Closing Keynote | Strategic Non-Profit Management India | 2019

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s closing keynote address delivered to the 2019 class of the Strategic Non-Profit Management – India offered developed in conjunction with the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative and offered in association with the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy at Ashoka University.

I think we are at a fairly critical time. People often refer to the social sector as the third sector, but I would argue that it actually has to be the first sector. In the continuum of Samaaj (society), Bazaar (the marketplace), and Sarkaar (the state), Samaaj must come first. Bazaar and Sarkaar were created to serve Samaaj. Samaaj includes all of us, and it created the Bazaar to serve its economic interests, and the Sarkaar to serve equality to all people, on a large scale. 

But what has happened over the centuries, especially the last century, is that the state and the market have acquired tremendous power. Technological advancement has enabled the accumulation of that power in ways completely unimaginable even a few years ago. It is crucial that we understand the implications of the accumulation of power by the state and markets. In our hearts, we are citizens first. We are not consumers first, though sometimes a couple of companies would like us to forget that nowadays. And we are not subjects first, though a few governments might like us to forget that too. We are citizens first, we are human society members first, and we create institutions of social organization that are supposed to increase the well-being of Samaaj, but also hold the Bazaar and Sarkaar accountable. 

Balancing the Scales 

Both Bazaar and Sarkaar have grown extremely successful at driving scale, especially over the last few years. The market will always chase profits, acquire more customers, and accumulate power. Similarly, when the state achieves scale, it accumulates a lot of power for its continuing legitimacy. Both these forms of accumulation of power can create tremendous public good. Markets improve our lives in amazing ways every single day. The state enables the distribution of public services in a way that a sole individual could not possibly achieve.

So, what I’m talking about is more of a checks and balances mechanism that we need in the social sector, to hold these powers accountable to society. I think today, civil society has an especially critical role in holding the state to increase equity, along with efficiency, and holding the markets to reduce negative externalities to society. And it’s a very interesting time to do this because both the state and the market have also recognised that they cannot do anything on their own. Human problems are so interconnected today, especially driven by things like climate change, that the state and the market are quite open to the intervention of civil society in many areas. 

While at the same time, there are other global threats as well. The three freedoms of democracy – the right to speak freely, the right to associate freely, and the right to practice one’s own beliefs, come with duties which we do not talk about enough. People must have the right to speak freely, but without deliberately hurting others; the right to form associations without turning into mobs; and the right to practice one’s beliefs, without preventing others from practicing theirs. So there are duties and rights, but these freedoms are increasingly coming under various kinds of shadows. 

Never has it been more important for all of us in the social sector to play that balancing role. While the state and markets have been remarkably successful at achieving scale, it always remains a question whether the social sector can do that. I wonder if being unable to scale is a failure of imagination on our part. Mahatma Gandhi did not just try to improve the lives of people in Porbandar District. He did not just try to improve the lot of all of the citizens of India. He was trying to transform humanity at its core. His imagination was that big and nothing would come in the way. The trade-offs were not going to be that we would get independence by sacrificing our humanity. That was the scale of the imagination of his work. 

There are so many other examples. Take someone like Vinoba Bhave. He was not trying to rescue land from just one district. He was talking about the redistribution of land, a very primary source of inequity in this country, across the nation. Jayaprakash Narayan’s Sampoorna Kranti was not only about one class or one identity group replacing the other. It was an imagination at a much loftier level. And that’s how they achieved scale, because the scale of their imaginations and their intent was powerful and very clear in their minds. Have we, perhaps, in the first sector lost a bit of that zeal for imagination? Sometimes I wonder about that. We belong to the tribe of Gandhiji, Vinoba Bhave, and Jayaprakash Narayan, and we need to look to the state and markets to understand how we can achieve scale in this sector as well. 

The Need for Societal Platform Thinking 

The motivation for scale is different in all three sectors. In the social sector, our goal is to improve human dignity, to create better access to goods and services, to restore agency, to increase creativity, and much more. Essentially, it is to give Izzat, Insaaf, and Imandari (respect, justice, and truth) to people. That is our real job, no matter which sector you work in. So when we want to scale, can we think of scale the same way that the Sarkaar or Bazaar does? I don’t think so. 

Over the last 30 years, Nandan and I have been working in very different fields. Nandan has been a successful entrepreneur with Infosys, while doing philanthropic work. I have been working within the social sector for the last two and a half decades, helping individuals, institutions, and ideas spread and grow. Through our work, the goal was to create more public goods in the public sphere, but we have also failed a lot in our work in the social sector. I’ve learnt that it’s far easier to become a unicorn in the market or to become a successful state, than it is to create real, lasting social change. I meet many billionaire philanthropists around the world and they express this very humbly after first thinking “If I can create a great business, why can’t I create a great social sector organization?” But when they actually try it, they find just how hard it is to create scale in the social sector. And that’s because we have to understand why scale is very different in this sector. 

Since 2015, Nandan and I have been working together on EkStep, with the goal that we will reach the 200 million children in this country with increased access to learning opportunities. What keeps us together is that we have different but hopefully complementary skills and we have brought those skills together with the pursuit of this goal. We have learned a lot from each other and so we have developed something called Societal Platform Thinking. We have to be careful when we are trying to solve complex, interdependent societal problems. Our methods have to be based on certain morally undeniable principles and philosophies. We have arrived at five of these basic principles, to help us and others get started. 

