This is the second part of our series on connecting diverse student and alumni experiences with research from Women Give 2019: Gender and Giving Across Communities of Color.
Smita Vadakekalam is a master’s degree alumna who graduated in 2001. She has worked for a nonprofit consulting firm, Heller Consulting, for the past 14 years.
How did you first experience philanthropy growing up?
SV: I first experienced philanthropy through a campaign at my church for a large, international organization called CRS Rice Bowl that worked on global poverty relief. As a child, I had a little rice bowl container, which was used to collect money. We were all encouraged to save up money to donate to the organization. I was very compelled by that idea.
Within the general population, religion is the top cause of giving by Asian-American households. This is the same within African-American, Hispanic, and White households as well.
My grandmother also built awareness into me by saying that ‘we were lucky and privileged’ to be in to the positions that we were. My family is from India, and there were/are many individuals living in poverty. She explained that it’s our responsibility to care for one another. I remember those conversations clearly – they completely affected my outlook.
The report explains that multiple influences shaped interviewees’ perceptions of philanthropy (the report features six case studies where women from different races, ages, and geographic locations shared their philanthropic stories). While numerous respondents recognized that it was not termed “philanthropy,” family members and friends from their communities engaged in giving and volunteering and influencing individuals younger than them, similar to Vadakekalam’s grandmother.
Finally, I remember watching PBS and Sesame Street as a 12-year-old. Even at that age, I thought Sesame Street was brilliant, since they had programming that reflected diversity. I was the only minority in school, so I thought that what they were doing was great, and I was inspired enough to donate to them.
Overall, Vadakekalam’s multiple interactions with “philanthropy” illustrate what the report says: informal and formal definitions of philanthropy complement each other. Her understanding of philanthropy was first guided by early life experiences, e.g. experiences in her church and with her grandmother, and her ongoing involvement guided her appreciation of formal forms, e.g. appreciation of and giving back to PBS.
How did you hear about, and what brought you to, the then-Center on Philanthropy?
SV: I participated in a program at my undergraduate university called “Learn and Serve AmeriCorps,” where we served in AmeriCorps in undergrad. It was an amazing opportunity, and I learned from another service member about the Jane Addams Carnegie Fellowship at the Center. I applied for it, and came to Indiana once I learned I was accepted.
I spent a year with several classmates and Dr. Robert Payton. We learned about philanthropy from all different angles, including reading everything from classic texts to feminist theory to science, and then discussing it with each other. That year, we worked at a nonprofit of our choice, applying the theory from our discussions to the practical day-to-day work at the nonprofit.
We also interacted with professors at the Center, who shared their knowledge and expertise with us.
It was the first time I learned for the sake of learning, which was amazing.
What kinds of hands-on experiences did you have at that time?
SV: We were asked to focus on a particular area of study, so I looked at how the arts act as a tool for social activism. I was able to interview a number of people working with arts organizations in Indianapolis and asked them, ‘how are you moving the needle when it comes to social activism?’
I compiled a paper based on interviews with six to seven executive directors of arts organizations in Indianapolis. All of these individuals were so open and accessible, and their work was so inspiring.
I also worked at Indianapolis Art Center through their ArtReach program that reaches underserved communities and makes art accessible in those communities.
At the end of the year-long fellowship, Vadakakelam remained to complete one more year of learning in order to earn her master’s degree.
I loved the center, loved whom I met, and I wanted to learn and do more.
After graduating, she knew that she wanted to move to New York City, so Vadakekalam utilized the networks at the school to meet individuals working in the art outreach field in New York.
SV: My mentor, Dr. Lilya Wagner, as well as other professors, took time to set up informational interviews for me with people in New York.
The Center’s influence reached far. It’s important to emphasize that wide-reaching network if you’re considering the school but come from or want to live in another region.
Vadakekalam worked in development for an arts organization and a food and hunger organization for several years after graduating.
One day, she saw individuals mapping out the idea of a food distribution center on a whiteboard. Upon learning about their work as consultants, Vadakekalam learned that she wanted to help nonprofit organizations utilize systems and tools to produce and deliver their work more effectively.
She also wanted to help nonprofits be smarter about business processes and operations and the products they deliver.
She found Heller Consulting, a consulting firm focused on “moving the needle” when it comes to developing technology strategy for the sector. She worked as a consultant, project manager, and vice president of professional services, before starting in her current position as Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Senior Strategist. Through Heller Consulting, she’s also championed new ways of thinking about nonprofit strategy, such as change management.
SV: As the COO, I help run the business, oversee our team of consultants, manage the operational side of sales, and direct our marketing and communications efforts.
How do you connect what you learned at the school to your role now?
SV: It’s interesting, because it seems disconnected. But what I learned at my time at the school is that philanthropic studies is an integrated discipline. Dr. Payton taught us to see the connections across all of these disciplines.
In this day, technology is a part of our everyday lives. Understanding how it can be a tool for the greater good is a huge benefit.
As Vadakekalam noted, integrating technology and social change in today’s nonprofit sector is vital. Patricia Snell Herzog, Ph.D., of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy developed a new master’s level course on Next Gen Technology and Social Change. Taught online this fall, the course will describe the role of technology in helping to explain generational changes with philanthropic activities and the transformation of existing philanthropic practices through technology.
What kind of causes are you currently passionate about, or if you volunteer, where do you volunteer?
SV: I serve on the alumni board of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. I want to be connected to the school. I had a very important experience there, including learning that there’s not just one career path with this degree. The foundation of your learning can lead to many different careers.
I’m also involved with issues of educational inequity, integration, and diversity in New York City public schools. I recognized when my own child entered the public education system that it is a system of survival, which perpetuates those who have versus those who don’t.
Through this work, I’ve found a network and movement of like-minded people with the same values.
In the interviews from the report, all of the women indicated that their current philanthropic efforts focused on empowering communities in need. In New York City, Vadakekalam has recognized that it’s the public school system that needs to be more inclusive.
What would you say to individuals potentially interested in the school’s academic programs but unsure about moving to the Midwest? Or those whose broad career goals would benefit from a philanthropic studies degree?
SV: Coming to Indianapolis and working with arts organizations, I found the arts community open and accessible. When you’re in a bigger city, it can be difficult to make connections. People here really wanted to help, though.
I have many memorable moments—helping hang up the artwork of children involved in the outreach program, or having a conversation with a passionate executive director who worked with people with disabilities.
Don’t underestimate the power of a small community and the connections the school has.
Finally, don’t be afraid to be a trailblazer. There’s opportunity available if you want to try something new. Think broadly about the way that this degree can help you achieve your goals.
Through her work and volunteering, Vadakekalam has embraced a “rich and broad definition of philanthropy,” understanding that her work in nonprofit technology consulting directly ties in with the knowledge and experiences she had at the school.