10 Principles for organisations in the social sector
I am very happy to be here today with all of you from the 3rd batch of the
Development Management programme (PGCDM) of the SP Jain Institute. I see
from the list of participants that a wide variety of organizations are
represented here, from NGOs to CSR divisions of companies to even a
helpline. I would like to share with you today some of the learnings that we
have had at Karmayog, through almost 9 years of our work. These learnings
have come about through discussions and meetings and interactions with
people and organizations just like you'll.
While it may be true that certain things cannot be taught, but only gained
through experience and doing, I feel that if we, ourselves at Karmayog, had
had these learnings at an earlier stage, it would have made our journey and
work easier and smoother. Hence I am keen to share these with you.
I also feel that it is a significant fact that you are all gathered here
today at one of the campus' of the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan or Bhavans, an
institute that was founded in 1938 and that completes 75 years this year.
India can become a great country when all of its institutions are nurtured
and kept strong and vibrant like Bhavans is today, and there could be no
better setting for each of you to learn how to strengthen your own
organizations, than within the open and welcoming arms of Bhartiya Vidya
I shall speak today about 10 principles for organizations working in the
social sector. Wherever possible, I shall try and give an example to better
understand the principle; examples connected to our own work at Karmayog,
and examples of other organizations as well. [I may use the term NGO more
often than others, but here I use the term in a generic sense to describe
any organization working in the development space, whether a trust, or
community based organisation, or a social business, or a company doing CSR
or even a government agency]
Principle 1: Understand the root cause, and not just the symptoms
For any social issue that is taken up, the organization should be working at
2 levels simultaneously:
i) to tackle the symptoms / effects of that issue
and ii) to identify and remove the root cause for that issue
A medical example can illustrate this: To treat indigestion, one may
temporarily take an antacid or any other medicine, but if the indigestion
continues, then besides medicine, one will also need to change food and
eating habits, work and sleep, and exercise schedules, so that the
indigestion is permanently stopped.
A lot of times, we don't easily understand the root cause for different
issues, as these are deeply buried under attitudinal behavior, cultural
practices and religious beliefs.
Hence to tackle and eliminate the root cause of an issue will require long
term work as the conditioned beliefs and behavior at least a generation of
people needs to be changed. In the meantime, to stop the proliferation of
that issue further, continuous work is needed on the symptoms / effects as
Working on the symptoms / effects of issues also happens in 2 ways:
i) providing immediate relief or a direct solution
ii) working to improve laws and procedure connected with that issue
Awareness needs to be created at both the symptom/effect level as well as
the root cause level. Organisations should dwell on whether they can be more
effective at raising awareness at the effect level (e.g. awareness about
existing laws, lacunae in the law, what needs to be changed, how to ensure
implementation, etc.) or at the root cause level. (e.g. bringing about
attitudinal changes, changing behavior and customs of society, etc.)
While working at the 'effect' level, many organizations may work
individually and may be even competing for the same resources. But while
working at the 'root cause' level, no single organization can tackle the
root cause, and neither can organizations compete with each other at this
level, as the root cause is usually very huge and complex. Eliminating the
root cause of any issue requires the coming together and collaboration of
all organizations and groups who are working on that issue; this alone will
e.g. while a CEO at a bank may be competing with all other banks at an
individual bank level (for customers, accounts, deposits and loans), at a
banking sector level, all banks will need to work together to tackle a
common issue (e.g. rampant credit or debit card fraud).
Hence NGOs organisationally need to adapt themselves to be working at these
various levels simultaneously, in terms of their activities, the people they
hire, the teams that they develop and the time spent on different
In Karmayog, we are working to help bring about social change in our world.
While NGOs may be the largest and most obvious group of organizations
engaged in this type of work, we must still focus on the issues and examine
how to tackle these. NGOs have stepped in because there is some gap or
lacuna in how society is functioning. Ideally, once a solution has been
reached for any issue, NGOs should no longer be needed. Reaching a permanent
and sustainable solution for any issue is what we keep at the front of our
There are several organizations working on the issue of Female Infanticide,
Pre-Natal Sex Selection and discrimination against the Girl Child. Many of
these organizations have made progress and achieved results, including the
enacting of new policies and laws. But unless these organizations also
tackle and take up the issue of dowry, I believe that a long-term solution
will not be achieved soon.