 The first thing we have learned is that a single solution will not work, no matter how great it is. If our aim is to solve the problem at the root cause, and scale, we have to design to distribute the ability to solve. We need to trust people and their ability to be part of the solution implicitly. Everyone can learn, everyone can solve, and everyone can be part of the solution. It is a question of design: where people need to see clearly, and where they need to be trusted to get involved in coming up with solutions. So, we have to also distribute the ability to see to solve, and we’ve come up with more detailed architecture about how to do that. That was the first big thing. 

 A second thing that we have learnt over time is that resources like talent, people, and money are hard to come by. When trying to scale, in terms of public good, a lot is hard to come by. So, we began to think through this, and we found that if you unpack complex social problems, you often find a core that is common. When you look at the common core, you realize that there are ways to make those scarce resources plentiful. Because sometimes there is abundance under your nose, it just exists in different forms. For example, if we think about education, it is very difficult to find professional, competent teachers. It’s very hard to train great teachers. But if we look at the system, there are parents, and teachers in abundance. So, that’s a simple example of how you can find abundance and make scarce resource un-scarce. We need to keep this in mind when we design for scale.

 The third learning that is very dear to my heart, is that if we want to scale in a country like India, you need to address the diversity of context. Most of the problems that require scale are contextual. The solution that might work in one place may not work 100 kilometers down the road or it needs a little extra spices to be added into the mix to really work well – whether it’s food or social solutions. There is a lot of diversity, and pushing something will not work. So how do you design to scale up diversity? How will your solutions and your framing work to reflect diversity at scale? For that, in your design, you have to create a unified but not uniform intervention, design, infrastructure, and framework. Unified because we all have to achieve the same goal.

And for that, of course, you need good feedback. You need a digital tech backbone to distribute the ability to solve because you need multidirectional feedback loops. You need data coming in, not just being sucked up at one end, but moving around all the streams so that people can use the data well, in whatever form and when they need it. So you do need technology. But we have learnt that you have to be technology-enabled. If you are technology-led, you tend to make a lot of mistakes about outcome-thinking, because technology-led solutions can give you a false sense of success. You can just rack up the numbers, rack up some data points, but you may not actually get the social outcome that you want. This is important to keep in mind, because people today can get carried away thinking that technology is the solution. 

These are some of the building blocks we are using at EkStep to design and reach those 200 million people. Because of this kind of thinking, we are working with the state, civil society, and the markets to move the needle to reach those kids. And so, in the social sector, when we think of scale, not everybody needs to do 200 million, right? Obviously we can’t, if all of us are trying to chase billion and two billion numbers, it will be crazy. We need many people to be doing small things well, as well. We need social innovation labs that can take some of these ideas, because failure is very important.  

Taking Risks and Embracing Failure 

We all fail, but what is important is that we do not grow afraid of failure. I think a lot about Gandhiji, and how one of the reasons he went to South Africa was because he had failed as a lawyer. Imagine, that failure launched a transformational epoch for humanity. So we will all fail, but it’s how we deal with failure that’s going to be important. And so many of these social innovation labs allow for the pull and push of failing, getting up, failing again, and succeeding. It’s not that every organization needs to scale, but some of our ideas need to scale. 

In this sector, it is very hard for us to acknowledge failure. Philanthropists are extremely risk-averse. Usually philanthropists are very successful in business, and they have taken huge risks to get there. But when they move to the social sector, they forget how to take risks. Since they are now dealing with people’s lives and futures and common public goods, they want every venture to succeed. Businesses are allowed to fail. In fact, failure in Silicon Valley is celebrated. But in the social sector, if you fail, you might adversely affect a thousand people’s lives because of your mistake. As social sector organizations, it is very hard to tell your donors that you have failed, while needing more money from them. It’s very hard to do that. So then everybody stumbles by trying to prove just how successful they are. 

It is time that we create spaces and platforms where donors, foundations, and members of civil society organizations come together and destigmatize this notion of failure. The question we should now ask is, how do we deal with failure so that we can keep innovating? When we think about scale, failure is inevitable and necessary because without it there is no innovation, and without innovation, there is no solution for scale. The fear of failure may also lead to fear of scaling, and I think we are stuck somewhere within that fear. And there is not enough celebration of the failure that leads to other successes, like Gandhi’s first failure as a lawyer. We need to strive for platforms where donors and civil society organizations can meet in a safe space to talk about these problems.  

Another thing I want to touch upon is how to think about scale in this digital age. Although we live in a digital age, civil society in India has a lot of catching up to do. Some of my civil society friends are downright technophobic, and they assume all technology is bad. This is a huge challenge for us as a country of people who are not digital natives but need to advance a younger population who are. We cannot afford to stay the way we are, we cannot stay outside the gates, because the accumulation of power is also happening digitally. Unless we understand how to work efficiently in a digital age, and through digital means, we will not have the internal resources and external tool kits to hold sarkaar and bazaar accountable. So, kicking and screaming, the Indian civil sector needs to come into the digital age, which means the donor community needs to support this as well.

At the heart of it all, we still want to restore dignity and agency to people. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Look to the stars, but keep your feet on the ground”, and I think that is what we should keep in mind when we think about scaling our work, especially in the philanthropy sector.

How Samaaj Impacts the way in Which Sarkaar and Bazaar Work

This is an edited version of a talk Rohini Nilekani gave at the offices of the eGovernments Foundation on how samaaj impacts the way in which sarkaar and bazaar work, and the role of samaaj in eGov’s mission.

