Let’s Talk About: NGOs
A few years ago, the social development sector was characterised by the selfless NGO worker, sacrificing wealth and well-being, to solve the numerous problems that this country faces today. It was seen as a sector that required one to forgo the pleasures of a luxurious life, work in unsavoury conditions with little to no chance for advancement or promotion.
The development sector is one that has been rapidly transformed by technological innovation. In the past few years, technology has revolutionised the way issues like poverty, water and food scarcity, health, education, climate change and environment are addressed, paving the way for young, analytical minds (read engineers) to enter this challenging and dynamic sector.
Pieced together from the narratives of alumni who have devoted themselves to the development sector, this article, aims to give the reader a bird’s eye view of what working in the development sector looks like, starting with NGOs.
Why do we need NGOs?
Consider this: Despite being one of the fastest growing economies in the world, India ranks 131st among the 188 countries surveyed by the UN on the Human Development Index (HDI). Income inequality has continued to rise, and a 17-20 per cent of the nation’s population continues to live below the poverty line.
NGOs are vital as they provide services to bridge the gap left behind by the Public and Private sectors. Why do these gaps exist? Analysis of the motivations of these two entities can reveal why. Government policies, which are supposed to tackle complex problems often tend to be shortsighted – gearing towards short-term reprieve, subject to changes when the party ruling at the centre changes, while the Private Sector is constrained from acting in the national interest due to their profit-making nature. Thus it falls on NGOs to undertake long-term development activities that ensure little or no returns – like educating a tribal hamlet or eradicating malaria.
What are the different areas NGOs work in?
Based on the sectors they work in, NGOs can be broadly classified into four categories. According to the University of Bergen (UIB), Norway, these categories are Humanitarian Aid, Advocacy, Faith and Missionary aid.
These NGOs strive to save lives, provide health and educational aid and alleviate suffering in conditions of extreme human misery. Examples of such organisations include CARE, Mercy Corps International (MCI), Save the Children and so on.
These NGOs do not supply aid but instead focus on drawing national or International attention to issues such as policy reform, amendment of laws and so on. Examples of such organisations are Amnesty international Refugees International, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and so on.
These NGOs are basically an extension of humanitarian aid groups. The difference between these two is that faith-based groups are originally founded on religious principles but do not use religion as part of the humanitarian aid given. Examples of NGOs in this sector include Catholic Relief Services, Church World Service and so on.
How are NGOs funded?
Corporate Social Responsibility – a part of the 2013 Companies Act that makes it mandatory for all companies with a “net worth of 500 crores or more” to spend at least 2% of their net profits on CSR related activities, is one of the major lifelines of the development sector. There are various organisations and companies that work to direct CSR funding to the NGOs that need it – ‘Goodera’ being one such company. Apart from this, NGOs can also use “crowding funding” sites (Khetto and Give India being the most popular ones) and newer NGOs can also get funding through “NGO Aggregators”. There are even contests such as “N/Core” held by “The/Nudge Foundation” to incubate innovative NGOs. There are truly a lot of ways in which you can fund your own NGO. Networking skills play an important role here.
How can you get involved?
(i) Start your own NGO
Anu Komeswaran (batch of 2018), one of the alumni we spoke to for this article said it was her strong background in volunteering for social causes that inspired her to found her own NGO – Illuminate, in college. Having a strong passion for the field of education, she started her own NGO called Illuminate, which inducts volunteers, to teach school going children and also raises awareness on issues such as health, sanitation etc.
(ii) A full-time career
The development sector is full of professionals who switched from their lucrative jobs to the non-profit sector. Krishnan Subbaraman (batch of 2008), a former employee of Axis Bank revealed his reason for the switch from banking to education.
“Mid-way through the third year into my banking job, I started getting restless thinking about how linear my life had been up to that point of time. Educated in a CBSE school in a metro; good academic performance throughout; four years of breezing through Engineering in a reputed college, and an MBA in a premier B-School; A well-paid job in Corporate Banking; A Promotion after two years. It was almost as if I was charting a preordained course, a path which had been set out for me and I was just ticking all the boxes mechanically. At the same time, I was also able to recognise that the very linearity that I saw as boring and predictable was out of reach for the vast majority of Indian children.”
After completing two years with at the Teach for India programme, Krishnan now works at the Central Square Foundation, a not for profit organisation devoted to providing quality education to school kids.
(iii) As a researcher
Like every other sector, NGOs constantly need to refresh their methods of working through continuous research and documentation. An area of ongoing research is the use of behavioural sciences by NGOs to change people’s habits and behaviours. For example, open defecation is a serious sanitation problem in the country. Toilets can be built to combat the problem but real change cannot occur unless people themselves are willing to forgo the practice. NGOs have to constantly devise methods and rewards to bring about lifestyle changes necessary to implement these solutions. Keshav Rai Goud (batch of 2016), who entered the Young India Fellowship after graduating from NIT Trichy, found that his area of interest lay in the social sector. After a brief stint at ‘Goodera’, a development consulting firm based in Bangalore, Keshav became a Behavioral Science Researcher at Ashoka University, where his experience working with NGOs in the field ultimately helped him rise to the position of a teacher at the same University.
