“Human capital is the most valuable asset in the social sector.”
I find myself quoting these words by Sal Giambanco of Omidyar Networks quite often these days. Indeed, what can be more powerful and valuable than the passion and commitment of the people who dedicate themselves to the task of social development, justice and equity?
India has around 3.2 million registered non-government organisations (NGOs). According to Central Statistical Organisation of India, there are around four NGOs for every 1,000 people in urban areas and 2.3 NGOs for every 1,000 rural people. In fact, Indians have more per capita NGOs than hospital beds.
They are spread across the length and breadth of the country and their work spans a wide spectrum, from health, education and environment to justice and rights. Due to their wide reach and grassroots engagement, they are often collectively called the ‘third sector.’
Yet, as they go about solving for some of the most complex and challenging problems in the socio-development space--work that even the government is not able to do—I often ask myself if we are doing enough to nurture and equip them to achieve their full potential.
I remember how in my early years at a multinational organisation, I was required to attend a leadership or skill-based training every six or eight weeks: time management, change management, team building, stress management – there was something to learn almost every month. And the company, with its significant training and development budget, was willing to invest in my learning and growth.
Which meant that I became a better, more productive employee, I was a happy employee, and I was a loyal employee. For my employer that would translate into high employee productivity, satisfaction and retention rates.
By contrast, at a majority of NGOs in the country, the focus has thus far been on the program, owing to the constant uncertainty around funding and, when the money does come, the donor’s insistence on all the money going into the programme. The people and the organization, thus, have not always received the attention and investment they deserve – they have, in fact, been often looked upon as expensive ‘overheads’.
One of the results of such underinvestment in people is the ‘leadership development gap’ in the country’s social sector: more than 50 percent of the organizations surveyed by a 2017 Bridgespan report admitted not having received any funding for leadership development in the two years before the survey was conducted.
At a time when the Indian social sector is talking about achieving scale and sustainability, this can pose a serious problem: how can organizations scale their programmes without paying attention to strengthening the foundation, including the people, processes and organisational culture? How will organizations enhance their own capacity to absorb and manage the growing amount of amount of funding coming into the development sector through corporate and individual philanthropy?
Fortunately, mindsets seem to be changing in recent times. Both donors and NGOs are now beginning to acknowledge that in order to be effective, sustainable and scalable, there will need to be more investment in people and in building their capacity to lead and manage organizations, programmes and impact.
There’s also a growing acceptance of the fact that the sector needs more specialized and more diverse skills, especially in areas such as fundraising, HR, strategic communication, data-driven decision making, design thinking, and so on – areas that have traditionally been relegated to the sidelines because of the emphasis on the program.
Clearly, there is a need for robust professional development initiatives aimed at non-profit leaders and practitioners. The challenge now is to make sure that we create enough learning opportunities for the sector and ensure that these are accessible to all organizations, big and small. It’s time to pay attention to the biggest asset in the social sector.