Vodafone makes a difference at Atma

March 7th, 2014


When I first signed up  for Vodafone’s ‘World of Difference’ program, I knew that it was going to be a great opportunity to donate my time and skills for a non-profit organisation. What I did not expect, was that these 7 weeks were going to become one of the most cherished memories of my life.

As a part of the Atma-CFLI project, I was approached by Atma to conduct a  2 day workshop on entrepreneurship for 30 young women from marginalized and low-income communities. At first,I thought to myself that I’ve conducted many entrepreneurship trainings & workshops before and have mentored several budding entrepreneurs in the past, so this can’t possibly be rocket science right? Wrong! Training students from mainstream colleges or professionals aspiring to be entrepreneurs is one thing. Talking about entrepreneurship to an audience who is young (16-20years), hasn’t undergone formal higher education, are from marginalized & low-income backgrounds and haven’t even possibly ever heard the word ‘entrepreneur’ is a totally different ball game! My challenge was not ‘what’ I was going to tell them, but ‘how’ I was going to present this complex subject.

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To address these issues, I decided to keep it simple. I thought of how most Indians are entrepreneurial in their outlook and great at ‘jugaad’. For the uninitiated, jugaad is a colloquial Hindi word for ‘a creative or innovative idea providing a quick, alternative way of solving or fixing a problem.’ So essentially, the skills exist somewhere deep within everybody, and I only had to find a way to help these young women draw out their hidden potential.

So there I was on the day of the workshop, with less than a week of prep and lots of jugaad, taking up the task of creating young entrepreneurs! I started with a simple ‘show of hands’ exercise to tell who really wanted to be self-employed. A couple of hands reluctantly went up – possibly without even knowing what that really meant.

The first day of the workshop involved fun team games, group activities, some theory and a lot of introspection. The focus of the workshop was to make the girls realize their own potential and to have them think through the simple opportunities that exist around them. When I look back now, the best part of the workshop was the girls’ hunger to learn and the desire to feel worthy.

On day 2, we asked the girls to put together their ‘Business Plans’ and present them to mock investors. This taught them to think through their business model, their distinct product or service, their unique selling points, their target market, their budgets and costing, their marketing & communication plans and the works! The energy was beyond infectious with each girl working enthusiastically with their groups to develop strong business plans.

Anyone who heard them present could tell that they weren’t simply selling their ideas, they were selling a part of their dreams! At the end of the session I asked how many of them felt they could be self-employed. To my surprise, each of them raised their hand. They felt that the workshop had instilled in them the confidence and motivation to be ‘something’ in life. They now had their thinking hats on and understood ‘what’ it takes for them to set-off!

So will each one of them really become an entrepreneur? May be, may be not. What I do know is that given the right direction and support, this generation can secure a bright future for themselves and for our country.


Volunteer Spotlight: Tiia Knuutila

February 21st, 2014

Excellence is never an accident. ~Aristotle

At Atma, we like to get it right and then get better at it. We understand that this can only be achieved through a commitment to learning and continuous improvement. We set the highest standards for ourselves and the people we work with, to ensure the best quality of work.

It is in line with this continuous pursuit of excellence that we present to you a publication by Atma Alumna- Tiia Knuutila. A student of marketing from Haaga Helia University of Applied Sciences (Finland), Tiia used her experience and learnings at Atma to write her graduate thesis. “How to make a style guide for an Indian non-profit organisation” is a culmination of her work with Atma portfolio organisation- OSCAR, where she worked on creating various marketing collaterals.

Of her Atma volunteership she says, “My experience with Atma exceeded all my expectations.I did not expect things to be as well-structured and professionally handled as they are at Atma. I felt empowered with my work and the responsibilities that I was given. At the same time I got all the support I needed to produce the best results. I would do another volunteer period with Atma as it is a meaningful way of learning and developing oneself professionally.”

We look forward to applying Tiia’s learnings and recommendations in our work. You can view the publication : ttp://


(Tiia receives her Atma Volunteer certificate from OSCAR co-founders Ashok and Suraj)

VOTE for Atma at the iVolunteer Awards 2013!

