When Zak Franklin stepped out of the Chennai Airport and into the sweltering heat he was first hit by the oppressive humidity. And then by the beggars. The vastness of abject poverty was not just visually striking; it shook him to his core. "The old women were the hardest to say no to," he recalls. Overwhelming senses of guilt and empathy began to coalesce within him.
I met Franklin for the first time at a South Asian Student Association campus event at which he gave a presentation about his startup non-profit organization, Namaste - Wings to Fly America (NWFA). The organization is a charity primarily dedicated to aiding the development of grossly underprivileged children of the Kani tribe, a small community living deep in the jungle of the Western Ghat mountain range shared by the Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. NWFA's ultimate goal is to teach Kani children the skills they need to be self-sufficient in the future.
The organization relies on outside donations. Patrons have the option to "adopt" a child by giving $365 per year, or to submit a single donation of any amount they choose. Due to the favorable exchange rate and the low cost of living in India, the American dollar has greater purchasing power. Franklin also stresses that less than 10% of NWFA's donations take care of overhead costs in India while any overhead costs incurred here in America are paid out of his own pocket. Charity watchdogs consider overhead costs at 20% of income (i.e., donations) to be exceptionally low. Even so, it is not uncommon for household-name charities to spend upwards of 40% of income on overhead (http://www.wwf.org.uk/). "We keep it that way so the money really goes to the kids," he clarifies for me.
I came away very impressed and surprised that one of my peers--an undergraduate, no less--turned what might have been a highfalutin and altruistic dream into something real. When I told Franklin his efforts are a source of inspiration, he gave a modest laugh and shrugged almost bashfully, saying he was only doing the right thing. He continued on to explain how the organization was founded almost by accident.
Like many of his fellow students at the University of Colorado Boulder who love to procrastinate in doing schoolwork, Franklin, then a junior, was also restless. He was writing the hundredth page of his political science thesis when he found he had completely lost his enthusiasm and, soon after, concentration. He was utterly bored and could no longer ignore the rumbles of discontent. He had to do something.
Franklin had never traveled outside of the United States before. He was hungry for an adventure that would take him to a new place and expose him to a different world, but he was unable to afford the exorbitant tuition of a study abroad program. When he happened upon a program that sends students to volunteer in India, he jumped at the opportunity. Franklin thought he was going to spend the summer teaching English to the Untouchables, commonly and unfairly known as the dregs of Indian society. What transpired, though, was completely unanticipated.
When he landed in Chennai, Franklin's Indian hosts placed him on a train bound for Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), the southernmost city in India. Feeling exhausted and slightly bewildered, he boarded the train for the estimated 30-hour journey that, unbeknown to him, could have been made in half the time on a swift plane ride for only 20 dollars extra. There were no bathrooms on the train either, "another unknown fact," he grins. But he made it to Trivandrum in one piece, where he was greeted by new hosts and led to the jungle. It took a few hours of hiking before they reached the first Kani village. What Franklin found made him realize that these people needed help well beyond the scope of his tutorship.
The tribe's economic condition is dire. The anemia rate amongst the Kani is over 90% while many members are also afflicted with Polio--which has almost been globally eradicated, with only 228 diagnoses through June 2011 (http://www.polioeradication.org). Franklin met four families stricken with Polio; and their cases are likely to go unreported or documented due to the Kani's extreme isolation. He certainly did not get to meet the entire tribe, which really put things into perspective for him. There are no roads to the innermost areas of the jungle, so these people are far removed from access to basic healthcare, sanitation, food, and education. While India on the whole has enjoyed accelerate economic growth of late, Franklin observed that prosperity remains elusive for its impoverished jungle inhabitants.
Despite the squalor of their living conditions, the Kani were warm and welcoming to Franklin. "Indians are so hospitable," he says affectionately. "They invite you into their tiny hut and offer you some chai. You look around and see they have nothing, but they attempt to give you things anyway. It made you feel so guilty," Franklin reflects. "I didnt want to accept their generosity, I didnt deserve this entitlement." It was obvious to Franklin that the current conditions afforded Kani youth a slim chance at achieving quality of life at all superior to that of their parents. "I had to try and change this," Franklin told me. I could hear the earnestness in his voice.
Franklin spent the rest of the summer working to set up a charity. His aim was to improve the dreary outlook of this destitute tribe who, until now, had been overlooked by other philanthropic endeavors. He began writing to everyone he knew, trying to appeal to their emotional, humanistic side. He spent a great deal of time filling out the tedious paperwork to register with the American Internal Revenue Service. Fortunately, during his time in India, Franklin sowed a strong connection with a local charity that does similar work for other populations in southern India, and they agreed to partner with him. Franklin's arduous efforts eventually materialized when he founded Namaste - Wings to Fly America. To date, the organization has successfully opened an orphanage to house and educate the most helpless Kani children.
