Swapping suits for social work

August 20, 2017 by Times of India

When Saleem Khan quit as the head of a multinational insurance company at the age of 42 and announced that he was joining a non-governmental organisation (NGO), most people had the same response: ‘Aren’t you too young to be getting into social work?’ Khan would wonder, “Why does one have to turn grey to give back to society?”

Today, a successful 40 or 50-year-old’s midlife crisis usually isn’t about taking a class in Buddhism or having an affair. Thanks to generous corporate compensations and dual incomes, a generation that has managed to make a sizeable chunk of money at an early age, is increasingly looking for meaningful work.

Moomal Mehta, the founder of Crossover Catalyst, a headhunting firm which helps move talent from the corporate to the social sector, feels that there is a genuine desire to do good. When her firm reaches out to potential candidates, 8 out of 10 respond. Even if they don’t want to make the move at that point, they want to learn more about what is available, says Mehta. “It is no longer viewed as the jholawala sector.”

Also as Mehta points out, “A lot of people who grew up in middle class families didn’t necessarily choose careers that they were passionate about.”

“We have seen this change over the last 10 years,” says Namrata Jhangiani, partner at Egon Zehnder, a leadership advisory firm. “It usually comes when people turn 50; I find that age is a time of reflection.” The question people seem to be asking is, we’ve bought our home, sent our kids abroad to study, and saved enough for retirement. After that, what? How do you bring meaning to your life?

For many, the answer has come in the social sector, which is now seen as space where the best and brightest can contribute towards solving some of India’s biggest problems – in education, poverty alleviation, and sanitation.

The game-changer, however, is the recent flood of money into the non-profit sector through corporate social responsibility (CSR) laws which require companies to contribute 2% of their profits to charity. Foundations have started behaving more like corporations – hungry for highly skilled talent and emboldened by new resources to pull it in.

“The social sector is going through an inflection point,” says Ashish Dhawan, chairman and founder, Central Square Foundation, a philanthropy venture fund which works in education. “In the earlier phases you needed more social workers and less management; the organisations tended to be more community-based. Now, India is in a different place – it’s no longer about getting kids to school, but about improving the quality of education. What you need now in these organisations is technical skills, management talent, and the ability to scale up.” Dhawan, a Harvard MBA who ran one of India’s leading private equity funds ChrysCapital before setting up CSF in 2012, calls it “Organisation 2.0”.

NGOs are now looking for finance directors and chief operating officers, not just volunteers who read to the blind or teach children. Shaheen Mistri, founder of Akanksha and Teach For India, says, “Corporate skills are essential now because the responsibilities are so vast and complex that just passion and idealism is not enough. Budgets are enormous. You have to raise and manage the money, and because it’s not your own money you have to be that much more careful.”

Accountability and credibility are key concerns. “Donors are becoming demanding,” points out Saleem Khan, who now heads United Way of India, a global non-profit organisation. For every penny donors are investing, they want to know what impact their contributions are creating, how it would help their brand, questions about sustainability, and exit options for every project they are supporting. So having a strategic vision with a management background helps a lot.”

Not surprisingly, the ecosystem around this migration is growing. Traditional management institutes are now incorporating programmes that cater specifically to training development sector managers. IIM Bangalore recently started subsidised programmes to train leaders for the NGO sector. Last year, four individuals got together to start the Indian School of Development Management in Delhi to create leaders and managers exclusively for social organisations. Says Gaurav Shah, an IIM-Calcutta graduate and one of the founders, “The idea is to fill the development management vacuum. We want to create a domain of knowledge, build case studies and work closely with the development sector. Often there is intent, but not enough knowledge.”

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