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‘Are we suffering from a lack of imagination?’ asks Rohini Nilekani

Anu Prasad & Sangeeta Menon
7th Jan 2019
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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 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, and 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 are 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 ILSS are 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 picked up a fistful of salt, what was he launching? When Vinobaji was talking about bhoodan, what was his imagination? It was not for one district, it was not even for one nation, it was for all of humanity. When Jayaparakashji started the Sampoorna Kranti and 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 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 samaj sector? 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 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, sarkaar, and bazaar to 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 unified but 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.

 

This interview was first published on indialeadersforsocialsector.com. Read the original interview here.

 

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