Finding your sweet spot in the development sector

by Gaurav Shah | 17 April, 2017

Q: What do you do? Where do you work?

Me: I Work in the Development Sector…

Q: Ah…IT?

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Me: No….

Q: Real Estate?

Me: No…(Aarghhhhh!)…I work in the Social Development Sector…(blank look)…Social Sector…(another blank look)…I work in the NGO Sector…(Finally a smile, the ice breaks…phew!)

For a very long time now, the social sector has been ably represented and identified by this all-encompassing term – NGO! It represents not just an organisational form, but the sum of all the work, thought process, culture, mindset and even lifestyle of an entire sector and its people. The Kurta Pyjama (or jeans, dhoti), sandal wearing NGO professional with a jhola / bag on their arm is the first thought which crosses many people’s mind then they hear this word (Given my upbringing in Calcutta, there might be a slight Bengal bias to the imagery!).

However, over the last 5-8 years, the sector has evolved at a rapid pace. While NGO’s still represent an overwhelming majority of the work and people in this space, the sector is now much more diverse in terms of opportunities and thereby more open to accepting and providing exciting opportunities to people from different kinds of backgrounds, with different hopes, aspirations, skillsets and change models. The simplistic answer to the question “How do I work in the Development Sector?” is no longer “Join an NGO”. This question deserves a little more thought and careful analysis to find your sweet spot in this sector. Here I attempt to highlight a particular line of thinking that one could follow while making this decision and a set of questions one should look at answering for the self:

1. How much time you got? Almost everyone I meet wants to help improve people’s lives and contribute in some way or the other. The easiest way to do that is through charity which is also the least involved decision. Using time as a parameter for analysis, one can move from a zero-time contribution model (pure charity), to a small time commitment (Volunteering), to a higher time commitment (Part time) to the highest time commitment (Full time). Your passion for social change combined with your life realities and compulsions will decide which of these options you take up at any point of your life (Some always remain at the charity level while others spend their whole life working full time in this space. Options chosen can also change from life stage to life stage)

2. What issue (s) are you concerned about? There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) which define the development agenda over the next 15 years for the world. Which Goal (s) one chooses to work with will be determined by a combination of an emotional (What tugs your heart? What bothers you the most?) and a cognitive (based on numbers, statistics, world realities, theory of change) decision making process. Given the technical nature of each of these areas, it’s important to get an in depth understanding of some of these areas and combine it with an ability to view things systemically and design holistic change interventions

3. What kind of organisation works for you? e.g. NGO, CSR, Social/Corporate Foundations, Social Enterprises, Support Organisations, Think Tanks etc.

a. NGO: Even NGO’s are not all homogenous, they can be categorized in many different ways - Geography (Local, Regional, National, International), Theme (Education, Health, Livelihood etc.), Strategic Orientation (Rights based, Service Delivery, Advocacy etc.). Each such category represents different kinds of work (working on the ground with communities versus coordinating with a group of implementing NGO’s), requires different nature of talent and has very different compensation levels.

b. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) organisations: With India CSR budgets ranging from Rs. 15-20K Crore, we increasingly need people who understand field level realities and have the ability, mindset to work in a corporate setting with the challenge of managing internal stakeholders

c. Social and Corporate Foundations: Typically, large organisations which either act as a source, funnel of funds or have their own funding and implementation teams, require the ability to identify and work with partner organisations to help deliver on the project mandate and budget.

d. Social Enterprises: Largely For-profit entities with a strong social mission. E.g. Microfinance, Microinsurance, Affordable schools etc. require people who have the ability to balance social and commercial goals.

e. Support Organisations: Includes a range of organisations like social consulting organisations, social Investment bankers, social recruitment platforms / portals etc.

f. Think Tanks: Typically, create and disseminate knowledge - Conduct relevant research, publish papers etc.


4. What kind of work are you really good at? Choosing the kind of work that one wants to do is one of the most important decisions to make. It should typically arise from what you really enjoy doing and where your actual skillsets lie. Some potential work areas are as below:

a. Research & Knowledge creation: If you have an academic bent of mind and enjoy teaching and/or research (Knowledge creation and dissemination), the sector now has lots of opportunities for your skillset. Like any other space, this sector continuously needs to refresh its knowledge base, develop and disseminate new theories and ways of working.

b. Social Work: If you are basically a technical person, enjoy going into the depth of social issues to understand the reasons behind them, love working at the grassroot level with communities to ideate and implement solutions, then training to become a Social Worker with probably a deeper understanding of some of the sub sectors (education, health, etc.) is a great idea for you.

c. Development Management: If you are excited with the idea of building world class social organisations, design, implement, evaluate and monitor large scale social interventions and develop collaborative ecosystems which can together deliver sustainable social change at scale then you should go down the path of Development Leadership and Management. This would include areas of work like Organisation strategy, People Management, Communication and Engagement, Financial Management, Organisation Design & Development, Program Design and Management, CSR Management, Fund Raising, Partnerships & Stakeholder Engagement etc.

d. Consulting, Investment Banking: If you like looking at the broader picture and not getting into actual operational roles (at the ground or the organisation level), if working on a variety of different problems gives you satisfaction (width versus depth), social consulting roles could be for you. Preference for number crunching, developing effective storyline presentations, engaging with donors and investors is your story, then social investment banks might be a good fit.

This is just a thought framework that I have found useful. It is neither exhaustive nor does it seek to depict decision making as a linear chronological step by step model. Decision Making is complex and will happen simultaneously with multiple iterations. However, focusing (without getting paralyzed by) on some of these questions will potentially help you understand yourself, your aspirations your skillsets better and thereby help in making a more informed choice about where you want to work. While part of this thinking can be done individually, supplementing it with a lot of secondary research, this process should involve a lot of discussions and deliberations with people doing work in your area of interest and if possible, actual internship / volunteering stints in particular areas. This will bring real-life realities and flavour to your thinking and give it the depth required to make better and more appropriate decisions.

In a college discussion, a girl once told me that she does not want to give up her Starbucks Coffee by working in this sector! Just wanted to end by saying that the sector has evolved a lot of the last few years and offers tremendously rich opportunities to do meaningful work and live lives of choice and dignity. You don’t need to trade off your coffee (or whatever it may be!) for living a life of meaning and satisfaction anymore!

Happy Hunting…and may you find your sweet spot!

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