Spotlight: Madhi Foundation
CSF: Is there one person or event that led you to found Madhi Foundation?
Merlia: I would say it was my stint with TFI (Teach for India), when I was able to spend time in schools and observe just how different TFI and non-TFI classrooms were. The inequity within inequity, as ironic as it was, was too stark to ignore.
CSF: Why do you care so deeply about the problem you are trying to solve?
Merlia: It’s the least we can do to ensure that all our children are offered a level-playing field early in life, and that they are given a chance to fight the odds that are already stacked against them.
CSF: Why do you feel your team is the one to solve this problem?
Merlia: For me, my team collectively represents the best of all human qualities and inspires me to be the best version of myself. It’s an incredibly resilient team that constantly focuses on the glass being half full – or at very least, that we have a glass! Everyone in the team has deeply personal stories about how education has impacted their lives positively and feels personally responsible towards ensuring better learning outcomes for children. The one thing that everyone is aligned on is that we’re not here to save the world but to solve a problem, and that there is nothing glamorous about it.
CSF: What do you think has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced at Madhi?
Merlia: Winning the trust of the government system has been our hardest challenge, given that we were a young nonprofit start-up, where our average age was 28 and none of us had the right amount of grey hair to seem credible!
CSF: What is your favourite memory from your time at Madhi so far?
Merlia: Towards the end of our first year, a teacher walked up to us and told us that she was withdrawing her Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) application because Madhi had made teaching meaningful and joyful for her once again.
CSF: In one sentence, how would you measure Madhi’s success?
Merlia: Success for us will be if the government, based on some of our recommendations, makes it a stated priority to do whatever it takes to eliminate the foundational learning crisis over the next decade – and then actually succeeds.
CSF: What is your single biggest priority for the next year?
Merlia: Through our work, we want to build evidence and create proof points that our program can work at scale.
CSF: If someone wanted to learn more about your organization, what would be the best way to do that?
Merlia: By hanging out with us and walking down to the tea shop at the end of the road twice a day! That’s when you will get to see the team in its elements and understand what a typical day in the life of a Madhi team member looks like, with its ups (usually an inspiring classroom visit) and downs (usually a meeting with an apathetic teacher or official). You asked for the best way, not the simplest!
CSF: What is the most fun tradition or practice at the Madhi office?
Merlia: We have a tradition of making birthdays extra special for everyone. It starts with creating a ‘secret’ WhatsApp group, pooling in money, deciding on what the most meaningful gifts would be, making handmade cards, and then throwing the ‘surprise’ birthday party for every team member, who pretends to be terribly surprised even though everyone knows that it’s coming!
CSF: Is there one book or article that has really influenced you and your work?
Merlia: Human stories, more than anything else, have influenced me and continue to dictate our approach to the work we do at Madhi.
CSF: If you weren’t building Madhi, what else would you be doing?
Merlia: Running a school. I really, really cannot think beyond education!
CSF: What is the most important advice that you would share with someone who wants to start a nonprofit?
Merlia: Make sure that you are at a point in life where you have a healthy appetite for risk and where major failures or massive challenges won't impact you or your family adversely. Be brutally honest about why you want to do it, and if it is for anything other than to try and solve a problem, don’t do it.
CSF: In addition to financial support, what would you consider as the biggest benefit of being a part of CSF’s portfolio of grantees?
Merlia: Thought partnership – being part of CSF’s network allows us to learn from an ecosystem that is constantly thinking and talking scale.
CSF: Looking back, if you could do one thing differently, what would that be and why?
Merlia: Absolutely nothing. Looking back, all the dots seem to connect perfectly!