Vilas Dhar is an investor, attorney, and social entrepreneur with a passion for deploying innovative models and disruptive technologies that deliver rich social returns. As a co-founder at Dhar Law, LLP in Boston, Vilas has built a platform for socially conscious legal engagement, while also leveraging nontraditional strategy and private capital and philanthropy to empower non-profits, businesses, and governments.
Vilas is a new, but very active and passionate supporter of EcoLogic. He led a roundtable discussion on “Development Based on Human Rights” at EcoLogic’s 2014 fall benefit dinner. With the Next Mile Project, an experiment in nonprofit collaboration, he co-hosted another event with EcoLogic about the role of community development and conservation in Chiapas, Mexico.
How did you first find out about EcoLogic?
In the way of all such good things, we were introduced by way of a common connection. Prof. Christine Letts at the Hauser Center at Harvard Kennedy School served as an expert lecturer at the Next Mile Project, and Dave Kramer of EcoLogic was previously in her class. Connections were made, and I was very excited to learn about EcoLogic’s excellent work.
Why have you decided to take a year off from practicing law?
My career has gradually evolved towards emphasizing the role of a social conscience in the day to day work that we do. Starting in corporate big law and moving first to building a socially conscious law firm, deploying angel investments in developing world enterprises, and eventually to a large philanthropic experiment with the Next Mile Project, I think my path reflects the passions of many millennials—finding ways to build purpose into our careers and lives—and this year represents the next step.
What would you say are the connections between the Next Mile Project’s work and EcoLogic’s work?
Next Mile Project exists to support incredible social entrepreneurs and nonprofit organizations scale their work through collaboration—both with other organizations and with the private sector. EcoLogic is a model example of a group that is already changing the world around us for the better through partnerships with communities in Central America and Mexico that incorporate environmental education, sustainable processes, and empowerment to conserve resources.
Why do you support EcoLogic?
There are two sides to this coin—the incredible need for services like those offered by EcoLogic in a world facing graver and graver environmental challenges, coupled with the effectiveness I’ve seen in EcoLogic’s particular programs. From the organizations efforts to build nontraditional, customized solutions like redesigned cookstoves or water catchments to their work enabling community dialogue on these topics, they are creating real change.
What do you think are the most exciting things on the horizon for International NGOs like Next Mile and EcoLogic?
There’s a growing focus in the world of philanthropy and private capital to realign the way we give. With tools like venture philanthropy, impact investing, and cause aligned grants, donors are looking at global challenges and successful organizations are stepping forward with end-to-end solutions that require programmatic collaboration between many different organizations. I think this kind of approach creates a much more robust civil sector—encouraging knowledge sharing and accelerated solutions to complex problems. I think groups like EcoLogic play a direct role in that acceleration, sharing their strategies for community-based capacity-building and empowerment and making resource conservation a part of a larger environmental agenda.
What role do you think technology currently plays in International NGO growth?
Technology is an enabler—both of organizational growth and of effective program delivery. The proliferation of mobile and GIS technology has already had a massive impact on the delivery of services such as rural health care. That said, we need to be careful to consider that technology remains just a tool—a tool in the pursuit of grander challenges like preserving human dignity—and in that context, should always be a means rather than an end.
What do you see as the biggest hurdles for small non-profits right now?
I believe we should champion everyone who works at a small nonprofit—they face significant headwinds while working for the greater good, and many are poorly resourced—in money, human capital, and access to networks. We can work together to help nonprofits—at any size, whether startups or engaged organizations like EcoLogic, by coming together to provide both funding and strategic support as volunteers, advisors, and connectors. At the same time, nonprofits can begin to actively seek collaborative opportunities to learn and connect their programs into existing frameworks so they can scale effectively.
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