Mumbai Marathon 2014

January 31st, 2014

Over the past few years, India and the world has seen an explosion of mass movements, with people coming out onto the streets to stand up for their rights, protect democracy and to voice their anger and frustration against corrupt, incompetent or inadequate governments. For the last 11 years though, the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon has been a movement of hope, joy and human spirit, bringing together thousands individuals from around the world. A movement, unencumbered by the socio-economic problems that face the world. This year too, the Marathon gave Mumbai a reason to smile, to celebrate and to unite in support of NGOs across the country.

Atma too had an exceptional year with 120 individuals in our marathon team. Together our “Atma Soles” raised over 15 lakhs for Atma’s cause of quality education for all children. We would like to thank these fantastic people for their hard-work and support. A very special to thank you to Mr. Mark Bell for his exceptional dedication and contribution to Atma as the official trainer for our Marathon team.

Says Taylor Downs, co-founder Vera Solutions and Atma Sole, “ The marathon was an absolutely wonderful experience, and along the way I was fortunate enough to meet folks running for all sorts of causes. It meant a lot to me to carry the Atma flag, and I hope I can do so again.”

Check out the day in pictures below!

Cathay Pacific supports Atma for the 4th Year in a row:



Atma staff, volunteers, board members and friends make for a happy Atma Family:



Atma Half and Full Marathon runners show their mettle by passing the gruelling test of  mind-body and spirit:

liveMint: A renewed model of education – Karthik Muralidharan

January 25th, 2014

A taste of what our team is reading these days. Karthik Muralidharan discusses the challenges in today’s education system in this liveMint article. Touching on why the  Public vs. Private debate is much more difficult than just that.


Teaching for Change

January 17th, 2014

“ The question is not who’s going to let me, it is who’s going to stop me.” ~ Ayn Rand


Having worked with exemplary education non-profits for the last 6 years, we at Atma understand the role that education can play in changing the lives of people and communities.

In our previous work with women from economically disadvantaged communities, Atma has found the most desired and feasible career path for women is teaching.

With this in mind, Atma along with portfolio organisations Sahyog and Zaya has recently launched a project that aims to empower young women who are at risk of early marriage. This project, funded by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives will train and equip 20 young women to become high quality community based teachers.

They will receive training in spoken English, entrepreneurship, library management (Hippo Campus Growby Reading) and Maths teaching (Zaya). These skills will allow them to go on to work as Librarians or Maths teachers.

As earning members of their family, these women will not only have the opportunity to improve their own social standing but will also set examples within their communities. As teachers, these women will become a bridge between genders and help break down stereotypes and discriminatory mind sets that often hold women back. Their empowered position in society will allow them to influence much needed systemic change in the community.

Class begins on 18th January 2014. Watch this space for more as the project progresses!

Joint project between:
Funded by:


(Photo- Sahyog; For representational purposes only)

The language of success

December 26th, 2013

For a country that speaks 22 official languages and over a thousand dialects, the English language enjoys an uncanny position of privilege. While there do exist large factions of Indian society that equate learning or speaking English to “Anglicisation” or “Westernisation”, for many Indians it continues to be a language of opportunity and aspiration. A general consensus seems to be that the better your skills in English, the quicker your climb on the ladder of socio-economic success.

Naturally, a desire to send their children to English medium schools is no longer limited to the privileged classes. A recent report in DNA talks about the plummeting enrolment rates in BMC (vernacular medium) schools owing to increased aspirations amongst underprivileged communities to send children to English medium private schools or BMC schools.

The quality of teaching and learning levels of students in these schools remains questionable. Read this article by ASER on “ When and how English should be taught in schools”. The author leaves us with an interesting thought, “The debate in India around when and how English should be taught needs to be widened both in scope and substance to encompass the language skills more broadly. More research needs to be done in India to systematically explore how languages can be learned more meaningfully and how they can grow more organically from what children already know.” See more.


