Sonal Sachdev Patel

Sonal is the CEO of GMSP (God My Silent Partner) Foundation, which provides unrestricted funding and wellbeing support to community-led organisations  working to improve the lives of marginalised people in the UK and India. The Foundation was set up by her parents, Ramesh and Pratibha Sachdev, in 2006 and she formally started leading its work in 2015.

Alongside this role, Sonal serves on the boards of The Global Fund for Children and Dasra where she chairs the Governance, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. Sonal is the inaugural Philanthropist-in-Residence at the Marshall Institute of the LSE and supports the work of various other charities as an adviser.

1. What kind of causes does the GMSP Foundation support?

We say that we give in spiritual solidarity with our partners – that doesn’t mean giving to religious or faith-led organisations, but it leans on this idea of shared humanity, a feeling that we’re all from the same source and we all come from this same divinity, regardless of faith, gender, sexual orientation, caste or class. That’s why at GMSP we focus on people who find themselves on the margins of society and those who are most excluded. In the UK, that is often Black and minoritised communities, women, refugees, homeless people and children living in poverty. In India, that might be people who live outside of the big metro cities, those from a lower caste, from minority religions or tribal communities and women.

2. Why did you decide to get involved with your parents’ philanthropic work?

The Foundation was set up by my parents because they were giving substantial amounts to charity which they had made primarily from their care home business. For a long time, it functioned as a vehicle to give ad hoc grants to good causes. My parents always had the intention to give away their wealth, yet both of them are busy people with lots of commitments. So it was when I got involved and was able to give more time to the Foundation that we were able to be more focused on our giving. I felt that the Foundation needed a clearer strategic direction and that with more time, skills and energy invested into it, we could have a greater impact. Also I was drawn to the idea of working with my parents and honouring their legacy. I have a huge amount of respect for them and how hard they have worked to create their wealth in the first place. Having the opportunity to help give it away is a real privilege and not one that I take for granted. 

3. Can you tell us about some of the projects you’ve supported?

We give unrestricted funding to community-led organisations and we try to fund them for the long term, some for more than 10 years. We believe in supporting the sector with holistic interventions, for example funding frontline services to immigration advice to policy advocacy. As an example in the UK, for women escaping domestic violence we support partners to offer immediate refuge, retraining for employment, to secure long-term housing and childcare for their children while at the same time advocating for the rights of domestic violence survivors when it comes to government policy. Overall, we give away between £1 million and £3 million a year.

4. So how do you measure your impact?

Of course having impact is important. Measuring it is a whole other thing. In fact I wrote a blog on it here. We would say we’re practising trust-based philanthropy, which we’ve been doing since 2015 but it’s only recently that this has become a buzzword. I think that there is a misconception about trust-based philanthropy that it is not concerned with impact. There is impact, but it’s just not necessarily measured in a visible or easily quantifiable way. If we take violence against women as an example, an organisation can tell you it worked with 100 women, and they could say five of them got back into employment and five have a salary of X amount or managed to move into a home. But it is harder to talk about trauma rehabilitation and wellbeing in the same way, even though they are important outcomes to fund. Unfortunately when funders don’t understand impact we stifle our charity partners’ ability to do deep, transformative work.

Tracking impact can cost a lot of money so I am mindful of asking grantees to spend a large part of their grant on tracking the direct impact of our funding because this can take away from the important work they are doing. Instead we spend time understanding how our partners already track their impact and how they learn from their work and the information they collect. When I first entered the sector, I was a bit naive, thinking I could skip steps to learn everything I needed to know. Looking back, I cringe because I realise it takes time to understand how communities live, what their needs are, and what realistic expectations on showing impact we, as funders, should have.

5. Is there a particular challenge you’ve encountered in your philanthropic work?

Yes, lots. I think one would be this desire to always be successful in your funding and always have maximum positive impact. I think a lot of that comes from a place of wanting to do good. But then some of it comes from unrealistic expectations that each pound will have exactly the amount of impact you’d want it to because things in real life go wrong.

The other challenge is that the world is always changing, and this means that sometimes there are neutral forces and even opposite forces pushing against you. The anti-rights movement, for example, is very focused and collaborative as it tries to take away hard-won rights from women, LGBTQ+ people and others.