The Continuum of Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar

Since the past 25 years, I’ve been deeply involved in the civil society sector of India, which is very thriving and diverse. From listening to people, especially at the grassroots level, reading a lot, talking to people, and observing what’s happening around us from the lens of Indian society, I have tried to create a certain philosophy for myself through which I can do my work and see the world. 

So, the theory is fairly simple – that there is a continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar. But we must understand that Samaaj is the foundation, Samaaj is the pillar, Samaaj is the first sector, not the third sector, as people sometimes call it. And over centuries, Sarkaar and Bazaar developed in the service of the Samaaj. The Bazaar and Sarkaar evolved as responses to the needs of diverse societies.

We are citizens first, not consumers or subjects of states and kingdoms. The Bazaar and the Sarkaar are set up and are expected to be accountable to the larger needs of Samaaj. So this is the starting point of all my philanthropic work which embeds itself in Samaaj and actors of Samaaj. eGovernments Foundation (eGov) is a Samaaj actor that is working with the Sarkaar and the Bazaar. 

Over time, this dynamic between Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar obviously keeps evolving and shifting, and there have been many tugs. At the heart of everything is always power and power structures. So depending on how power structures are playing out, the fluidity, roles, responsibilities, and strength of these three sectors can keep changing. For example, my lessons from the last century is that both Bazaar and Sarkaar became very powerful and extremely oppressive in many parts of the world. With examples like Mao and Stalin, we have seen how the state began to get very powerful and took over people’s lives, oppressing the Samaaj they should be serving. Post-World War II, as reconstruction was taking place all over the world, capitalism began to advance and make substantial inroads, to the point of even dismantling the Soviet Empire. The markets began to gain an increasing amount of power, which we can see even today. Back then, they called it the military-industrial complex, but the fact is that the market had acquired a lot of power even on the consumer side, affecting the Samaaj. Today we know what is being discussed –  how a clutch of transnational corporations, tech companies who represent the market, have pretty much decided how we should think.

An Age of Extremes

The pendulum has swung too far that in many cases during the last century, we have observed the market and the state colluding. When that happens, Samaaj must remain happy with crumbs. So this is really dangerous for Samaaj. And remember, Samaaj is not one homogenous unit. By Samaaj, I mean all the identities. Social identities that we hold, the human identities that we hold, the groupings that we hold, the institutions of society that exist – that’s what I mean by Samaaj.

But today, we are finding that individuals in the Samaaj sector are really subject to enormous forces of the state and the Bazaar. In 25 years, with the Internet and the mobile phone revolution, we saw individual liberties being stretched so far as well. Anybody can do anything they want from anywhere, at any time, and that includes the ability to spew hate and encourage violence, without any accountability. So from Samaaj side there are issues as well.

On the Samaaj side, we have begun to see a response to this kind of accumulation of power, which strangely enough gave individual liberty one last run in these last 25 years. I feel that we are in the middle of a huge societal correction, where we will see some new societal norms being formed around this notion of individual liberty, market power, and state authoritarianism in a digital age. I don’t know where this will lead, but I can see the corrections happening, they look like upheavals right now. Recent advances in technology have led to the fear of the capture of our days, and our hearts, and our minds by the power of the Bazaar through technology and the surveillance state.

Now, while all of this is going on, a lot of other things are happening that are very positive as well. I really don’t believe in black and whites unless I’m fighting with my husband, in which case I always do. But otherwise, a lot of very interesting things are happening in the Samaaj sector in response to this accumulation of power. Because when power accumulates, there’s always a responsive force that tries to pull it back and maintain a dynamic balance. And so you’re seeing the emergence of many civil society actors around the globe who are responding to this accumulation of power by the state and the market. And that is the interesting space in which I work.

Seeing Like a State

This brings me to the reason why this understanding is so crucial when thinking about organizations like eGovernments. I think eGov has done a fantastic job of working on the supply side for urban areas, which was so broken and almost non-existent before. The pioneering teams here did a successful job of coming from good intentions, and were able to gain the trust of the state at all its levels.

eGov was able to understand the political economy and work with the state’s institutions, bureaucrats, administrators, and officials to ensure more transparency, efficiency and accountability. But this was done from inside, behind the walls of the state. In James Scott’s book, Seeing Like a State, he talks about how the state needs to look after equity, since the market is naturally interested in profit. The main responsibility for maintaining equity on behalf of the Samaaj, falls to the state. However, while the state is mandated with the idea of equity, it often is more comfortable with efficiency. This is because efficiency is easy to measure, it is easy to design for, and it is a placeholder for equity. You feel like you’re moving somewhere good when you try to put efficient systems in place. So that’s what James Scott calls “seeing like a state.”

Here, the state looks to organize citizens and issues in a way that is efficient and convenient to deal with. So, you try to create visibility for the state, and not so much for the people. Scott describes many experiments, including Le Corbusier’s work, the collectivization of the farms in China, and similar land experiments in the Soviet Union. He talks about the redesign of agricultural places like Tanzania and scientific forestry in Germany as examples of actions that were designed to create efficiency for the state, but did not always translate into public benefit. Even with the best of intentions, the way the state sees us is very different from how we would like the state to see us. So when eGov is sitting on this side, we have to always keep in mind the original intention of eGov is to genuinely make the state more accountable to the public good in the best way it can. So no matter what all we do from the supply side, if we don’t hold this as a principal value of the design of whatever supply-side work we do, you may end up with unintended consequences.

