The Alternative spoke to Dr. Vivek Mansingh, former VP of Cisco India and Dr. R Balasubramaniam, founder of the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement and discussed ways of creating partnerships for social impact. These leaders from the business and the social sector shared their perspective on how different ecosystems can help one another and bring about meaningful change in the society.
Role of Civil Society and Business in Social Impact
The traditional roles of business and civil society are changing, evolving with time and this evolution is only critical in the present scenario.
In Dr. Mansingh’s words, “The pillars of democracy in Western countries have learned to evolve and mature simultaneously such that their importance is well balanced now. They are all at par with each other with no one pillar being more important the rest. However, in India the government is weak, and all the other institutions are directly affected by this weakness.”
In a country like India, the advice that he would like to give to our business leaders is to run their businesses ethically. Ethical business practices will take care of the other things as they come by, in the long run. More than just ethical business practices, corporate should support social organizations and their causes.
Businesses are changing continuously and so is the civil sector. Dr. Balu sees this evolution as particularly exciting. “It was only during the tenure of Rajiv Gandhi that the government allocated this sector formal space”, remarks Dr. Balu.
“State governments started investing in them and they started doing what the government’s job for them”, he ponders. Back then, the work was dismally contractual and even their organization somewhat lost out on creativity and innovation. There was a dearth of original, exciting ideas. With more recognition and money flowing in, most social organizations lost their way while some started asking questions. Having caught the government’s eye, “individuals from social organizations played multiple roles- watch dogs, service providers and even activists”, according to Dr. Balu.
The rules are not so hard and fast now between corporate and social sectors. 20 years ago, he would have painted all corporates with the same brush only to realize now that his brush was wrong. “There are corporates now who understand social space or are willing to understand with the assistance of consultants. They want to make a difference and not just throw their money around”, says Dr. Balu.
He realises how difficult it is acquire foreign funding for non-profit organizations as opposed to for-profit, in the light of so many regulations restricting their growth. His final word on the topic is that organizations should find ways to appreciate their own strengths and this of others and then work towards achieving social impact.
How do we go from good intent to strong execution?
On being asked as to what is the level of readiness in the corporate ecosystem, Dr. Mansingh brings to notice how possessing the right kind of talent is important. Recruiting the right kind of people and talent transformation are the main challenges faced in this regard. Again, “it is of utmost importance that business is run ethically”. One should worry about the stakeholders only when they are done with making sure their business conforms to stipulated ethics. 20 years back it wasn’t so; today everything you do is under the microscope of the media. Consumers come first and then everything else. His word to business leaders is to look after their for-profit and non-profit alike.
How does the non-profit sector view involvement with corporates?
Civil sector started out as a filler and failed to catch momentum and mature with time. It had come to a standstill before get formal room in the country. Dr. Balu expresses his disappointment over how social sector is deemed as easy and mediocre where anyone can emerge as a leader and no technical expertise is required. This arena is special and aims at understanding development. “Mediocrity has got them this far but that’s all”, he says and urges those in non-profit to revel in what they do. This sector needs to understand professionalism is just as important as in any other sector and to professionalize does not equal dilution of passion. He believes it is about time the old-timers moved out and made room for the youth in this sector.
Corporates can learn about cascading ‘ethics and values’ from non-profits
Dr. Vivek Mansingh:
The most difficult part in a corporate world is to teach the values. Teaching values through stick or incentive is very difficult. The best pay base where you can earn and learn- is actually in a nonprofit. They have done much better jobs in the corporate sector. For example, take Janagraha, their employees who are paid much less than a CISCO or a DELL, are more productive, more passionate and more committed.
The understanding of values is very important and can be learned from nonprofits.
An experience that I’d like to share: an Ivy League institution invited me, organizing a global business program, where they didn’t want me to speak on leadership. Instead they wanted me talk about ethics in the business environment.
What is the role of leaders in bringing in social change?
Dr. Balasubramaniam: The sector is so dynamic; the whole ecosystem is so dynamic that even my description about the corporate world is changing so greatly. In my book I teach people how to operate from zones of incompetence. Essentially the environment is so dynamic that I feel incompetent everyday. We wake up in the morning not with confidence and comfort but instead saying that ‘I can survive today’. I ask my students, colleagues, ‘How do I bring myself to have the generic skills to survive without feeling incompetent?’
Leadership in that contest is appreciating the humility that is required to put yourself in a learning mode all the time, whichever sector you’re in- non-profit, profit, online, etc. Keep challenging yourself and say “I’m not fully trained or equipped to be handling this” The moment you open yourself in this aspect you look for partnerships, you’re looking at bettering your networking skills. You learn to reach out and be less threatened. This is the only way the world can move on.
Leadership is an interesting appreciation of our own inabilities to have solutions to our problems.
Mass movements, the greatest strength that you need to be in understanding citizen engagement is the citizen becoming anonymous, the citizen becoming faceless, the citizen not seeking credit.
Lets call focus at work at the center. If the work at the center is collective progress, society improvement you don’t have to carry a banner to say ‘I did it’, to be seen. Can the citizen become so faceless and anonymous that he feels no need to take credit but rather share it with everyone else? This can cause a lot of growth. Leadership is not about understanding leadership at all. But it is about understanding yourself and others around you. It is about understanding the actions that binds you to the others, in a way in which you make yourself the action but don’t make a syndrome out of it.
Dr. Vivek Mansingh:
In any organization, whether for profit or non-profit, the leaders job is to get the best value out of the workforce that they have. For this, the leader has to make sure that his team is going the extra mile towards the outcome, right up to the last person. This can be achieved by motivating them, giving them a role model, earning their trust, etc. Why would someone go the extra mile if they don’t trust you or respect you?
As part of leadership, irrespective of sector, the last person in the organization has to walk extra towards the outcome. If anything, this challenge is less for non-profits because their causes are such that everyone understands that their work is for the good. In for profit, it finally boils down to ‘the company will make extra”.
The challenge is much greater in the for-profit sector but a leader’s job is the same. That is what connects you back to the society when the leader asks his employees to work the extra mile if he/she believes that the only thing this corporation is interested is in is their own wellbeing.
Watch the first episode of the series here.