Different Dialogues : Interview with Extended & Enlarged Interviews of Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan - Founder of Dignity Foundation (India).

Interview with Extended & Enlarged Interviews of Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan - Founder of Dignity Foundation (India).


Educational background: M.A. in Psychiatric Social Work, Madras University. Ph.D. in Sociology, Bombay University.


Professional background: Research experience UGC Fellow, Bombay University. Research Associate in Pune through Indian Institute of Education. Corporate Manager in Macmillan India, Bangalore.  Managing Editor, Head of Publication, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.


International Experience: Specializing in target audience understanding.  Been a USIS International Visitor to study university publishing.  She was a Commonwealth Fellow studying the same in UK.  She has visited Napier Institute of Publishing in Scotland for study and training in academic editing and publishing.  Worked in Simon and Schuster, England, for specialist study in university publishing.

As in Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan’s words:


The year 2016-17 I have been consciously adopting management styles which I believe to be useful and result-oriented.


I have been giving effect to four key ingredients of what I consider as success in running the above charities:

  • Purposeful leadership
  • Adaptive services design
  • Social connectedness
  • Staff engagement and Funding


Purposeful leadership


I have taken the help of academic research findings in global ageing and based our work on such leads. I have believed in driving the established mission of Dignity Foundation (D.F) and Dignity Lifestyle Retirement Township (DL): Changing the way people look at Ageing in India – to generate a clear and compelling direction as to where our organisation is heading and in what direction. In the month of October 2017 when this article is being published on the International Day of Older Persons, we believe in UN’s thematic focus, co-opting it in our Programming for the year: harnessing the talents, potential and contributions of senior citizens to society.   That has been our commitment for the year 2017-18. The academic background data for this conclusion is as follows:


We took note of Loneliness as one common source of distress, suffering, and impaired quality of life in older persons – rich or poor. Research revealed the relationship between loneliness, functional decline and even death in adults over age 60 (US study).  The longitudinal cohort research with 1604 participants involved a baseline assessment every two years over a six year period.


“Subjects were asked if they feel 1) Left Out 2) Isolated or 3) Lack Companionship. Subjects were categorized as “not lonely” if they responded hardly ever to all three questions and “lonely” if they responded some of the time or often to any of the three questions. One of the outcomes was functional decline over 6 years on four measures: a) difficulty on an increased number of activities of daily living b)difficulty in an increased number of upper extremity tasks, c) decline in mobility, or d) increased difficulty in stair climbing.


In all our Projects implemented during the year, there has been confirming evidence that Loneliness was significantly associated with nearly all of the measures of functional decline. This included declines in activities of daily life, difficulties in upper extremity tasks, and difficulty in climbing the stairs.


Loneliness Mitigation centres (chai masti centres) thus became our primary focus of programming.  The harnessing of talents takes place in each chai masti centre not only during centres’ day to day programmes, but also during Quarterly Events which we have been religiously conducting since 2010. Senior citizens get the platform to see their own hidden and unexplored creative talent blossom forth while availing the opportunities made possible. It goes to the credit of well known visionary donor Mr. Nischal Israni of BlueCross Labs for identifying this segment of our services for his financial support which he has been giving year after year for the past several years.


Adaptive design of services


Frequent exercises were undertaken in infusing the realities of what the senior citizen members want into the creation and evolution of weekly and monthly programmes and the allied changes in processes followed. An exhaustive list of 50 ideas of what could be done at these centres were researched upon and implemented during the year. The increased need for digital coaching of senior citizens in the use of mobiles and computers was an all-India feature.  Accordingly new resource persons were inducted into programming.


Social connectedness with senior citizens


“There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader,” said Mahatma Gandhi. I frequently recall this famous quote as my beacon light.  The yearlong programme of incorporating members’ insight, feedback, and participation became the kingpin of our goals. I also know if your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. Rosalind Carter went one step further to define a leader saying: a leader is one that takes people where they want to go. But a great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be. In doing what she says I tell myself: cultivate deeper and updated domain knowledge for getting the relevant leads. 


