have one, can also play a big role in shaping up a start-up.
What have been the major obstacles for you so far? How did you overcome those?
Chander: Our major roadblocks so far have been primarily in terms of financial funding. Initially we didn’t have a very clear focus on revenues. DonateItems was born with the sole vision of creating an impact and I had a feeling that some or other organization would be willing to fund us and help achieve scale. It was when I started reaching out to angel and impact investors, that I found out that having a revenue model in place was also very important. The investors I met all advised me to develop a revenue model, which we have now and with ShopDilSe the initial sales figures have been good, so we hope to overcome that obstacle somewhat in the future. Also, initially we had no idea of how an ecommerce business works, finding reliable vendors for our ShopDilsSe campaign who could manufacture good quality products at minimal prices also proved to be a challenge in the beginning. Now all these things have become a lot more smoother. We have built good relationships with many NGOs, we are adding many new ones as well. The one year with DonateItems has been a great learning experience in every way possible.
Shaheen: Funding has been one major constraint for us. We have worked on a minimal budget so far, putting in our own money and tapping into our network of family and friends for support. However, we are hopeful that we will overcome this problem soon. Other than that we have also faced challenges in terms of getting resources for marketing and advertising our campaigns.
What are your visions for the future?
Chander: Our one year goal is to do a sale of at least 1.2 crores through DonateItems and ShopDilSe portal, and our goal is that at least 1 crore worth of the items would go as donations. We aim to get onboard 250 NGOs as beneficiaries by year end. We are also looking to add more and more different categories of products to ShopDilse. Our long term goal right now is to create an efficient, sustainable , scalable startup which creates the desired impact.
What would be your advice to the upcoming social entrepreneurs?
Chander: My only advice to them would be to just go for it! If you passionately feel about a cause and have an idea to do something about it, just go for it, test it out, run a pilot and see for yourself if it works out or not. The opportunities in social entrepreneurship space are immense. Take any field you want to and just start working on your idea. Develop a model which not only creates a positive sustainable impact on the society but can also generate revenues and profits in parallel.
Shaheen: I do not consider myself as a social entrepreneur and am not an expert at it, all I can say is that it is extremely important to stay focused on your product, or your service or whatever it is that you are trying to create. Don’t get distracted by putting more energy into marketing your product and not giving proper attention to its quality. Have faith in your vision and just keep pushing.
Learn more about their incredible work by watching this short video clip. You can now downlaod DonateItems mobile App here. For more information you can contact Chander and Shaheen at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com