For example, the Grievance Redressal mechanism, even if it’s designed efficiently, unless it actually works on the ground for citizens, it cannot be called a success. It may function beautifully from the state’s point of view, and it makes bureaucrats work more efficiently, since they can process 1,000 complaints at a time instead of just one. So while it brings efficiency, it may not bring equity, it may not bring well-being on the other side. This is why the lens of the Samaaj is crucial for eGov because you have come very far with bringing supply-side to some point where it understands its accountability, it understands the need for transparency, it understands how technology can transform the needs of the citizen.

So, now we need to identify the actors within Samaaj who can work with eGov to make sure that all the amazing groundwork they’ve been doing for 16 years gets translated into real public good. This might mean going back to the drawing board, to rethink the designs of some systems that are already in place. From the citizen’s side, what are the challenges for them and how can we redesign to their benefit. When we want efficiency, standardizing systems is the most convenient thing to do, but in reality these need to serve a diverse group of people. And if we’re trying to look at Societal Platform Thinking, where the goal is to address complex societal problems, one of the principles of this is to hold on to and cater to that diversity. This applies to the context of eGov as well. Diversity is at the heart of resilience, so if we want to respect and understand the importance of diversity, especially in a place like India, then we have to be willing to design for that diversity at scale.

Diversity At Scale

When we think of designing for diversity at scale, the challenge is figuring out how to standardize change. Cookie cutter standard mechanisms will kill diversity, but if you believe in diversity as a fundamental principle of good design, then you have to design for diversity at scale. Within the Grievance Redressal mechanism, for instance, the diversity of language has been taken care of, but there may be other contextual, cultural things which we might need to redesign for, to make it effective for both state and citizen.

This is what we’ve tried to do at Pratham Books, where we decided it was time an Indian publisher was able to distribute and democratize the joy of reading. We kept this principle of diversity at scale, to unlock the potential of ordinary people who created a whole reading movement for the children of this country. There are 250 million children in India, the total population of many other countries. So how do we unlock the potential of parents, teachers, writers, illustrators, translators, editors, and storytellers, in order to make a movement of people? We did this by creating an open platform, a Creative Commons platform, which allowed everybody to participate, putting a book or a story in every child’s hand.

Since I have left, the next team has done even better. Sometimes you have to leave so that the next creativity can come into an institution. And the next platform, called StoryWeaver, allows anybody, anywhere in the world to write and publish a story, to translate somebody else’s story, and to illustrate somebody else’s story. Of course, the original has to be acknowledged. You can print other people’s stories, you can sell other people’s stories, because once you take greed off the table, once you take certain power ideas off the table, you can unleash public good and creativity. So, tens of millions of children around the world have benefited by unleashing the imaginations of writers, artists, mothers, fathers, and teachers. But all of this comes from the philosophy that the Samaaj must form the base, and the Sarkaar and Bazaar should not oppress them. Instead, they should unleash the potential of Samaaj.

When we think about organizations like eGov, the time has come to shift to the Samaaj side and look at eGov’s work from that lens. We need to strive to not see like a state, but see like a citizen.

Samaaj and Bazaar: Congruence over Divergence

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s keynote talk on Samaaj and Bazaar: Congruence over Divergence at Dasra Philanthropy Week 2019 in Mumbai. We often set up Civil Society (Samaaj) and Markets (Bazaar) as opposing binaries. In this talk, Rohini proposes that they have more in common and more to gain, collectively, in collaborating to uphold the Rule of Law.

We’ve all come a long way in the philanthropy sector in India. Apart from the older, very well-known philanthropists, we are seeing the arrival of so many new and committed philanthropists to the sector getting engaged. And yet as we look around, we see that no matter which sector we are engaged in – as civil society institutions, corporate CSR agencies, or as philanthropists – the problem seems to rush ahead faster than our approach, our solution, and we don’t seem to quite get there. 

Even today, after so many people and civil society organizations working in the area of education and most of the philanthropic capital having gone to the education sector, if you look at this year’s ASER report, it feels like we might have failed our children. Even now, so many of them cannot do division and multiplication in class five. Where are they going to land later, we know that.

So it’s very important for us to understand why we have not achieved as much as we would like to, though we have done so much. And I really believe in the power of intent. So I do think that we are going to do better, but societal problems are very complex and none of us individually or even as sectors (like philanthropists, civil society, markets, or the state) can achieve those things on our own. 

It really requires the whole continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar – civil society, markets, and the state – to work together with reduced friction to actually solve complex societal issues. Which is why we come to collaboration, which is absolutely essential as we need to account for the role of different actors in these sectors, the varied skill sets, and the different context from which to come at a problem from multiple angles. 

Luckily, there is a lot more opportunity today to be on collaborative platforms such as Dasra, Co-Impact, the India Philanthropy Initiative, and others. Some of us also got together to look at an area like independent media, and have set up a collaborative giving platform called IPSFM [the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation]. A very new and exciting area that we’re looking at in collaboration is climate change. Led by the Tata Trust, some of us have founded The India Climate Collaborative. It has fairly ambitious goals to spur the ecosystem around working on climate change. So there’s a tremendous opportunity right now to think of collaboration.

