A Challenge or an Opportunity

Friday, April 16, 2010

I think it was the TATA Jagriti Yatra that opened my eyes to a new world of challenges and opportunities – a world which is not often talked about and rarely celebrated. Why didn’t I know about the Barefoot College before? Yes, I had heard about Amul, Aravind Eye Care and the Green Revolution. But there were so many other successful people and organizations I hadn’t heard about. Is it because I lived in a closed world or it is because these successful organizations, which have changed the lives of millions, are really never talked about? I later realized it was something else.

With a thousand questions in my mind, I began my summer internship with Samhita, erstwhile Ethos Advisors, in May’09 through a program called Engineers for Social Impact. When I came in, the name ‘Samhita’ was not there and all we had, was a lot of information about the sector, some data in the form of survey results and a lot of ideas. An online survey had been conducted to understand the problems and needs of NGOs. 330 NGOs had responded and there were several interesting results. Fund-raising, human resources, financial management and IT – NGOs mentioned struggling with most functional areas. We followed up the survey with more personal and detailed phone conversations with a smaller group and heard the same problems in more detail.

This is the understanding that I began to develop after conducting the surveys - international agencies such as the UN, World Bank, Ashoka, government departments and businesses contribute to the development of marginalized communities by addressing critical issues. While I admire their much needed efforts, most of these agencies support a small number of social organizations, which are the “chosen” ones. There remain a large number of social organizations, that are committed to creating social change but lack the support system required to sustain their operations and scale their impact.

We had two main choices before us when we started out –

  1. Support a small number of organizations that have the ability to create large scale social change. We would employ the venture philanthropy model and provide significant financial and non financial support
  2. Create an eco-system that would provide thousands of social organizations scale their impact, utilize the power of and strengthen every stakeholder currently existing in the system and make sure that every social organization in this country gets an equal opportunity to raise support and grow.

We chose the latter, not just because it is much more challenging but because we believe that by choosing this option, in the long term, we will be able to make much more difference.

On a personal level, I am not just excited about helping NGOs (or non-profits) but also reaching out to for-profit enterprises who, a lot of people and organizations believe, will define the next generation of successful enterprises and create a paradigm shift in the way businesses run and create value. I think that we will always have/need organizations who lie on various points of the spectrum of the double or triple bottom line. No matter what these organizations do, sustainability will be always a key factor in growth.

The challenge however is to help every organization who exists on this spectrum and we have decided that we will help all but do it one by one and really focus on NGOs to begin with. What’s the reason for that? NGOs was far more in number, they struggle more and their needs are more urgent.

What has made me stay persistent with the idea of Samhita from a very early stage to the present day, is the idea of scale and that if we are successful, we would be able to make a good contribution to the development of India and that too, at a point in history when all eyeballs are stuck on this huge demography.

Coming back to the answer that I found, it was simple. For people who live in the world of jet-lags, NGOs are really not a cool thing to talk about, not to judge anyone here. For those who are struggling for livelihood, they have neither the time nor the privilege to think of anything outside their own day-to-day issues. For everyone else, it’s a race from the latter to the former. Amidst all this, I do see empathy in all these people and our idea is to tap that effectively. Whether one sees this as a challenge or an opportunity is a very subjective question.


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