Angels in Action
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Two friends who don’t like to ask for money end up raising and giving an insane amount of money, goods, and support to a dozen-plus homes for adults and children. The Angels Network founders, Suparna Mohindra and Monisha Daga, have made giving a part of their daily lives. They celebrate Diwali, Christmas, and Birthdays with and for others. In addition, the giving circle organizes newborn gift baskets, food drives, fashion shows, movie nights, vintage designer goods affairs, and even a flashmob. All to have fun and bring joy to others.
Hundreds of people are part of the Angel initiative and thousands attend their events. The open network has no desire in becoming an enterprise or nonprofit — angels don’t need a NGO status to do magical work.
Why The Angels Network?
Monisha: I sell costume jewelry. I was invited to a small exhibition where 11 ladies were selling their products and we were asked to give 30 percent of our sales to charity.
I thought: “Wow, this is great. It’s a really easy, simple model to grow your business, as well as do something good.” A lot of vendors like me, whose income wasn’t based on these things that we do, thought, “Why don’t we get together, do an exhibition, and everyone gives 20 percent of their sales to charity.”
In India, you have a lot of housewives who aren’t given the opportunity to work. They have the means, they’re looking after their kids, but they have skills and resources that aren’t being used. We put together this first event and we involved at least 200 women in the process.
It ended up creating a brand we didn’t foresee.
At that time you just had one charity in mind to raise money for?
Monisha: Yes. One of the problems in India is that you have so many NGOs. Everyone wants to help out, but there’s a lot of mistrust in the process. Everyone has a story where they gave money and they don’t know where it went or they got cheated. This idea of who to trust to give your money to was also part of it.
We are not a registered organization and we are not an NGO. We are an initiative, that’s what we call ourselves.
That’s done purposely, right? You don’t wish to be a nonprofit?
Monisha: Correct. A lot of us have enough stress in our lives; we weren’t trying to create more stress in any way. I’m the biggest Oprah fan on the planet, okay? [Laughs.]
Everything that we do is like a mini Oprah show in my head. [Laughs.] I grew up with this idea of angels; it’s always resonated in my mind.
The idea was that we believe there are angels looking out for us. We have the ability to be an angel for somebody else. If there is a kid somewhere wishing for a bicycle and we have the means to get that bike, it’s as good as an angel dropping it out of the sky.
We had only two rules when started this. One was we won’t ask for money, and two, express gratitude. No matter what, just be grateful for anything that comes your way.
The idea was for everyone to use their existing set of skills and resources and be a part of this. To be perfectly honest, beyond that we had no plan!
What have been some challenges building the network?
Monisha: Our challenge is that in India, people have this concept that if you do charity you must do it quietly.
Initially, we were putting stuff on Facebook to inspire others. Showing that there are fun ways to do charity. Each day we would have more angels connect with us and share what they were doing. A lot of people would write, asking, “What can we do?”
The other thing was, we live in a culture where there’s a huge divide between people. There are many rich people and companies were giving huge chunks of money to places. But we wanted everyone to feel their 5, 10, 500 rupees, which is about $2, can make a difference.
Suparna: The Angels became this umbrella for acts of kindness and generosity. From just going out on the street and feeding somebody to visiting one of the homes we support, spending time with the kids there, and celebraing someone’s birthday.
How did you select the homes?
Monisha: I got a call from a friend who was supplying food to Domino’s Pizza. He would literally throw out 20 to 50 kilograms of fresh capsicum, onions, and tomatoes. Domino’s has certain specs, they cut certain part of the vegetable and the rest was waste.
I don’t know why he shared this with me, ‘cuz we weren’t doing anything at this point. He’s like, “Do you know whom we can give this to?”
Through another friend, we got connected to Bal Bhawan in Greater Noida. It’s a school and home to 220 children; children of sex workers and lepers.
Suparna: The kids are beautiful and talented children, ranging from 4 to 18 years. It’s a Christian school, they encourage a lot of creativity, and they have bands and music.
These 220 kids live in this boarding facility. It’s a home we absolutely love and adore.
You’ve been personally vetting them?
Suparna: We will not support a home unless we’ve been there. As we started to get more homes, there would be one of our dearest friends who would take that ownership. We have project managers, who help us to be fully in charge of that home.
This must have been taking over your life?
Monisha: It’s given us a sense of purpose, a sense of joy, the ability to meet people on a completely different platform. Delhi is very cliquey; you get slotted into a social network. It’s really hard to break out of. It has opened doors to meet amazing people.
I asked, “I want to do something, but what?” The Angels Network happened. I’m just so grateful for each day. How does it get better than this?
Here we are doing something good, people are thanking us, and this constant state of gratitude. Suddenly it feels like you have a bigger purpose. The joy is just unparalleled.
Tell me about one of the homes you support.
Suparna: One of the homes closest to us is The Angel Home [name is coincidental].
