Bengaluru: Most non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are built ground-up by the founders. And, even after many years, both the organization and its employees look to the founder for answers.

While that still holds for most organizations, of late some founders are looking to step back and bring in a chief executive officer (CEO) in their place to infuse new energy into the organization, and help it scale up.

“Technology is changing the way every institution works. Very few NGO founders have the required understanding of all the necessary responsibilities and skills," said Murray Culshaw, chairperson at India Cares, an organization that creates opportunities for NGOs to raise funds.

“Earlier, all you needed was commitment and subject knowledge. But today in addition you need management, accountability, communication and technology skills," he said. Not all NGOs have woken up to this fact.

Armida Fernandez, founder of Mumbai-based SNEHA that works towards maternal and newborn health, is a non-profit founder who stepped back seven years ago.

“Many years ago, a potential sponsor was impressed with our work and asked me for a five-year plan, and when I didn’t have one, he never came back," said Fernandez.

Having a future plan is one of the first things a professional from a strong management background does. “They are used to a culture where systems and processes are routine," said Fernandez.

SNEHA has had two CEOs in this period. In Fernandez’s experience, CEOs bring more professionalism that she, as a founder, cannot. “I was a doctor and surrounded myself with people form the medical field; so much so that even all the board members were from my fraternity," she said, adding that the organization lacked diversity in decision-making.

As more and more grant-making bodies and individuals want to strategize their giving, they want to choose well-run NGOs that have a strategy beyond just social impact. Also, many NGOs have traditionally depended on international aid, but with the cash inflow ebbing, they need to look for fresh sources of funding such as the corporate social responsibility (CSR) corpus of companies and individual donations, said Culshaw.

To tap both sources, the NGO leadership will need skills to handle boardrooms.

Mumbai-based Muktangan is among the few NGOs that has realized this. Founders Elizabeth and Sunil Mehta set up the organization in 2003 with four employees to provide inclusive English-medium schooling to underprivileged children in Mumbai by educating teachers at its training centres. But now they are both aged over 70. They have 500 employees and operate on a 12.5 crore budget.

“In 2003, we started Muktangan as a retirement project. We were only looking for a model that will be sustainable. Now we want to step back and don’t want the organization to flounder," said Elizabeth Mehta.

Most of the people employed with Muktangan are educationists and don’t really have a management background though Sunil Mehta said over the last one-and-a-half years they have trained a few employees to think about strategy and project management. “But since our non-programme side is lean, we want someone to bridge the gap between programme and non-programme sides," he said.

It is not the first time that Muktangan is looking for a CEO. In 2013, the husband-wife duo hired one but the change didn’t work out. “We hired someone with an education background but then realized the person had their own ideas and we were not aligned principally. So it didn’t work out," explained Sunil Mehta. So this time around they want a generalist CEO, one who has administrative skills in human resources and finance.

“An NGO like Muktangan is looking to scale. Choosing a generalist CEO makes more sense as he or she would have more experience with scale than someone from the non-profit space," said Pari Jhaveri, global practice leader, TRANSEARCH, an executive search firm.

But adaptation is a challenge and the CEO of an NGO needs a lot of handholding. The CEO also faces the challenge of acceptability by stakeholders and runs the risk of ideological conflicts, as people from the private sector tend to have a more target-driven approach, pointed out Jhaveri.

Given all this, the search for a CEO is no easy task for an NGO. Ask 49-year-old Mahantesh G.K., chairman and founder of Bengaluru-based Samarthanam Trust that runs a school and skills centre for the blind, who hired a CEO in June last year.

“In 2013, we did a visioning exercise and by 2020 we wanted to touch 100,000 lives from the current 25,000 lives. To achieve that goal, Samarthanam could not continue to be founder-led. People depend on the founder for everything and you end up getting burnt out," said Mahantesh. Moreover, he wanted someone who would be able to use technology to help Samarthanam scale.

The first challenge was finding a person for the task. “It is not easy to attract talent as people think it is an easy job. Moreover finding such a person for the disability sector is more difficult," said Mahantesh.

After searching for nearly two years, Mahantesh turned to Prateek Madhav, who used to head analytics for technology consultancy Accenture and was a volunteer with Samarthanam for nearly seven years. “I initially didn’t know if he would be interested, given the kind of salary we could pay, but he agreed," said Mahantesh.

Jhaveri said currently large-scale NGOs pay their CEOs at the very least about 30 lakh to 35 lakh a year while some of the international ones pay up to 80 lakh.

If finding a person was the first hurdle, the next challenge for Mahantesh and Madhav was the transition. “There was resistance initially as we built the organization informally," said Mahantesh. But Madhav being a volunteer helped ease some of the early teething troubles.

“I’ve been working with corporates for more than 15 years. Even though I had plenty of challenges to keep me engaged, the missing link in corporate life was the real impact that I could create. So I loved having the opportunity to do that here," said Madhav.

One of the biggest learnings he has had in his seven months is in managing people, Madhav said. “In a corporate, most of the employees have a similar education background and there is a homogeneity. The management style does not vary much, but in the social sector there are people from various backgrounds, so dealing with each one of them can be very different," he said.

Madhav’s immediate task was to structure the organization, to define roles and define the outcomes expected of each. “There is amazing passion in the organization but we need more outcome-based thinking," he said.

As for who makes the best CEO in the non-profit sector, Ravi Venkatesan, former Microsoft India chairman who set up Social Venture Partners, a national network of philanthropists addressing social problems, said background does not matter as much as traits like passion for the mission, resourcefulness, the ability to inspire and motivate, in addition to the ability to manage and build teams.

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