A mission with a “gift of vision” through the eyes of Murali Krishnamurthy

A mission with a "gift of vision" through the eyes of Murali Krishnamurthy, Chairman of Sankara Eye Foundation

Sankara Eye Foundation (SEF) is a US based non-profit organization that supports community eye care activities in India that are managed by Sankara Eye Society (SES) for the past 30 years. SEF was founded in 1998 in California to raise funds for ongoing programs and construction of hospitals in India. SEF has initiated and also drives community eye care activities in India, where 1/5th of world's curable blindness population resides. SEF in partnership with SES successfully runs four hospitals in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and conducts an unparalleled rural outreach eye care program. Its Eye Bank has been recognized as a model Eye Bank by the Government of India. SEF through its fund raising efforts, has increased the average number of annual free eye surgeries from 8,000 to nearly 58,000. Their work was commended by former President of India Dr A.P.J Abdul Kalam, " I have seen good services in hospitals, and I have seen devotions in temples and religious centers, but here in SES, I see service combined with devotion."

Sreeparna Lahiri of Medhajournal met with one of the co-founders and the Chairman of Sankara Eye Foundation (SEF), Shri Murali Krishnamurthy, at SEF's Milpitas, California, USA office. She also met a SEF volunteer Vaishnav who was preparing a booth. This was one of three fund raising booths to be organized over the July 4th, 2008 weekend to spread "Vision 20/20 by the year 2020". An attitude of positive spirit was very evident in the office. Murali mentioned that Swami Vivekanada and his teachings gave him the positive inspiration in life and to take forward and implement this gigantic vision. Shri Murali like a true leader acknowledged all his fellow SEFs volunteers at every opportune moment.


Murali Krishnamurthy has become synonymous with Sankara Eye Foundation, and Sankara Eye Foundation has become synonymous with "the gift of vision". He was asked by MedhaJournal about his and Sankara Eye Foundation's journey since 1998.

Murali gave credit for starting the SEF endeavor to his Uncle, Shri P. Balasubramaniam, who lives in Coimbatore, India. He is an active volunteer at Rotary club and inspired both Murali and his brother to start the SEF effort. Their uncle encouraged them to get involved in philanthropic work and visualized the possible transformation they could bring to several blind people's lives by raising money from the USA. An amount as little as $30 for eye surgery could serve to cure blindness in one poor person in India. Murali's brother visited the eye hospital in Coimbatore that is run by SES and was very impressed. After returning back to the US, Murali and his brother met their neighbor Ahmad Khushnood, a CPA by profession and Pakistani in origin, and three of them started SEF USA effort.

A phenomenal amount of work has been done since 1998, from 8000 free eye surgeries in the initial years, to 58,000 free eye surgeries last year. They are aiming for 100,000 free eye surgeries by the end of this year at the six hospitals run by SES and two hospitals by SEF's partner. He added that the movement of removing poverty by curing blindness in India was started by Dr Ramani and Dr Radha Ramani in 1978 inspired by Shri Sankaracharya, through SES.

Sankara Eye Foundation has a powerful message of "Vision 20/20 by the year 2020", how close is the foundation to this vision? Sri Krishnamurthy was asked how they were planning to achieve this vision.

A substantial amount of progress is made since 1998, from 8000/yr free eye surgeries close to 58,000/yr free eye surgeries last year. There are already 4 hospitals in India – in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Two additional hospitals in Anand (Gujarat), Shimoga (Karnataka) will be opened in October 2008 . And two more hospitals are owned by their partners in the country which will be donated to SES soon. A training center for human resource development for the entire country was built in Bangalore and opened in March 2008.

Initially the vision was to eradicate blindness in India, but now they want to have a tangible measure and concrete goal, which is 40 hospitals and 1 million free eye surgeries by year 2020. To achieve this gigantic goal a master plan is being developed. The Master plan would draw the road map on how to achieve this vision of 20/20 by the year 2020. There is a need to raise several hundred million dollars to build and operate 40 hospitals in the country.

SEF is exploring several options by aiming to build all 40 hospitals by themselves or build 20 hospitals by SEF and 20 hospitals by partnering. They are also looking into building 20 hospitals by themselves, and giving options to the third party adopting Sankara approved process. The SEF has an excellent process in place.

SEF is quite well known for their vision in the Bay area, USA. An executive committee has been formed to scale up within other states in the USA. There is also a need to scale up in India and increase awareness. This can be achieved through a well designed road map and partnering within India. One plan is in place to approach companies such as Infosys and other Indian companies, go to foundations such as Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, and partner with them in eradicating blindness in India. Currently the SEF funding is about 3 million dollars per year. This is proposed to be scaled up to several more million dollars per year.

Through fund raising efforts, SEF, USA has played a significant role in increasing the number of free surgeries eight fold to its current projected annual rate of about 58,000. Sri Krishnamurthy was asked what was the secret to this very successful fund raising efforts?

