By Anu Prasad
“The future depends on what you do today.” As India completes 75 years of independence, Mahatma Gandhi’s words are as relevant today to our democracy as they were when they were first uttered. The dream of a just, equitable, poverty-free and free India is still work in progress – and every citizen has a responsibility towards its completion and towards their fellow citizens.
Look around and you will find that there is enough to do: India has 39 of the 50 most polluted cities in the world; 60% of India’s population, or an estimated 812 million people, still live below the poverty line, and India ranks 132nd of 191 countries on the Human Development Index 2022, with neighbours Sri Lanka (73rd) and Bangladesh (129th) ranking higher. The pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis have only driven home the point that social issues, be it the weakening public healthcare infrastructure or polluted air and water, impact us all.
No longer can we exist in class-stratified bubbles; instead, we have a shared investment in building a better tomorrow. Given the scale at which our problems exist, there is no doubt anymore that it will take concerted and sustained efforts across the board to move the needle on development parameters for us to meet our SDG goals. Our actions today will decide the shape of our future.
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For decades, India’s development sector has been fighting many battles to set right the many wrongs in our society. We owe much of the gains we have achieved as a nation – from universal education to our frontline health workers – to the innovative solutions that have emerged from the committed, determined people in this sector.
Although the sector has for various reasons seldom focused on investing in its own people – its leaders and frontline staff who do amazing work every day – that is slowly beginning to change. There is now increased recognition that for social purpose organisations to achieve better results, it is important to invest in people and organisation capacity.
Bridgespan’s ‘Pay What it Takes’ report emphasises the need for NGOs to build strong foundational capabilities such as strategic planning and leadership development, and exhorts funders and philanthropists to prioritise spending on strengthening both leadership and organisational capacity. Bridgespan’s 2017 research report showcased the need for a leadership bench across organisations in the development sector. Interacting with over 250 leaders from across the sector, it showed that 97% of respondents stated that leadership development is vital to their organizations’ success.
Purpose is indeed the unique ingredient that makes working in the social sector fulfilling and nourishing for the soul. The good news is that there are a growing number of senior and mid-career professionals that are now following their hearts and their inner voice to the social sector. They are seeking out opportunities to be involved in social change in various ways, from being part-time or full-time volunteers to consultants or as fulltime employees. They bring with them experience in managing systems and processes, technology, finance, people and the ability to work at scale. All of these skills are valuable for the social sector.
However, to build creative, impact-focused sustainable solutions for change in the development sector, these leaders must be willing to undergo a reorientation. An unlearning and relearning process that helps them see beyond profit to take a closer, nuanced look at people and the planet. To be a successful leader in the development sector you need to be humble, teachable, resourceful, agile, and resilient. After all, you have to soldier through a complex, tough, resource-crunched environment. It is important to develop a mindset and attitude of listening before solutioning, and the patience to understand that important things take time and yet nurture a sense of optimism and a belief in the ability to bring about that change. The process of unlearning and relearning is critical. Yes, it is a big ask, but so is social change. It is also hugely rewarding, for the individual and the organisation.
The social sector is an enterprising, overwhelming, and exciting place to be. It allows us the privilege of working with some of the most resilient and courageous leaders, who are all focused on devising creative solutions to the most deeply embedded social challenges. For experienced leaders looking to contribute their time and resources to the sector, it’s an opportunity to acquire new skills, discover new aspects of leadership, and evolve as compassionate human beings to participate in the process of building a world that is inclusive, sustainable, and just.
(The author is CEO and founder ILSS. Views expressed are personal)