- Principle 2: The cause is bigger than us individually and our NGOs
This essentially means that we must work in a spirit of true cooperation and
collaboration. Individual organizations do not have all the solutions and
neither can organizations work continually against government. There are
sincere and extremely intelligent people in government organizations who are
as keen as all of us are to improve things. We must identify and support
such persons and initiatives.
If other stakeholders or participants in society take up issues and causes
that so far have been largely the areas of work by NGOs, this is not a cause
for alarm or for NGOs to feel threatened about their existence. Rather, it
indicates that issues that NGOs were tackling until now and that were
considered outside the mainstream are now becoming mainstream and important
enough for more persons to do.
If newspapers and other media agencies are starting to get keenly involved
in monitoring and tracking civic issues and amenities, this is only
beneficial for the citizens of that city. If commercial organizations are
undertaking localised waste management and rain water harvesting services,
this means that there are more people wanting such services. In such
situations, NGOs must adapt to the environment by either also providing
competitively priced services or must move on to new areas and issues of
work, that may be related or unrelated.
Reaching a sustainable solution for an issue is the objective of our work,
and we should not be too concerned about who achieves this.
Around 5 years back, when MCGM's website and online complaint management
system were both at a rudimentary stage, Karmayog developed an online
complaint form for civic issues in Mumbai. The form was called SATYA -
Suggest Action to Transform Your Area. Over 1500 forms were filled. We
circulated each form to the Karmayog group, displayed the form online, as
well as printed each form and hand delivered the same to the BMC Complaints
Cell. Many complaints were addressed, especially as physical paper has the
power to move government to act. Today MCGM has an updated website as well
as a new online complaint management system. So our role has diminished. But
we had several excellent learnings from this experience that we were able to
use in our own subsequent initiatives as well as share with government for
their own future use.
- Principle 3: Develop a Spiritual base
Organisations must develop a spiritual base on which all work is built upon.
Spiritual values are human values and are hence the under-pinning factor,
not only for NGOs, but for all organisations as well as individuals.
e.g. for us at Karmayog, we base our work on the spiritual concept of
'karmayog', which means 'selfless service' as per the Gita. We have thus
learnt how to do things without having any desire for anything in return. In
practice, for us, this means just doing the right thing.
Similarly, perhaps, for organizations working on Animal Welfare, their
belief is that all living beings are sacred and connected to one another,
and therefore their work is dedicated to the welfare of these living
creatures. Or for religious or faith-based organizations, the belief that
their work or service is dedicated to God is the underlying belief for all
that they do.
Having a spiritual base and some underlying principles for your work helps
to avoid burnout and frustration, and to get a daily sense of satisfaction
from your work. The work and problems that social sector organizations deal
with are often not easily solved. As more and more cases come to light,
instead of feeling that we are making a difference, we start feeling
helpless and defeated. Hence the importance of having a spiritual base for
- Principle 4: Have an over-arching or comprehensive message
What is our big picture? Our vision of the world, not just a vision and
mission for our organization. I believe that it is extremely important to
think about and articulate this.
At Karmayog, we believe that "In a democracy like India's, sustainable
solutions to society's problems can only be found though the collaboration
and involvement of all stakeholders."
This forms the basis of our work; this means that Karmayog is a platform for
individuals, groups, NGOs, government, corporates, media, academic
institutions - basically all who make up society. Hence at different points
of time, Karmayog has worked to provide support to NGOs, to government
organizations, to companies, etc. through various initiatives.
The organization, CRY, when founded, stood for Child Relief and You. This
was later changed to Child Rights and You, and they now say that "CRY
believes that the rights approach is the only one that works. And because
the alternatives (such as charity, etc.) are not just ineffective but
illegal and unjust."
[http://www.cry.org/whoweare/whoweare.html%5d This is their over-arching
- Principle 5: Have a small message; a call to action
You also need to have several small messages that you can continually give
to people; these are more like a 'Call to Action' type of message. These
small messages can change depending on what project or campaign you are
currently working on, or what the environment around you demands.
A small message is something that you can tell someone when you meet them
for the first time, just briefly for 5 minutes, and they are able to do
e.g. One of Karmayog's small messages to people is to Donate books. This is
for our on-going 2 year initiative called 'Donate Books, Receive Books',
where we are asking people not to throw away any books that they may have,
and instead donate these to NGOs who need them. Our office at Fort is a
collection centre and we get donations every week.
