A conversation with healthcare professional and Soondra Foundation CEO, Gayatri Mathur, who shares a deeper look into healthcare equity in India and how a small non-profit can make a tremendous impact.
Gayatri Mathur is the CEO and Founder of the Soondra Foundation, a Chicago-based non-profit that provides direct cash grants to people in India for healthcare access during medical emergencies. The foundation tackles upfront medical costs and helps prevent a health crisis from becoming a financial catastrophe.
In this interview, we sat down with Gayatri Mathur to learn more about the story behind the Soondra Foundation, the heart of its mission, and what we can do to help.
In addition, Mathur gives us a thoughtful look into the role of research in the non-profit space and highlights key takeaways from a recent GroupSolver® study conducted in partnership with the foundation.
You have been very involved in the healthcare space and have worn many hats. Can you share some more about your experience?
Gayatri Mathur: I am a physical therapist by training, I earned my undergrad degree from the University of Mumbai in India, and then came to get my graduate degree at the University of Iowa. I later earned a Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Mass General. I practiced for a long time–over 3 decades– starting in India, but primarily in the United States, and then also in Australia.
My career has been very interesting because it has been across all different areas within PT, for example, I have been a professor, a researcher, and a clinician. I’ve been fortunate to work at amazing organizations like Northwestern University, the University of Sydney, and Shirley Ryan Ability Lab. This gave me a really wonderful insight into the different kinds of healthcare systems across the world, but also the components within each healthcare system. For example, in the US I was able to see the [medical] education, how research dollars were allocated, and the process for research as well as actual clinical practice in different settings.
What led you to creating the Soondra foundation?
[Physical therapy] was a very unique and fulfilling career for me, but at some point, I felt I had done everything I wanted to do in PT, and I wanted to move on to something different. Naturally, I turned to India because that’s where I am originally from.
I was visiting my mother one year when her maid’s child fell and cracked his skull, and she didn’t have the ability to pay for it right away (because her work is in the informal sector and she doesn’t really have access to a bank), so she had to run around trying to get money in order to get an MRI and help her kid.
…That got me thinking about a problem that is very unique to the Indian situation where when you have a healthcare emergency there is no recourse for somebody who is unbanked, someone who doesn’t have the financial resources like a credit card or savings. The healthcare system in India requires that you pay first, so it doesn’t matter what your income level is, you must pay before treatment.
For the working poor, they sit in an unsweet spot because folks who make two dollars or less per day are given good support by the government, but the folks who make between 3-5 or maybe even 7 dollars don’t receive the same support. These individuals may be able to manage some kind of housing, feed their children, and send them to school, but they really don’t have the ability to save.
So, if you don’t have any savings for a rainy day, and you encounter a rainy day–what are you going to do you do? It’s one thing if you are given a loan when you have access to a bank or have assets, but if you don’t, where are you going to get the money from?
That’s the problem I focused on, that’s the specific situation within healthcare that was my focus, and that’s what I decided to make the mission for the Soondra foundation.
Mathur further explains that the foundation’s focus on emergencies has a twofold impact: 1. getting immediate healthcare access and 2. preventing another financial catastrophe that could perpetuate intergenerational poverty. She also elaborates that the number of workers in India that make between 3-7 dollars a day ranges from about 300-350 million, which is really the majority of the working poor population. The need for healthcare support is profound and urgent, and the Soondra Foundation works to provide help in the most critical moments.
How does the Soondra Foundation collaborate with partner organizations to achieve its mission?
Mathur shares that to quickly reach individuals in a medical emergency, the Soondra Foundation partners with non-profits on the ground who are local experts. When asked about how this is done, she explains:
We utilize their expertise, their networks, and really lift up what they are doing as well. We move the system through them. We don’t have a separate entity in India because we believe we should be working in partnership with organizations that are making the change on the ground, so we don’t helicopter in and say this or the other should be done. It’s really something where we’re asking them what their problems are–in the range of our criteria and our mission–and working with them to solve the problem for their constituents.
