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Sonal Sachdev Patel is Chief Executive Officer of GMSP Foundation, a family-run non-profit which invests in women and girls as agents of change in India and the UK. A member of the British Asian Trust’s Founders Circle, Sonal tells us about her philanthropic vision and her family’s innovative approach to transforming lives.

We’re staunch believers in the importance of empowering women, so are particularly excited at the opportunity to hear from you. As an organisation, what makes your approach towards this cause different?

We’re a forward-thinking family foundation that believes in listening to what people in local communities tell us. Our vision of philanthropy is not about reading endless reports in our offices. Of course, we see the need for acting on data, but we combine this with the knowledge from our grassroots collaborations. It’s local people who know what the answers are, and they deserve our respect and trust. Neither are we just about grant making. We give unrestricted funding because our NGO partners tell us this is what they need. We work with them to identify their strategic objectives but, ultimately, we have faith in them to make the right decisions.

That’s definitely a very bold and interesting approach; it must have led to many highlights and challenges within your career?

Working closely with NGO leaders is definitely my highlight. They are at the forefront of our philanthropy and building relationships with such smart change-makers is so energising. As a family organisation, one of our key strengths is that we are lean and agile and can make decisions quickly. We fund areas that others might not, without restriction, so our belief in the NGO leaders who steer change is vital. Of course, there are challenges too, and I’d say the biggest hurdle is the sheer complexity of social issues we face today. Even when solutions are found, the pace of change can make it feel like you’re trying to nail jelly to a wall.

We are aware that this lack of accountability in family foundations can allow bad decisions and even more harm to be created. It is for this reason that we keep a group of trusted advisors on hand who will tell us how it is!

We also hear that you’re a talented writer and that your new book ‘Gita: The Battle of the Worlds’ has been receiving much publicity. What inspired you to write it?

The sight of my mother sitting cross legged in front of our temple at home – the dim light of the diya gently illuminating the yellowish pages of the Gita was one I woke up to on many mornings. However, when I read the Gita as an adult, I found it difficult to understand and to relate to my modern-day world. At the same time, it was evident that many of the problems we see in our society today, such as gender violence or mental health issues, stem from the fact that our education system is lacking. It is not covering essential life skills such as learning respect for oneself and others, the ability to control one’s emotions. Many of these answers are embedded in the holy scriptures. It was the desire to take these magical messages of the Gita to my children in a modern and relatable way that led me to writing this book.

My generation of British Indians can find ourselves in an “in-between place”. We may be connected to our Indian heritage but may not necessarily have the knowledge or understanding of our culture that our parents did. Whether it is by writing, giving back to India, or other means - we can increase that connection.

British Asians have been hugely successful in business. We need to apply that same brilliance and skill set to the social impact work we support.

Your passion for development is quite evident; how have you managed to keep it alive over the years?

I once saw a corporate segmentation for donors which put givers into three categories: heart, impact and data. Personally, I think I sit somewhere between heart and impact. It’s crucial to understand where your passion lies, so you can ensure you stay energised and also work with your NGO partners effectively. They can waste a huge amount of time trying to satisfy donors, and we want to free up their time as much as possible to ensure they can be focused on their mission. Staying in a positive cycle helps you see that you’re making a real difference, whereas feeling lost and unable to create change can dent that passion.

Are you working on any specific projects at the moment?

We’ve been actively supporting women in the Black Asian and Minority Ethnic sector against gender violence, and in November and December we are piloting a crowdfunding campaign called Rise Together. This focuses on five strong Black Asian and Minority Ethnic organisations in the UK, providing a platform for women’s stories, whilst also raising public awareness of the severe challenges they face. We want to ensure that marginalised women receive the kind of support that fully takes their needs, cultures and language into account, and the money raised will go straight to the frontline. We are grateful to the British Asian Trust for their support for this campaign.

We see supporting women and girls is a reoccurring theme in your work. Why do you believe this to be a significant issue?

The data overwhelmingly supports it. Almost three out of four children that are trafficked are girls. Of the 774 million adults that are illiterate in the world, three quarters are women. At the same time, women reinvest 90% of their income back into their communities and so investing in them lifts up their families and their communities. I visualise it like an electricity grid – lots of little sparks lighting up and then spreading – fast!

Investing in girls is a smart thing to do as they turbo charge change.

Why did you join British Asian Trust’s Founders Circle?

Because Richard asked me to! In all seriousness, it’s because I believe strongly in supporting an organisation that will catalyse non-resident Indians globally, and channel our energy and capital into the countries of our heritage, in an impactful way.

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