Goonj’s front-end strategies are underpinned by its strong logistical competency at the backend where tons of material that come in through the day is collected and processed into kits for dispatch across the country.

Today, the cost of delivering a piece of cloth for Goonj is a mere 97 paisa and the effort across 24 states is sustained through a very methodical supply chain that works on the five-D principle of Distribution, Detailing, Direction, Distance and Dignity.

At its processing centre, hidden away in a maze of narrow lanes in Delhi’s Sarita Vihar, is a remarkably well-streamlined logistics and distribution system. About a hundred women from the nearby slums are hard at work here every day of the week, cleaning, washing, repurposing and repackaging the tons of material that Goonj receives through its sophisticated network of collection centres across the country.

Clothes, shoes, books, furniture, utensils, wedding trousseaus, school bags, stationery, office equipment, musical instruments and even antiques arrive in truckloads at such processing hubs not just in Delhi, but also in Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Rishikesh, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kochi. Here these items are carefully coded and sorted so that they can be distributed to communities in kits. A regular “Cloth for Work” kit comprises the staples – shirts, trousers, sarees, sweaters, a toy, a school bag, utensils, underwear and a bunch of sanitary pads manufactured in-house.

But there are kits also designed to meet specific needs such as a “marriage kit” or a “disaster relief kit” or a “school kit”. “People generally give what they have, not what people need,” says Imran Khan, a core member of the Goonj team who has been around for 12 years. “At these processing centres we try and channelise the material by matching it with people’s needs.”

This means paying huge attention to the detailing process which includes considerations of size, shape, culture, geography, religion and several other factors before deciding which kit will go where. For instance, a kit consisting of salwar kurtas will not go to Rajasthan but instead to Punjab. Similarly, shoes with heels will be sent to the plains and not to the hills. Rags and other unusable material will be converted into patchwork quilts.

Oversized clothes (according to Anshu Gupta, the founder, the waist size of the urban male is between 30 and 38 cm while that of the rural male is between 26 and 30 cm) on the other hand will be repurposed to create a diverse range of products such as handbags, cloth folders and decorative knick-knacks that are sold at the distribution centres and retail outlets, generating employment as well as a good ancillary revenue stream for Goonj.

This obsession with the nitty-gritty is what has given the organisation minute insight and wisdom to decide also on the direction of its efforts. Goonj’s volunteers, NGO partners and chapter heads working in the field inform the central office of their requirements on a regular basis. These are mapped and monitored through a strict, diligent process in order to avoid lapses and ensure a culture of transparency. Every few months, its national teams also get together to do a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) and impact analysis to see what is working and what is not, share stories of innovation and cross-fertilise ideas.

The organisation usually only works either on disaster relief or in the far-flung areas of the country where state agencies do not have a presence. Anshu knew from the very beginning that Goonj needed to have a footprint where nobody had trod in order to reach the most underserved regions in the country, and the aim has always been to build connections and conquer the tyranny of distance.

The fifth D binding all of these strands of the complex supply chain is the unwavering commitment to making dignity matter. Anshu strongly believes that charity takes away the dignity of the receiver and that without dignity no development is possible. This in an Indian village is of huge consequence, Goonj has learnt over 20 years. Self-respect matters tremendously here, and traditional charities had denied that to the receiver until Goonj came along and challenged the status quo.

A steadfast adherence to this five-D principle ensures that Goonj makes a sustained impact in the long run. It also keeps a tight check on costs and guarantees zero wastage because all the material is repaired and repurposed for something or the other.

In fact, so fastidious is the organisation about ensuring that maximum value is derived out of waste that even staples are collected and sold as scrap. And it is this avowed emphasis on thrift and deriving value out of everything that informed and enabled another of Goonj’s landmark initiatives, the “Not Just A Piece of Cloth” or “My Pad” drive, which allowed it to diversify into the related domain of menstrual hygiene.

Excerpted with permission from 7 Sutras of Innovation: Stories of Scale-Ups That Are Transforming India, Nikhil Inamdar with Marico Innovation Foundation, Jaico Books.