Perspective

Talent at the top is need of the hour

India’s social development sector has to concentrate on upping its leadership quotient to become more professional, transparent, effective and innovative

India’s social sector — without doubt the largest, most diverse and most vibrant in the world — is facing some of its toughest challenges. With the alarming rise in inequity and inequality and the massive scale of social problems that we as a nation continue to grapple with, the sector has enough work on its hands, and then some.

On the brighter side, there has been a surge in funds flowing into the country’s social sector. Today, the sector’s revenue pool is an estimated 700 billion, with money coming in from various quarters, including corporate social responsibility (CSR) funding. Thus, if we have complex social problems to solve, we also have more funds than ever before to address these problems. Importantly, we have countless individuals and organisations committed to bringing about social change.

Ashish Dhawan
Founder and Chairman, Central Square Foundation

What we don’t have, though, is adequate leadership to manage all these factors efficiently. While philanthropy and the recent increase in CSR funding have certainly provided a much-needed financial boost to the sector, there is also an increased expectation of professionalism, transparency, innovation and effectiveness from organisations. There is a growing emphasis on results, scale and efficient use of funds, which calls for a different kind of skill set, one that the social sector has traditionally not paid enough attention to.

Practitioners and funders echo the opinion that relatively little investment is being devoted to cultivating leaders. According to a survey conducted by Bridgespan last year, more than half the NGOs polled do not believe they are capable of recruiting, developing and transitioning leaders. Further, 40% of respondents complained of the struggle to attract senior leadership to their organisations. In other words, the social sector in India is facing a huge leadership deficit.

Potential takes a hit

A dearth of good talent, especially at the senior level, limits organisations’ ability to reach their full potential. A cursory look at the largest nonprofits in the country will reveal that, despite the increased funding available to the sector, there are barely a handful of 1-billion organisations

Without guidance and leadership at the senior level, it is impossible for organisations to improve performance, become efficient and attract additional funding. And that could compromise the quality and size of the impact these organisations can have on the ground.

It is the right time, therefore, for organisations and sector leaders to take the leadership question seriously. We need to invest more in terms of commitment and funds to develop leaders within our organisations. At the same time, I believe we also need to look outside the sector to identify and develop this talent. We now need to actively recruit senior talent from the corporate sector to bridge the talent gap in senior positions.

Most senior corporate executives typically possess valuable sets of skills and management experience that can be transferred to the social sector with some guidance, sensitisation and on-ground exposure. Senior leaders in the corporate sector are trained to think and manage scale and implement large, complex projects — with an eye on results. This is something the social sector needs desperately right now.

If we look at organisations that have scaled remarkably in recent times, we see a strong injection of corporate talent into them. Akshaya Patra, Kaivalya Education Foundation and Save the Children, with their business-like focus on processes, people, technology, leadership development, etc, are great examples of how nonprofits can use corporate talent, skills and strategies to achieve social impact. The good news for the sector is that a number of corporate leaders are now actively looking to switch to the social sector.

Swati Agnihotri (in yellow), a ‘motivator’ attached to the Swachh Bharat Mission, with villagers in Uttarakhand; India’s social sector also needs young and passionate future leaders, and they have to be nurtured through structured programmes

The critical issue here is to identify and orient such talent and support them while they explore their options in the sector and finally make the transition. Intermediaries such as India Leaders for Social Sector (ILSS) are working on providing a platform to create an informed movement of leadership talent into the social sector. ILSS’s nine-day leadership programme, for instance, is designed to orient senior corporate executives towards understanding social issues, while creating the space and opportunity for them to engage more deeply with solving these issues.

Pipeline for tomorrow

While a lateral movement of senior talent will help bridge the immediate gap in leadership, we also need to think longer term about creating a talent pool for the future. This would include not just structured avenues for existing talent within organisations to grow, but also high-quality aspirational programmes aimed at creating a leadership pipeline for tomorrow, akin to what MBA programmes do in the corporate sector.

The good news for the sector is that a number of corporate leaders are now actively looking to switch to the social sector.”

That’s where we require initiatives like the Indian School of Development Management, which offers a one-year postgraduate programme in development leadership to prepare young professionals for a career in leadership and management in the social sector.

It is still early days but the preliminary feedback from the development community to these initiatives has been positive. We require many more similar institutions to facilitate lateral movement of leadership talent as well as to nurture future leaders.

There was never a better time and opportunity for India’s social sector to start focusing on developing its leadership. Increased funding is helping remove the critical bottleneck of low salaries, while simultaneously pushing the emphasis on scale and result orientation. We need to leverage mid- and senior-level corporate talent with years of management experience under their belts, as well as nurture young and passionate future leaders through structured programmes.

We also need to open our minds and hearts to such talent crossing over from other sectors to the development side. This would do wonders for our sector and for our country’s development.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, known for its midday meal projects, has used corporate talent well