Dignity Foundation Enabled to Serve the Very Poor Elderly


During the year National Stock Exchange, American Express, Give India, SBI Capital and Deutsche Bank have enabled us with large scale funding to serve the poor elderly in 8 different slum locations in Mumbai and Chennai. This has been our major breakthrough in many years. Some 10,000 poor senior citizens are being served through these intensive reach-out programmes. Our existing Ration Project to the elderly in below-the-poverty-level category, a project now in its 10th year, is also being carried out. We owe our thanks to generous donations from Nirlon Foundation, STCI Online and other individual donors.


Staff engagement and Funds


Implementing HR policies and principles in six cities (with the seventh one added in July 2017) has been a challenging task in view of restrictive funds at our disposal. We were not able to visit city chapters as often as we wanted. Therefore, increasingly the reliance is falling on Steering Committees of senior citizens we have set up in recent chapter establishments. In Ahmedabad for example, the worst form of group politics amongst senior citizen members destroyed much of hard labour. But we also witnessed the best that emerged there in the form of Mr. Piyush Desai taking over the Chief Patron ship of Ahmedabad chapter.  This has not only relieved the financial strain of shouldering the chapter expenses, but Mr. Desai’s patron ship has also meant his critical and constructive eye on the management of services in the chapter is available to us. Mr. Piyush Desai’s views on his championing the cause find a separate mention in the pages that follow.


The Heads of Chapters and Coordinators working in each of the Chai Masti centres in various cities hold a very important place in the management of service delivery in D.F. Of special mention are the fulltime and part time Teams headed by Managers of Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad who have been the pride of D.F for the past few years now. There is stability, commitment and dedication all around.  The Steering Committees serving in an honorary capacity in the chapters at Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Chennai also deserve our grateful thanks for guarding the brand name and reputation of D.F. The Steering Committee at Pune has been very dedicated and highly supportive but their luck in having a stable and good manager has been rather tardy.


Cutting down on services rendered by two of our Programmes – the Govt. of Maharashtra Senior Citizen ID Cards and Dementia Day Care Services in Byculla, Mumbai have been painful experiences. But the number of beneficiaries was not justifying the expenditures incurred by both. So the Trustees approved the closure of both services with effect from April 2017.


I am very happy to record that few patrons on the financial front have emerged during the year under review without whose support the going would have been very tough. 


In Mumbai, D.F as well as D.L.T have seen the constant infusion of donations at the hands of Trustee Pranay Vakil. His championship of several matters in the Trusts, the need for funds in critical areas at critical times, his decisions helping the management to curb expenditure, and the effort he takes for a perennial promotion of the cause of Dignity Foundation and Dignity Lifestyle Trust is touching, to say the least. If there is thought leadership at the helm of the Trusts, we must look at Pranay Vakil. I am totally beholden to him in a very humble way.


Mr. Arun Saha has been giving quiet support in all critical areas of our weaknesses. Without his guidance and timely assistance D.F and D.L.T would not have had a productive year 2016-17.


Thanks to his partial retirement from his company, Trustee Gopal Srinivasan has been able to afford more time for resources planning and strategy evolution in both the Trusts.  He has stood by as great support in all crucial recruitments at the Trusts. Many times his unsolicited donations have delivered us out of difficult times. Thank you very much.


Mr. Sharad Wasani in Bengaluru has been of tremendous support in sponsoring all the Events through the year as well funding the Nutrition Supply programme to the underprivileged elderly in the Bengaluru chapter. More about these in the Bengaluru Chapter report. I am very thankful to Mr. Wasani for help and assistance.




I used to think that running an NGO was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra. But I don't think that's quite it; it's more like jazz. There is more improvisation that is called for at all points in time.


