New Delhi: The Azim Premji Foundation has the money. Now it needs people.
The foundation has drawn up plans to increase staff strength from the current 300 to 5,000 over the next five years as it prepares to use the Wipro Ltd shares worth $2 billion (Rs8,960 crore) gifted recently by company chairman Azim Premji in the single largest act of philanthropy in India.
“The foundation will need both operational specialists willing to work on the ground in semi-urban and rural districts as well as strategists to outline the blueprint of how to develop its school and education projects,” said Pari Jhaveri, executive director of Third Sector Partners (TSP), a specialist search firm for foundations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The rapid growth in private foundations, NGOs and corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes in many firms has created demand for professionals who can bring technical and managerial skills to a sector driven by goals beyond the profit motive. That’s changing the landscape as far as the social sector is concerned as people with varied skill-sets enter the field.
Given the scale of the Azim Premji Foundation’s ambition, Sudheesh Venkatesh, in charge of human resources, said there’s really no template to work from.
“This is an interesting challenge requiring fresh thinking. There are few parallels of this kind in the country and no ready models to follow,” he said. “We will need to create new pools of talent and attract exceptional people from other sectors to join this cause.”
According to a March Bain and Co. report, An Overview of Philanthropy in India, individuals and corporations contribute only 10% of giving in the country compared with the US, where its 75% of the total and the UK’s 34%.
The Tata group has a long history of philanthropy, contributing 8-14% of its net profit every year to organizations such as the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and the Sir Ratan Tata Trust that are focused on integrated development. This exceeds the norm in industry, which doesn’t usually exceed 1% of net profit, according to TSP. More recently, companies have stepped up their philanthropic activities. For instance, there is the GMR Varalakshmi Foundation of the GMR Group that works with the underprivileged; Standard Chartered Bank has a $25 million Seeing is Believing initiative; the Bajaj trusts have raised a corpus of about $150 million, while Sunil Mittal’s Bharti Foundation has about $60 million for philanthropic efforts in the country.
India has around 3.3 million NGOs, of which 40,000 are of international lineage, TSP said, citing industry reports. The US, in comparison, has 1.6 million non-profits employing 8.7 million people, according to a 2007 study by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, a government agency. The number of people employed by NGOs in India could not be confirmed.
Till the 1990s, philanthropy in India was individual-centric and driven by passionate, conscientious individuals who wanted to give back to society in some way. Today, giving has become more institutionalized and, therefore, demands greater accountability and transparency.
“There is a focus on quantitative approaches to measuring impact, on return on investment and on the strategic use of technology. With huge funders like the Gates Foundation leading the way, there is a major emphasis on gathering more data on the impact of particular programmes and new initiatives,” said Alan Goodman, president and chief executive officer of the Institute of International Education (IIE), a global non-profit in education.
The addition within the NGO world of business-driven, left-brained individuals alongside more creative, right-brained colleagues is critical for the survival of a sector that requires both process and passion.
IIE has biologists, mathematicians, musicians and even journalists sharing office space with ex-CFOs, MBAs and engineers. “There are many people both in India and overseas with a strong social conscience who have expressed an interest to join,” said Venkatesh of the Premji Foundation.
But the desire to make a contribution to society should be balanced by an honest assessment of factors such as motivation, responsibilities and life goals. Venkat Krishnan N., who conceived the 12-year-old “donation platform” GiveIndia, said it’s critical to identify what drives a candidate to want to join an NGO.
“Just a small fraction of people with fancy designations from the corporate sector join the social sector because they genuinely want to make a difference,” said Krishnan, director of the organization that raises around Rs27 crore every year to support 200 NGOs. “Many are driven by perceptions of an easier existence compared with the pressures of corporate targets and market salaries in social enterprises.”
NGOs and foundations will need to winnow out those simply looking for a less stressful workplace.
Some foundations may be leaner, but still need their beneficiary NGOs to form a robust team. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which earlier this year committed $94 million over five years towards improving maternal and newborn health in India, has a staff of not more than 20 in the country. It has an equal mix of people with public health and corporate backgrounds.
“The solutions to healthcare problems are often simple, it is the capability to scale that is needed which experienced corporate professionals bring in,” said Alkesh Wadhwani, an ex-Mckinsey and Co. employee and deputy director at the Gates Foundation in India.
The sector, still largely unorganized, could do with some of the hard-headed practicality that a professional brings to the table. That affords an opportunity for some of the large corporate-backed foundations and NGOs to act as role models, partly because they have deeper pockets.
The Shell Foundation, which focuses on building scalable solutions around energy and environment, was set up as an independent charity out of the UK in 2000 with an initial endowment of $250 million and has committed about 17% of its funds to India. The foundation, with “a mandate independent of the social investing wing of Shell”, manages to hire good people because it’s able to pay well.
Such organizations also seek to employ people with strong credentials because of the entrée this affords them.
“Global foundations are trying to establish their brand identity among decision- and policymakers in India, and require people with similar finesse as those inhabited by the sectors they desire to influence,” said Jhaveri of TSP.
The impulse behind the candidate selection process is to make the overall effort more result-oriented and self-sustaining. “The return here may not be immediately calculated on investment, but it is calculated on meeting an objective,” said E. Balaji, CEO of recruitment firm Mafoi Randstad.
In the case of Envirofit—a partner enterprise of the Shell Foundation that will fund the organization until it achieves financial sustainability—the objective is to reduce the number of deaths among women and children under the age of five (500,000 annually in India) that take place primarily due to indoor air pollution caused by wood or biomass cooking stoves.
The push to make CSR more than just a nice idea has also added to the makeover of NGOs. For instance, Balaji is on the lookout for someone with more than 20 years of experience with proven execution ability for a director-level CSR job at one of the top 10 Indian firms. The job pays about Rs30-40 lakh a year. Well-run NGOs will be one of the hunting grounds for Balaji.
But as good performers get hired, the smaller NGOs may scramble for talent.
“The reverse crossover, from running CSR back to grass-root NGOs, is difficult to pull off from a recruiter’s perspective,” Balaji said.
By the year-end, the Shell Foundation would have added more than 20 executives to the enterprises it supports. But building a healthy pipeline of candidates after a robust screening process is most taxing, even with the assistance of professional search firms, said Anuradha Bhavnani, regional director of Shell Foundation.
One of the open positions the foundation is looking to fill is for a head of sales and distribution. Though there is a long list of corporate applicants, Bhavnani said only a very few show the right acumen—a combination of right and left-brained skills, and conviction. Once the shortlist is drawn up, however, 85-90% convert into hires, she said.
With philanthropy gaining ground, the hunt for talent will get more intense. It’s not going to be easy, and not just in India either. “While the sector continues to grow in prestige with the likes of Mark Zuckerbergpledging their fortunes to charity, the ground reality remains that right now the biggest challenge for non-profits is the inability to pay competitive salaries and, connected to that, the inability to offer performance-based incentives,” said James Boyle, president of US-based educational non-profit, College Parents of America.