Of course, it is no easy task to ask for donations. Franklin says it helps to be confident enough to feel rejection frequently. A few months ago, he wrote forty personalized letters to friends and family telling them about the organization and asking for them to help. He received only two responses. Nevertheless, he continues to work on being as polite as possible and maintaining a thick skin. "I've had people who have never even been to India come up to me after my presentations and accuse me of ruining the Kani's unique culture, or tell me they would rather support Americans instead of foreigners." Chuckling, he adds, "It is also difficult to deal with people who accuse you of providing money to terrorists--that has actually happened to me a couple of times!" As a woman of Indian descent, I cringed when I heard this because I have been on the receiving end of similar irrational accusations.
Franklin attributes his success to the emotional connections he made with the Kani children, which remained central to his drive. He keeps a picture of the children as his desktop background to remember that the rejection and resulting annoyance is worth enduring for the chance to succeed in helping the children. Endearing as this may seem, I would caution one not to be fooled by Franklin's cherubic demeanor. Franklin's soft, innocent features are counteracted by his exceptionally sharp wit. He delivers his repartee with deceivingly coy facial expressions, so it usually takes a little catching up on your part to realize the joke was indeed on you. From the very first of our encounters, it was always in good humor. I think his jovial sense of humor keeps him afloat and, encouragingly, it allows him to remain resilient in the face of adversity.
Franklin also rejects the premise that he is someone special, a philanthropist set apart from the crowd. "If everyone could see what I saw, they would be just as willing to get involved." That is not to say everyone who travels to India could (or should) transform his or her empathy into the basis for a non-profit organization. Franklin contends that the best way to help is by giving money to a good charity. He was successful in his venture because he had resources--time at the very least--at his disposal whereas others might not. He also says that careful budget planning and analysis, as well as conservatism, are key to sustaining the organization.
As a fellow CU Buff, I asked Franklin about the role academic education and experiential learning had in shaping his success. He asserts that it definitely helps to be intelligent and hard working, or good enough at one to compensate for a shortcoming in the other. There are tough decisions to be made, and knowing that he will never help everyone is a deep source of frustration for him. As much as he would like to provide the greatest good for the greatest number, he has to be conservative. "When we opened the first house, I had to draw a line somewhere. I looked at the budget and decided to cut off the tenth child," he explains with deep regret. At the time, it was a risk to take on the tenth girl and he says it broke his heart to reject her. Franklin wanted to make sure he raised enough capital before committing sponsorship. It is difficult to think in black-and-white terms when a child's future is at stake, but he is more terrified of taking in kids and then running out of money to support them. Situations like these really illustrate the fundamental meaning of risk-benefit analysis.
Franklin has not discovered an amazing new product, nor is he selling anything tangible for a profit. His entrepreneurship is characterized by his determination to make a change. Franklin was so shocked by the Kani's impoverished state--and furthermore baffled by the tenacity of their youth to prosper nonetheless--that he made a promise to himself to do something about it.
And he did. Franklin learned that it typically takes a minimum of $8,000 to $12,000 per year to raise a child in the United States. In India, it takes $400. However, Franklin asks for $365--one US dollar per day, he uses his own money to put up the difference. It is his hope to raise enough capital and awareness so he will not have to keep paying overhead costs out of his shallow pockets.
Since founding in 2009, Namaste - Wings to Fly America has raised over $15,000 to help the Kani people. Franklin started this organization because the Kani people were not being helped. While he has had to keep his overhead costs low, like any savvy startup person must do, his business is driven by a commitment to improving the lives of others.
Franklin's efforts are a testament to the relieving notion that the milk of human kindness has not yet evaporated. The power to make a difference is vested within all of us. We should dignify John Donne's axiom that "no man is an island" by recognizing our duty to help those who cannot help themselves. Please take a few minutes to check out Namaste - Wings to Fly America (http://www.helpthekani.org).
The information in this paper was gleaned from interviews with Zak Franklin in 2010 and 2011, in addition to the references cited below.
Chaturvedi, Sachin. (2007). Kani Case. A Report for GenBenefit. Retrieved April 2, 2011 from:
Donne, John. (1624). For Whom The Bell Tolls.
Sontag, S. (2002). Regarding The Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Polio Global Eradication Initiative. Data and Monitoring. Retrieved June 22, 2011 from:
Above: Sebina Versi, Author of "Not What I Signed Up For: The Founding of Namaste - Wings to Fly America"
Below: A collection of pictures from the trip to India that inspired Zak Franklin to start Namaste - Wings to Fly America.
Not What I Signed Up For
The Founding of Namaste - Wings to Fly America
By Sebina Versi