Does India's social sector need better management?

by Ingrid Srinath | 8 April, 2021

Young people, students especially, often ask me, “What should I study to best prepare for a career in the social sector?” My answer has been, “Pick a course of study that plays to your strengths and aptitude because the social sector needs every skill-set imaginable.” Over almost 23 years in the sector – as a fundraiser, grant-maker, campaigner, researcher, academic, activist and, yes, manager — I’ve had the immense good fortune to work alongside great talents with degrees in engineering, law, finance, marketing, literature, business management, social work, journalism, human resource management, and some of the most effective leaders in the field who have no formal qualifications at all, just the lived experience of inequity and a burning zeal to ensure justice. 

Possibly the best illustration of the need for, and value of, diverse skill sets in the social sector that I’m familiar with might be CRY – Child Rights and You. CRY was founded in 1978 by Rippan Kapur – an airline steward with a BA from Bombay University. He did not come from a wealthy family, did no formal ‘needs assessment’, ‘benchmarking exercise’  or ‘feasibility report’ or even start by seeking philanthropic funding. CRY grew organically from his personal efforts to alleviate the conditions of children in his neighbourhood starting while he was still in school. Through sheer conviction and the ability to persuade people of his sincerity – he was able to garner the expertise and services of some of India’s greatest artists, performers, advertising and business management professionals, chartered accountants and lawyers. The organisation he founded has gone on, over the past 40 years, to raise something like Rs. 1000 crores, helped build almost 500 of India’s best child rights NGOs, influenced policy for children at every level from tiny tribal hamlets to amending the Constitution, pioneered some of the most innovative means of fundraising, helped create the nonprofit ecosystem as we know it today through its investments in capacity building and institution building and won dozens of awards in India and around the world.

People often ask what the secret formula of CRY’s success is. I believe that one of the key ingredients is the diversity of talent that CRY has always welcomed into its fold, its ability to draw on expertise from a very wide range of fields, cross-fertilising ideas and backgrounds to constantly evolve not just its programmes and its fundraising but also its adoption of technology, its early investments in brand-building, and in building capacities – of its own staff, its partners and the sector as a whole. When someone asked Rippan what the best thing they could do for children, he is said to have answered, “The best thing you can do for children is the thing that you do best.” This, I believe, is what allowed him to see every individual and organisation as a potential resource and ally for children. 

So is ‘corporatisation’ the solution to the sector’s many challenges? I often hear that non profits need to be “more business like.” People who leave their corporate careers to cross over to the social sector are treated like self-sacrificing martyrs or saviours of blighted NGOs. Despite relentless reports of corporate malfeasance and catastrophic breakdowns in governance at some of the most respected businesses, the corporate sector is continually held up as a model of efficiency, effectiveness, leadership and innovation to non-profits. If only, we are told, we would adopt ‘corporate best practices’ in strategy, systems, structure, skills, staffing, governance and, increasingly, even style, we might finally break out of the mindsets that keep too many NGOs small, slow and starving. With the CSR mandate operational since 2014, many NGOs across India have scrambled to acquire the board members, staff, metrics, skills and language that will, they hope, unlock their slice of the CSR pie.

Responses in the sector to ‘techno-managerial’ mindsets have, I find, become extremely polarised. There are those who are almost Brahminical in their obsession with maintaining the purity of their mission and respond with knee-jerk repudiation of any person, idea or tool that might have originated in the business world. On the other hand, there are growing numbers at the other extreme who unquestioningly import corporate mindsets and methods even at the cost of diluting their mission and values. Only by doing so, we hear increasingly, will we break out of the shackles that prevent us from achieving scale, sustainability and influence. Not only do these two groups seldom interact, each appears to hold the other in utter disdain.

Another key element, I believe, in CRY’s success was the fact that the organisation culture has been fairly agnostic about these issues. No one worldview dominates the others. I remember long arguments between programme teams and fundraisers on who was the cart and who was the horse. They finally resolved the debate agreeing that they were both horses and India’s children were in the cart. And that unless each bore contributed equally, was equally strong and both worked in close partnership, the cart wasn’t going to make much progress. At a particular juncture, for instance, the Resource Mobilisation team negotiated a two-year period of zero growth in fundraising targets to permit the complete rebuilding of the function. Over the subsequent decade this translated into a 500% growth in revenues. Part of that transformation involved adopting business models like outsourcing, telemarketing, brand franchising and developing enterprise-wide software solutions. The constant negotiation between different skill sets and world-views required institutionalised processes of democratic decision-making, grounded in shared values. And the contestation isn’t limited to frontline teams. The close involvement of finance, human resource, communications and technology teams in owning the mission is every bit as valuable. I recall a well-negotiated legal contract saving the organisation millions of dollars and close collaboration between technology and communications teams resulting in one of the earliest online fundraising platforms in India.

Some domains where I believe the social sector might do well to emulate our business brethren are in being able to set aside competitive differences to lobby in unison for policies that benefit the sector as a whole; or in seeking to simplify and rationalise the regulatory frameworks that keep us unsustainable and vulnerable; or to work together on developing norms and standards that strengthen our collective credibility; or just to make more serious investments in our people, our capabilities and our institutions. Doing these requires a degree of hard-headed pragmatism. I have often quoted the statement that “Non-profit is a tax status, not a business plan.” Non-profits could do well to emulate the ambition and agility that 21st-century businesses demonstrate. 

