Dowser is welcoming new writers/contributors; please send us a note at with a writing sample.

How to get a social enterprise off the ground: The money trail

   /   Jul 12th, 2011Finance, India, News

A health worker in India

So you’ve got the next Great Idea to solve a social or environmental problem; or the beginnings of the next Great Idea — where do you go from here? How do you manifest your idea into something tangible, an organization, enterprise or product?

In this series we follow a young social entrepreneur traveling through India and exploring these questions, hoping to set the groundwork for her own organization. We’ll track her progress as she takes part in a national immunization day on polio and consults experts and health workers on how best to incorporate mobile phones into the operation.  She saw a need: those who already had polio were seeking – and not finding – help. Her solution: develop a program that allows health workers to transmit basic information via mobile phone to doctors in nearby cities who would be able to offer free-of-cost corrective surgery.

I had no answer.  I was stumped.

I went to my bank, inquiring about wire fees to transfer money from here to India to fund the new nonprofit I’m trying to build and was told that no matter what the amount, we’d be facing a steep wire fee ($45) on each transaction.

I thought to myself, in the age of M-Pesa, and other SMS-based money transfer services, have we not found a way yet to send money from one place to another without these messy fees? Then, I did what any inquisitive mind does –  I started asking around.  How do other small organizations do it? Each one that I came across, working in an array of places, Uganda, India, Pakistan, all used wires from one bank account to another and they too were frustrated with these unnecessary costs.

I spent several nights, on Skype, calling banks in India, asking about their fees and guidelines.  I found little, though, that was helpful.  While the national banks like ICICI have set up schemes for non-resident Indians to donate to charitable causes in India, Donate2India, for example, they didn’t seem to have any programs in place to help new, non-established nonprofits.  I called and was routed and rerouted.  So, instead, I went to the web, and started scouring websites.  For a country that receives millions in remittances, there had to be a smarter way than just endless wire fees.  And then I found it: a partnership between Wells Fargo Bank and ICICI allowing an individual to send large sums of money for as little as $5.  Only challenge: setting up accounts on both ends, having someone operate it locally in India, and, as always, more paperwork.

Till I find a better solution (and if you have it, please do suggest it), I’ll either be setting up accounts with these partner banks or have to transfer larger sums of money at a time to avoid paying that high wire fee each time.

And then I learned about another procedure that may be needed: the FCRA license. FCRA stands for Foreign Contribution Regulation Act and was initiated by the Indian government in 1976.  Apparently, getting one is quite challenging, or so I’ve been told.  So, it would be best to partner with another organization on the ground that already has that standing than trying establishing it yourself.

Either way, setting up a strong money trail is the most challenging part of running an organization when your support is coming from abroad but your operations and costs are located closer to home.  For that, I decided to consult the help of the various partners involved.  And instead of setting up a new infrastructure, building my own team, I felt that it would be wise to use the network that’s already in place.

That meant I was back on Skype, reaching out to UNICEF, WHO, and Rotary’s polio offices in Delhi.  And I found that you only have to ask.  Even if they weren’t able to help immediately, they expressed their interest and said that they’d be delighted to help along the way, as the details become more apparent.  So, your teacher was right in school – just ask.  Whatever the question, as inconvenient, silly, or impossible as it may seem, just ask it.

This process is important. We live in an era where transparency is vital.  You must illustrate to investors, donors, and supporters that you’ve got a good money route in plan – one that gets it directly into the hands of those who need it.

While building an efficient and simple money trail can be a dizzying act as you exchange currencies, I found a few resources that make setting up the foundation for a social enterprise or nonprofit a bit easier.

1)    Unless your best bud is a lawyer, you’ll be spending quite a bit on a lawyer’s services to overlook your paperwork and help you establish yourself legally as a 501c3.  Instead, consider an organization that provides pro-bono services such as SCORE or Nolo.  Both offer guidance for little or no cost.  Check out or for more details.

2)    And unless your other best bud is an IT specialist, you may need a little help setting up a website for your new organization.  Rather than pay a couple hundred (or even a couple thousand) for someone to do it or you, try out a build-your-own-website program.  I started tinkering around on and found it quite simple to operate (for someone who doesn’t have a computer science degree).

When you reach that point though where your IT skills fail you, you can try going on where individuals offer their services to nonprofits for free, or, which specializes in web design.

Bottom line:  it’s not been easy.  And the most useful resource: Skype.  Just call people, keep asking questions, even if they seem inane.  To be honest, we’re just entering a phase where more and more people are working on a global scale.  That means that it may be true that the service you need doesn’t exist yet.   So, keep looking for solutions and alternatives.  And if it really doesn’t exist, then there’s an idea for another enterprise!

4 Responses

  1. Esha, need to get in touch with you for a conference in Mumbai.

    Amazing work, keep it up.

  2. My experience with setting up organizations and transferring money overseas indicates it is not as difficult as the above article suggests. I have never needed a lawyer to obtain 501(C)3 status; the instructions are simple and straightforward. Establishing a non-profit Trust or Corporation in India is even easier. Fulfilling the Indian Goverment’s requirements for FRCA approval is tedious, but professional help is unnecessary. When one gets that far, one can write Dollar cheques on a US bank and deposit them to one’s Indian bank account, and there is no fee for this service. Esha mentions that ICICI Bank and Wells Fargo can help with transferring money. While their literature states that these two banks have a special arrangement for transfers, so far they have been unable to effect one single transfer for me. Each of them blames the other for not functioning properly, and the result is always the same. Nothing happens.

  3. P Sharma says:

    Hi Esha,

    Thank you for sharing your story regarding your struggles with transferring money into India. I am a healthcare professional in the northeast and have started my own organization to combat children’s malnutrition in India through education. Our biggest hurdle has been in establishing FCRA status because we do not have anyone who can champion that task on the ground. Would you be able to talk a bit further about potential solutions to overcome? If so I would be happy to correspond via email or phone.

    If anyone else would be willing to discuss this further that would also be much appreciated.