In our work over the last four years, my husband Nandan and I have begun to see how we can create a framework around collaboration. We are calling it Societal Platform Thinking. But I acknowledge that collaboration is easier to talk about than to actually do. There’s a lot of friction to collaborate, and maybe two reasons that we cannot achieve the outcomes that would come only through collaboration is that we are not able to really embrace risk and that we don’t know perhaps how to trust, how to let go, how to get out of our comfort zones and do things that we know might fail. So, embracing risk is a lot about failure and the ability to trust. When I say trust, it means that if you are a philanthropist, you have to be able to trust your grantee partners. That means you give them enough flexibility to change what they’re doing based on context and not asking them to give ridiculous amounts of reporting, just so that you feel you are doing all right as a philanthropist.

You have to be able to lead with trust. Through my 30 year journey in this space, I’ve found that once you start off with a relationship of trust, magic happens. Of course, there are some caveats to whom you work with. You should be able to work with trustworthy partners. But I just wanted to highlight that trust is key if you want to achieve social outcomes. By embracing risk and allowing ourselves to trust, we open up our minds and spaces for us to act in. We have to be prepared when we embrace risk, of course, to embrace failure. And once you say, “I’m willing to fail”, it allows you to go where you have not gone before with much more confidence.

So today, for example, as our economy is growing and as our government is able to do much more social spending, there’s a lot of attention being paid to how we can implement government programs better. Certainly CSR has become better at doing that over the last few years. There are many civil society organizations that have helped the government achieve its own mandate at the implementation level. But there are so many areas of society that don’t get looked at enough, where the government is not necessarily doing enough, and where we as philanthropists and civil society organizations need to do much more. Look at issues like mental health, disability, access to justice, environment, and livelihoods. If we were to embrace the risk and not fear failure, we would go into those areas as philanthropists and as new CSO organizations and innovate solutions that could get us out of the usual rot of our societal problems.

Sometimes, I wonder if we are suffering from a lack of imagination. When Vinoba Bhave started ‘Bhoodan’ and Mahatma Gandhi started the ‘Salt Satyagraha’, they were thinking at a universal human level of change. Now when we talk about one district or even 10 districts at a time, that is not enough. At least some of us should be able to say that we will go beyond just doing incremental things and look at achieving a population scale. There is a method to achieving that, and here, intent is not enough. We will need collaborative frameworks that are designed for scale.  

I want to talk a bit more about failure. Failure can lead to a lot of very interesting stuff. Certainly in 30 years, we have failed repeatedly in the work that I do. And in an article I recently wrote, I was thinking of how Gandhi actually failed as a lawyer. He just couldn’t get his practice together, and then he embraced risk and set off in a boat to South Africa. And look what that one failure led to – the transformation of humanity. So we should not be afraid to fail, but then immediately thereafter, to embrace risk and set out to sail to shores yet unseen.

I feel there are three lessons from all the failures that I was able to embrace in 30 years of working in the social sector. The first lesson is from when we started Nagarik for safer roads in 1992. We didn’t understand the root cause of why our roads are not safer. And when you don’t go deep enough to analyze an abstract problem you’re working on, you tend to just work on bandaged solutions. Due to this, the whole thing collapsed under its own weight. The second lesson I understood when I worked at Akshara Foundation, Pratham Books, Arghyam and now EkStep. It’s that you need to clearly demarcate the role of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar and not confuse it. Allow Samaaj to do what it does best, allow Sarkaar to do what it does best, and encourage Bazaar to do what it knows how to do best. But if you force Bazaar to go below the line of profitability, if you expect Sarkaar to do what citizens should be doing, if you expect citizens to take on the ownership of what Sarkaar should be doing, it tends to create confusion and not achieve the societal outcome you need.

And the last thing I learned was – and this is very important for philanthropists to really understand – if you want societal level transformation, none of us have the answers. But there are people who have answers in their own context. 

So, how do we distribute the ability to solve? A very key way to distribute the ability to solve, instead of pushing one solution down the pipe, is to open up, to create platforms and to allow public goods to be created from the work that we do. So for example, in Pratham Books, once we created a Creative Commons platform where everybody could do what they do best, we were able to open up the creation, the distribution, the translation, and the sale of books. We were able to scale to tens of millions of children. So this is a very important lesson. 

When philanthropic capital is being used, we owe it to the work that we do and to the ambitions that we have, especially now in the digital age, to create open digital public goods. So that other people can build and innovate on a platform that we support as philanthropists, in areas that perhaps people have not been bold enough to go before.

Dasra’s journey is synonymous with the new age of Indian philanthropy. As we begin this third decade and re-dedicate ourselves, let us all say today, no matter who we are, no matter what work we are doing, that we commit to at least in one area, we will not just do incremental but transformational. And we will do that through collaboration, by embracing risk, and we will do that without fear of failure.

Are we suffering from a lack of imagination?

The pace at which social problems are outpacing our solutions underscores the need for bold philanthropy, audacious goals and capable, committed leadership in social sector organisations, says Rohini Nilekani, founder-chairperson of Arghyam and co-founder of EkStep.


How do you think Indian philanthropy has evolved over the years?  How have the approaches and discussions around giving developed?