SEF believes in thinking big! Murali believes in dreaming big and it is not just him but all SEF volunteers share this big vision of eradicating blindness by the year 2020. SEF is an organization where there is no-hierarchy, believes in the empowerment of the volunteers. SEF thinks long-term, for example. even if it is not achieved through one fund-raising event, but they believe in increasing awareness . Even the smallest work for fund raising event is measured up to the big vision of SEF.
Fund-raising is done in a big scale. Since in Bay area SEF is already well known they do events in Bay area only if it is profitable, but if they do an event in Chicago where SEF is still not a household name, the focus is on increasing awareness. During a fund-raising event importance is given to attention to details, customer satisfaction. Jokingly he added that all their fund-raising event is treated like they are from the bride's side in an Indian wedding, welcoming and treating the invitees, donors with utmost humility and care! Hence, their secret to a very successful fund raising efforts.

And how do Sri Krishnamurthy and his team motivate people to believe in their vision?

In the crowded field of so many different causes and non-profits, SEF has made their mark quite powerfully in the Bay Area USA and is slowly moving to other geographical areas. SEF could differentiate themselves because of their big vision, passion and importantly, showing direct results to the donor. The direct impact is very simple to understand, namely, if you donate as less as 30 US dollars, you can save a poor person's eyesight thus improving a person's life dramatically. SEF is very pro-active in informing the donors how their money was utilized through personal letters, newsletters and so on. Informing donors of the impact of their donated money is key to success.

In addition, the organization can boast of no hierarchy, no individual glory, and all believe in the big vision (vision 20/20 by the year 2020). They encourage the development of leaders within the volunteer pool. No idea is considered too small an idea, all ideas are given equal consideration. Every project has a coordinator and each team has a coordinator, the onus is on the project leaders to make their projects successful. The aim is to make their event profitable minus donation money.

Has SEF been funded by any of the major foundations yet or are there any plans of receiving funds from other noted foundations?

Although SEF has been quite successful in fund raising through events and donations all these years, they have finally recognized the importance of foundations, especially when they have to take this vision to the next level and need to raise funds worth millions of dollars. There was some funding received from the Yahoo foundation worth about 35,000+ US dollars. Recently they won another $55,000 from NVIDIA. In order, to take their case to other foundations they are preparing a master plan which will show details of the road map how to make this vision successful, and will be ready by the end of the year. They believe, that it may take some time to achieve large funds through foundations, but plan is in the works!

At a very personal level, how does he balance his personal life and work along with the task of leading this huge organization and this noble vision?

Murali gave his wife, Kala, credit to his active participation in SEF. Kala is actively involved in volunteering, and also manages all the household responsibilities. His participation in the music group "Pallavi" has suffered since his active role in SEF. At one time he performed 4 to 5 times per year, but now he has cut down considerably , to just one show per year. His daughter who is also a very talented singer performs in his music group. He misses out the family time that he would have normally enjoyed, but he tries to involve his family in this big vision, so they can be a family and enjoy it all together. He added that SEF volunteers have become their family! In the beginning days of SEF, prior to the Milpitas office, many meetings were held at his house. His kids benefited from this interactions with the volunteers, who could be their role models. Since he is working full time as a software engineer, Murali saves his vacation time for SEF work. To compensate for this, he and his family have made a ritual of going to Lake Tahoe during year end for skiing and family time. There are also several volunteer outings that they go to as a big family.

After learning about his talent, TMJ requested him to share a small piece of his music with our Medhavis!

It seems that all of SEFs projects are focussed on the South of India. Is there any plan for this effort in other parts of the country, such as Western, Northern, Eastern, or North eastern regions of the country?

Vision 20/20 has seven (7) major states that have to be covered, such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa. All these seven states account for 80% of the eye problem in the country. The aim is to build 2-3 hospitals in each of these states, and then move to build 1 hospital in every major state. Gujarat was the first state outside of South of India where a hospital was built. The journey started in Coimbatore, then moved to Andhra Pradesh with the support of the Telugu association. Karnataka happened due to lot of local supports. In Bangalore prime land was donated to SES that was utilized for hospital and training center. SEF's partner has a hospital in Nasik. When asked if their plan also involved North eastern state, he mentioned that eventually they would like to cover these states as well. Their plan shows that they are working towards betterment of the entire nation's blind population.

What are the different programs that SEF provides? Are the treatments such as state of the art eye surgery free of cost to all patients? How do they make the hospitals sustainable and self reliant if the treatment provided is free of costs?

SEF has many different program's partnering with their Indian partner SES. Sankara Eye Society (SES) is a partner of Sankara Eye Foundation (SEF), USA. SES runs many eye care programs for the needy in India such as: the Sankara Eye Hospitals, Sankara Eye Bank, Gift of Vision (Rural Outreach Program), Gift of Sight in Cambodia, Rainbow, National Institute of Community Opthalmology.

