‘It’s not just about writing cheques’

DMart Foundation, the corporate social responsibility (CSR) arm of the retail giant DMart, makes a substantial contribution to more than 250 government schools in Maharashtra by funding and running excellence programmes. In mid-2022, the Foundation went further in terms of geography and sector when it joined hands with the Tata Trusts to support social development initiatives in water resources management in Maharashtra and Gujarat and in cancer care in Assam.

In this conversation with Labonita Ghosh, DMart’s managing director and chief executive, Neville Noronha, talks about the company’s philanthropy philosophy and how it tries to maximise the impact of its programmes. Excerpts from the interview:

What is the philosophy of DMart Foundation?

We want to create an impact in three key areas: education, especially primary education; healthcare and nutrition; and climate change mitigation. The bulk of our investments is going towards securing our future; that means children, particularly the underprivileged among them. Anything that involves children and their development is a priority for us. We like to do things that are difficult for others to do. It’s not just about writing cheques.

Neville Noronha

What would you say those are?

For instance, creating specific learning programmes in government schools is quite challenging. Children from economically-weak backgrounds have significantly larger learning impediments. We went to the drawing board and thought through two or three impactful programmes that could enhance a child’s learning journey. These programmes can assist teachers in achieving better learning outcomes for students in regular subjects. They act like accelerators that help teachers reach the learning goals of their students.

We zeroed in on two key areas: making reading fun and introducing computers to children in an exciting and immersive way. We went about refurbishing school libraries and made them a fun place to hang out. We provided age-appropriate books and trained teachers to conduct reading classes, story comprehension sessions and general peer-level discussions on the topics read.

Our reading programme is a big hit with our children as well as with our teachers. We applied the same approach to our computer literacy initiative. We provide the hardware and software in the computer lab at the school. We also maintain it and keep all applications and operating systems updated. We then conduct basic computer training that is age-appropriate. We have refurbished the computer lab and ensured a 2:1 child-to-computer ratio for every class to make the learning effective and ignite curiosity in the child. These two flagship programmes run in parallel with the regular school curriculum.

Periodic desilting is done to enhance the storage capacity of check dams such as this one in Devli village in Bhavnagar district of Gujarat
Periodic desilting is done to enhance the storage capacity of check dams such as this one in Devli village in the Bhavnagar district of Gujarat

Over the years we have added a few other programmes to our list. The ‘English for all’ programme focuses on building the confidence of children to comprehend and speak English fluently. ‘Swachh school abhiyaan’ aims to educate and bring awareness about health and hygiene to schoolchildren. The idea here is to inculcate the right hygiene habits in the children, which they would carry back to their homes and their communities to ensure a larger impact. The best part of this effort is that due to its competitive structure, every single person in the school is involved.

We also felt the need to engage with the parents of these schoolchildren to urge them to support their child’s development, given that quite a few of these kids are first-generation learners. The ‘parent engagement programme’, as it is called, has our trained counsellors engaging with parents and motivating them to create the right environment at home to foster the child’s growth.

Sports, which is critical to build cognitive skills in children, was missing in the government school curriculum. That prompted us to introduce the ‘sports for all’ programme, which works to develop interest and participation in district, state and national-level sports competitions.

We have more than 650 teachers and supervisors to run these programmes. Plus, we have in-house team leaders who are not only responsible for building, curating and monitoring the programmes, but also working closely with teachers and supervisors to ensure high-quality execution on the ground.

Most of our CSR funds go into this school excellence programme. While it may seem like we are doing a lot, what we realised over the years is that unless we carry out a holistic intervention in such schools, outcomes will be limited. Hence our effort is to impact the child in as many areas as possible. The vision is to keep the child in school till he or she finishes tenth grade with the age-appropriate learning objectives achieved. While we still have a long way to go, we strongly believe we are on the right path.

Technical experts and community resource persons educating farmers from Jamana village in Nandurbar district of Maharashtra about water conservation
Technical experts and community resource persons educating farmers from Jamana village in the Nandurbar district of Maharashtra about water conservation

India faces a lot of challenges and if an organisation like ours can show that these can be addressed, even in small measure, it will inspire more corporates to focus on these areas, collaborate with large philanthropic institutions and invest their time, effort and money in them. It is our long-term endeavour to build a system, a template to activate such school excellence programmes in different cities of the country.

Another aspect that we think differently about is that we are not particular about doing philanthropy only in regions where we are present. We believe philanthropy will deliver a better bang for the buck if investments are deployed where they are needed the most. That’s why we have partnered with the Tata Trusts in the cancer care project in Assam, where we do not have a presence.

How did your association with the Trusts come about?

It started during the Covid phase. We were primarily into education but schools were shut and we had a CSR commitment to keep. That’s when we connected with the Tata Trusts. We had a few interactions and the first funding was for equipment [for the cancer hospital] in Jorhat in Assam. After that we got into a partnership for three years on cancer care. Writing a cheque is fine for one-time giving, but we prefer to have longer-term working relationships.

With the Tata Trusts, we are happy that they found us worthy enough to work with. It is an endorsement of what we do and what we stand for as an organisation.

What are the elements that make this dynamic work?

There is the commonality of values, which translates into sincerity in creating impact in a strong, no-frills, less-is-more manner. After three to five years, we should feel good that our funds have been well spent and that there has been an impact on the ground.

The Tata Trusts’ on-ground interventions have been yielding incredible results for decades. Also, when it comes to a partnership, we believe that DMart Foundation should bring something unique to the table. Only then can the partnership become strong and be sustained for a long period of time.

Besides cancer care, you are also funding water resources management projects in Maharashtra and Gujarat. How does this tie in with your climate change mandate?

We believe that a lot of issues around climate change cannot be resolved just by not-for-profit interventions; regulation and scientific innovation have a significantly bigger role to play. CSR resources can facilitate advocacy and education at the grassroots and village levels.

The fundamental aspect should be that there is an economic logic for all stakeholders. We liked the idea of the Trusts’ Lakhpati Kisan initiative, where farmers, through water resources management and development, can sow more than one crop during the year. This can secure improved incomes for farmers in drought-prone regions.

How do you see DMart’s partnership with the Trusts evolving?

It’s just the beginning. We have had some wonderful learnings and have had an excellent working relationship with the Trusts so far. We hope to continue with this partnership for a long time to come.