I think Indian philanthropy is at an exciting stage; it is continually evolving. One of the most interesting things is that the ecosystem of philanthropy is evolving too, along with philanthropy itself and the idea of giving. Like yourself [India Leaders for Social Sector], there are many ecosystem players that are coming up, looking at leadership in the sector, matchmaking between donors and recipients, building the capacities of the sector, looking at bringing new issues to the  fore,  and so many other things [such as] auditing the sector. And, of course, with so much more wealth creation happening in the country, the spotlight is on what that wealth is doing for the country – I think we are seeing many interesting developments in Indian philanthropy

Is that increased philanthropic wealth doing enough?

No, I think we need the philanthropic muscle in India to be exercised much more. There are some constraints, though, as to why that’s not happening as much as we would like to see.

One factor is the trust deficit. Although the wealthy want to give, there is a lot of philanthropic capital all dressed up and with nowhere to go, largely because of this trust deficit.  How do you give, who do you give to, how do you get impact? You still don’t feel very sure, because of which many of us just land up creating our own organisations, trying to create the change ourselves.

I believe that a healthier thing is when the donors – I am speaking about the super wealthy—find enough channels to give through so that there is no burden of doing things themselves: because we do need a thriving civil society in a democracy. Civil society actors come from passion, from vision, from innovation, from being tied to their communities and from having deep and great context. Having a thriving civil society in a trustworthy, trusting relationship, with donors is something I consider ideal in a democracy. I think we are a little far away from that.

What opportunities must Indian philanthropy invest in to make a larger, lasting impact?

Building the capacities of the system is important. Unless the pipeline opens up to receive funds, you will not see philanthropy grow.  I talked about trust before – that’s important too. But also models of how things are really working in, say, education, health, environment, climate change, livelihoods… there are a hundred things where philanthropy should invest in, including the arts and culture. We need museums, we need performance-based culture to be supported, we need new institutions that allow people to understand the world around them. Different people are working in these areas based on their passion.

But I also think that when we talk of the disparities in India and how far behind some people are left, we have no choice but to go back to talking about the human rights framework. Some donors feel uncomfortable about this because of various things they don’t quite understand: does that mean hyper activism, does that mean getting into trouble with the state?

No matter what you call it, it is about caring about the 300 million people in this country who are our fellow citizens, who need to be supported, who need help across the board. How can Indian philanthropists, those who want to change the world for the better, start thinking a little innovatively to work with this segment?

We need to look into the future, for what’s coming at us, whether it is livelihoods, the future of work  or climate change—that’s where philanthropic capital should want to step in because they can afford to take risks, they can afford to do the things that the government cannot afford to do, things that civil society doesn’t yet have the support to imagine doing. This is the kind of challenge and opportunity for the Indian philanthropic sector.

Do you believe talent can be a limiting factor as organisations in the social sector aim for scale and sustainability?

With 1.3 billion people, we shouldn’t have to talk about the lack of talent. I think the talent is there, the grooming of the talent needs to be taken very seriously. In this sector, we must not forget to ask if there is enough commitment: if we can draw people’s commitment, people’s passion, people’s real need for their lives to have meaning, then I don’t think talent or human resources is a problem.

Having said that, because of the way the sector is growing, we really need different kinds of skills for the specific things that we need to do. I think people are recognising it. People like ILSSare coming into the sector to create the necessary talent, but we have some years to go, no doubt about it.

What can civil society organisations do to develop their leadership pipeline? How can funders help this effort?

I think we have a succession crisis in the sector right now. Many of the organisations came out of some cataclysmic events in the sixties and the seventies that brought out this amazing moral leadership in this country, which has for the last 30-40 years built a very solid civil society foundation. We are seeing succession issues in many of these organisations: after that one dynamic founder is gone, then what? We do have a leadership crisis in the sector. What ILSS and some others are doing to create the next generation of leaders is very important.

Inside organisations people really grapple with creating leadership. So, if CSR could support short courses for organisations to build their leadership, it could be very useful. Funders need to support much more institutional capacity and much more sector capacity. Leadership doesn’t come out of a vacuum and if funders could begin to think like this, it would really help.

Given the current context, what skill sets would you like to see in the social sector?

Of late I’ve been thinking, is there a lack of imagination, are we suffering from a lack of imagination? I mean, look at how the problems are outpacing the solutions. I’m not criticising; I see myself as a part of the sector so, if anything, this is a reflection rather than a criticism.

When Gandhiji just picked up a fistful of salt, what was he launching? When Vinobaji was talking about bhoodan, what was hisimagination? It was not for one district, it was not even for one nation, it was for all of humanity. When Jayaparakashji started the Sampoorna Krantiand Sarvodaya, they were talking about transforming humanity itself. Have we lost some of this spirit? How do we spark our imagination to think much bigger?

The second thing is that, while we unleash our imagination, we should also be putting our noses to the grindstone to be much more rigorous in finding out what really works and how to build systematic structures around it. That is another skill we need to build.  One more thing I would like to add is about sharing and collaboration: so, for example, if you are working in education, being curious to know what someone is working on somewhere else and being able to reach out for that.

How can the talent in corporate India engage more deeply with the social sector?

It would be great if corporate professionals, who’ve made a success of their lives, could see the kind of problems that are emerging and how they can apply their skills to solve some of those. It would be great if they start to reflect on how they would like to see the world become better and then agree to spend some of their personal time understanding that issue — because they are not just professionals, consumers, or subjects of the state; they are citizens first.

