In 1999, Padma Parthasarathy was early in her Microsoft career when she and her husband, Jawahar, attended a flute concert sponsored by Milpitas-based Sankara Eye Foundation (SEF USA). She never imagined that SEF USA would become an important part of her and her family members’ lives. Nor could she have known that by bringing her specific skills and passion to the foundation, many thousands of disadvantaged people in her native India would receive free surgery to cure them of blindness.
SEF USA is the fundraising arm of the Sankara Eye Foundation in India. Its mission is to reach out to the rural poor population and provide quality eye care free of cost by building operationally self-sufficient, super-specialty eye care hospitals across India. To date, 1.4 million individuals have received this gift of vision.
SEF USA has received more than $1.5 million from Microsoft and its employees since Parthasarathy became involved. Microsoft matches her contributions and those of the colleagues she inspires to donate. The nonprofit receives $25 for every hour of volunteer time spent by Parthasarathy and other Microsoft employees. Microsoft also honors Parthasarathy’s role as an SEF USA board member by purchasing a table at the foundation’s annual fundraising banquet. Total Microsoft contributions average $300,000 per year.
“I really admire Microsoft for motivating volunteers to participate in charity work, giving them time and all the resources.”
— Murali Krishnamurthy Co-Founder and Executive Chairman, SEF USA
“I really admire Microsoft for motivating volunteers to participate in charity work, giving them time and all the resources,” says Murali Krishnamurthy, co-founder and executive chairman of SEF USA. Because of Microsoft’s and Parthasarathy’s efforts to promote SEF USA within the company, there’s also a large donor and volunteer base in Microsoft’s hometown. In fact, Krishnamurthy visits Microsoft in Redmond, Washington, every October during its giving campaign period to promote SEF USA on site. In 2015, SEF USA was one of the recipients of funds raised during a site-wide poker tournament and an employee health check program.
SEF USA fundraises by hosting events such as concerts and festivals, having a booth presence at other large events, and working with major donors. Fifty percent of SEF’s overall funding comes from the U.S., and the balance comes from major grants from individuals and companies in India. Neither SEF USA nor SEF India have any religious or political affiliations, nor are they affiliated with the Sankara Nethralaya foundations.
Self-sustaining for continued growth
Silicon Valley is the source of many of SEF USA’s board members and a substantial amount of its fundraising. Events are held in many U.S. locations with a large Indian-American community, but overall leadership is based in Silicon Valley. In fact, SEF USA credits what they view as the Silicon Valley work style for their decision to adopt a self-sufficiency business model for the SEF hospitals in India.
When SEF USA was founded in 1998, there was one SEF hospital performing 8,000 free surgeries per year. Now, there are eight fully operational hospitals (with three more slated for completion by 2018), and more than 140,000 people receive free care every year.
Two of the hospitals are now self-sufficient; 20 percent of patients that can afford to pay do so, which funds surgeries for the 80 percent of patients that cannot. All of the hospitals must submit regular performance reports and justify their requests for funding. Employees at the hospitals that meet high performance standards receive a bonus.
It’s expected that within a few years, the entire hospital system will be self-sufficient. This will allow future funds to be dedicated exclusively to building more hospitals. SEF USA estimates that by 2025 there will be 20 hospitals in operation, serving nearly 3.5 million patients per year and performing 500,000 free surgeries.
Giving and receiving
Like many who have given of themselves for a cause they believe in, Parthasarathy feels that she has received much in return: “It’s given me and my husband so many opportunities and satisfaction, and I’m very grateful to everybody—to God—for letting me contribute in this area.”
Parthasarathy, who is a partner engineer in Microsoft’s Windows and Devices Group, and her husband are among the most dedicated of the hundreds of SEF USA volunteers. Both perform important functions and Parthasarathy is a board member. Krishnamurthy explains that “Padma and another board member take care of the governance and financial discipline; that is one of the reasons we keep getting a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, time and again.” He credits them when saying that “It’s a really clean organization; all of our financials are there, records are completely transparent, and we keep our overhead low and have good governance.”
He praises Parthasarathy’s strong commitment to process, which he admits contrasts with his own, “just get it done,” style. “Padma is a stickler to discipline and process … we fight like cats and dogs at our board meetings!” Parthasarathy agrees that “there are a lot of heated discussions, but it’s all out of passion.” Krishnamurthy also cites examples of when Parthasarathy learned new skills to benefit the foundation, and describes her and her husband as, “very, very, very trusted people.” For her part, Parthasarathy enjoys that she’s continually learning and is able to work with like-minded people.
She feels very satisfied by the phenomenal growth that the foundation has seen and by what she witnesses when she visits the hospitals and speaks with patients and staff. “Just to think that we have played some minor role in making this happen makes me feel more and more humble. The other thing is, we have a 12-year-old son … we take him also to the hospitals and he feels a part of something.” Her son regularly helps out at the SEF USA office and has participated in a benefit walkathon.
“The biggest thing,” says Parthasarathy, “is the opportunity to get exposed to and work with people like Murali [Krishnamurthy] and others. We’re so blessed to have such people … my son is like a son to everybody. For him to get the opportunity to grow up with these people, and the kind of exposure and cultural nourishment that I give my son with this … I’m hoping it will play a role in shaping him to be a good person.”
You can have fun and support SEF USA by attending an event like the popular Dandiya Indian cultural festival held every October. It’s also easy to donate online, and SEF USA welcomes volunteers—especially those that have connections to large foundations and who can assist with grant writing. There’s much more information at giftofvision.org.
This special issue of Catalyst is devoted to volunteerism as a broad theme, rather than just one specific cause or issue area. That’s because at Microsoft, we know that being part of our Bay Area community means doing all we can to address the priorities of our local neighborhoods and our employees.
Microsoft stands behind its employees’ efforts and interests with a $25 donation for every hour of volunteer time they give to a nonprofit, dollar-for-dollar funds to match their personal monetary contributions, training for prospective nonprofit board members, and more.
As you read on, we hope you will be inspired as we are by the organizations profiled here and will consider supporting their work.
Sid Espinosa Director of Philanthropy and Civic Engagement