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Productive partnerships: A mobile dental health programme

CSR works when companies have partners, a strategy

Santanu Mishra

Published: Jan. 30, 2024
Updated: Jan. 30, 2024

THE past two decades, beginning from the turn of the millennium, have had a profound impact on how development is perceived globally. What has emerged is more evolved understanding of the change process and a collaborative approach to the solving of social problems.

Smile Foundation, which we founded in 2002, has had the  experience of having worked with over 400 corporations. We have formed many long-term, outcome-oriented and enriching partnerships.

A long list of corporations we have collaborated with includes FIS, ANZ, Avery Dennison, Mitsubishi Electric, Philips, S&P Global, Target International, Shell, Deutsche Bank and MSD Pharma.  Our partnerships go  back anywhere between seven and 12 years.

When we started our journey it was the absence of a formal financing mechanism for social enterprises in India that pushed us to explore partnership with the corporate sector as an alternative resource model.

We were highly inspired by the thought and philosophy of Peter Senge, the founder of the Society for Organizational Learning, who propagated that “sustainability, social equality and the environment are now business problems and corporate leaders can’t expect governments to solve them alone”.

We were encouraged to find ways of channellizing the resources of corporations to achieve development goals. Over the years, we were able to successfully set up a bridge – linking the needs of development initiatives with the business needs of corporates.

Many Indian and global companies have now started linking their CSR programmes to the core of their business successfully. A good example of this is our Mobile Dental Health Programme, in partnership with Haleon (the makers of Sensodyne), which is a novel way of taking dental healthcare services to the underserved communities. Another case in point is the ITrain project of Berger Paints for which Smile is the implementing partner. The project is helping upskill the existing painter community in 24 states of India.

Similarly, multinational companies with engineering at their core are keenly promoting higher education in technical and science streams by offering merit-based scholarships to deserving students across the country. More than 1,500 young people have benefitted through these scholarships this year alone. Many are now working for reputed brands.


CRITICAL PERIOD The 1990s was the decade that presented a critical period for us, changing the nature in which we observe and interpret the world around us. Globalization and liberalization knocked on our doors, which we gladly opened. This allowed not only businesses to flourish, but also created mechanisms through which they could provide support and engage in various philanthropic activities in the country.

The leap gained an even greater impetus from the technological revolution. It is for all of us to see how technology has been connecting individuals across geopolitical boundaries, enabling individuals transcending socio-economic conditions to engage with each other and enable organizations to disseminate relevant information with regard to garnering support for various issues. But most importantly, the internet and technology marked a shift in power bringing attention towards civil society: their needs, their voices in their own words. As people took ownership of change, we saw some powerful digital movements around the world that brought people together for social causes.

With  civil society strengthening and taking on the baton of social change, the onus fell on businesses to prioritize social responsibility and accountability. The increasing pace of globalization also became instrumental in expanding the scope and adoption of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Firstly, businesses started thinking of doing good in a more strategic and planned manner. Secondly, partnering with civil society organizations and combining their skills and the corporate’s resources also gained momentum. And lastly, corporations around the world started to think about how CSR could make “business sense”.

On the global stage, about two decades ago in 2000 during the Millennium Summit of the United Nations, the United Nations Millennium Declaration resulted in adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs helped create novel partnerships, invigorated public opinion, besides trying to normalise the value of setting up ambitious development goals at the international stage. In addition, the MDGs tried to reshape decision-making in the developing as well as developed worlds alike. The immediate and fundamental needs of people were given priority.

In 2015, the MDGs were replaced by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a renewed set of international development goals. Governments have pledged to meet these new goals by year 2030. The SDGs offer a new vision, and new challenges, for development actors around the world.

The SDGs were more consultative and participatory and, in terms of an agenda, an improvement over the MDGs. The SDGs have paid due attention to significant engagement of  civil society organisations and other actors in the social sector right from the framing stage. Building meaningful and systematic partnerships with the private or corporate sector in order to achieve sustainable development is yet another forward-looking vision in the SDGs.

To align SDGs with ESGs and achieve sustainable impact in its true sense, all stakeholders must come together. Business, government and civil society are the three foundational pillars on which any democracy stands. A convergence between these three is the way forward and can open up a whole new world of possibilities in achieving social equity.Growth is not a matter of chance but the result of forces working together. India Rising will be a story written by these three forces.


PARTNERSHIPS In our partnership with SBI Cards to set-up and implement e-Arogya Clinics in the aspirational district of Nuh (Mewat), Haryana, active partnership with the district authorities helped introduce the new concept of telemedicine to the community and with consistent efforts the uptake of services almost doubled over a period of two years. The model clinics have now been adopted by the government. We are already in the process of replicating the same model to set-up e-Arogya clinics in other states.

With PepsiCo Foundation, we have been implementing a project in Sangrur, Punjab, for improving the nutritional and health status of mothers and children with a focus on the first 1,000 days.

The project ties in well with the Poshan Abhiyan of the Government of India and also encourages use of locally sustainable methods like creating kitchen gardens and use of locally available low-cost ingredients to make nutritious recipes. 

 We have also been working in the space of education, with a special focus on integrating STEM, experiential learning and vocational education with classroom learning to help improve the overall learning outcomes of children studying in government schools in 10 states, with support from various corporate partners.

In concurrence with the New Education Policy, these projects are not just making experiential and practical learning accessible for children, but also equipping them with knowledge and tools to understand and navigate local and global issues.


FUTURE OF CSR Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has promising and exciting prospects for the world in the near future. The evolving CSR trends and innovations especially in the past two decades indicate that CSR will play an ever- significant role in how companies do business, engage with communities and how civil society views the world of business. 

Communities, customers as well as employees have an increasing say with respect to sustainability. In the pursuit of responsible business practices, the convergence of ESG goals have become paramount for corporations globally.  This is no longer about minimizing local harm but creating measurable community development to even reversing global climate change.

As companies increasingly recognize the importance of social impact and prioritise their ESG goals, it is imperative to align these with achieving the overall Sustainable Development Goals to attain the greater good. With further evolution of technology and ever increasing awareness of  civil society, businesses will find opportunity to address education, healthcare, upskilling, besides creating value not just for their shareholders but also for the society as a whole.

With the coming of the Social Stock Exchange, CSR spending and impact investment will become more strategic, transparent and effective. It will also put the onus on the development sector and civil society organisations to pursue excellence and consistently deliver high social return on investment.

As companies become cognizant of the social impact of business, the only way forward is to align their ESG goals with achieving the overall Sustainable Development Goals. Businesses, governments and civil society organizations all have a role to play here and positive collaboration between these three will continue to pave the way forward for social development and equity.

When companies align their business goals with the policies and development agenda of the government, and civil society organisations help take welfare schemes to the last mile, sustainable development on the ground can be achieved.


Santanu Mishra is co-founder and executive trustee of the Smile Foundation.


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