And to be a citizen means to engage with other people and to take responsibility for creating a better society because today we are more interconnected than ever. So, when we get out of our offices and cabins, how can we reconnect with all the other things that really make our lives meaningful beyond our jobs? There are so many opportunities now; there are so many young people with amazing ideas, who want to engage corporate professionals. Go and find out who’s nearest to you and I promise it will make your life richer.

What is the one cause that is closest to your heart?

The common thread in all my work is around giving people a sense of their own involvement in resolving whatever the situation may be. Whether I work in water or environment or in issues of young males in this county or the climate collaborative, that’s at the core: how do we distribute the ability to solve, how do we help people collaborate with each other? No amount of pushing solutions down the pipeline can create anything sustainable. So how do we build the strength of the samajsector? That’s the underlying issue that I care about.

A new area I am working on are the 250 million young males in this country – from puberty to the age at which they are supposed to be settled with jobs and families, but are not–and the frustration, the restlessness, the helplessness, the fear, the insecurity associated with being forced into patriarchal identities without even having thought much about it, without having role models or family connections sometimes.

How little we have done for that cohort in this country! Can we devise programmes that allow for more positive modelling for these young men so that they can be the best they want to be? This is something I have been engaged with, primarily to empower the young males themselves, but also because if we don’t focus more on them, we are never going to achieve our women’s empowerment goal. Empowering women is absolutely necessary, but to send an empowered woman into a disempowered situation gives her very bad choices.

The most ambitious thing I’ve done so far is in the context of societal platforms thinking. Societal problems are so complex that they require samaj, sarkaarand bazaarto work together; but it’s very difficult for them to work together in a really effective way. So, what can we do to reduce the friction and enable these sectors to collaborate? Can we create a technology backbone? How can we keep unpacking the commonalities across these sectors so that contextual solutions can be built on top of them? How can we build something that is unifiedbut not uniform, so that we can allow diversity to scale? How can we allow real collaboration and co-creation, and at the same time create an engine that will offer all the data when it is needed and also allow people to learn? It’s a big play; it may work, or it may not work, but we’re very excited and enthused about it.

What role do you see for technology in the civil society space?

I’ve begun to realise that if you want to respond to problems at the scale and the urgency at which they are spreading, civil society really needs to rethink its relationship with technology. I risk saying that when we see emergent backlash against technology for various good reasons. When you’re going to be technology-led you’re going to have problems, if you’re technology-enabled, you’re going to have different opportunities.

A very crucial thing I’ve learned is that when the young people of this country are going to be digital citizens, civil society has no choice but to be digital. Even to be able to respond to the abuse of technology, it has to learn to act in technology domains. At Arghyam we are trying to see how we can be an infrastructure provider instead of just a donor.

A digital civil society, where you offer checks and balances on a digital age, is something we need to strengthen in India.







Rohini Nilekani: Digital Dependencies

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s comments on the “Digital Dependencies” panel at Digital Impact Mumbai Conference presented by the Stanford PACS on Feb 7, 2018. The panel discussion on “Digital Dependencies” was conducted by Lucy Bernholz, Director, Digital Civil Society Lab, Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. They discussed ways that digital data and infrastructure create new possibilities for working across sectors and the new demands of these relationships – including governance challenges, challenges to the social contract, and the need for new institutional capacities.

I’m so glad this conference is happening because it’s a very critical question that we are discussing about digital dependencies. India’s very young population is going to mature in this new digital age, and I think it opens up questions for society. And especially for civil society and how it is going to react and create a whole new era of functioning in a democracy. I think from what I’ve seen of India’s civil society organizations, some of them have quickly learnt and joined this digital universe very effectively, but the bulk of the organizations probably are just waking up to its immense potential. And there are some organizations that are almost technophobic, and I think we need to address the fears that some of them have about participating in a digital universe that is controlled by large corporations or perhaps they fear surveillance by the government. So how do we bring them to the discourse table?

One of the things I do believe is that the same technologies that allow for surveillance equally allow for participation and sousveillance, which means looking at power structures from below. We really need to see how we can employ that potential in civil society’s work. I think that in the continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkar, i.e. society, the markets, and the state, it is going to be very important to understand that we can not hide too much from this digital world and therefore how can civil society organizations also act as a check and balance on this potential of technology to amplify everything, both bad and good? And how can we think of a new design for civil society itself?

Let me give you a small example from the work that we have been doing in Arghyam, which is the foundation I set up for water and sanitation back in 2005. When we developed the India Water Portal, which was envisaged as a knowledge platform on water, it was born in an area where some of these fascinating new technologies were not being deployed. So it is sort of an old fashion idea of a digital presence. And you can’t take something that was designed then and retrofit it. So we now have to rethink it completely.

On the other hand, EkStep, which is the learning platform that my husband Nandan, Shankar Maruwada, and I set up two and a half years ago, is already born in an age where so many digital technologies have converged and combined. So, the way this organization is born is very different. And we have had a sharp learning curve from our earlier work, my husband and I. So, I think this organization is developed as a new child of the digital age and incorporates a value structure which I believe is dear to my heart and very important to articulate — that this platform will be open, it will not hide behind proprietary walls, it will have many shareable structures. It has simple-to-use toolkits. It allows many actors to talk to each other. It is mobile-friendly.

We are talking about things like offline internet for those with poor access to the internet. We are also talking about creating three layers, a shared digital infrastructure, and toolkits co-created by many of the actors in that sector, and then an amplification layer. So, I think there’s so much tremendous potential for civil society organizations to scale their work, to find new partners across geographies, to de-risk from any local conditions, and to pull in the power of collaboration and co-creation. I hope we can enable India’s thriving civil society to participate more fully in this inevitable digital universe.

