By ANU GUMMARAJU
YOU can’t go far in Bangalore without bumping into someone who works in the social impact sector. You also can’t work in the social impact sector without hitting a Venture Capitalist, someone who knows a VC, or a few VC firms. And there’s literally only a degree of separation from people we know and the Gates Foundation. Or Ford, Packard, Mellon, and Azim Premji Foundation. Not to forget USAID, UK AID, UNICEF, the World Bank, and others.
This is where the big money for social impact ventures lies today. Philanthropy, so far dependent on the largesse of privately owned business empires or super rich individuals, has a new face. Social work has new patrons. And a whole family, to boot. Crowdfunds, individual-driven micro finance, collection drives, and volunteering.
I think it’s wonderful.
But, the buzzwords at most start-up conferences, social impact meets, VC confluences are quick returns, RoI, exit strategies, annual growth rate, valuation, etc, etc.
I work in education, both pedagogy and technology. Primary education, with short and mid-term goals in secondary and higher education. And these strategies are not what ed-tech ventures – ones that aim to reach children who need quality education, numbering in millions across rural India today – can be concerned with.
Neither can efforts in broad-based, grassroots level work in farming, the unorganised labour sector, or vocational training. These require us to be in for the long haul. Where success will present itself years down the line when the children who have been through the programmes start showing self-reliance, or an earning potential. Demonstrate in ways we know – like a steady income, better livelihoods, steady food and basics supply – that the efforts have paid off.
Anyone who is in funding NGOs, for-profit social enterprises, or volunteer efforts needs to look at the reach and impact on the ground, rather than valuations and exit strategies – for isn’t that what we’re in this for?
There is also the cold shoulder you get when you say you’re working with government. The perception that governments are difficult to work with, that finances will inevitably be negatively affected, seems to be a big deterrent in getting aid agency or private money into the social impact sector.
We started in 2014 and after looking at numerous ways to reach impact goals have found that the surest way to reach the largest number of children is through systems that have proliferated already, across the country. Ask alongside, the question of who is best suited to partner with NGOs or social impact ventures, on such brand based programmes. The answer seems to be the same. The governments, who are in turn backed by the worldwide aid agencies today.
But isn’t working with governments hard? Yes. What happens when politics interfere? A lot, but we will just have to work through it. You’ll never make money. False, we will, not in millions in valuation, but enough to keep us motivated to continue working. And there are so many motivated folk out there.
So many professionals I know are ‘giving up’ corporate life and working in the social sector. In education, renewable energy, health, agriculture, you name it. And this generation of professional social impact workers, though raised on stories of private-empire funded programmes in villages, now have tremendous skills in networking, management, operations, and research to bring what we may have lacked so far. Professionalism and results. And they also come with connections with friends, colleagues, and family that are more than willing to volunteer time, money, and expertise.
The future? A mix of passionate professionalism, research-based solutions with state support. It looks bright.