It is my fond hope that NGOs manage their ventures so wonderfully that the reverse process of for-profits emulating the Not-for-profits should emerge. I would want to imagine that the running of Dignity Foundation and Dignity Lifestyle Trust is so exemplary that, in a world of fast-diminishing customer and employee loyalty, for-profit companies would want to adopt lessons from us Not –for-profits in three areas:
1) Identifying and serving an irresistible mission that works at a higher purpose;
2) Nurturing passionate employees; and
3) Keeping clients/customers engaged and loyal. 


I would want to imagine that the focus on the mission and not the money be the guiding force, because in the social sector, money is a means to an end, not an end in itself. While Not-for-profits must know how to generate revenue and control costs, the ultimate goal is to fulfill the organisation’s mission.


In the fulfillment of this mission, the staff, members and volunteers at D.F and D.L.T must speak. Please hear them speak in the remaining pages of this Report that capture their voices.


Q1.  What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur / founder / leader? Please draw out your example in setting up and running Dignity Foundation.

​A) I believe in the following:

Skills related to resource mobilization both physical capital and human capital – money and people.
Skills related to problem solving.
Skills related to financial management.


Q2.  How do you maintain your and your team's daily motivation and inspiration despite obstacles, pushback or setbacks?

​A) I guess, through personal precept; not bowing down to trials and tribulations but facing them as a matter of fact, and keeping a positive bent of mind.​


Q3. As Dignity Foundation gets larger there can be a tendency for the "institution" to dampen the "inspiration".  How do you keep this from happening?

​A) As long as Managers are committed to the goal of senior citizens' wellbeing, this angle alone will pull through other complicating issues of money, people, and conflict situations.​   ​Empathy for human problems​ must take precedence above all others.


Q4. What sacrifices have you had to make to be successful in making Dignity Foundation – what it is today?

​A) I cannot call it sacrifice at all since I believe every "giving" has an element of self-satisfaction.  It is because I want to feel good by giving, I am giving… for my inner satisfaction​.


Q5)  What are you doing daily to ensure your growth and development continues as a leader?  If so how?
​A) At this stage in life one is hardly thinking of growth or one's own development, except, living life as one has wanted. I do read much; ancient history, understanding religion as historical events rather than mythological, film appreciation, are some of my other interests in the knowledge domain.​


Q6)  What are your goals for yourself and the company over the next 3-5 years?
​A) To get a CEO successor to take over from me fully; financial independence for the foundation and ​stability.​


Q7)  What are your hobbies?  What do you do in your non-work time?
​A)  Reading, engaging with dogs at home, ​​watching art films​.


Q8)  If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
​A) Be ready for very hard work; extra hours over and above 9 to5 routine; Deep financial pocket. If these are not there, better to work in someone else's organization.​


Q9)  What is the best way to achieve long-term success?
​A) How illusory life is: I am not at all a person who has achieved it.​ I really would not know.



Recap of the conversation with Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan – Founder of Dignity Foundation (India), which appeared in the month of July 2013.


Educational background: M.A. in Psychiatric Social Work, Madras University. Ph.D. in Sociology, Bombay University.


Professional background: Research experience UGC Fellow, Bombay University. Research Associate in Pune through Indian Institute of Education. Corporate Manager in Macmillan India, Bangalore.  Managing Editor, Head of Publication, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.


International Experience: Specializing in target audience understanding.  Been a USIS International Visitor to study university publishing.  She was a Commonwealth Fellow studying the same in UK.  She has visited Napier Institute of Publishing in Scotland for study and training in academic editing and publishing.  Worked in Simon and Schuster, England, for specialist study in university publishing.


It is the earliest part of the evening.  A passing cloud is indicating an unexpected monsoon shower; duly to reach the point of my destination – Dignity Foundation, I am in a hurry not to be caught in the traffic of Mumbai… and I am already late.  After I have covered the main roads, the ivory yellowing sun in still intact to guide me to a narrow lane where the office of Dignity Foundation is situated on the ground floor.  Curiously, the interior area seems much larger than I would have imagined.  It’s a space trapped between time, rigour and a special character of its own.  Once there, the irresistible calm fervour of Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan kept me enthralled throughout the course of our dialogue.  Where did I read?... the sparkle in a drop of dew is sieved through dawn so all that remains is sparkle.  Sheilu’s calm fervour possesses all the possibilities of these words.


