'Our network somehow saves 3,000 lives every year, but there's so much more to do, as every death due to shortage of blood is easily avoidable.'
Balu Nayar, the founder of Blood Donors India, has had remarkable stints with Yahoo!, IMG India and other top corporates.
Balu tells Prasanna Zore/Rediff.com how the venture he founded in 2008 is helping save lives and giving millions of people the selfless joy of helping total strangers.
"I'm always ambitious and optimistic, as most entrepreneurs will be. But I did not expect our quiet, anonymously-run effort to grow on such a global scale and save so many lives on a continuing basis.
"Today, this is a one-of-a-kind entity on social media -- a large and growing social movement, run virtually by an anonymous leader, with tens of thousands of committed volunteers across demographics and psychographics logging in every day to help strangers and save lives across the country, without any expectation of reward or recognition," says Nayar, an IIT-Kharagpur and IIM-Bangalore alumnus.
"On our network (which is 1.2 million strong now), we face so many situations bordering death, but it's difficult to get hardened to these, especially when it's with the very young," he adds, while sharing heart-warming stories as well as tales of disappointment.
How important is blood donation in India today and how is Blood Donors India contributing to this cause?
India has a shortage of blood that is estimated by WHO to be around 3 million units per annum.
This results in countless silent deaths around the country... and that is when things are normal.
The pandemic has disrupted many aspects of the world around us and the blood donation ecosystem has been specifically hit.
Our blood banks are running dry and even friends and family are hesitant to donate, so the problem has worsened tremendously.
I'd recently got a call for help from a person at Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai; they run Asia's largest blood bank.
The blood donation requests to our network have tripled and while many of our braveheart donors are donating blood to save lives, we are facing an uphill task to meet the increasing demand.
Additionally, we get many requests for plasma from recovered patients of COVID-19 and we've been able to get many such donations done across the country.
We've seen so many cases of heroic efforts by individuals from our network during the lockdown -- for example, of a donor struggling through border checks to move from Delhi to donate at a Gurgaon hospital; of multiple students at a college in Gujarat getting together helping to save a child; and even a few policemen in Mumbai, despite their arduous work schedules, taking the trouble to donate blood for patients at nearby hospitals -- they knew that they were almost the only people out on the road.
Today, more than 12 years after this was started, every single donation still thrills me -- each still feels like a miracle.
We've had requests from famous cricketers and from ministers for their kin; this is a crisis regardless of socioeconomic standing.
Whether it's an industrialist undergoing a liver transplant at Breach Candy Hospital, Mumbai, or a labourer at Sadar Hospital, Hazaribagh, our network has fulfilled blood donations across the country.
In addition to thousands of donations in the metros, we've fulfilled donations in small towns like Tonk, Lakhimpur, Ongole, Bagalkot, Poonch, Satara, Mehsana, Silchar, Anantapur, etc.
We'd really like to get many more volunteers and donors on to our network -- I'd specifically like to target the 88 million college students India has.
College students can be a key driver for our movement's hyper growth -- they've got the idealism of youth, very strong networks and are willing and able to donate blood.
Millennials too tend to be extremely committed and we just need to get more and more on board.
Could you tell us what motivated you to start Blood Donors India?
It started when I was working at Yahoo APAC. I was part of a large team that was working on a deal to acquire Facebook -- that deal didn't happen, as we were about $200 million short.
Those were very early days for Facebook (they had only about 8 million users then) and I was wondering if something quite different from a network of friends had potential.
That led to me thinking about another 'stupid' question -- why would you want to network with friends? Isn't it more logical to try to network with strangers?
My wife and I got talking about creating a network for strangers to help each other -- we're always interested in new concepts.
Money was the easiest currency to use, but has its obvious issues, so I chose blood as the currency to help strangers.
India has a massive problem with blood shortage -- with people even in cities like Pune dying due to lack of blood. And this is simply because only a tiny percentage of our population donates blood.
