Donations by Indians surge as Covid-19 grips the country

People raised funds for oxygen supply, medical expenses, funerals and food.
People raised funds for oxygen supply, medical expenses, funerals and food.PHOTO: AFP

BANGALORE - Nationwide volunteer efforts to help those affected by Covid-19 have sparked an unprecedented explosion in online donations in India.

As people raised funds for oxygen supply, medical expenses, funerals and food, tens of thousands of Indians dipped into their pockets for the first time.

Bangalore-based marketing professional Pramod Hegde used to donate one month's salary every year to non-profit organisations "basically to claim that amount as a deductible" while paying his income tax. But, during the pandemic, he donated five times the amount.

Moved by "volunteers out there risking their lives", the 38-year-old first paid the fuel bills of a neighbour driving the elderly to vaccination centres. After seeing photos of bare-chested workers in overcrowded crematoriums, he transferred money to a collective giving them protective equipment.

Before he knew it, he had responded to a dozen online crowdfunding campaigns.

"Everyone is suffering. The least I can do is give 10 per cent of my salary every month. I see it as the money I am not spending on restaurants and taxis," Mr Hegde said.

Non-governmental social work in India is largely funded by a few affluent Indians, corporations or foreign aid. Non-profits know that most middle-class Indians do not habitually donate to charities unless through religious institutions, and occasionally on birthdays and anniversaries to orphanages and old age homes.

Individual donations were growing gradually in the past five years with efforts from online crowdfunding platforms, but the pandemic has seen them skyrocket.

Crowdfunding platform Ketto has hosted 20,000 Covid-19 fund raisers, and raised 2.5 times more funds in the past year than it did in 2019. In the seven weeks of the second wave alone, beginning in March this year, when infections peaked at 400,000 a day, the platform had raised 1.85 billion rupees (S$34 million).

Ketto co-founder Zaheer Adenwala noted that the collective distress of the pandemic brought not only new donors - seven of 10 donors contributed for the first time - but also new fund raisers.

"In India, people are not very comfortable asking for money, but that barrier fell as a lot of people now realise the value of crowdfunding to raise money for medical expenses for their loved ones or for memorial causes," said Mr Adenwala.

Many volunteer collectives and non-profits that did not have their own fund-raising teams, websites or bank accounts, signed up through online fund-raising platforms like Milaap, Ketto and Give India.

The average donation on Ketto is 2,500 rupees, but the pandemic also jogged A-listers and affluent individuals into action. Celebrities like Bollywood actor Anushka Sharma and her husband, cricketer Virat Kohli, not only helped Ketto raise a hefty 110 million rupees, but also mobilised other influencers and affluent Indians to come forward.

"The whole emotion attached to crowdfunding has flipped now. Now, if you helped raise money, you are seen as someone who did a wonderful deed," he added.

Mr Atul Satija, founder of Give India, the biggest online donation platform in the country, said the "very visible outpouring of selfless public service" in India has displaced any mistrust of social workers and NGOs.

Give India facilitated 3.2 billion rupees as donations in the past year, of which 2.2 billion rupees went towards urgent Covid-19 relief campaigns like setting up oxygen helplines, buying oxygen concentrators, building treatment centres for critical patients, and distributing meals to hungry families.

"The pandemic also happened when mobile payments have reached a critical mass in India, making the act of contributing much easier," Mr Satija said.

Unlike before the pandemic, the online platforms noticed that donors needed no incentives beyond transparency, reports on delivery, and thank-you e-mails.

"Giving has become way more informed and conscious. We love this. The more engaged people are, the more involved they are in the act of giving, the more the frequency of giving," said Mr Adenwala.

However, after a year of mobility restrictions, more than 350,000 deaths and an incessant state of medical emergency in the country, nonprofits are aware of a creeping "emotional exhaustion" among the public.

"Retail giving by individuals towards immediate rescue and relief will surely fall as the second and third waves subside, but the need on the ground will continue for at least a year. We are now figuring out how to sustain donor commitment to longer goals like livelihood support, equitable vaccination and building rural infrastructure," said Mr Satija.