If you’re someone with a limited amount of time looking to contribute to social causes, then volunteering with NGOs is a great option.
Rishabh Gupta, (B.Arch – 2012) volunteered at the NGO ‘All Hands’, to help build a school in earthquake-ravaged Nepal, during a two-month sabbatical before he joined a B-School. “It was an intense and rewarding experience for me”, he said. “I was given a lot of responsibility because I was an architect, and the whole experience taught me a lot about teamwork. We did all the work, from making the concrete, to building the foundation and the base camp for volunteers. It was a really enriching experience.”
What can you get from working with NGOs?
Working in the development sector is a life-altering experience. Whether you’re a part-time volunteer or an employee of an NGO, here are some key takeaways that this sector has to offer:
(i) A higher purpose
For many professionals, the major reason to quit their plush corporate jobs is the failure to connect with it on a personal level.
Tarun Joshi (batch of 2008), who worked in IBM as an IT engineer for 3 years, decided to take a short detour into the education sector through The Teach for India programme. It was a detour that would change his career forever. In his own words –
“I fell in love with the children and the education sector and decided to make a career in this field. While I had been reasonably happy working at IBM, working with children gave me an unmatched satisfaction.”
Tarun now works as the executive director for the NGO – Ashraya Initiative for Children.
This coupled with the fact that a lot of NGOs provide managerial positions and a chance to have a greater impact on the decision-making procedure of an organisation, plays an important role when making the switch from a conventional job to the development sector.
(ii) Interpersonal skills
Whether you’re a volunteer, researcher or a full-time worker, there is a wealth of interpersonal skills you can build upon when working for a social cause – from networking to developing empathy and interacting with people from all walks of life.
Solving some of the toughest problems faced by society certainly brings with it a sense of humility. According to Keshav Goud, watching so many people forgo a comfortable life and dedicate themselves to social causes proved to be a humbling experience for him. Being in constant touch with people who are deprived of so many of the amenities that we take for granted, instils a sense of gratitude. Being aware of our privileges keeps us grounded and more amenable to the ups and downs of life.
(iv) A diverse profile
As mentioned above, working in the development sector helps one develop valuable interpersonal skills. These can prove very useful while applying for B-Schools, which usually prefer candidates with diverse backgrounds.
What is the remuneration in an NGO like?
There is a common misconception among the public that the remuneration in an NGO is way less when compared to other sectors. This is absolutely not the case today. With the development sector growing faster than ever before, there has been a remarkable rise in high paying jobs here. Modern NGOs receive a lot of funds from various sources at a much faster rate than before. This opens up a lot of job opportunities in sectors like accounting and management. NGOs also need to do a thorough analysis of the community they are working on. Hence, a lot of job opportunities on the analytics side have opened up. Thus, the development sector is not subsidiary to any sector in terms of remuneration.
What sort of challenges do people working in an NGO face?
Bringing about real social change is a very complicated process, involving a complete overhaul of the existing methodology. Sometimes the greatest resistance is offered by the very people you try to help.
Ashraya Initiative for Children (AIC) (where our Alumnus Tarun Joshi is currently working as the executive director) initially found it hard to establish a connection with the tribal community they were working with.
“Initially, when we intervened, they (the community) did not cooperate with us. But, we worked with one child at a time and established trust with the community”, said Tarun.
Trying to bring about a social change can be a slow and frustrating process. Social workers and agencies regularly encounter bureaucratic hurdles, human resistance, lack of resources etc, and a lot of their work seems to go unrewarded. What then, keeps them at it?
Krishnan sums it up beautifully. “For me, the main motivator in working in this space is the promise of being able to positively impact people’s lives through my work. While it does sound a tad presumptuous, I genuinely believe that out of the 20-25 productive working years that we all have, even if we are able to move the needle on development by a tiny bit – it is probably worth our while.”
With inputs from:
Anu Komeswaran (batch of 2018) – Founder of Illuminate
Keshav Rai Goud (batch of 2016) – Teacher at Ashoka University
Rishabh Gupta (B.Arch – 2012) – Currently an MBA student at Schulich School of Business, New York
Krishnan Subbaraman (batch of 2008) – Senior Programme Manager at Central Square Foundation
Tarun Joshi (batch of 2008) – Executive Director at Ashraya Initiative for Children (AIC)
Written by Kumaraguruparan Ramadoss, Shrikar Banagiri, Tania Gupta