Blood Donors India was created as a social media initiative and a sociology experiment.
In such a heterogenous country -- with multiple religions, castes, ethnicities, languages and other 'tribal identities' that could theoretically divide -- could people be motivated to help complete strangers?
When we started in 2007, we used to get a couple of requests per week and struggle to fulfil those, having to call up people in a database etc.
Today, we get 50 blood donation requests every day, of which we fulfil 20-22, of which an estimated eight would be absolute life-savers. These numbers may seem small, but each life is precious.
Our network somehow saves 3,000 lives every year, but there's so much more to do, as every death due to shortage of blood is easily avoidable.
How can one become a part of Blood Donors India or help strangers through Blood Donors India?
Just join our network on Twitter at @BloodDonorsIn -- and try to help fulfil the blood donation requests that you see there every day.
Maybe from your neighbourhood, maybe from your colleagues, maybe from your college or other groups -- our volunteers move heaven and earth to somehow ensure donors get to help a person in need, anywhere across India.
What works best is a mix of online and offline effort -- many of our volunteers run offspring networks of their own on WhatsApp, Facebook, etc, where they broadcast our requests to their own groups.
We've got 1.2 million members, but reach many, many more every day.
We would like to know your journey from one to one thousand to 1.2 million members...
It wasn't an easy journey. There were a number of constraints, some of them self-imposed.
I was determined to run the network anonymously, for a number of reasons. Firstly, because I was aware of the Founder's Syndrome, where many causes get subsumed by the identity of the founder.
Secondly, in India, your name immediately flags off the apparent religion, caste, ethnicity and other parameters that could impede the creation of an agnostic network.
Thirdly, anonymity brings peace.
But anonymity makes it very difficult to attract members -- why would they join a movement where they don't even know the leader's name?
Globally there has been no mass movement, digital or otherwise, where the leader is anonymous -- I was determined to see if this could be achieved, for the first time in the world.
At the same time, I was ambitious -- I wanted to create a real mass movement, run digitally.
Working on the creation, modelling and monetisation of the IPL gave me confidence in the unexpected power of design to touch millions of people -- and I wanted to create a movement that was totally organic, without a leader, speeches or anything similar.
I was confident about the hidden power of selflessness -- that the experience of helping a complete stranger, with no return loop of gratitude, would give so much joy to each member that the concept would become viral.
I first started Blood Donors India on another network in 2007, but realised over time that that there were three issues.
People there only wanted to see 'good news', were in a couch potato mode so they were unlikely to move to action and, most importantly, the network was primarily amenable to reaching only more people like me.
Reaching complete strangers is essential when we get requests from Mecheda or Sultanpur.
I didn't know anyone from these places.
So in 2008, after I was done with the IPL, I shifted the network to Twitter. As Twitter tends to be an activist platform, people don't waste a minute before re-tweeting, calling up friends, getting active on other social networks, etc.
And, crucially, a donation request that I put out reaches far and near across the country, to people from varied demographics and socio-economic classes, till it reaches the right person who donates blood, or connects a donor to the patient. So the shift seemed like a good decision, and I was optimistic that we could create a real impact across the country.
But despite Twitter's suitability, it wasn't easy going -- we took 65 months to cross 5,000 members; and my wife and I celebrated!
I meet a number of start-ups, and almost all projects that miraculously show the hockey stick curve after the third year; I've seen that's quite often a chimera.
In our case, leave alone the three year milestone, even after five years I still had only a tiny network. But finally it did happen -- our hockey stick curve kicked in after the eighth year, and we grew 110 times in the next three years, and doubled after that -- and our network of strangers crossed 1 million members.
I never expected this to become, as Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, said to me, 'the most powerful reason for anyone to join Twitter' or the largest 'digital community of kindness in the world', as a philanthropic friend from Silicon Valley remarked.
Twitter's chief media scientist, who was also a professor at MIT, said that our network was the largest many-to-many community on Twitter globally -- Twitter handles are almost all one-to-many.
