Challenging the norms for NGOs

Challenging the norms for NGOs

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I recently spoke at an event that focused on CSR in Education. It was a well run event, with some amazing discussions organized by Educational Initiatives (EI) and Samhita Social Ventures. And I nearly got booted out for challenging three basic issues – the under-spending on overheads, the high cost of submitting proposals and collecting data and the short-term strategies to fix the education challenges in India. I feared I would be politely escorted out by the security before I spoke more rubbish.

Let’s look at the first point – the 10% cap on overheads. It is amazing how these numbers get cast in stone. I spent 10 years in the PE industry where the 2/20 rule (i.e. 2% management fee and 20% share in the profits) remained fixed for decades. No one dared to challenge it until recently; so too with the 10% cap. I am reading a very interesting book, “Give Smart”, written by Tierney (the co-founder of Bridgespan Group) and Fleishman. One of the traps in philanthropy they write about is ‘nonprofit neglect’ – the ‘widespread resistance to providing general operating support, which grantees can use to develop their organisational capacity.’ As a result NGOs cannot spend scarce resources on bringing in more professional advice or resources (I am not arguing that it is needed in every case). Nor can they spend on proper training and facilities … because donors don’t like funding this, probably because they consider this a waste.  In 2009 Gregory and Howard of Stanford wrote about this problem, calling it ‘The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle’. One of the NGOs I am connected with was grilled recently by a donor on every cost item (the Board, on the other hand, felt we need to actually spend more). On the other hand another NGO was told by a donor that the team should not scrimp so much and start spending more on overheads to improve efficiency. These are two very contrasting views on overheads and expenses.  Tierney and Fleishman compared this to airlines – would we prefer to fly on an airline that had the lowest maintenance cost? Or go to the hospital with the oldest, depreciated equipment? They differentiated between good overheads (e.g. hiring a great chief operating officer) and bad overheads (e.g. excessive rent or lavish entertaining). I think the time has come for donors to relook at this artificial cap on overheads and instead focus on the nature and need of the expenses to make the NGOs more sustainable.

The second point was on the excessive cost of applying for grants and collecting impact data. Don’t get me wrong – we need data. But we have swung from one extreme of not looking at outcomes (the RTE still ignores outcomes) to getting over-paranoid about it. Tierney and Fleishman write about grant makers who require grantees to annually fill out 50-page reports that are probably never read in their entirety. This annual exercise is disruptive and unproductive if not done properly – it is a bad overhead.  We need to focus on lowering the cost of preparing grant proposals. One of the organizations I am involved with is trying to do this by harnessing the power of technology. There is so much scope to reduce costs by standardising proposals and sharing data.  We also need to focus on lowering the cost of data collection to measure impact. Another NGO I am involved with did a spectacular job of reducing costs to a fraction of industry standards and significantly increasing the success rate of the intervention. Skeptics did not believe their numbers and so they had to spend a fortune (funded by another donor) to get the numbers validated. EI has successfully developed technologies to measure impact and collect data at a low-cost. We need more initiatives in this area.

Finally my last point was on our impatience to see results. I remember speaking on a panel organize by iDiscoveri a couple of years back where Pasi Sahlberg spoke on the Finnish education system. I asked him what lessons can India, which has 300 million kids in a broken educations system, learn from Finland, which has only 5 million people. He said two things – (1) right from the start there was equity in the system where everyone had access to quality instruction (the much-debated 25% reservation under the RTE was a major step forward in this direction) and (2) Finland took 25 years to reach where they are today. A few weeks back Bill Gates said the same when he was in Mumbai – education reform takes a long, long time. We therefore cannot dramatically change the system if we cannot think long term. We are only offering band-aid solutions.

Unfortunately governments and CSR teams want quick results. So we focus on building toilets and classrooms, instead of focusing on how we can improve education outcomes over the next generation. Of course in many parts of the country, like in the Northeast, school infrastructure is so pathetic that the basics don’t exist. Samhita recently mapped the education initiatives of 100 companies in the BSE 500 with the largest CSR budgets. 54% of the companies spent on infrastructure and learning material but only 9% spent anything on systemic change.  Of course we need milestones to track on-going progress. Yes, we will see one-off examples where excellent people will create excellent impact in the short term – but the challenge is to make these more widespread. Technology can play a large role here also.

So let’s start thinking really long term, invest in overheads to help us get there and reduce unnecessary transaction costs to help us focus on outcomes more effectively.

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