Recent newspaper studies have stated that the estimated number of civil society groups has grown exponentially in the last decade. Official estimates put them at about 20 lakh throughout the country, which is roughly 1 NGO or social sector organisation for every 600 people. This means that there is a distinct dedicated army of individuals and groups that have begun to work on a diverse range of issues affecting society today.
The Development Sector, which is an umbrella term under which such organisations fall, is actually very diverse and comprises; international agencies and donors/foundations dedicated to social issues, to research organisations and technical bodies, to grassroots institutions working on implementing specific programs, to advocacy groups presenting their agenda for policy reform and finally to social ventures looking for sustainable business models to drive impact. They are different in terms of scale, region, objectives and the approach taken to resolves issues. But as a sector, especially a sector that requires varied forms of expertise, it presents to freelancers and independent professionals a large and diverse set of opportunities. In fact, over 15% of the projects and assignments posted on Flexing It emanate from the development sector!
But in what capacities can freelancers work with non-profits, social ventures or development organisations? In this short piece we look at the roles/areas where independent professionals can contribute effectively based on the bottlenecks a non-profit organisation often faces.
Sectoral expertise: In many cases, non-profits and development organisations work in areas that have the greatest need and also the largest knowledge gaps, be it in aspects of health, legal aid or education. This means that although the organisation may have the willingness and the local resources to work with, they may not necessarily have the technical expertise to diagnose and effectively solve for the bottlenecks they face. This is where consultants can contribute effectively in areas such as landscaping and diagnosing issues, helping develop relevant strategies for specific sub-sectors and geographies, or providing guidance during program implementation.
Fund-raising: This is an important concern for many organisations in the development sector. Fundraising from donor agencies and also large organisations needs specific skills of presenting the work done, and creating a compelling case for what further work in the field can yield. This may also require experience of liaising with donors and other stakeholders, in addition to sharp thinking. The new 2% CSR norms have also opened up a new stream where quality thinking is required – to help India’s largest companies spend this additional corpus well and in a planned, synergistic manner.
Program management and monitoring: Development grants and programs work on extremely structured timelines, goals and log-frames. This creates the need for experts proficient in structured delivery and those that can manage and organise work within a defined framework. Professionals experienced in managing projects and teams can help make such work more efficient, even if they are working as part-time consultants. If one takes a closer look at defined duration roles offered by development organisations, many of them are for program managers and coordinators for regional and national level initiatives. Assessments, research, monitoring and evaluation is another area where expertise is often needed for short periods to look at the success of pilots or programs at scale.
Communication: Along with fund raising comes the basic need for communications-oriented roles that an organisation looks for freelancers to fill. These roles can be of various types. On one hand, there is a critical need for skilled professionals to increase visibility of the work done, create momentum around an ongoing program, and finally document progress. In addition, the area of bringing marketing and communications knowledge to bear to design content and strategies to change behaviours and practices is another space for impactful interventions.
Technology and innovation: A major trend in the development space over the past few years has been the investments in technology and innovation to solve for the challenges of physical infrastructure, inadequate human resources and distance! Whether it is the creation of digital apps to aid farmers to sell their products in the market, or for communicating with mothers on when the next vaccine for their child is due, a lot of new ideas are being developed and tested. So knowledge of defining a target product profile, supervising development of a proof of concept, planning for the pilot and scale-up are all invaluable skills whether it be a new app, diagnostic or system. In fact, this is another great meeting point for private sector experience and social impact.
A decade ago, a person could either have a corporate career or spend time volunteering with a non-profit cause. But times today permit a career in development, and also allow us the flexibility to toggle between the for-profit and social space more easily and also effectively. The openness of the development space to creative and flexible models also makes it possible to craft an interesting portfolio of work, so create away!