Another small message that we tell to people is to "Contribute at least
Rs.100/- every month to an NGO". Many people want to donate but are
uncertain of which NGO to donate to and whether their money will be used
properly. We tell them to at least start by choosing any NGO and donating an
amount of Rs. 100 to that NGO. This small step itself will start the process
of the person getting more interested, reading about or visiting that NGO,
doing his or her own due diligence, and maybe establishing a long term
partnership with that NGO.
Organisations working on environmental issue talk about "celebrating
festivals in an eco-friendly way" around the time that the specific
festivals come around annually; similarly, NGOs and groups working on
democracy and governance issues have a message regarding voter registration
and exercising your vote, whenever there are elections coming up.
So, the small messages may sound small, but can have huge impact all around.
- Principle 6: Work to change some government policy
NGOs should take up some policy or procedure connected with their work and
ask themselves, what is the change or improvement that they seek in this
By choosing not to get involved with government as it is too messy or with
policy-making as it is too long-drawn and unpredictable, we are actually
hindering, rather than helping the causes that we are working on.
One of the first steps to bringing about change that is long-term and that
will last beyond you, me and our NGOs is the creation and implementation of
a policy for the same.
Mumbai has just implemented a School Bus Safety Policy, after recent
incidents of abuse and accidents. Predictably, bus owners are seriously
agitating against the policy, and parents too are opposing the policy
because of the increase in costs that may be required, but if we are
interested in a safer environment for school children, such a policy has to
be in place first.
Karmayog worked with the BMC's Disaster Management Cell for relief and
rehabilitation efforts after the flood in Mumbai in 2005. Plastic waste was
found to be one of the major reasons for clogged drains that added to the
flooding. Over the next 6 months, karmayog worked with BMC to frame the
Solid Waste Rules for Mumbai, that included for the first time, rules and
fines for littering and spitting in public places. The same Rules also said
that waste must be segregated at source into wet and dry, and further that
wet waste must be composted at source as well.
You need not always work on drafting new policies; there are several lacunae
and faults in existing policies, and over time, policies need to be
re-looked and revised for the needs of today's society.
Just look at any existing policy or set of implementation procedures (rules)
and ask yourself, what changes would you like in this and why? Put these
suggestions down, share these through your blog or website, send letters to
the concerned government departments, write to the media. All of us grumble
and complain about how this is wrong and that is a problem. But once you
look at the rules and suggest a change, you immediately realize what are the
main reasons for that problem and what to focus on to bring about change.
- Principle 7: Identify an equilibrium point
Most NGOs start small and then after a while start expanding; they expand
their areas of interest, scope of work, reach, number of employees, number
of beneficiaries, income and expenditure, etc. Many of you will also be
taught how to expand and scale up operations, while maintaining quality and
retaining your core values.
I believe that you cannot expand endlessly. And once you have expanded,
neither is it easy to scale back and do things at a smaller scale than that
you were before.
Hence it is important to identify an equilibrium point for your work. When
you reach this equilibrium point and work at this level for some period of
time, this will help you to take the work of your NGO to the next level,
which is not necessarily a scale up, but could also be a level at which
there is a deeper understanding and tackling of an issue.
At Karmayog, for any initiative that we take up, we set a milestone for
ourselves, and once we achieve that milestone, we move on, irrespective of
the expectations that others may have for us. We have undertaken an annual
CSR study and rating of the 500 largest Indian companies since 2007, for 4
years, and had in each study included a set of recommendations, one of which
was that every company must do CSR and spend a minimum of 0.2% of income or
2% of profit on CSR. Today, with the government itself changing the rules
about how CSR is practiced in India, we no longer feel that we need to
continue the CSR study in that format anymore. Given our overall resources,
our equilibrium point re: CSR has been reached.
Expansion typically involves focusing on achieving breadth. Instead, I would
say that we should focus on depth, on developing expertise and skills, and
once this has been achieved, automatically breadth will follow.
Every organizations starts occupying a space in society, and I mean beyond
the physical. In the development sector, every organization must do justice
to the space that it occupies, with a sense of responsibility. If you lack
depth, your organization may end up doing more harm to the cause.
- Principle 8: Respond to the big shifts in government and private sector
In the last few years there have been some big shifts in government and
private sector. Because both these sectors are extremely large, the impacts
of such changes are going to impact the work of NGOs, even if you currently
do not work directly with government or corporates.