6. What’s been the most satisfying, rewarding thing you’ve been involved with?

I think it’s seeing the change achieved by our partners. I’ve loved working with Dasra, I am also on their board so I know them well. GMSP supported their Rebuild Fund, which was about getting money to much smaller organisations that are outside of the metro cities, in smaller communities. I attended a brilliant conference in Mumbai where there were seven different Indian languages being spoken, and this reminded me that doing these conferences in English is linked to the power dynamic of expecting these small organisations to be able to communicate in the way that works for us. I loved being part of that, especially because GMSP provided only part of the funding and where there are more donors, there is an accelerated impact.



7. Your parents obviously have been very successful in business, and you’ve had your own business career. So how have you as a family used that business experience and brought that to your philanthropy?

I believe that a good philanthropist does a lot more than just bring funding. Bringing your skills and your networks is really important. People often underestimate how much the kind of networks they have can help in the work. We’ve been mindful to try and use our areas of expertise where relevant. One example I can think of is when we funded the Akshay Patra Kitchen in Watford (Akshaya Patra is the world’s biggest food charity). When we partnered with them to bring this work to the UK, my father lent his skills finding property sites, architects and builders, and Akshaya Patra were delighted because their expertise is in creating hot nutritious meals not in UK property, so it was a good meeting of skills.  But I am conscious of not thinking we know the answers just because we were successful in business and so let us solve the problem! We are very aware of not always having the relevant knowledge, and we put our faith in the expertise of the community and our grantee partners.

8. How do the different generations in your family work together?

My parents and I work really well together because our foundation is built on the same values that we hold dear as a family, and that has always been our bedrock. Whenever we’re confused about something, we’ll come back to our values and ask ourselves: What do we think, not just about this one thing but our whole approach to life and our family?

I often hear from other Next Gen philanthropists that they worry their work will be negatively impacted by family dynamics, but there are certain things you can put in place that can help such as having really clear roles. With my children, we’re taking a similar approach to my parents, which is that we’re involving them in lots of elements of giving which aren’t linked to the GMSP Foundation. Our focus is on giving them this sense of spiritual solidarity – respecting others, giving whatever they can and creating a positive impact on the world through their actions. We engage them in conversation about the world around them – and especially around their own privilege.

9. What are the lessons that you have learnt in your philanthropic journey that you would impart to your children, or even other philanthropists, if they came to you?

I would say number one is to get out of your own echo chamber. We don’t know what we don’t know. If you can get out of your echo chamber, you can develop a much better understanding of the issues that you’re funding. Have a look at where you mix, what kind of circles? Whose voices are you listening to? We see a huge polarisation in our society now so this point about hearing other perspectives is even more important.

Number two is to know practically how much time you have to give. I see a lot of philanthropists completely overwhelmed with application volumes. If you know you can only give a day a week of your time, don’t get involved in application reviews for example. Get the support you need to ensure you don’t slow down the work. 

Number three is to know yourself in the deeper sense.  What sparks joy for you? What do you want your legacy to be when you die? And number four – be mindful of family dynamics – segment your “stakeholders” like good businesses segment their customers. For example, my father is a “numbers man” and wants to see the spreadsheet while my mother is a “heart person” and she wants to know the individual stories of impact.

10. How do you see the general philanthropic landscape changing over the next decade?

The biggest wealth transfer in history is going to happen in the next generation and that’s going to go to women. I think the Next Gen thinks very differently about funding movements, funding activism and philanthropy and will hopefully move along that curve. I hope we will meet the challenge of funding collaboratively and in a coordinated way.

Quick fire round

Favourite charity: Dasra (a strategic philanthropy organisation facilitating partnerships between funders, non-profits, business, and government in order to help India achieve the SDGs by 2030).

Favourite philanthropist: Lynne Smitham (The Kiawah Trust, which helps educate and empower adolescent girls from disadvantaged communities in India).

Best philanthropic initiative: Think Equal, the charity for social and emotional learning for children.

Three most important skills in philanthropy: Introspecting, listening with humility and being in solidarity with your partners.

Your favourite charity campaign: Jan Sahas migrant campaign or, more generally, #MeToo. I think charity campaigns can be isolated, but movements are more powerful.