In the year 2000, a reputed Indian newspaper, The Hindu, drew its attention on the notable work Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan is doing with her wishes.  ‘If aging is no longer a dreaded word, if some senior citizens are beginning to think that there is life after retirement, if many of the commonly held myths associated with ageing are exploded, the credit for it goes in no small measure to Sheilu Srinivasan.’


Between 2000 and now, whatever Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan has wished for humanity is sustained and followed through her own organization: Dignity Foundation which she set up in 1995 for the elderly.


Born in Southern India in Madurai, Sheilu from her childhood was drawn to the injustices meted out to the working class; at that time, she was merely a child of 10.  She retains the memories of giving away money to the needy people “stealthily”.  Suffering animals moved her spirit to save them.  While growing, she realized the curses of the caste system prevailing around her.  She was born in a Brahmin family and was aware how the society was structured.  What she observed disturbed her as the whole set up was ridden with curses.  Therefore, a part of the girl in her became a ‘rebel’… a rebel against blind ritualistic customs and the atrocities that came out of them.  In real life, Sheilu became a fighter for social causes.  ‘You are born into a caste and then people are punished for the rest of the life.’  The reality was appalling.


Through her vocational guidance, Sheilu also well understood the root of the diseases at a mental hospital where she worked in Chennai.  I asked Sheilu, ‘Did the environment of working with mental patients effect you emotionally where you might have felt like not going back to help them?’  From Sheilu’s reply, it seems every job, every placement made her take one step closer to her goals.  In fact, by the time she was 22 years of age, the young lady had made up her mind that she would try improving people’s lives… lives of those who were vulnerable.  So her journey found a way out of challenges… challenges standing inside a circle where loneliness, exposure, compulsions of growing old or disabled were entangling individuals with endless suffering.  Sheilu keenly shaped her inner will to heal the infirm, and those who were alone.  Then, by and by, volunteers became her many arms and her driving force; volunteers almost came in droves to take Dignity Foundation’s message to others.


Sheilu shared, “Qualifying in social work grew different antennas in me, where I would be instantly sensitive to suffering.  Obviously, the academic pursuit of social work contributed because that is much more grounded in academic social work”.  Thus, Sheilu’s past years of knowledge and experience became pools of rewarding results.  M.A. in Psychiatric Social Work, Ph.D. in Sociology; 7 years in Research experience, 7 years in Publishing brought her an overall greater versatility.  Of course, towards 1994-1995, she had identified her niche to concentrate on the specific section of elderly citizens of society.  ‘There was no social service, as such, existing for them. Dignity Foundation for services to senior citizens was to bring hope, light, security, cheer for them’, she stated with conviction.


Sheilu recollects.  When phones came from elderly people, Sheilu’s small team would close office at 4 p.m. and attend to those calls of distress.  ‘Loneliness is very serious, that was the conclusion.  So I used the vehicle of the magazine, Dignity Dialogue.  In fact, the same editorial team would pitch in to visit the place from where a call originated’.


As the group progressed, Sheilu made a newer idea work and it really worked!  She swiftly circulated the message to others about the way her team was doing the rounds with her.  She got 128 volunteers in a matter of no time!  With the setting up of small, vital facilities like the HELPLINE, things were gaining a momentum.


In 1987, Sheilu’s husband – Gopal Srinivasan’s work brought the family to Mumbai from Bangalore, on a transfer.  While residing in Mumbai from 1987-1995, Sheilu’s years were equally resourceful; she worked in TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) in the capacity of: Managing Editor, editing a very well-respected magazine: Indian Journal of Social Work.


