As the Bridgespan Group approaches its third year since opening an office in Mumbai, I have been reflecting on the journey that brought us to India, what we have learned, and the incredible opportunities in this dynamic country’s philanthropic and social sectors.

For starters, I have been humbled. Having worked and written on the topic for years, I thought I had a firm grasp on what “nonprofit scale" meant. Then I met Desh Deshpande. A prolific entrepreneur, innovator, and philanthropist, Deshpande indicated that he had read some of my writing on nonprofit scale and was interested in speaking. He told me that my US-centric version of “scaling" was, quite simply, too limited. If I wanted to learn about what nonprofit scale really meant, I had to visit India.

During my first India trip in 2014, Desh connected me to nonprofits that were operating quality programs at an entirely different scale than I had ever seen. I got a glimpse of everything from Akshaya Patra’s program to serve mid-day meals to more than 1.7 million children across more than 14,000 schools, to Agastya, which has reached over 7 million children with its math and science programs. I went home with a strong belief that the world has much to learn from how India is creating solutions for addressing social challenges at scale.

Elsewhere, the hard work of addressing the issues of poverty and disempowerment is left almost entirely to the government or can fall between the cracks of the public and private sectors. In India, whereas the public sector is universally seen as the guarantor of rights and access to opportunity, the private sector also plays a strong role, most recently via the Corporate Social Responsibility requirements of the Companies Act. And a bustling voluntary and philanthropic sector nudges the other sectors with both activism and innovative, often large-scale, change-making. The government is often viewed as a vital ally by the other sectors.

Additionally, around the world, people trying to effect social change grapple with the tension between “professional expertise," which is often from outside a given community, and “deep local knowledge." India has many fascinating examples of initiatives where communities are not mere recipients of external knowledge and resources, but rather act as leaders and resources, driving change from within. Aravind Eye Care System hires staff from the rural communities it serves. Educate Girls relies on village-based volunteers to lead its work with girls.

Akshaya Patra’s midday meal scheme is a lesson in how nonprofits scale in India.
Akshaya Patra’s midday meal scheme is a lesson in how nonprofits scale in India.

India is also home to several powerful philanthropic models, including philanthropy in service of building national institutions.

At the same time, there are some puzzles—among the biggest is the lack of trust in nonprofits in India. I hear it when talking to people across the country and read it in surveys, which rate trust in NGOs lower than in government and business. This perception affects a bias towards philanthropists choosing to staff and operate their own initiatives. While this approach can be powerful, the bias may systematically lead to under-investing in experienced social innovators, who with more capital and a greater investment in their management capacity, might be better able to address social issues.

One way to bridge this trust deficit is to provide more information about the philanthropists who are giving boldly and the compelling social sector leaders they support. A dearth of documentation on their learning journeys and insights spurred Bridgespan to embark on a study of bold philanthropic initiatives in India. Our research highlights how several Indian philanthropists have taken bold steps to help tackle the society’s most vexing social issues. Their stories are inspiring.

However, while I have been to India more than 25 times over the last five years, and am just at the beginning of my learning and understanding, I firmly believe the way ahead is to strengthen the social sector in India, and share its learnings with philanthropists and nonprofits around the world.

Jeff Bradach is the managing partner and co-founder of The Bridgespan Group.

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