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Atma has recently been awarded a grant to work on a joint project with our portfolio organisations Sahyog and Zaya. 10 young local women from low-income communities will be trained by Zaya to improve their employability prospects and social standing within their communities.English language training is one of the key components of this project.

Education technology: bringing quality education to all children

November 29th, 2013


By the United Nation’s measure, effectively 171 million people could be lifted from poverty in developing countries if basic literacy is met. Addressing the achievement gap among low-income students is perhaps the most powerful weapon in fighting poverty and improving quality of life.

Educators in emerging markets often voice concern that technology will make their jobs redundant. Despite this apprehension, new education-technology (ed-tech) solutions are demonstrating a convergence between old and new teaching methods. Many solutions are tackling some of the world’s biggest education issues, like addressing the achievement gap at the base of the pyramid by enhancing the role of educators rather than replacing the meaningful tasks they fulfil.

This gap is attributed to a number of root causes. Large class sizes, variability in teacher quality, limited measurement of student outcomes, and skill deficits currently thwart progress. Education technology is one of the ways in which organisations are trying to deliver low-cost, quality education to this segment of society.

Currently, the issue of accessibility remains a central challenge to providing quality education and content to areas where modern infrastructure is lacking. India’s 2011 census found more than 60% of the population to be living in rural and underserved areas. This has only exacerbated the disparity in educational attainment and quality of life between both ends of the economic spectrum. This challenge is amplified when users develop an aversion to using technology if they encounter difficulties when using it. Despite these challenges, much progress has been made in recent years. A range of social enterprises have dedicated their efforts to pursuing ed-tech solutions that eradicate a myriad of problems currently crippling education systems worldwide.

Despite progress, uptake of ed-tech solutions has been slow. General scepticism exists due to previous ed-tech failures, as do serious infrastructural hurdles regarding scarcity of power and electricity. There is also great hesitation to adopt ed-tech due to a false perception that teachers will become obsolete.

Nonetheless, there is a new generation of social enterprise dedicated to developing holistic solutions that overcome these challenges. In order to be successful, these solutions must address the aforementioned challenges. Technology must be easy-to-use so teachers can focus on student learning. In the mean time, it is important enterprises conduct robust pilots to determine what works best in these environments.

At Zaya, we are combining elements of traditional instruction and new pedagogy. We have created a lightweight device that harnesses interactive technology, whilst providing a blended learning approach and robust teacher training. The device works both online and offline, running for up to 10 hours on battery power, making it workable even in the most remote areas.

Social enterprise is a rapidly growing space, with many innovators focused on reform and improvement of education systems. As these enterprises grow and scale their impact, there is tremendous potential to bridge the aforementioned achievement gap for millions of children. Whilst this challenge is significant, it makes it an exciting time to be an educational entrepreneur in India.


Author: Atma Volunteer Georgia McRae works with our portfolio organisation- Zaya. Zaya is an ed-tech social enterprise that provides a network of Learning Labs for children at the BoP. She has a keen interest in learning about innovative solutions to development challenges and plans to commence her Juris Doctor in 2014.This post was first published on the Sankalp blog.

Paperseed Foundation at Atma

November 5th, 2013

Someone once said,“An entrepreneur without funding is a musician without an instrument.” Entrepreneurs, whether social or business, often find themselves unable to translate their ideas and passion into successful or impactful initiatives. Having worked with over 26 education non-profits and social enterprises, Atma realises that the vicious cycle of financial constraints, is a major deterrent in scaling these organisations.  Atma Executive Director- Mary Ellen says, “Over the last six years, we have seen so many passionate social entrepreneurs with bold ideas for tackling the mammoth issue of education. Often times, all they need is someone to have a little faith and to give them the push needed to move from idea to impact.”

Whilst Atma has always provided non-financial support to our portfolio organisations, we understand that funding is an important piece of the puzzle. Keeping this mind, we have been actively working on connecting our portfolio organisations to potential funders. It is during this search that Atma began working with Paperseed Foundation in May 2013. A sister concern of Cell Mark, Paperseed supports education initiatives that can provide innovative solutions for strengthening education.

