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Published: Verve Magazine, Features, December 2009

Three young girls came together to party for a cause – and their friends joined this circle of trust. Now, Partying Against Poverty has three chapters in Mumbai, London and Hong Kong, where youth come together to rock the town while contributing towards eliminating poverty. SITANSHI TALATI-PARIKH uncovers the ingredients that enable people to enrich someone else’s life while dancing and making merry

FOR THOSE BEGINNING TO THINK THAT URBAN SOCIALISING AND endless partying is becoming more banal by the minute, or for those who ever needed a reason to party, raising a few lakhs for a few hours of socialising and dancing sounds like quite the plan. All you need to do is go out and party – the cover you pay for entry (which includes the drinks you would consume) goes straight to a predetermined cause – whether it’s towards charity, for the under-privileged, or a cause to fight a social ill. If a charity ball is the thing for pearl-draped or diamond-dripping middle-aged divas, then partying for a cause is for the 20-something newbies – the kind that lead a privileged life and choose to party at least a few nights a week, and find it convenient to combine philanthropy and a rocking time by partying for a cause. It’s simple and doesn’t have an agenda – and most importantly, doesn’t require the party-goers to make any change in their lifestyle. In fact, it lacks pretension in the most basic sense that a charity ball might have. Namrata Tanna, an initiator of ‘partying for a cause’ in India finds that, “Charitable giving is always looked at as something that is done by the very rich – those who have the means to give back to society. Party Against Poverty (PAP) activates all classes of society as well as the youth of our country and helps them start thinking about what they can do for the underprivileged.”

It is a global concept: in New York partying for a cause finds a masquerade ball sending the proceeds towards The World Race which in turn attempts to fight for the victims of modern-day slavery; in Toronto it sends their partying money to charity – to the tune of $36,000; in Miami parties and concerts send money to cancer patients. It is not one organisation with many worldwide chapters, rather multiple people across cities picking up on this simple and effective concept and making it work for the cause they believe in. In India – more specifically, in Mumbai – three young media professionals, moved by the realities that surrounded them, decided that simply reporting facts wasn’t cutting it for them – they wanted to do something more. This led to the creation of an NGO, Creatives Against Poverty (CAP is currently being registered as a non-profit organisation), which aims to use the collective creative skills of volunteers towards out-of-the-box initiatives that can fund the causes they wish to support.

“WE DON’T ASK PEOPLE TO BECOME SUFFOCATED BY SADNESS AT THE IDEA OF POVERTY; we offer hope that this suffering can be alleviated by something as simple as partying! People like emerging from their plush lifestyle and giving to a community.” – Fatima Najm

Fatima Najm spent a lot of time discussing areas that troubled her with college friend Tanna. CAP fell into place after they began working hands-on on some local initiatives in India and realised that it would be hugely effective to pool creative talent together for a cause. Najm explains, “We started from the premise that everyone is good, everyone wants to make a positive impact and everyone will give their time, energy and skill as long as we create a format that doesn’t detract from their lives – we promise to use only your free and recyclable energy.” They threw the first ‘party against poverty’ bash at Najm’s house in South Mumbai, with the idea of creating nurseries in Mumbai slums from the proceeds. Friends – what Tanna describes as the “circle of trust” – flocked to support them and they realised that they had something very promising on their hands. The second party, also hosted by Najm was for the victims of the Bihar flood. The third party, held at the hip Mumbai nightclub Privé, saw a sizeable turnout, with the aim to create nurseries and scholarships for impoverished students of high potential. The success of the concept in Mumbai led Najm to start a London chapter of CAP – which had its first party against poverty early this year. Tanna continues to head the Mumbai chapter, and Neha Kumar has recently launched a Hong Kong chapter. Najm’s friend and Mumbai-based former model and model coordinator Achla Sachdev was willingly roped in to putting in her time, effort, organisational skills, and is now a key factor in drawing the crowd and media attention for the parties (and their causes) as well. Sachdev realised that the combination of feeling good about contributing while having a good time, is a winning “double whammy.”

The causes are not randomly chosen – rather, the research-based recommendations draw from a journalistic approach to charity, also steering clear of religious issues. Whether it is a single person – like a little girl called Anu who needed the valves in her heart replaced (which they funded by activating willing people who had attended a party against poverty) or Sharifa Khanum who fights for the rights of Muslim women in Tamil Nadu; or locations like the Congo valley (one of their biggest projects) where Najm works with local volunteers to educate and create a life for the impoverished youth of the region, the girls have spent time understanding where the funds collected will be going – by actually speaking to the people they are trying to support. Kumar defines a very clear-cut process-driven approach to tackle the issues that may prop up. “I think the first most challenging thing is to find the right organisation to work with: a lot of them either have high administrative costs or aren’t genuine. Secondly, we spend at least three to six months working with them to ensure that they genuinely do what they claim. After which, we raise awareness among people through photo essays, documentaries and articles in the press. Then comes the actual process of raising funds for the organisation. The challenge sometimes is finding sponsors to enable having a party at cost price so that all of the money raised goes to the charity.”

The organisation is run by affluent people who are only looking to help creatively – they will find just use of your talent and just cause for your money. The fact that the idea germinated from a collaborative friendship, makes it a strong foundation that keeps the fire burning. Tanna agrees, “Collaborating with friends on projects is always a motivation in itself. CAP has no financial backing. Our currency is our positive energy and enthusiasm. Since we share the same ideology we motivate each other to work harder to alleviate poverty and find new and creative methods to help the NGOs we support and keep going.” And they maintain that a 100 per cent of the money raised goes to the cause they have identified. Trust is a huge factor in their working: they are tapping into friends and family who believe in them and their due diligence and in turn, the causes they support.

