Raising funds for an AI or EdTech startup is no big deal these days ! However, if you are raising funds for wildlife conservation, or to help sick, injured, orphaned and abused wild animals, then you have a challenge on your hands !
Sandhi Priya, our next pathbreaker, Corporate Philanthropy & Partnership Manager at Wildlife SOS (WSOS) , spearheads the non-profit’s fundraising activities with the primary objective of rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife in distress, and preserving India’s natural heritage.
Sandhi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her love for animals and strengthening her resolve to pursue a career raising funds for their conservation and protection by educating the society through awareness programs about the importance of wildlife in our ecosystem.
For students, while we should appreciate technology and its impact on our lives lets also not forget our duty towards our natural environment. Its ok to raise funds for the next tech “unicorn”, but lets make sure our wildlife don’t become unicorns ! Take up a career in conserving wildlife through fundraising .
Sandhi, tell us about your background?
Hi there! I am a travel junkie who is in the midst of a never-ending love affair with travelling and meeting new people. I spent half my life trotting India, with a passion for exploring new places, cuisines, culture, etc. The thought of doing something that doesn’t involve nature, people, travel has never crossed my mind. I just simply adore the outdoors and new experiences.
I was born in Dehradun, Uttarakhand and raised by 2 incredible parents. My mother was employed as a Cartographer at the Forest Survey of India and my father is an Indian Defense employee. I was a fairly average student during my school days. Getting around 65- 70% was a big thing for me. I enjoyed sports a lot, with marathons and relays being my all-time favorite.
I was an outgoing child and enjoyed the company of each and everyone around. I never hesitated to talk to strangers and in fact initiated random fun conversations around anything and everything.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
Like I said, I was a fairly average student during my school days. However, my performance suddenly skyrocketed during my college days. I did my Bachelors in Biotechnology from the Garhwal University and Masters in Natural Resource Management from Doon University. Surprisingly, I was in the topper’s list during my graduation and post- graduation. My specialization was in paleo oceanography (studying the history of oceans). I worked for over 9 months at the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa and Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune during my post- graduation days.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
My post-graduation program allowed me to visit various states and cities of India on my own. It was an incredible experience. I have witnessed culture, development, poverty, food, wildlife, etc. I have always enjoyed traveling rather than doing my time tables. Soon after my master’s program, I started getting opportunities in the field of research from the top most institutions of the country. One of them was the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL- ISRO), Ahmadabad. Yeah, it was a big one! But I selected Fundraising over PhD. I always knew that I wanted to work in the development sector. I have met people who had very little, but were still resourceful and generous. That inspired me.
I was strongly influenced by the works of Michelle Obama, an advocate for poverty awareness, education, nutrition, physical activity, and healthy eating, Dia Mirza in the field of Wildlife & Environment, and Geeta Seshamani- Wildlife Conservationist and animal rights activist.
My mentors Jaganmohan Vangapelly and Sandeep Vegad from Greenpeace offered me a fundraising job at Samvada, Bangalore. I will be honest with you, it wasn’t easy. At that point of time, fundraising literally meant ‘Pluto’ to me.
I remember, when I was working with WWF in Dehradun back in 2014, I used to conduct a lot of man- animal conflict surveys in the peripheries of the Rajaji National Park. I saw poverty, illiteracy, dependency on the natural resources for survival, and disregard for wildlife. I thought to myself, ‘What if I was born in these circumstances?’ ‘What length would I go, to feed myself?’ I guess that thought itself was the biggest turning point of my life. I think you have to go to these places and you have to let your heart break. Therefore, assisting nonprofit organizations to advance philanthropy to enhance their missions and create improved outcomes for the communities they serve is more than my job. I see it as my calling.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
Fundraising is not something that most people have much understanding about at a young age. It is definitely not about getting donations- you’ll need to inspire passion for it and learn the art of asking. In order to get some experience, I started volunteering with various charities before jumping into Fundraising as a career. I have done all sorts of work starting from a field assistant (collecting data, street fundraising) to managing big events.
I started my career with WWF as an Intern where I learned about wildlife conservation, rural livelihood programs, man- animal conflicts and sustainable development goals. I later joined a Dehradun based NGO, SankalpTaru Foundation as a Program Specialist. I was looking after the corporate communications program. I used to inspire people and corporations through information about rural development programs, sustainable development goals and impact of tree plantation drives.
I have also worked with the World Bank as a Program Participant. I was a part of the Climate Resilient Development Project. This project has allowed me to work with some of the renowned Indian scientists, bureaucrats and conservationists.
I moved to Bangalore in the year 2015 and started working with Samvada. I was the Resource Mobilization Officer raising money for the underprivileged youth of India with a motto of “bridging social needs and dignified livelihoods.” I worked there for 6 months and then moved to my ultimate passion- Nature conservation and Sustainable development goals.
Since then, I have been working with Wildlife SOS as a Volunteer Program Officer, Fundraiser and Manager- Corporate and Philanthropic Partnership. This entire journey has been enthralling and adventurous so far.
How did you get your first break?