In September 2013, one of our portfolio organisations- Umang Charitable Trust was selected by Paperseed as a grantee and was awarded over 21000$ in grant funding. Umang is non-profit organisation that works with children with autism and learning disabilities. As a result of this funding, Umang has been able to increase their reach and impact through a new centre in Bhayander.

Executive Director of Paperseed Foundation, Aliyya Mattos visited us this week to identify more potential grantees. With our business planning workshop coming to a close, 7 of our portfolio organisations made their final presentations. It was a  big learning for Atma and some of our portfolio organisations to get a funders’ perspective from Paperseed Foundation. Here is the week in photos:

Business Planning Workshop- Atma portfolio organisations make their final presentations.

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Aliyya Mattos and Arti Aurora of Paperseed Foundation visit Atma portfolio organisation- Umang’s new centre in Bhayander.

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Most Significant Change- Nilofer’s story

September 17th, 2013

What is our impact? How has our work made a difference? Development organisations often ask themselves these questions. Over the years Atma has been assessing its work and impact through internally developed tools.  However, in a bid to dig deeper, Atma recently piloted an impact assessment tool called Most Significant Change (MSC). This process involves collecting stories of change experienced by beneficiaries through interviews or discussions.

To pilot this technique Atma chose one partner organisation -Bright Future. With the help of an external MSC consultant- Ms. Andrea Farley, Atma interviewed the various stakeholders involved in the Atma- Bright Future partnership- Bright Future founder, program director, program officer, Atma partnership manager. The stories of change collected were then evaluated by an external panel to choose the Most Significant Change story. This story represents all the changes that Atma has helped bring about in Bright Future.

Nilofer Jailor (Program Officer, Bright Future)

“I completed my M.A in psychology in 2009 and I came to NRI (Bright Future)* in 2011- Kishor selected me to work on their school program which was called Bright Future . At that point of time we had only a vague idea about what we wanted to do -something in the area of career guidance and support. We planned our program accordingly, but at that time we only did career awareness sessions with students. IMG_3081

There were no real processes or structures in place before Atma. After Atma began to work with us in July 2012 we realised the importance of processes, documentation, reporting- Atma gave us a clear direction, more structure and helped with planning. Our program is now whole and strong and aimed at well-rounded development of children.

Now we are not just working with students- but also their teachers, parents, principals and the community. We are much more focused on outcomes now- for me quality of our programs is very important- no matter how many students I work with- 500 or 900 the quality of delivery should remain the same.

I have a lot of tasks at Bright Future- conducting life skills sessions, counselling, career guidance sessions, coordinating mentor meetings, parents meeting etc. which I found difficult to manage earlier. But I have now learnt how to manage my time and tasks. I have started prioritizing my work which has helped me to cope with my workload.

All the Atma volunteers who have come to Bright Future have been wonderful- they have been very involved in not only their work but have also taken the effort to interact with our students.

Maude was one such volunteer who came to work with us. She took all of our inputs and then creatively put together a great module. In fact both- the bright future and mentoring- modules have made my life very easy.

Today we can confidently speak about our programs to schools and parents. We just got permission to work with a school called Shivaji Vidyalaya where we will be working with 180 students from 9th standard. Hopefully by the end of this year we will have added two more schools. Last week we also launched our mentorship program with 40 engineering students and 7 mentors which is a major achievement for us.

The biggest change for me personally has been the improvement in my communication skills. When Atma sent its first volunteer to us- Tom- all of us had to work on our language because he obviously could not understand Hindi. I am so thankful to Atma for this as these interactions with foreign volunteers have helped me gain my self- confidence. All the changes that Atma has brought- the monthly planning, progress reports, documentation- have brought so much more structure to Bright Future.

All of this together has brought about a change in me- I find myself becoming stronger every day. Now wherever I go I ask people- friends, family or acquaintances to engage with Bright Future- whether as mentors or through funding. I don’t hesitate to speak to anyone about us. I can now wake up from my sleep even and talk about Bright Future. This organisation is in my head, my heart and just about everywhere.”