Ned Segal, the Twitter CFO, had tweeted, 'This continues to be one of the best follows on @twitter to appreciate the art of the possible when your voice can be heard by anyone. Saving lives in India!'
And yes, we've been mentioned in the Mary Meeker Internet Trends Report, 2019, as a prime global example of the growing use of the Internet for humanitarian concerns.
So our social media experiment was a success in getting people to join in and contribute -- but more than that, obviously, is the human impact of 3000 lives saved every year.
I'm always ambitious and optimistic, as most entrepreneurs will be, but I did not expect our quiet effort, run anonymously, to grow to such a global scale, and save so many lives on a continuing basis.
This is today a one-of-a-kind entity on social media -- a large and growing social movement, run virtually by an anonymous leader, with tens of thousands of committed volunteers across demographics and psychographics logging in every day to help strangers and save lives across the country, without any expectation of reward or recognition.
What were the challenges in the first few months and how have these challenges evolved over time for Blood Donors India?
Quite simply, every single request creates a difficult moment -- until it's been fulfilled.
Our network is purely organic and we have no blood bank -- so there's no certainty when faced with any blood donation request and there are no 'easy' requests, whatever be the blood group or the city where the blood is required.
Every single request fulfilled relies on the quick and compassionate efforts of many people.
But we do end up getting past those difficulties -- it happens every day!
There are multiple categories of difficulty here. Sometimes, we get requests asking for a lot of donations in a very short period. This happens because we are typically the last resort for many people. That's extremely difficult, especially if it's not a metro or the blood group is rare.
Recently, we heard of a patient in Pune who had died because he hadn't got blood -- the request hadn't reached our network. That's tragic because we could have helped so easily. And you can imagine the situation in thousands of smaller towns across India.
This is a market place, a free marketplace -- and it's hyperlocal. If blood is needed for a baby in Ariyalur, only someone in Ariyalur can donate. Willing donors anywhere in the country can't just send their blood over -- instead, volunteers around the country will need to find and stimulate someone in Ariyalur to go to the hospital and donate.
We constantly need to find donors -- people who will take a break from work, probably with some inconvenience, travel to the hospital, donate blood and return. We also need volunteers to work at this -- to look at the daily list of blood donation requests and see how they can find a donor in time.
For me, a volunteer is even more valuable than a donor -- there are tens of thousands of volunteers across the country who log on every day and help save lives. This is at the supply side of the marketplace.
On the demand side, in the early days, people who needed blood didn't know of our existence.
It's a problem even today -- more and more patients' families, or people connected to them, need to know that our network can help. Word has spread slowly that, when all hope is lost, this network could miraculously find a donor anywhere in India.
We are still the last resort for many patients' families, and we often don't have more than a few hours to respond.
Some of our volunteers are connected to hospitals -- I know one volunteer in Mumbai who gets to know whenever any patient at a hospital in Indore needs blood.
There have been cases when a person in Delhi heard of a friend's need for blood in Jalandhar and sent the request to us. When we posted it, someone in Jaipur connected to a colleague in Jalandhar who donated blood.
So the supply and demand network zigzags across the country at the speed of thought.
But there are miles to go before we can sleep -- India has a huge problem to solve. But it's possible to solve it.
Today, in these COVID-19 times, we're facing a tremendous challenge as there's an even more intense blood donation shortage.
How has Blood Donors India helped save lives? Could you share some stories of hopes and disappointments?
There are many such stories, across the country -- I could write a book on just those!
- A rare case of young twin boys from Bhind in Madhya Pradesh, both of whom got cancer, and were admitted to AIIMS in Delhi. Their parents didn't know anyone in Delhi, and our network managed to get 20 donors for them -- as is required with many cancer patients.
- A lady in Coimbatore almost due for childbirth -- we got in donors to save the mother and child.