In 1995, when Sheilu launched the magazine: Dignity Dialogue for the sake of Dignity Foundation, the operation showed quick success as it received greater communication and wider audience for consideration.  Ever since, the readership has increased, thereby, bringing a harvest of advantages.  Dignity Dialogue (Editor – Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan, Executive Editor – Shobha Nair) is a journal for productive living; it is about the best way to ‘remain’ young.  In the April 2013 issue, I see Dr. Lilatai Gokhale smiling on the cover page and saying, “Life at 95 is Mighty Fine!”… and that too with an exclamation mark of full pride!


Additionally, there is much more to grasp from Dignity Dialogue.  The interviews of persons like Dr. Lilatai Gokhale are the regulars in the journal; there are programme-schedules of Dignity Foundation.  Readers write letters to the editors.  There is information on health, tax deductions, yoga and even technology!  Senior citizens send their articles to Dignity Dialogue, and there is always a section on humour, along with welcome announcements of Dignity Companionship Carnival to promote companionship, entertainment and discovery among senior citizenship.


As for the total activities covering the orbit of Dignity Foundation – the activities are vast and many.  Dignity Companionship Volunteers visit homes of the lonely, enhance existing human resources and networking.  For seniors in difficult circumstances, Dignity HELPLINE 61381111 is available.  Social support system is provided for abused elders through counseling, police help, legal help and other problem-solving-techniques.  For seniors looking for alternative living arrangements, Dignity Lifestyle Retirement Township with cottages situated in a 25 acre plot with modern amenities for independent hassle-free-life after 60 – has been developed in Maharashtra.


Dignity Foundation is having the means to assist senior citizens in other ways, too.  Senior Citizens ID cards (Govt. of Maharashtra) – are issued at 25 Dignity centres in Mumbai and 90 Dignity centres in other cities of Maharashtra.  Assistance by the way of legal, financial, tax, consumer grievances, insurance problems, medical reference is given through professional advice.  Moreover, reaching out to seniors in lower income localities, Dignity on Wheels – a mini Foundation travels to all localities to deliver service to them.  For Dementia, Dignity Dementia Care Day Care Centres, and Respite care services exist.  Ration supply for seniors who require support for daily food and nutritional requirements – is being handled by Dignity Foundation.


Is there a stopping point for Dignity Foundation?  No!  The kind of work Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan is doing with her innovative ideas and immense zeal, I don’t think there will be a stopping point for the organization.  Looking at the whole frame: Dignity Dialogue is reaching more and more destinations, connecting Dignity Foundation to a much larger sphere.  Dignity Chai Masti is in many centres in Mumbai.  Monday to Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. with tea, entertainment, learning – there’s a lot happening at Chai Masti!  Plus, Dignity Dialogue’s anniversary is an event by itself – celebrating with celebrity thinkers and performers – the meaning of dignity.  Membership is available with incentives for everyone.


Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan’s work has been recognized for her achievements since many years.  In 1999, she was nominated as one of The Times of India’s “10 Magnificent Lives that Changed quality of life in Mumbai”.  Several times, she has been awarded by Rotary Club of Mumbai.  Indian Merchants Chambers felicitated her among: Winning Women in 2004.  Vayoshreshta Samman for “Economic Leadership” was conferred in 2009.  Moreover Sheilu was nominated by AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), USA as Associate Member of AARP Global Network.  In the year 2011, she became Member, Research Advisory Board – Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, GOI (Government of India).


The evening was drawing to a close with time flying on wings.  Even before the interview, questions were brewing on my mind with a concern.  I asked Sheilu, “How do you heed sticky situations where your volunteers get into the mess of a family dispute or a brawl over your right to see that the senior citizen is not being neglected or abused?  How do you draw the line between the follow up?  Between heartfelt duty and legality, what are the rules to protect you?”  I pictured to myself the sorry scary scene of long drawn spate of law-suits following.  Sheilu replied, “Social work means lots of risk-taking.  When you rescue a prostitute, there’s a lot of danger.  But, you do rescue the women.  It’s the same with my volunteers.  For a true worker, nothing is frightful. 

Therefore, the conviction of the cause you’re working for gives you the strength to face problems, even threatening ones.  Besides, as a registered organization, the license to perform spells our duties and gives us protection by law.”


