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Purvi Shah: Making Change Through Nonprofit Work

A New Yorker originally from Ahmedabad, Purvi Shah merges activism, community and art to bring funding and involvement to worthy causes.

The idea came to her more than a year in advance.

A New Yorker originally from Ahmedabad, Purvi Shah wanted to merge activism, community and art on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to reflect on Asian American New Yorkers’ experiences in the wake of the devastating trauma.

In partnership with Kundiman, a nonprofit group dedicated to the creation and promotion of Asian American poetry, Shah’s vision came to life in a performed oral history of multiple generations of New Yorkers from all regions of Asia. In the Indian storytelling tradition of kavad, the production, called “Together We Are New York,” integrated poetry and first-person interviews. It has reached audiences at three separate New York venues, with more events to come.


Fundraising through multiple means 

To bring to fruition her idea for this community-based public arts project, Shah drew on her nearly two decades of experience in the nonprofit sector. Now a freelance consultant to non-government organizations focused on gender violence and the arts, Shah previously spent seven years leading Sakhi for South Asian Women, an organization that works to end violence against women. 

“With Sakhi, one of the great things is that I really had the opportunity to learn…how to fundraise across every avenue,” says Shah, who is also a poet.

When she begins to raise money for a project, Shah first assesses the best options for funding given the nature of the particular effort. Possibilities include government grants, foundation-based grants and corporate sponsorships. 

“I do a lot of Internet searches to see what organizations fund comparable projects,” she says.

For “Together We Are New York,” Shah secured grants from several local public arts agencies. While full of opportunity, the grant application process always requires extensive research, writing, financial management and relationship building, she cautions. 

“People don’t often realize you usually start with a very small grant. You have to then keep that relationship and prove that you are going to be able to do something more with more money over the next year,” says Shah. 

Beyond grants, Shah favors using substantive work to raise money. While at Sakhi, she facilitated a number of dialogues at house parties at which she screened films the organization had produced to initiate conversations around domestic violence. Guests attended the gatherings for free and donated to Sakhi if they so desired—and many did contribute, Shah says. Similarly, the “Together We Are New York” performances have been free to the public and people have donated at each of the shows.

“You get to really introduce [people] to the work,” Shah says of this community-based style of building financial support. “It involved fundraising but it was really outreach and community education and an opportunity for community dialogue on issues often silenced in the public.”


Drawing the crowd

For “Together We Are New York,” Shah wanted to capture the attention of as many New Yorkers as possible. Like her experience with fundraising, Shah’s practice at crowdsourcing has taught her that engaging the community leads to the strongest base of audience interest and support.

“People like to get together. People like to have conversations and socialize as well. So if you can do that and support a cause that makes a difference in our communities, it’s great,” she says. 

While Shah believes social media tools like Facebook and Twitter can help raise immediate awareness of an issue, she does not exclusively rely on these avenues to build the meaningful connections and realize the community change she seeks to generate.

“It’s hard to actually have a dialogue or to raise that space for long-term reflection [through social media],” says Shah. “It can be quick to get out a message, but it may not reach that many people at the end in terms of ongoing commitment or impact.”


Making the strongest impact 

Shah’s expertise from her time with Kundiman, Sakhi and other NGOs qualifies her to offer some useful advice to young people eager to do nonprofit work.

“It’s really important at first to see what’s already out there,” she says. Then, “see what your skills and assets are and figure out where you can add the most value.” 

Once armed with this knowledge, Shah advises “getting into a place and learning the ropes, and then seeing how you can translate that to possibly serving a need that may not be served yet.”

Following this prescribed path has enabled Shah to stay true to her mission of “calling attention to issues that are often silenced,” she says. Her work has allowed her to begin to shape “the world I hope to live in and want to create—a world of safety, equality, joy and beauty.”


Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.