- A retired doctor from Raipur, after I told him that he was too old to donate blood, inspired many others in his circle to donate blood.
- A tiny infant whom we recently saved in Kashmir -- the request for blood was put up by a friend in Mumbai who was called by the patient's family, and the donor was contacted over phone by a volunteer in Delhi.
- A patient of the rare Bombay Blood group, whom we managed to find a donor for, in Kolkata.
- A patient in Tonk was saved by a donor who took a 90-minute bus journey from Jaipur to donate and returned the same day.
- A Tibetan child monk in Bangalore needed multiple donors and that was managed by our network despite torrential rains at that time.
- Somebody's mother in Powai had passed away and he sent a message to us, saying that his mother had regularly needed blood over the last seven years, and that was always met by our network.
- Quite recently, a senior IAS officer, seconded to the BMC, who led from the front in the battle against COVID-19, was fighting for his life at a Mumbai hospital, and we managed to get in plasma donations from recovered COVID-19 patients. He's much better now.
Every time there's a major accident or during natural calamities anywhere in the country, we get calls for help.
There are so many such cases from all around the country, and it's been quite unreal and heartening to see how many people convert the normal good intentions that we all have (most of which lie in hibernation) to actual concrete action.
And blood isn't the primary issue for many, many patients who have serious conditions, and every day, seeing people going through the pain of their loved ones illnesses is not easy.
Once when I walked into a Mumbai hospital to donate platelets for a cancer patient, I was met by a youngish man who strode up to me -- the platelets were for his son. Suddenly as he neared me, his face crumbled and he burst into tears saying, 'My son won't need your blood now.'
On our network, we face so many such situations bordering death, but it's difficult to get hardened to these, especially when it's with the very young -- I found it difficult to hold back tears then.
Does Blood Donors India plan to become a global initiative?
Yes, this isn't publicised, but the blood donation problem is global -- and is responsible for innumerable deaths that are totally avoidable.
All of Africa and South America, most of Asia and even parts of Europe have this problem.
The global shortfall is estimated to be 100 million units per annum -- you can imagine the lives that can be saved if we have similar P2P networks around the world.
The cause is simply socio-cultural -- in many countries, fewer people donate blood to strangers.
While my priority is to really ramp up our India network, there is an intense need to replicate this in countries around the world and save many more lives.
Your message for young Indians in India and abroad...
Just like the IPL has rekindled millions of viewers' interest in a declining sport simply through product design, Blood Donors India too seems to have done that with absolutely no conventional marketing other than a design that somehow works to touch people.
While our base network is on Twitter, many of our volunteers are motivated enough to have their own sub-networks on WhatsApp, FB, etc to spread our message further.
So Blood Donors India has an umbrella structure that seems quite unique across social media to my understanding.
I wondered about their motivation to make this kind of effort daily. It was quite a continuing mystery until an epiphany one day.
I was used to getting thanks, usually from patients' families, but it was when I got quite a few words of gratitude from donors and volunteers and saw a pattern there that I realised something pretty obvious about human nature.
When you give someone an opportunity to convert good intentions to action s/he is happy.
When you give someone an opportunity to help a complete stranger, with no thanks in return, that's giving them an opportunity to be completely selfless, especially in the middle of a normal, busy day. That selflessness gives them a unique, unparalleled joy.
That's when I realised what I call the paradox of selflessness -- being selfless is the best thing you can do for yourself. That's why I was getting so many thanks from donors and volunteers.
Our network is about selflessness converted to quick action even from the comfort of your home, or in the midst of your daily commute, or when you are waiting for someone.
This may be for just a 15 minute slot daily, instead of much more significant commitments in terms of time or career change that a 'selfless life' typically involves, which typically gets postponed.
Many people on our network have told me how time spent on the site makes them feel more resilient, more peaceful and far more capable to deal with life's vicissitudes.
So I'd invite anyone reading this to experience the unique joy (and user-friendliness) of packet-sized selflessness on Blood Donors India.