That gives us the flexibility to 1. respond to a crisis and 2. reach different kinds of non-profits. We don’t have to only work with doctors and medical charities, we can work with people in education, a women’s shelter, a children’s institution, etc. because every one of them will have separate needs, and we can provide healthcare access for their constituents in their specific situation.
In addition to a united effort to provide immediate healthcare support, the Soondra Foundation works with local non-profits to help improve other avenues of healthcare support and elevate partner programs.
In the next half of the conversation, Mathur shares her experience with the GroupSolver® project that was conducted in partnership with a local NGO.
A new partnership: Survey research on initiatives for early childhood intervention
The Soondra Foundation, along with researchers from the University of Chicago and SUNY Buffalo, recently teamed up with GroupSolver® on a research study for an Indian NGO that specializes in early childhood intervention. The goal of the study was to help the NGO collect feedback and closely evaluate the organization’s programs. Mathur explains:
[The NGO] wanted to figure out what is the most effective and efficient way for them to go into new communities and a. have an impact and b. scale quickly. They wanted to assess (from their past experiences) what they have done, what worked, what didn’t work, and get a general idea of what improvements could be made through the surveys we ran.
Mathur explained that the GroupSolver® study helped the NGO discover major themes and feedback that will accelerate their next level of research. One key takeaway the NGO identified was a need for a more customized curriculum and segmented approach to training based on the distinct needs of segments discovered in the study. Mathur explains:
Our next phase is to talk to individuals within these segments and the system to ask them more in-depth questions that were generated as a result of the surveys. This study was a really quick and interesting way to get some large themes that can now be explored further.
Breaking down research barriers for grassroots non-profits
Gayatri Mathur’s background in research gives her a unique ability to help partner organizations get the ball rolling on impactful research projects. However, she notes that research is not always prevalent in grassroots organizations.
Aside from challenges related to organizational bandwidth, grassroots also face limitations in accessing external grants for research. Mathur explains that research grants tend to prioritize large-scale projects–which grassroots have neither the capacity nor need for. She elaborates:
[Grassroots organizations] don’t need a randomized control trial, they need something that is specific to their problem and context that they can enact and do something about.
There are so many ways of doing that research, but we have to enable partners and small grassroots non-profits to be able to affect change in their environments given their criteria and not look for only the gold standard [in research]. They will never be able to get there because of their size, but that shouldn’t mean that research and evidence-based decisions are completely out of their reach.
So, what GroupSolver® did was really enable us to get to a grassroots level of research, they brought it to us in a way that is actionable, that is very context-specific, and now we can move on to the next stage.
To find out more about GroupSolver®’s research grants, visit our Impact Briefs page.
What can we do to help the Soondra foundation?
Mathur explains that there are so many ways to help the foundation–from fundraising to social media to operations–depending on what your interests are, but she emphasizes that:
Above all, I think the biggest way to help is to just understand how someone here in the US can have a huge impact thousands of miles away by just understanding what the issues are and sitting with that for a moment.
You can do amazing things with just a little bit of money, and it doesn’t even have to be the Soondra foundation–I would like to plug all small grassroots organizations. Pick a cause that really moves you and then run with it in any capacity you can. It can be a small donation, your time, or whatever you are specifically passionate about or good at.
We are always looking for volunteers, we are always looking for people to help us tell our stories better. There’s so much need that if someone wants to make a difference they can just reach out and we’ll figure things out.
If you’re interested in donating or volunteering for the Soondra Foundation you can find more information here.
Thank you to the Soondra Foundation and partners for collaborating on this project and for providing the GroupSolver® team deeper insight into your mission and tremendous work!
Do you have a societal research question you’d like to study? Impact Briefs has your answer! We’ll help you design a study, collect data on the GroupSolver® platform, and share with you access to the platform. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.