Well, the thought of working at the grassroots level in the development sector has always been on my mind. WWF was a turning point in my life. My internship program there was an integral eye-opener to the science of conservation and the art of fundraising. My biggest take-away from the internship was that fundraising is something that all conservationists must engage in and attempt to understand.
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
Getting it right in fundraising is very important. Fundraising thrives on creativity and new ideas to capture the interest and enthusiasm of donors and supporters.
My biggest challenge is always finding new supporters. People are careful about who they give their money to. They do thorough research, they ask friends and family, and they reach out to others with the same values and ideals. If your name doesn’t come up in that research, they might not know you exist. To overcome this situation, I started investing my time in social media and community events. This helped me understand people’s expectations and opened ways to reach out for my cause. I started engaging in storytelling to attract supporters by using email campaigns, community events, and to build and retain their interest.
The other challenge is to constantly engage with your donors. This is certainly a time consuming activity and requires additional efforts. 18% of donors leave due to poor communication. In order to sustain, I started collecting impactful stories of our projects and communicating these stories to our supporter database on a time-to-time basis. I started acknowledging the achievements made through their last gifts and made sure that our supporters feel welcome.
Where do you work now?
I have been working with Wildlife SOS for over 4 years now. Wildlife SOS (WSOS) is a conservation non-profit in India, established in 1995 with the primary objective of rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife in distress, and preserving India’s natural heritage. It is currently one of the largest Wildlife Organisations in South Asia.
I love animals. I am not that kind of a person that is just going to witness the decline of wildlife and their pain without fighting back. I work as a Manager- Corporate and Philanthropic Partnership at Wildlife SOS India. I am responsible for supervising the backend operations and donor management for the Individual, Corporate and Event Fundraising. I love to raise awareness about our beautiful wildlife. If I can save one animal by educating someone, I feel I have helped. The money I have raised for Wildlife SOS has been used for our conservation projects, food for the rescued wild animals, purchase medicines for the animals and important equipment for veterinary care, so I know in a small way I have helped.
I have also been lucky enough to meet some pretty amazing people in the past four years and I have done some amazing and fun things as well. I was a crew member of Nat Geo series- India’s Jungle heroes, you all can watch the program on Disney Hotstar.
Being a good salesperson or a good marketer may be helpful in fundraising, but there is far more to the career than sales and marketing.
According to me the top 10 qualities of a successful fundraiser are:
1. Impeccable integrity
2. Good listener
3. Ability to motivate
4. Hard worker
5. Concern for people
6. High expectations
7. Love the work
8. High energy
My day consists of a lot of planning, presentations, setting up meetings, coordinating, and rescheduling. When you’re trying to meet up with really busy people, cancellations are common. It involves a lot of logistics, which is definitely a tough part of the job. Trying to see seven or eight people over the course of two days in Bangalore can be difficult as schedules are constantly changing.
Fundraising is fun and interesting work. You get to meet successful and interesting people. I really enjoy learning about what people are doing career-wise and personally. Fundraising for wildlife is a great way to raise awareness about native wild faunas in your own network while raising much-needed funds to help sick, injured, orphaned and abused wild animals.
How does your work benefit society?
A lot of people ask me this question- Why should I donate to wildlife conservation or other causes to save animals when there is so much human suffering in the world? There are charities that address human suffering that I hold dear to my heart. But right now, there are limited funds going towards the protection of wildlife in the country. The loss of iconic species is a tragedy with broad and deep impact. Animal, plant and marine biodiversity keeps our ecosystems functional. Healthy ecosystems allow us to survive, get enough food to eat and make a living. When species disappear or fall in number, ecosystems and people—especially the world’s poorest— suffer.
Healthy wildlife populations signal that the water table, which provides reliable water for the city, is working. Reforestation has also made communities safer from landslides, restored trees that absorb carbon dioxide and earned revenue-generating carbon credits for the city.
When we protect animals and plants, we also protect the ecosystems that underlie our economies and well-being.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
During my tenure with SankalpTaru Foundation at Dehradun, I worked on a Plantation project with the National Institute for the Empowerment of Persons with Visual Disabilities in collaboration with an MNC. It was a part of our Corporate Social Responsibility program. We made a touch and smell garden for the Institute’s children. The goal for students was to touch and smell the plant in order to identify the species by name. It was a magical experience. Visual impairment, whether mild or complete, affects millions of people worldwide. While some people might think that such a handicap would prevent the enjoyment of leisure activities like gardening, the visually impaired proved to be a resilient lot, adapting in ways that can astound and inspire. I realized that the students may not be able to fully appreciate colors and landscape design, but our sensory garden offered them a unique and enchanting way to experience nature and engage their other four senses.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Never go in expecting to know what someone is going to be interested in. We have profiles on people that include what career they are in and what they studied—so you can kind of imagine what they are interested in—but often you learn that their interests are very different from what you anticipated. You can never be sure what people are most likely to engage with, so definitely go into meetings with an open mind.
I will continue to help the non- profits overcome the barriers to fundraising success in order to conserve India’s natural heritage
Great thoughts and work from sandhi Priya
Great work. All the very best.