Stephen Pidgeon: Go and see for yourself the difference you make

A visit to India was a timely reminder of why I am a trustee of an international development charity; and fundraisers should see the impact of their work too, writes our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

I want to start off the year with a joyous celebration of our fundraising task. Take it as a timely reminder that no fundraiser can do the job without seeing at first hand the impact of their efforts.

Before Christmas, I had the great privilege of visiting a Voluntary Service Overseas project near Deoghar, India - seven bumpy hours in a car heading north-west from Kolkata. I'm a trustee of the development charity: its policy is that key staff and trustees see for themselves what the work is achieving. This project, started by a VSO volunteer, works closely with a local charity partner, Needs, to introduce tribal people to a new way of growing rice. It is simple and cheap and, because of it, thousands of people have a more stable and plentiful food supply. Furthermore, they are able to sell part of their crop, so the whole village benefits dramatically.

Like me, you might have believed that all rice is grown in paddy fields, the well-developed plants being transplanted into standing water. Most of us have grown up on images of this ancient practice. Some years ago, however, a new method, the System of Rice Intensification, was found to be considerably more effective. The plants are transplanted after between eight and 14 days rather than three to five weeks, and are laid out in a grid system that gives them much more space. Instead of two inches of standing water, all that is required is alternate drying and soaking.

The yields are spectacular - six to 14 tonnes per hectare, rather than the traditional two or three tonnes. Two years ago, a Bihari farmer set a new world yield record of 22.4 tonnes.

Training a new farmer in the SRI method costs little more than £13. I saw the impact for myself as we sat in a circle, surrounded by the village women who had taken part in the scheme. They are the farmers in Deoghar and are pivotal to the scheme's success. We asked them how their lives had changed. Their response was confident and practical: "All our children now go to school. We have two or three saris instead of one, and our children have two or three changes of clothes." What they didn't say, although it was evident, was that they now have a secure source of food.

But the real impact is something else. Here is a bunch of young women, with children at their feet, who have single-handedly changed the dynamic of the village by driving through a successful new scheme. The powerbase has clearly shifted towards equality between the women and their menfolk. The latter had no role in this meeting because it was about rice cultivation, and that's not what men do. For the first time, the villager recently elected to a local government committee is a woman. These women had an air of confidence and authority that would have been impossible in times past. It was great to see and to reflect that it has all resulted from a few £13 donations raised by an organisation many thousands of miles away.

Fundraisers, I ask you. Go and see for yourself the impact of your efforts. Do it regularly, and be single-minded in resisting colleagues as they try to divert you from linking your donors' imaginations with the simplicity of the solutions your charity offers.

Stephen Pidgeon is a consultant and a teacher

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