*Bright Future was previously called New Resolution India (NRI).

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(L-R: Nilofer with Atma Volunteer and with Bright Future student at their Independence day celebration)

Blog Series: Second Line at OSCAR

July 5th, 2013

Rags to riches. Its the kind of stuff that dreams are made of.  A small town boy trying to make it big has often times been the central theme of popular culture stories and movies in India. Suraj Patro however belongs to the growing number of young minds in India who are foregoing this narrative to carve not just their own destiny but that of their entire community.

Suraj has taken this leap in his role as Associate Director of OSCAR. One of Atma’s NGO Partners, OSCAR strives to empower children with life skills through the medium of football.

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Suraj knows the difference that role models coupled with constructive extracurricular activities can make in the lives of children from disadvantaged communities. At 14 years of age Suraj  left his village in Jharkhand to live with his parents who were working in Mumbai at the time. Suraj’s mother worked as a domestic helper for a well-to do family in Colaba. His earnest nature and desire to study inspired generosity in the lady of the house and she offered to sponsor his dream to continue his studies. In exchange for this kindness, Suraj lived with the family and worked as a part-time errand boy and house help.

Studying in a BMC school in the city presented a formidable challenge for Suraj. Cultural shock coupled with prejudiced attitudes towards students from smaller towns and villages meant that he had to work twice as hard to prove his abilities. ” I was often discriminated against because I came from a village. Even the teachers dismissed me because of it. But I loved studying and I knew I had to prove myself.” So determined was his resolve that not only did he do well in his exams but eventually became many a teacher’s favourite student. ” I started participating in sports and other extracurricular activities. All the teachers began to appreciate me and my hard work” , he adds proudly.

Unfortunately for Suraj his benefactor expected him to work after school, allowing him little time to study or play. Tired of the restrictions and expectations, Suraj eventually ran away to live with an uncle and regularly “bunked” classes at college.

Life started looking up when he chanced upon a local NGO called Doorstep that engages youth from underprivileged communities through various extracurricular activities. It is here that Suraj had his first tryst with ‘social work’. ” It was a great opportunity for me to associate with the youth group at Doorstep. I thoroughly enjoyed participating in street plays and other community based activities. As a group we started multiple initiatives to address various issues within the community”.

The big idea came along when Ashoka Changemakers approached their group at Doorstep and offered to potentially fund one of their initiatives.  Together Ashok, Suraj and Gaurang founded OSCAR- an NGO that provides high quality football training to underprivileged boys and girls in Mumbai to motivate & support children and youth to continue education and to nurture their talent.


Financial constraints that had not gone away however, meant that Suraj had to take up work in the private sector and step back from OSCAR. His heart though, never quite left. “One day I called up my mother and sought her permission to work in the social sector. I asked her if she would be alright with me not earning too much money. She told me I should follow my heart.” With his parents’ blessings Suraj came back to where he says he always belonged.

In 2011, he came on board as OSCAR’s Associate Director. “Its just a fancy title”, he adds shyly. “When I came back I found that Ashok had been doing great work and OSCAR had earned a lot recognition locally and globally. But his busy schedule of travelling meant that there were no systems in place. I started working on documenting our programs and setting in place schedules and policies that would help us run OSCAR more efficiently”.

“Ashok is a very supportive leader and he gives me freedom to express and implement my ideas. It was during this time that I realised how much I loved my work. We often worked late into the night but never got tired. That is when I knew I had made the right decision.”

Only 24 years old, Suraj wants OSCAR to be a pan-Indian organisation. “OSCAR’s young leader program in particular is something I believe in very strongly. I would love to help and encourage more youth through this program, the way the little youth group at Doorstep helped me.”

His dreams do not stop here. Next up-Suraj wants to start a project and help his village seemingly in line with the old adage that charity begins at home.


(Suraj , second from right, with the OSCAR team)

[This article is part of a blog series on second line leadership at Atma partner NGOs.]

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