Thursday, May 8, 2008

Join an NGO : CSR & global foundations give a new lease of life

A few months ago I heard a koorta-wearing CEO of a leading education NGO in India , explain to the host of a television show as to how the management of NGOs are becoming more businesslike . He informed that they are learning to wear business suits & ties to reflect the changes in attitude.
I was not surprised.

For too long the NGOs in India have been starved of funds. Basic necessities like decent office infrastructure, travel allowances, administrative costs, stationery have had to be curtailed to maximise the throughput of donor’s money to the beneficiaries the NGO was founded to serve. Passion & commitment were the main driving force of these die-hard social do-gooders and they were never in short supply.

However, the scenario changed when two things happened in this sector.

Plenty of foreign foundations started donating money to sub-saharan Africa and India and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) arms of Indian corporate were set up to channelise funds.
Often for both the foundations and CSR wings, direct intervention at the ground level were not possible for lack of experience, expertise and relevant manpower. So , existing NGOs were the preferred routes to park the funds.

Along with the funding, the management culture came completely free of cost and jargons like social ROI, per capita impact , professional approach etc became the order of the day. The standard of living of the CEOs and top management too improved . Their salaries were raised and budgeted in the fund . Frequent review meetings at the donor’s headquarters whether in India or abroad necessitated frequent air-travel. The travel costs too were budgeted. Professional managers (read MBAs) with and without experience were hired for execution of the program. The size of middle management too bloated as the top management were busy waking up in different hotels in different cities requiring middle-level managers free for execution. And somewhere in between the culture became businesslike. Ties and suits are no more passé in the NGOs.

However, at the field level, the community workers that were hired are still paid gruesome salaries (Rs. 1500/- p.m equivalent to 1.2 US dollar a day). Often their travel bills are held up for six months by the middle-level managers at the headquarters. They do not have any health insurance benefits . But ,only, the community workers are supposed to implement the complete program as envisioned by the donors and the top management of the NGOs with the bloated middle management acting as "file-passing & fund-approving" bureaucrats in their comfortable cabins in the cities. Obviously, the project suffers.

One of my ex-colleagues, Mr. A.K.Singh of Jamshedpur used to say that a perennially sick patient always needs sustained medical intervention for revival. Often the duration of the intervention can run into multiple years and the cost of treatment can be terribly high. If somebody expects that by spending funds worth 10 % of the actual cost in the first 6 months, the patient would start running & jumping about then he is living in a fool’s paradise.

Similar is the case of CSR intervention in social sectors like primary education, health and livelihood in the rural sectors. These sectors are perennially sick and expecting a quarterly turnaround to come; just because the MBA manager of the corporate CSR wing has coined a new jargon for “outcome predictor” or because he expects a visible and immediate return from the “patchwork intervention” implemented by his company’s funds ; is foolish to say the least. The concept of quarterly reviews over video-conferencing is thus a moronic concept. But most of the Indian managers of the foreign foundations seem satisfied with this . This saves them the trouble of visiting & staying for long duration in all the villages under the jurisdiction of the project and reviewing the projects themselves.

The smart CEOs of NGOs also know this for a fact. At the review meetings, CEOs are armed with unverified, lengthy quarterly reports about the “magic” that their donor funds have generated. “More needs to be done”, the CEO would say and more funds keep on pouring but at the ground level, the community worker is at his wits end to survive . Forget the survival of farmers. But then the donors have scarcely met a community worker during a review.

And the story goes on…… More funds are approved for new short-term projects. The CSR manager is happy having spent all his funds and having received a 100 page report that he can show to his company board for this financial year. The CEO of NGO is happy that his glib, one-hour talk during the review got him more money to fund his frequent jaunts to the continent and middle managers are happy that they can now purchase & wear their new business suits at the next review meeting with the foundations.

Corporatisation & MBA culture have arrived in Indian NGOs. Surely its good news for all the twenty- somethings who want to join a NGO armed with their MBA degrees, their torn jeans from the college hostels & a fashion for passion to work in the social sector.

Enjoy your stay in a NGO ! Because life now is a long song thanks to the CSR and the foundations.
Picture Description & Source: "Songs from the Wood" by Salty depicting a tribal village band in Araku , Andhra Pradesh, where a coopretaive coffee project funded by a NGO is under place.


Anonymous said...

hey..i liked ur article on joining an NGO.i am currently doin my mba from MET.i would also like to join an MBA and study simultaneously.could u mail me back on the

Salty said...

Hey Anonymous,
I would advise you the focus on your MBA,now. Its a full-time occupation,if you take it seriously. Otherwise, simply google "volunteer part-time NGO India" to get a list of NGOs in India who offer such jobs.You will get a fair idea to proceed.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.