After a consulting career with McKinsey & Co., I moved to the development sector. Since then, I have been both a giver and receiver of philanthropic funds, with scale being the big difference.

At the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, I was a large giver. Now at the Antara Foundation, I am a small recipient. I have often observed a perverse ‘head and legs’ relationship between donors and donees from both ends of the giving process. The donors (heads) do all the brainwork while donees (legs) focus on implementation. Reversing this perverse relationship is essential for impact.

Consider how businesses work. The entrepreneur conceives a business idea. Then, he seeks venture capital. Investor and entrepreneur together shape the idea and determine targets. Implementation is flexible and led by the entrepreneur with inputs from the investor. Through this process, fresh ideas are generated, and there is less likelihood of repeating mistakes. In top management consulting, clients and consultants plan together and implementation is flexible. In both cases, the initial ideas come from recipients who are in active engagement with ground realities.

In the social sector, things are often done differently. Donors come up with ideas. Then they issue Requests for Proposals (RFPs). Donees submit competitive proposals for the right to implement the donor’s idea. The emphasis is on matching the RFP’s terms as closely as possible. There is no flexibility in implementation. Thus, donors and donees have clearly defined roles—heads and legs.

In 2007, the government launched the ‘red ribbon express’ campaign. A train travelled across India to disseminate information about HIV/AIDS. Any non-governmental organization (NGO) working at the ground level would have advised the government that sex workers’ clients would not use condoms simply because a train passed by.

Inducing behaviour change requires active community engagement, backed by micro data. The red ribbon express was a well-intentioned idea that was lacking in consumer input. 

At the Gates Foundation, I used to ask prospective donees for ideas, I wanted to know what problems they were seeing at ground level, and the solutions that they visualized. I suggested we should craft a grant idea together. I was often met with incredulous looks. These ‘implementing agencies’ were not used to being asked for ideas. Their experience lay in executing the terms of the donor’s idea faithfully. The most important stakeholder—the community—was excluded from the decision-making process. 

In multilateral development organizations, the agenda is often set by people sitting continents away. They plan the programme and issue an RFP, a process that can seem like a hammer in search of a nail.

The pageant of NGOs commences; disjointed consortiums are cobbled together to fulfil the terms and the proposal closest to the funder’s requirements wins. Solutions are designed by executives with little to no knowledge of ground realities. Beneficiaries are again excluded.

There is an alternative approach. In Antara Foundation’s programme, Akshada, interventions were conceived drawing on experience and community engagement. Many donors we went to had their own ideas and were unwilling to make grants. We found two stakeholders who got it—the Tata Trusts and the government of Rajasthan.

Thus, a virtuous three-way partnership was formed—an enlightened donor’s experience and financial support, a visionary state government’s systemic support, and a passionate non-profit’s field knowledge and innovative ideas. 

Reversing the head and legs relationship between donors and donees requires a cultural shift. NGOs must engage with the community to identify their problems and generate ideas. They must not be afraid to take these ideas to donors. Donors should reject donees who don’t have new ideas; donees must be willing to walk away from donors who tell them exactly what they should do. 

The community has always had the answers. Non-profits immersed in the field have game-changing ideas. The volume of philanthropy in India is growing steadily. Bain’s India Philanthropy Report 2017 showed that private philanthropy in India grew at a compounded annual growth rate of 7.96% from 2011 to 2016.

Now, it is up to donors to rethink their way of working to create meaningful impact. 

Ashok Alexander is founder-director of Antara Foundation. His Twitter handle is @alexander_ashok.

Close