When a 7.7 magnitude earthquake shook the Gujarat region of India in 2001, it was hard to imagine any good could have come out of the enormous devastation. Eastern India was in shambles, which left many here in America with an overriding desire to help. With the assistance of former President Clinton, the American India Foundation (AIF) was born. AIF is the premier and largest diaspora philanthropy based out of the United States and was built on the interest and needs of the Indophile community to create a nationwide platform for accountable giving.
While AIF garners support from all over the country, the Chicago chapter and its strong Board of Trustees have proven to be most valuable to the organization. Harit and Reena Talwar and Raj and Seema Bhatia, all of Lake Forest, have been integral in helping India’s most impoverished individuals. Sheridan Road sat down with the couples to hear more about the powerful organization and what it takes to raise $70 million in 10 years.
Sheridan Road: With AIF supporters being so far away from the country they are trying to help, what role does the Internet and social media play in helping dispersed populations to organize, collaborate, and nurture across borders?
Harit Talwar: AIF’s strong web and social media presence provides a strong platform for organized diaspora engagement in the United States, as evidenced by its black-tie galas, held annually in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Dallas. AIF galas are attended by the United State’s top business, philanthropic, and academic leaders. Chicago’s gala last fall raised a record-breaking $1 million.
SR: AIF is a network of supporters concerned about the health, well-being, education, and development of India. Why should AIF be important to those living on the North Shore?
Seema Bhatia: AIF teaches kids about volunteering and giving back, and provides a wonderful opportunity for children on the North Shore to not take things for granted. Whether they participate as a Junior AIF committee member, or attend the annual dance marathon in Lake Forest which raises money for AIF programs in India, they learn to help the severely underprivileged. As a parent, I see how AIF not only teaches kids how to give back, but in this global day and age, permits them to see another aspect of the world that they might not otherwise be exposed to. It imparts the recognition that they are part of a bigger world that extends beyond the North Shore.
SR: Who benefits from the work of the AIF?
Raj Bhatia: AIF is devoted to catalyzing social and economic change in India. Money raised goes directly to help impoverished individuals through innovative programs in education, livelihoods, and public health. For example, AIF’s Digital Equalizer (DE) program is a computer-aided learning program that bridges the education and digital divide in India, thus preparing tens of thousands of children to compete in the digital economy. AIF’s Learning and Migration Program (LAMP) is an education initiative directed toward children of seasonal migration. AIF’s Maternal and Newborn Survival Initiative (MANSI) covers 174 villages, helping to reduce maternal and child mortality and morbidity for 17,500 women aged 15–49 years and 6,400 children under the age of two.
SR: Why is it important to support the AIF?
Reena Talwar: There are a significant number of people who belong to the Indian diaspora who live on the North Shore, and AIF provides them all with an opportunity to give back. It is an organized way of giving to India. While you may get involved in the local community, there’s always a part of you that wants to give back to where you came from. We may not be able to fly back there, so AIF provides a way to help.
To find out ways to support the American India Foundation, visit aif.org. —Stacy Flannery