“IN INDIA CHARITY IS ASSOCIATED WITH SACRIFICE AND PURITANICAL BEHAVIOUR, which is not how it needs to be. There is nothing wrong with going out, drinking, spending money and giving back at the same time. It is the ideal form of capitalism.” – Bharati Thakore

While that’s a great concept in itself, you wonder if people balk at the idea of mixing ‘poverty’ and ‘partying’ into a palatable cocktail. Tanna believes that partying with family and friends is always fun. “While it may seem odd to some that we raise money by partying, I believe that in doing this we have activated members of society who usually give little or no thought to charity to become aware, reflect and contribute in a small way to helping the underprivileged. Party Against Poverty is an unconventional approach to charity – it makes charitable giving fun.” Najm states very simply that they were simply bored of the repetitive partying scene in the city: despite the fact that it was so dynamic, it was purposeless. “We just didn’t feel like dressing up and going to one party after another and shelving the issues that we were confronted with.” But isn’t it intrusive or doesn’t it defeat the purpose of having ‘fun’ to have to deal with depressing or dismal issues while downing a Martini? While Tanna believes that they overtly refrain from an in-your-face attitude about the cause, Najm has stronger views. “We don’t ask people to become suffocated by sadness at the idea of poverty; we offer hope that this suffering can be alleviated by something as simple as partying! People like emerging from their plush lifestyle and giving to a community. We want to tap into the goodwill of our guests, we want to take them into the slums, we use photo essays to open a window into a world where many of our guests many not have the time to go.”

In fact, it is this very tenuous relationship between the rich and the poor that initially bothered Najm. She didn’t want to involve anyone who wanted to throw money at the problem, she wanted people to give time and energy, to interact with the people they were trying to help – “to see how much fun these children can be, how creative, witty and generous, despite the poverty they are surrounded by. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen when we exposed the communities who needed help and nurturing to a world that doesn’t understand their strife? I was afraid that this would invite people with a donor mentality. We are so cushioned in our comfortable existence that our senses have become numb to the poverty that overwhelms our cities and chokes our streets. But the challenge was in putting the solution in a format that was easy to respond to – that is why we chose to party against poverty.”

Speaking to some of the PAP attendees, we realise that they come to party for a cause for a variety of reasons. Bharati Thakore, who runs a production company called Education World Films, heard about PAP through a Facebook invite, and wanted to be a part of it because she figured she would meet like-minded people who believe that philanthropy is important. “Honestly this is the most painless and fun way to contribute!” She elaborates, “Every society, including developed countries of the west has elite epicureans who live the high life because they can afford it. I think it’s a different way to get people to perform an act of kindness. In India charity is associated with sacrifice and puritanical behaviour, which is not how it needs to be. There is nothing wrong with going out, drinking, spending money and giving back at the same time. It is the ideal form of capitalism.”

Rachna Sheth, an HR professional joined PAP because she was a friend of one of the founders. Sheth admits that she did feel weird initially – partying to pay for those who can’t afford a square meal. “But, at the end of the day, PAP to me means doing something ordinary and still feeling extraordinary about it.” Juan Katrak, involved in event management and PR, also got roped in wanting to support his friend in the venture. He hasn’t observed people feeling overly bothered by the duality of the concept. “I would be lying if I said I felt weird, because we party every week, irrespective of whether it is for a cause or not. But PAP generates a good feeling – because I know I am helping out – even if the cause for which I am partying is not too evident at that time.”

Whatever the reason may be that brings the night-owls out in their finery to prowl the racy streets of the chic metros, the important thing to remember here is that they are contributing – whether in a deeply heartfelt manner or in a completely irreverent thoughtless fashion – towards enriching someone’s life somewhere in the world. In fact, while having fun with their friends they are actually making the world a better place – one cocktail at a time.

Fatima Najm, 33

Background Human rights journalism. Has worked as a reporter for the Toronto Star, Women’s Own magazine in Karachi and for Arab News in Saudi Arabia for nearly a decade on the human rights beat, besides having traversed countries activating social awareness.
Aim “We are a coalition of creative individuals who donate skills for social impact, nurturing ideas and turning those ideas into concrete action to alleviate the suffering of the voiceless communities we are confronted with.”
If not a part of CAP, she would be…“still engaged in committing human rights journalism.”
Moved by “The providing of opportunity. You can feed someone, you can clothe them but if you can provide an opportunity to them, that is beautiful because then you are offering them dignity, not charity.”
When not partying she…“would be living between the pages of the National Geographic and roaming tribal preserves.”
Desired societal change “My own approach. We have so much to learn from the NGOs we work with on the field.”

Namrata Tanna, 27

Background Television producer. Has worked with Times Now, Sony and BBC London. She makes documentary films on humanitarian issues.
Aim “Activating the inherent goodness that exists in people and using their skills productively to create social impact.”
If not a part of CAP, she would be…“Raising awareness about social injustices across the world through photo essays and documentaries.”
Moved by…“The fact that there are so many people committed to helping those less privileged lead a better life.”
When not partying she…“would be spending time with friends and family, reading and traveling.”
Desired societal change “We don’t aim to change anybody. We aim to create awareness about social issues and through that, hope that our audience starts reflecting on these issues as well as their individual contribution to society.”

Neha Kumar, 29

Background Journalist and writer. Has worked with Bloomberg News, Institutional Investor and Asia Money. Currently works as an editor/writer for a Japanese hedge fund, and also maintains a blog about humanitarian issues.
Aim “Make a change in someone’s life – bring back their aspirations and desires.”
Pet cause Youth Progressive Foundation that is setting up a school in the eastern part of Sri Lanka for displaced children.
When not partying she…“would rather be socialising with friends, writing or reading.”
Desired societal change “We hope to bring meaning to their lives by galvanising them to be party warriors.”