To any mind with a logical thinking: the only stable state is the one which looks into the rights and needs of every individual – young, old of all genders and creed.  That’s how I am thinking, too.  After meeting up with Sheilu, I understood her excellent contribution towards society; equally, there is no doubt that she has been able to train good people on her staff role.  She was praising the people who are working with her… it seems Dignity Foundation is possessing the heart and mind of vigour and skill.


And how had Sheilu balanced her role as a wife and a mother?  In receiving her spouse’s encouragement in so many ways – Sheilu’s face approached a full smile.  It was more than apparent that Gopal Srinivasan has played an important role in organizing his wife’s favourite dream.  I was thinking: in instance after instance, in the daily business of living, which also includes nurturing marriage – the comradeship between the partners is ever so crucial… it requires sacrifice and knack to achieve the sensitive balance.  The Srinivasans have more than managed it.


Just as I am concluding the interview, I feel it is apt to add a quote about Sheilu by another newspaper.  The Afternoon prints: ‘Being perceived as a ‘Fairy Godmother’, as a ‘friendly and warm firebrand’ to an ‘activist Sociologist’, Sheilu’s high profile personality matches the speed and innovativeness of services initiated by Dignity Foundation’.


And how should I say it in my way is: Lagey raho…Carry on!  Sheilu.  God bless.  I am remembering Sheilu’s words, ‘You need to grow old and not get old’.


Q1. What has been the turning point of your life?
A)    The bold venturing into magazine publishing that has triggered off a slew of services at the request of senior citizen readers!  From 9 to 5 job to have launched into an social entrepreneur is the turning point…


Q2.  If you could go back in time, what would you want to do?
A)   Played lot more badminton at the state and national level, along with working for a social cause.


Q3. What are your future dreams?
A)   To have 35 language editions of Dignity Dialogue magazine and 35 Dignity Lifestyle retirement townships in India – one for each state.


Extended & Enlarged Version of Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan – Founder of Dignity Foundation (India).


Educational background: M.A. in Psychiatric Social Work, Madras University. Ph.D. in Sociology, Bombay University.


Professional background: Research experience UGC Fellow, Bombay University. Research Associate in Pune through Indian Institute of Education. Corporate Manager in Macmillan India, Bangalore.  Managing Editor, Head of Publication, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.


International Experience: Specializing in target audience understanding.  Been a USIS International Visitor to study university publishing.  She was a Commonwealth Fellow studying the same in UK.  She has visited Napier Institute of Publishing in Scotland for study and training in academic editing and publishing.  Worked in Simon and Schuster, England, for specialist study in university publishing.


Q1. In your view, what is most important in life?  Accordingly, name three aspects, important in life.

A)   Understanding your own self:

Be aware of your limitations.
Be calm and collected.
No need to speak much.


Q2.  If you were not doing what you are doing now, what would you be doing?

A)   Become a doctor or psychiatrist and deliver services free of cost to needy persons.


Q3. What motivates you to achieve your goal?

A)   The process of enacting the roles I have chosen.

Running my organization: Dignity Foundation.
Coming up with innovative services for the Old.


Q4.  How do you handle stress and pressure?

A)   By being calm and speaking less.


Q5. Which of your qualities would you want to pass down to your child/children?

A)   I have not been able to pass on desired qualities to my child.

She has become a very different person from whom I thought she will be: a strong woman standing up to rights of womanhood.


Q6. Who is your favourite author?  Which book of your favourite author have you enjoyed the best?

A)   Simone de Bouvoir and her ‘Dutiful Daughter’.


Q7.  What are you pursuing currently, by the way of a light hobby, or by the way of a serious goal?

Light hobby: Net browsing.A)   Serious Goal: To make both my Dignity Trusts financially strong.


Q8.  In the last 1 year, is your particular goal advancing?  Which is that goal/dream?

A)   The goal of finding a successor to my mentorship of two Trusts.

Partially successful. Only time will tell.


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