There was a little wish, “Wouldn’t it be great if we found this home we could sponsor? A home with 20 – 30 kids and we actually knew all the children’s names?” Then 10 years, 20 years from now, we could see that journey. We already had 20 – 30 friends who could help sponsor. So, we could all take on a child. At my book club, we were sitting and chatting. One girl said, “There’s this couple, and they’ve adopted 20 children.”
And it so happened that the girl told us that it was the birthday of one of the children there. We visited and carried cakes, chips, and juice.
We entered and saw these adorable kids; it was love at first sight. We absolutely loved the home and met the parents. You can’t technically adopt 20 kids, but what they’ve done is they’ve set up a home.
We had the cakes and we sang. Just when we were leaving, one of the little girls comes up to me. She must have been four and says in Hindi, “My birthday is coming up next month…will you come?”
I said, “Of course!”
The kids are absolutely adorable. We’ve seen them grow now over these five years.
I’m very intrigued by your flash mob for charity.
Monisha: I needed to be in a flash mob before I die. It was on my bucket list. I was thinking, “How can we turn a flash mob into an angel — for charity?” We were leading up to our second Vintage Affair. We wanted at least 100 people and every age group possible. Out of nowhere we got the best mall in Delhi, Select Citywalk. With this, flyers, security, you name it, it was just covered. Again it’s this magic.
What advice do you have for people who want to do something? Where do they start?
Monisha: At Christmas, we had a big party for 220 people. We reached out to our friends and said, “How many of you and your kids like to bake for us?” Instead of buying cakes, we had 30 – 40 kids baking cakes for charity.
Or invite 20 kids over, give them popcorn, do a movie screening, charge them five bucks and give that money to charity. The point is you don’t have to be raising thousands of dollars, put your minds together, and do what’s fun for you.
We never cared about the numbers. The numbers are completely irrelevant. It’s always been about including and bringing people together. How do we do something fun and give to somebody else?
None of us here is Mother Teresa. We have a commitment to the homes, but we go together, we chat, and we laugh.
What has been a surprising learning for you in all of this?
Monisha: It’s almost like we function from lack. Giving fills that lack. I feel like everyone is dying to give, they just need an avenue.
Suparna: We’ve had complete strangers on Facebook reach out to us and donate about thousand dollars. We have seen so much goodness.
Monisha: There’s nothing that we have asked for that hasn’t somehow shown up. It may not have shown up in the way that we thought it would, but it just did.
How genuine goodness generates more of it. We live in a world where your newspapers are filled with all the crap that’s going on around the planet. There is so much more good.
Give me one word that describes your journey so far.
Monisha and Suparna [simultaneously]: Magical. [Laugh.]
Monisha: Someone asked, “You guys are really good, who is your PR company?”
We said, “We don’t have PR, we just have magic!”
I’m the one who talks about the universe and all that. But 50 non-believers have come on this group, and there is no way for you to walk out and not believe in magic. It’s just not possible, because so much insanity happens from good attention it’s just…
Suparna: It’s inexplicable.
Monisha: Our most magical story would be the Vintage Affair (VA). Our friend, Mandabi Sherma, who loves fashion, called me up and said, “Listen, all of us have more clothes and bags than we need. What do you think about us collecting that and having a sale?”
We sent an email out and went on social media. We didn’t wanna say old or used, and vintage was not a word used in India.
We’re the two of us doing this. And believe it or not, this city is so stuck up that no one would consider buying second hand. You would not entertain wearing somebody else’s clothes.
Stuff started to come in. Then one of my girlfriends called and said, “I’m not being able to get the stuff to you. Do you think you could get up?” We started to offer pick-ups. By then, we already had 20 girls in 20 different neighborhoods.
Even within our core Angel group, there were non-believers. They didn’t believe we could sell second hand items. They just go along with my craziness sometimes. We had over 10,000 pieces fall into our laps; 7,000 items after sorting!
The girls doing pick-ups would meet up Mandabi’s house once every two weeks. We’d would potluck and we’d spend the whole afternoon going through boxes.
We still didn’t know who was gonna shop. People were saying, “Nobody’s gonna buy it.” Worst case, we’ll give it to the charities, right?
Our price point was beyond ridiculous: Mango, Zara, and H&M for 100, 200, and 500 rupees. It is like $2, $3, and $7.50. Sunglasses, from Ray-Ban to Chanel, were all 1,000 rupees, which is $15. Chanel or Louis Vuitton bags were 10,000 rupee — a $2,000 bag for $150!
Five minutes into the sale, if you were someone who would never buy secondhand and you came in there, you were buying.
Suparna: The second year, we had people offering us 3,000 brand-new items from a factory.
Monisha: This lady came in with a baby. Suddenly, I see her holding a pile of clothes. I’m like, “Where is your baby?” Then, I see volunteers walking behind her with the baby! Legendary shoppers!
Now, in our third year, people who said they would never buy are asking for the event.
We made an insane amount of money the first year. Apart from the joy from people giving, the joy from buyers, and the joy of being there. How does it get better than this?