Corporates Should Support the Rule of Law

The time has come to align self-interest and public interest in support of the rule of law and constitutional values.

I have often talked about the continuum of sarkaar, samaaj, and bazaar, and why, for a successful society, these three sectors must work together in a fine balance.

Ideally, sarkaar, or the state, should not grab too much power, bazaar, or the market, should not flout the rule of law or appropriate public resources, and vigilantes from the samaaj, or civil society, should not take the law into their own hands.
This requires awareness and active participation from all citizens. After all, we are citizens first; our primary identity is not as a subject of the state or as a consumer for the market. As citizens, how do we then help build a good society?

The bazaar’s interest in the rule of law

There are many interests between samaaj and sarkaar; bazaar and sarkaar; as well as between samaaj and bazaar. For the purpose of this article, we will examine the congruence of interest between samaaj (society) and bazaar (markets). And it starts with the rule of law.

“No business can thrive without social stability outside its gates.”

We all want and need the rule of law to be upheld. In fact the bazaar—or at least the modern corporation as we know it—would not exist if the rule of law had not created the limited liability company 300 years ago. This allowed innovation to flourish over the centuries, and also provided for the absorption of failure, because wherever there is innovation, there is failure. It is because of the rule of law that companies can fail without going under themselves; and therefore, for their own sake, corporations have a great stake in upholding it. They need the enforceability of contracts, protection of property, availability of fair competition, and so on, otherwise they simply cannot function. But even beyond this, they need the law to be upheld by society at large, because no business can thrive without social stability outside its gates.

Civil society and business therefore have more in common than either believe. Sure, in some cases, civil society has to position itself against business interests, when those interests are being deployed unfairly on the ground. For instance, in the case of public goods like water and land commons, or with environmental issues like pollution and contamination, civil society and business knock up against each other. But they also have a common concern—to keep the sarkaar in check.

Keeping the sarkaar in check

State power worldwide tends to accumulate, and it is to the advantage of both business and civil society, to make sure that the state does not abuse its own power.

Many corporations have been subject to the vagaries of state power while running their businesses; excessive discretionary power also adversely affects the climate in which businesses operate. If the alignment of samaaj and bazaar is understood and worked on, it helps restrain the state.

For example, civil society institutions and business corporations might together, or separately, appeal to the state on poorly framed laws. In the recent proposal to criminalise non-compliance of CSR, both samaaj and bazaar would have been adversely affected.

Both successfully voiced strong reservations against it, and it was rolled back.

“We all need good laws, and an independent, impartial, and efficient judiciary to verify the constitutionality of those laws.”

We all need good laws, and an independent, impartial, and efficient judiciary to verify the constitutionality of those laws. We all require equal access to the justice system. We also need effective public institutions that help uphold the rule of law. It is the only way to both empower the bazaar and uphold the rights of the country’s citizens.

The samaaj has an interest in the rule of law as well, as it is critical for addressing access issues, especially for the poor. Civil society organisations (CSOs) representing samaaj are often driven by passion and a commitment to rights and freedoms.

Sometimes, at great personal risk, they go up against the power of the state and corporations, to create campaigns, build institutions, and push for more agency for people who are left out. Civil society must however learn to communicate better the long term benefits of such work to business.

Because, the bazaar itself cannot do this work. Though they benefit indirectly, corporations cannot support or implement politically sensitive programs, and risk the fallout of such action. It would make them vulnerable to all sorts of state action.

But they can certainly do more than what they’re doing at the moment.

With the civil society institutions that they trust and already have a relationship with, they can, and should, give core institutional support to continue work beyond project-based funding. Even if they do just this, it strengthens civil society capacity to take on issues of rights and exclusions that are adjacent to their work on service delivery.

It’s time to take big bets

Swami Vivekananda said, “Take risks in your life. If you win, you can lead, if you lose, you can guide.”

Indian philanthropy doesn’t take enough risk. However, it cannot achieve its potential without risk-taking. It’s good to keep honouring service delivery improvements, but it’s time to look at our society as a whole, and for the philanthropic sector to step up and get into more important areas such as access to justice. And the congruent interest of samaaj and bazaar is exactly why.

From a recent Boston Consulting Group report—‘Total Societal Impact- A New Lens for Strategy’, it’s clear that corporations which align with samaaj’s ideals will be better off in the long run. There is now exhaustive research that shows that the non-financial side of business is linked to its financial side, and that companies that do well when it comes to ESG—environmental, social, and governance issues—also consistently show better results on their bottom line.

Can we—as corporations and philanthropists—pledge that we will no longer do only incremental work, but will try something transformational? The time has come to align self-interest and the public interest in support of the rule of law and constitutional values.

The common within uncommon ground

It doesn’t have to be the state versus civil society, or business versus civil society, or the state versus business. They are not neccessarily antithetical to each other.

Society is successful when it reduces the friction for the three to co-create solutions. And it’s important for all the three sectors to recognise that—to discover the common within the uncommon ground.

It is an especially opportune time for business and civil society to act more creatively from their own, unrecognised common ground. Poised at a new decade, we can together ensure that this country’s solemn promise to itself—to secure liberty and justice, social, economic, and political—for all its citizens, will be met, and met in abundance.

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