After retiring from the World Bank, Dr. Vinod Prakash and his wife Sarla started the India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF), a tax-exempt non-profit, in 1988 in North Bethesda, U.S. Over the years, IDRF has raised $27.3 million and made grants worth $25.3 million to trusted NGO partners for programmes implemented across India.

Like them, many non-resident Indians (NRIs) want to give back in a specific way to the village or state where they were born. Their donations are often larger and better distributed with a focus on accountability.

Overheads are low (less than four cents of every dollar received), independently audited financial reports are available online and donors are encouraged to visit programme sites in India.

In 2012, IDRF supported over 30 programmes across India with the focus being children’s education and women’s empowerment. It also assists in anti-corruption and governance programmes, eco-friendly rural development and healthcare. Disaster rehabilitation after earthquakes and cyclones is its other mandate.

Sarla and Vinod Prakash lead by example. They and their children donate wedding, birthday, and anniversary gifts to Indian NGOs through IDRF. For a decade, Sarla has raised funds for an Indian school for the hearing impaired through a unique lunch programme showing how a homemaker can bring about social change. In 1994, Dr. Prakash initiated a tradition whereby young couples accept wedding gifts for projects run by IDRF, instead of personal gifts.

Since poor Indians suffer not only from material deprivation but social marginalisation, IDRF seeks to put power into their hands. It empowers people with resources, skills and the confidence needed for sustainable development. In 2012, IDRF became a member of the Combined Federal Campaign, the largest workplace giving-campaign in the U.S. that enables federal and military employees to give to a network of strictly vetted charities. The amount pledged in 2012 was approximately $36,000. Recently, Charity Navigator, an American NGO evaluator, awarded IDRF four stars for its accountability, transparency and financial health. In fact, it is the only four-star India-focused American NGO.

Over the years, IDRF has provided 30 medical vans in 15 states. In 2012, it supported two medical vans, hospitals for the urban and rural poor in India and Nepal, and a women’s dormitory at an accredited yoga university. Support was also provided to a school for children with special needs and a home for the elderly and disabled. In the conflict-ridden Hazaribagh district of Jharkhand, IDRF’s medical van played a key role in improving the lives of tribal people and in diverting youth from Naxalism to social work.

In Rapar taluk in Kutch district, Gujarat, nine check dams and 30 wells have been constructed between 2009 and 2012 with the support of IDRF and its local partner, Samerth. This provides water for irrigation and drinking to around 3,000 people. In the process groundwater has been replenished, ingress of salt water arrested and the daily trek for 40 litres of water halted.

With safe drinking water, water-borne diseases have declined, as has migration. More children, especially girls, are going to school. Inspired by the success, the programme is set to expand to 30 more villages.

In Bangalore, where bribes were demanded for basic services, and poor sanitation and roads led to accidents and deaths, IDRF supports two websites run by Janaagraha — IChangeMyCity.com (ICMC) and IpaidABribe.com (IPAB). The first is a social network that resolves complaints about governance service and infrastructure. Public meetings are organised for complainants, elected leaders and agency heads bringing transparency to governance. IPAB has received almost 24,000 bribe reports totalling Rs. 59 crores leading to a crack-down on bribery. The IPAB campaign is being replicated in 10 countries.

In Karnal district of Haryana, NRIs are promoting women’s health, economic security and basic rights through self-help groups (SHGs) with the support of Arpana, a local NGO. By late 2013, the programme covered over 100 villages. with 9,100 members of 650 SHGs meeting monthly, saving and lending. In 2012, they saved a whopping Rs. 52 million; over 1,800 women ran small businesses using micro-credit from the SHGs. With training, nearly all the SHGs manage their own accounts and maintain records. Bhagwati, a SHG member for five years, says that ever since she began contributing to the family income her husband and in-laws respect her. Those with disabilities too have formed SHGs to advocate for government benefits and save and lend collectively.

Another Indian American donor, Dr. Jaipal Rathi, wanted quality education in his native village of Nagauri, Meerut district, U.P. But, in the 1980s, there was resistance to modern education as some parents feared it would corrupt their children and weaken family ties. And so, the Savitri Soni Vidya Mandir Inter College began with two teachers and two classrooms under a thatched roof. Today, the school has changed the educational landscape of the region and draws children from 25 adjoining villages. It grew from a primary to a secondary school and when parents wanted their girls to have access to higher secondary education in the village, it grew again. Dr. Rathi continued to raise funds for the school enabling additional classrooms, faculty apartments, a library, a computer room, science labs, sanitation facilities and on-site power generators. In the early years, a tractor trolley brought children to school; today there are five modern buses to transport 1,100 children.

Two large-hearted NRIs — Dr. G.R. Verma and Dr. Mukesh Goel — are the backbone of the Maharishi Dayanand Balika Vigyan Mahavidyalaya (MDBVM) in Jhujhunu, Rajasthan, and a branch of the Maharaja Agrasen University in Solan, Himachal Pradesh, respectively. In Rajasthan, where gender segregation and poverty prevent girls from attending primary school, the MDBVM enables young women to pursue bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, botany, maths and computer sciences. After a decade of support, in 2012, the Mahavidyalaya opened an English learning laboratory. With computers and audio software, students practise English conversation necessary to compete for science jobs in India and abroad. In a year, 240 students completed the spoken language course. The new campus of the Maharaja Agrasen University in Solan offers degrees in technology. “God has given me everything... So why not share my prosperity with the needy?” asks philanthropist Goel.

Quite clearly, what NRIs give to India is not charity but tools of empowerment.