One example is in service delivery; earlier, where NGOs provided services
that no one else offered and that not many people were willing to pay for,
either free or at discounted rates these same services are now being
provided by other organizations, both government and private, at competitive
Segregation of waste is an example. Earlier, NGOs working with rag-pickers'
associations were providing this service to both residences, as well as to
some commercial organizations and even to government agencies, at nominal
costs. With segregation soon becoming mandatory, many organizations now
offer these services at varying rates; NGOs that were able to see this
change coming have themselves established companies that offer the service
at commercial rates.
NGOs that were working in leased classrooms of BMC Schools must realize that
government will not give space in schools to NGOs for eternity. NGOs who
sensed that this policy could change had already bought alternate space or
made alternate arrangements before the recent evictions that have occurred
Similarly the Right to Education Act has caused fundamental shifts for NGOs
working in the education space; it has both closed some avenues as well as
opened up many new areas of work
And the recent 2% CSR rule for corporates will impact the role that
corporates play in the social sector in India, as well as impact the work of
NGOs in various areas.
- Principle 9: Work on 2 levels of ecosystems
When working to improve eco-systems, most NGOs work on the internal
eco-system that consists of the NGO, it's beneficiaries, it's donors, it's
volunteers, it's own staff and management. NGOs look at improving internal
governance, motivation for staff, efficient utilization of funds, feedback
to donors and other supporters and better communication to beneficiaries.
There is a second eco-system that is as important for NGOs and that NGOs
must work on improving; this is the external eco-system that NGOs are part
of. Other stakeholders in this eco-system are the government, the media,
corporates, educational institutes, individuals - basically the rest of the
world. NGOs must work on shaping and improving how the rest of the world
sees, understands, reacts to and engages with NGOs.
How can this be done? NGOs must expand their work and visibility beyond
those who already know and support them, by sharing details of their work
through various methods, by interacting with schools and colleges, by
partnering and collaborating with the other stakeholders in various ways.
Further, networking amongst NGOs themselves can lead to more impactful
results and greater reach for an issue. NGOs must engage with media to
change the common perception that if there is a problem, then only NGOs can
fix it, as government does not know how to, corporates are not interested
and the rest of the world is unaware.
Unless NGOs work on improving the second , outer eco-system and change how
the rest of the world sees and behaves with NGOs, they will continue to be
in a helpless and re-active position, mush the same as most beneficiaries
are to NGOs, rather than in a pro-active position where NGOs can lead the
dialogue and show the solutions to the rest.
- Principle 10: Let go of everything
This is a bit difficult to explain.
As individuals as well as organizations, we should be willing and able to
let go of everything.
As NGOs we should be willing to let go the fact that our NGO was not
mentioned in the media, despite the fact that we did better work on that
issue; we should be able to let go awards and rewards for our work that we
may or may not get; we should be able to let go the fact that despite best
efforts, we were unable to do all that we wanted to do this year... and many
other such small and large things that seem to come in the way of our work.
Because when you do let go, suddenly the way ahead magically opens up before
you; the work is as tough and the end is as far, but you have suddenly
become more equipped to deal with all that, just by letting go.
While I believe that these 10 principles I have shared with you today could
be applicable to all of you, you all may evolve some more principles
depending on the work that your organization does, and it's size and spread.
Irrespective of where you are placed within your organization, whether
junior or senior, whether just joined or a founder, I would strongly urge
all of you to revert to these principles every 6 months, and think about how
you and your work are evolving.
I look forward to questions and comments from you.
- 10 Principles for organisations in the social sector
1. Understand the root cause, and not just the symptoms
2. The cause is bigger than ourselves
3. Develop a spiritual base
4. Have an over-arching message
5. Have a small message; a call to action
6. Work to change government policy
7. Identify an equilibrium point
8. Respond to the big shifts in government and private sector
9. Work on 2 levels of ecosystems
10. Let go of everything
- I am from an NGO working in Bangalore.Our organisation works with youth in government schools and colleges.For the projects that we implement for govt. schools, we always have to pay a bribe to get our payments cleared.While I understand and appreciate the principles for NGOs that we are discussiong, and while our own organisation has also had discussions about not praying thebribe, we are unable to take any step.Not paying the bribe means that our payments will not be cleared and we cannot pay our staff.Complaining about the bribe-takers could mean that we risk losing out all future government projects, on which we are currently dependent for a large part of our revenue.Can anybody help us with what we can do?