In the beginning all the eye surgeries were free of cost, but with more people in the organization, the question that came up was how can one make these programs and hospitals self sufficient? Currently the programs are running with government subsidies and from donations from SEF. In order to make the hospitals and programs self reliant, SEF has come up with a program in which about 75-80% will be free surgeries/free beds and 20-25% would be paid surgeries/paid beds. With experience, SEF realized that it was essential to have the hospitals in a visible location to attract good doctors and paying patients. All SEF hospitals will attain self sufficiency in 5 years from inauguration. SEF is providing state of the art eye surgeries such as lasik, cataract surgery- suture less Intra Ocular Lens Implantation with Phaco Emulsification, corneal transplant, retina detachment, and so on. They also have top notch Indian eye surgeons at their hospitals.

SEF has one of the largest rural outreach programs in India. How do they manage to coordinate their programs and perform eye surgeries in the rural areas and still maintain hygiene?

Dr Ramani is very clear that the rural out reach program and SES/SEF do not compromise on the hygiene of the hospitals. The Indian govt does not allow mobile hospitals for the sake of hygiene issues, hence the way the rural outreach program works is by sending volunteers to the remote villages and performing physical check ups only. Through these check ups they identify patients who need eye care and surgeries, and these patients are brought to the nearest SES/SEF hospitals. There is a 98+% success rate for the surgeries performed by SES/SEF, which is achieved by having a very efficient follow up program. Poor people are educated about the basic hygiene issues and the volunteers follow up with the patients for at least 12 months after surgery.

Other developing South Asian countries also have a compelling need for improving vision amongst the poor. Is this vision of creating eyesight restricted to India or do they have any programs extending SEF's vision to other poorer countries?

There are no clear goal for SEF right now about projects outside India. He mentioned that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done within India, however they are open to the idea if there are opportunities. SES/SEF's doctors have helped in other countries such as Nepal, Nigeria and Cambodia. Mission for Vision Trust, who are SEF's partners, are also focused in Africa and SEF's own doctors have visited Nigeria to share their expertise and service.

This is the 10 year anniversary of SEF USA. Does he have any special message to share? How can members and readers of Medhajournal help them reach closer to fulfilling their noble vision?

Shri Murali extends his heartfelt gratitude on behalf of SEF to all the donors and volunteers. He says SEF has a long way to go with the big vision. He realizes that there is enormous potential in this country and he requests people to share and join SEF's endeavor of eradicating blindness in India through volunteering services or by donation. He added that it is not just the poor recipients who are benefiting from this vision, SEF's volunteers are also benefiting through this work. It is a way of personal development and benefiting from positive attitude, making unlimited friends. As SEF has come a long way in the last 10 years, he believes that nothing is impossible although the vision is big! He requested members and readers of Medhajournal to spread the message of SEF as there is sincere and good work going on, with minimal paid workers. There are some volunteers who put in 40 hours per week, and also enjoy what they are doing!

If you would like to know more about SEF and perhaps make a donation, please visit SEF's website http://www.giftofvision.org/. There is also an event coming up in August 08, in the Bay Area, California. Learn more about it in iWalk – August 23rd, 2008, Shoreline Park, Mountain View, CA

This interview article is written by Sreeparna Lahiri from MedhaJournal.

Give the Gift of Vision

Sankara Eye Foundation, USA

Vision 20/20 by 2020

At Sankara Eye Foundation, USA (SEF, USA) and our delivery organization Sankara Eye Society, Coimbatore (SES) – our mission is to eradicate curable blindness all over India by the year 2020.

To accomplish our mission of Vision 20/20 by the year 2020 – we intend to build and operate 20 or more state-of-the art Sankara Eye Hospitals all over India – performing ONE MILLION eye surgeries every year delivering free eye-care to the rural poor through outreach programs.

SES performs over 57,000 FREE eye surgeries (up from 8,000 in 1998) and operates one of the largest rural outreach eye-care programs in India, through its 3 eye hospitals in Coimbatore, Krishnan Kovil and Guntur.

We are currently raising over $1.3 Million to complete the construction of Sankara Eye Hospitals (SEH) at Bangalore, Shimoga (Karnataka), and Anand (Gujarat). SEH-Bangalore was inaugurated in March 2008 and SEH-Anand and SEH-Shimoga will be inaugurated in October 2008. Additional one hundred beds are being added to our Guntur (AP) Hospital. Two more Hospitals, one in Silvassa and the other in Pammal near Chennai, are also joining our movement and we hope to perform over one hundred thousand FREE eye surgeries at these eight Hospitals in 2008.

The Sankara Eye Hospital & Training Center at Bangalore is an ambitious project – besides being a state-of-the art eye care hospital – the facility is expected to serve as a training center to train doctors, nurses and administrative personnel to run the planned Sankara Eye Hospitals all over India.

SEF, USA is a testament to how – individuals, corporations and the Indian community can make a difference – when energized by a common mission. Our 200 plus committed volunteers all over the US, through their tireless efforts have enlisted the support of community organizations and companies – to reach out to the Indian community. We are proud that close to 30,000 Indian donors, from all Indian states, have supported our cause.

We at SEF believe – that when the community gets involved – everything becomes possible. Get involved in our mission. Make a difference. Help us eradicate curable blindness all over India. The rural poor in India are counting on you.

Thank you for your support. We truly appreciate your getting involved.

Sankara Eye Foundation, USA



1-866-Sankara (726-5272)


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