Swatee is now Executive Director of With and For Girls (WFG), the world's only participatory fund, by, and for, adolescent girls. She leads a collective that gives financial support to girl-led and -centred groups around the world, engages young women in participatory grant-making panels and amplifies girls voices.
Swatee’s previous roles took her from being the Director of Stars Foundation, Grant Manager for Marie Stopes International, to the delivery of various strategic consultancies for UNICEF, UNWomen and International Planned Parenthood Federation. She is part of various social finance advisory committees and investment panels.
Ogunte: A decade ago, when we first met, you had just co-founded label and arts organisation Moringa Arts (now part of 33:33) championing new artists and connecting audiences with contemporary arts from across the globe. How was this a trigger for what became a social impact focused professional journey?
Swatee Deepak: For me, it was about launching Moringa Arts from what was just an idea to a mature entity, staff, teams, delivering events all around the world, and launching a record label. This gave me the confidence to pursue everything I have done afterwards.
Ogunte: What else drives you?
Swatee Deepak: From my experience securing large foreign government contracts for International Planned Parenthood, among others, to being successful at engaging funders in a collective and create work legacies. For instance, With and For Girls, in its current format, might come to an end but the solidarity of all founders and within team allowed the work to continue. When Stars Foundation closed in 2019, all staff were placed – and trusted - into new roles.
What my key point here is around these experiences, is that we should be focused on the legacy learning, understand how the work can continue, even in difficult political contexts or under a different name, or even through another entity. The value needs to be realised, that is what is important.
Ogunte: Looking back at your journey and the happy systemic mix of sectors and verticals you have been involved with (Moringa Tree, With and For Girls, Stars Foundation, International Planned Parenthood Federation, USAID, Elevate Children Funders Group, your board advisory positions…) what has been the common thread throughout this experience?
Swatee Deepak: I am interested in what people are doing to enable and influence change in communities - whether local, national or international to ensure the realisation of everyone's human rights in balance with a sustainable, healthy and thriving climate.
All the organisations I have worked for, have adopted new names, merged, morphed into something else, and radically changed. Some changed from within, guided by a complex funding reality. I've realised when you work in social enterprises, NGOs or international development, it is hard to get sustainable funding coming in, you always need to reimagine the work you are doing to ensure you are still meeting the needs of the community you seek to serve.
Even philanthropy and its priorities change and shift. Some structures evolve because they need to have more dialogue with their communities, others are shaped by changes by individual founders or Board aspirations. You need to continue re-imagine how to be relevant.
Ogunte: What was the highlight of your career so far as a social entrepreneur?
Swatee Deepak: Launching Moringa Arts because it was about getting an organisation off the ground. I started this with two friends when I was just 26 years old. We had to work everything out: registrations, legalities, finance, taxes and that was before we put on large scale events. The experience made me grow as a professional adult within this social change space. It was constant hard work to realise some of your ideas. We were so lucky, with good people around you to support and lend a hand, you can make it happen.
With and For Girls has also been an incredible journey, a truly collaborative place alongside 10 of the most innovative Funders around the world committed to shifting power to the grassroots and holding space for adolescent girls to be heard, to be funded, to make decisions and truly step into their power.
I put all of this in perspective when, for instance, I meet 14 year old girls from With and For Girls winning organisations, around the world, like Samoa. I am truly humbled by these changemakers.
Young people have incredible clarity of the world they want to see: what needs to change, an understanding of systems of oppression, smart power analysis and focus to move ahead.
Ogunte: Do you see a bit of yourself in them?
Swatee Deepak: Perhaps, I have had experience working within NGOs and across social justice. As a teenager, I was involved in student organising and joined a national movement: Students Volunteering England, learned how to push for better policy reforms and legislation. We even got an official week: Student Volunteering Week recognised by the UK Government, which happens every February or March across the UK.
Ogunte: What do you think are the key structural issues in Social Enterprise or International Development?
Swatee Deepak: Beyond the usual sustainability issues and fundraising, I would say diversity in decision making and executive and Board level. Who is making decisions and the structural issue is that there is often no representation, or the cohort of decision-makers does not reflect the diversity of the people they are supposed to serve.
We also need to talk about participatory grant-making and participatory investment and finance models. At With and For Girls, we apply this principle and adolescent girls are the decision-makers deciding on our grants.
The world needs new ideas, new solutions for peace and security, health programmes, and this is why it is important to involve people who are affected by the decisions.
Another issue is that sometimes the sector invests in research: monitoring and evaluation to substantiate it's own legitimacy, existence or relevance.
The sector is bogged down with what we think change looks like, rather than what change COULD look like from the eyes on the people we serve.
Alliance Breakfast Club - #FeministPhilanthropy -December 2019.
Ogunte: What were the most difficult challenges you faced as a leader throughout your various experiences?
Swatee Deepak: I suffered from massive imposter syndrome, thinking “I don’t deserve to be in those spaces” or “I don’t have enough experience”. I have been in lots of board, committee meetings and events where I was the only young woman, non-white or just the only woman. Layer that on top of imposter syndrome and feeling legitimate as a leader can be challenging.
I have needed to learn how to own my role, my power and access to validate myself all the time. I know when I need to drag my chair to the table and speak up, and when I need to use that to open up space for others, girls, to have their voice amplified and have that seat. My objective is to pass the baton, and always ask myself:
“How can I get girls or grassroots voices into that space?”
Ogunte: In retrospective, how would you address these challenges differently now you have acquired more experience?
I would suggest the three following approaches:
Ogunte: How do you think your experience as a social entrepreneur helps you in the philanthropic world?
Swatee Deepak: First of all, it helps you really look at the positive value of the work you do, and how you communicate it, how to be more efficient in the way you run organisations, collaboratively.
In the wider NGO world, we all need to collaborate; we all need to validate our USP, what our values are. Coming from the social enterprise sector really helps, you have the clarity and the business case ready to go and you know how you communicate it. Philanthropy sees some movement towards a social enterprise model. I only know a few people who have worked in the social enterprise sector and have now joined philanthropy. Generally, it’s more the reverse.
Ogunte: We love your wisdom. What advice would you give your fellow women in social enterprise if they considered joining another organisation’s board or investment committee?
You need to value yourself from within.
Gather cheerleaders, supporters and co-conspirators to support you and build support for you.
Keep pushing for your voice to be heard, for your ideas to be taken forward, for the work to happen.
Ogunte: Finally, who are three women in social enterprise who inspire you?
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