It is as vital, however, that we recognise the limitations of business thinking and fully appreciate the value of social sector expertise. Take, for instance, the fusion of head and heart that is virtually a prerequisite for decision-making in the social sector. I spoke earlier of the transformation of business processes at CRY. One of the consequences of those choices was the loss of a third of all the jobs across the organisation. Designing that downsizing process to be in sync with CRY’s values of justice, dignity and equity was far from easy. And only possible because of the diverse perspectives and skills in the leadership team.  

The social sector has a lot to teach businesses which are only just beginning to grapple with customers, employees and investors demanding values as much as value and purpose as much as profit. Consider the potential value to businesses of experience in the art of building consensus across diverse stakeholder groups, a skill leader in the social sector practices every day. There are a multitude of lessons that purpose-driven businesses can learn from social sector organisations whose only real asset is public trust and whose entire existence depends on their ability to attract and motivate supporters on budgets that would not cover a day’s marketing expense at a corporate of any reasonable size. This exchange of value based on recognition of each sector’s strengths and weaknesses is what we ought to be aiming for. And to practice it externally we first need to model it within our organisations. We need also to expand our capacity to document, share and learn from both good and bad practice across the sector. The negative narratives about the sector – positioning it as ineffective, inefficient, possibly corrupt and even anti-national need to be urgently countered and balanced by our own narratives of innovation, relevance, expertise and impact.

It should be clear that at least half of the reasons we need the social sector are a consequence of the failure of states and markets. The ability to design and deliver, unfettered by either quarterly market reporting requirements or election cycles is, or should be, a key strength of the social sector. The answers to the challenges of the social sector cannot lie in blindly emulating either government or business. Equally, however, they will not be found by burying our heads in the sand and pretending we have nothing to learn from those sectors and that our only possible stance vis-à-vis them is adversarial.

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As we speak, policies and legislation are being drafted that could fundamentally change civil society space — indeed many constraints have been imposed just in this past year. From the growing curbs on freedom of expression, association, assembly, to laws governing data and privacy and restrictions on foreign funding on the one hand, to the creeping dominance of philanthropy and social enterprise by CSR, new philanthropic instruments like development impact bonds, the proposed social stock exchange and the growing investments in emerging ‘technologies for development’ like artificial intelligence, blockchain, GIS etc. the option to ignore or avoid the technology, finance, marketing, talent management and other ‘management’ disciplines seems foolhardy and short-sighted. If Indian social sector organisations choose not to engage with the practical aspects of these in programme design, fundraising, monitoring and evaluation as well as the policy discourse in each of these domains it will find itself crowded out by private sector and government and partnerships between them that marginalise civil society and those we seek to serve.

Compare, for example, the incredible potential of crowdfunding in a country the size of India. Private companies like TenCent in China have leveraged technology to generate Rs. 2600 crores in donations from 58 million donations on a single day in 2020. On Dec 2, 2020, 35 million people in the USA gave almost USD 2.5 billion or Rs. 18000 crores to nonprofits. Despite increasing by anywhere between 200 and 500 percent during the pandemic all India’s crowdfunding is unlikely to exceed even a few hundred crores over the entire year. This is the lowest cost channel for fundraising. It has virtually no entry barriers and does not require huge upfront investment. Where are the social entrepreneurs who will combine expertise in technology and marketing with deep understanding of the social sector to develop a platform of that scale?

From Signal and Wikipedia to BRAC, it’s been proven that nonprofits can build global organisations that are driven by their mission and rooted in their values to rival their for-profit counterparts in innovation as well as scale. When President Donald Trump tried to impose a ban on Muslims entering the USA, the ACLU and dozens of other nonprofits were able to deploy hundreds of lawyers at airports and in courts across the US to contest the ban. It has taken Indian civil society 5 or 6 months to mount any kind of legal challenge against the FCRA amendments. The legal team at Greenpeace can be fighting 6 or 7 legal battles in various jurisdictions against various opponents around the globe at any given time. They are able to do this because they have built a fundraising and campaigning engine that is not dependent on funding from governments or business. New financial instruments are being fashioned from DIBs to the USD 1 billion bond that the Ford Foundation structured to step up their grant-making during the pandemic without dipping into their endowment. Our failure to bring together the skills and resources necessary to do so makes us dependent on corporate, or corporate driven philanthropy and supplicants at the mercy of our government. 

In the television series Uncommon Ground and the book of the same name, Rohini Nilekani anchored dialogues between renowned individuals from business and civil society. Each dialogue, whether on land or financial inclusion, energy or employment, highlighted the clear and differentiated strengths and weaknesses of the private sector and its social counterpart. In the decade since the programme was telecast, the interdependencies and conflicts between what Rohini calls sarkar, bazaar and samaaj, have become much starker.

If we are indeed to make a dent in the wicked problems and complex issues we confront, we will have to learn from each other, collaborate in ways that are built on mutual respect and clear recognition of each sector’s distinctive value and hold each other accountable. We need enlightened leaders in government, civil society and business to show the way.


About the Author:

Ingrid Srinath is the Director of the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP), Ashoka University. Ingrid has been a passionate advocate for human rights, social justice and civil society for the past 19 years.

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