Along with teaching his son after school, Srikanth Talapadi, CEO of Bengaluru-based software firm Amiti, had taken to tutoring the daughter of the security guard at his apartment complex. So, when the guard told him that he would be moving to another location, Talapadi, 47, was concerned about what would happen to his daughter’s schooling. “He told me she will stop going to school. That got me thinking about how I could help children to learn even when they were not going to school, and how to help those who were going to school to learn better,” says the alumnus of IIM-Bangalore and Rutgers University, US.
The introspection resulted in Chimple, a non-profit that uses artificial intelligence and gamification to help children in the age group of 4 to 8 years learn on their own, using a software that can be loaded on an Android tablet. Chimple became one of the five finalists (and the only Indian team) for the $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE, backed by Elon Musk, among others. It also attracted the attention of Central Square Foundation, founded by investor Ashish Dhawan, which is now funding Talapadi to deploy Chimple in 15 municipality schools with 5,000 children in Mumbai.
Dhawan, founder of PE fund Chrys Capital and a philanthropist who has made grants to over 35 organisations, feels Chimple is an exciting, innovative product. More importantly, he sees it as one of the many changing paradigms in the social sector in India. “It’s no longer about developing a programme and multiplying it but how to iterate and make it better. It’s also about design thinking and how one can use technology to amplify impact, scale and create more standardised solutions,” he says.
As the India Philanthropy Report 2019 by Bain & Co and Dasra, released earlier this year, shows, funding to the social sector has grown 11% in the five years till 2018, with philanthropic funding from individuals alone leaping 21%. As the revenue pool available for nonprofits increases, other priorities are beginning to get attention, even as the quantum of funding remains important. The changing patterns Dhawan mentions are part of this shift, which includes more attention to the development of nonprofits themselves, the need to change perspectives on how impact should be measured to accommodate the sector’s complexities and the importance of having good talent to lead transformation.
Neera Nundy, cofounder of Dasra, an intermediary that works with donors and nonprofits, agrees with Dhawan about the changes taking place. “What’s exciting for India is the innovation that’s happening around young entrepreneurs, how they are leveraging technology and how they are building communities that take more ownership,” she says. Rohini Nilekani, founder-chairperson of water and sanitation foundation Arghyam, says she is seeing more young, urban professionals enter the social sector, with a different approach to problem solving. “These are young, highly educated professionals who are looking to create more engagement to collectively solve a problem,” she says, while cautioning that professionalism in the social sector needs to be accompanied by passion and vision.
Nilekani and Nundy could be talking about the likes of Dost Education, a nonprofit started by UC Berkeley graduates Sindhuja Jeyabal and Sneha Sheth and backed by YCombinator, which develops and delivers audio curriculum via mobile phones to parents in lowincome groups in Indian cities, so that they can help their children. Or, about Reap Benefit, a Bengaluru-based nonprofit which helps build communities of youngsters to solve local issues. “You’re seeing a lot of different kinds of models being tried by these entrepreneurs and that’s accelerating the kind of change we need to see,” says Nundy.
Even as new approaches to old problems are being tried out, the acknowledgement that donors need to help nonprofits develop their own capacity to achieve greater impact is gaining ground, albeit slowly. “There is a change in the narrative globally, some of which is trickling to India. There is a recognition that you can give all the money in the world to programmes, but if the institution isn’t strong enough to absorb it or drive impact, you are not going to get the same benefit,” says Nundy.
Funding the development of organisations in the social sector is a ‘desperate need’, says Anurag Behar, CEO of Azim Premji Foundation, among the largest private philanthropic initiatives in the world, powered by Wipro founder Azim Premji’s commitment of $21 billion. “It needs to happen a lot more. Most funders want every rupee of what they are giving to go towards programmes,” says Behar. While the clamour for more scale and the adoption of professional practices have grown with the increase in corporate funding to the sector, driven by corporate social responsibility rules mandating that companies spend at least 2% of three-year profits on CSR, funding for this lags. “It’s simple. If you were to say any organisation has to run without any systems, managers, without developing the capacity of its own people, how will it happen? And in the same breath, funders will demand that organisations be robust, scalable, stable and have good accounting practices. Where is all this coming from?” asks Behar. The Azim Premji Foundation, in its grant-making, has already kick-started work on this, by helping organisations put in place better processes, systems and even write grant proposals for funding. Though Behar declined to comment on the details, he emphasised that this was a priority for the foundation, precisely because it’s such a key issue in the social sector.
Signalling a growing cognisance of this, Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives and Tata Trusts were among the invitees to a recent roundtable in Mumbai organised by The Bridgespan Group and EdelGive Foundation to discuss the issue of building strong organisations in the nonprofit sector. Others included representatives of global donors like Omidyar Network and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “Essentially, there was recognition that organisation-building is critical. If you don’t invest in it, you are starving an NGO of essential funding. An NGO cannot scale solely through its programmes,” says Pritha Venkatachalam, India partner of Bridgespan.
The 5% cap on overhead spends in the CSR rules is one factor inhibiting investment, apart from the long-held belief among many donors that most of their money must go directly to beneficiaries.
The other big question roiling the sector, related to NGO organisational development, has been that of talent and second-line leadership, or the lack of it, hobbled by lack of adequate remuneration and clear career progression, among others. This is despite a section of executives, who have worked for several years in the corporate sector, moving to the social sector, especially with the increased emphasis on CSR. To help bridge the talent gap, a few nonprofit leadership programmes have come up in the last three years, says Bridgespan’s Venkatachalam.
Among them is the nonprofit India Leaders for Social Sector, which runs a nine-day bootcamp of sorts for senior executives from outside the social sector looking to transition to it. Backed by Bain Capital India chairman Amit Chandra’s ATE Chandra Foundation and Dhawan, the programme was launched in 2017 and has seen 112 senior leaders sign up for it, of whom 32 have made the shift to full-time jobs in the nonprofit sector while 45 have taken up part-time or advisory roles. “When we spoke to the social sector, everyone told us they need more talent, more people who understand technology and processes. And these (executives) are powerful, well-networked senior corporate leaders who, if they get transformed, can really be force multipliers,” says Anu Prasad, who founded ILSS. “I used to hear that two out of three people make the transition to the social sector and then transition back because they couldn’t adjust,” she says. Hence, developing the humility to understand that they don’t quite grasp what’s happening on the ground and learning to listen are crucial parts of the course, she adds. At Rs 1.25 lakh, the programme is not cheap but alumni, mostly senior executives in their mid-40s with experience of 20-25 years, say it was what they were looking for. “It helped me tremendously. You get a bird’s-eye view of the sector, hear from actual practitioners and learn from cohorts. I was reassured that my skills in marketing and branding were relevant to the sector,” says Mohit Beotra, former chief branding officer at Airtel, who has now started a foundation called Air Pollution Action Group.
As the thinking around the importance of getting good talent for the social sector begins to change, conversations around the measurement of impact – a contentious issue — may also be heading in a new direction. “Twenty years ago, a more long-term view would be taken. Then, it became a big thing and civil society organisations were spending half their time reporting impact rather than effecting social change. I think the pendulum is now swinging back,” says Nilekani.
While more individual philanthropists recognise the importance of taking a longerterm view, it might take more time for CSR foundations, which largely adopt yearly horizons, to come around, say experts. “The mindset is to do something that can be counted quickly, although CSR guidelines do not necessitate that. The investment needs to address structural conditions while we are still looking at symptoms,” says Rajesh Tandon, founder of Society for Participatory Research in Asia, which works on research and training in the development sector.
Source: Economic Times