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Danger Of Putting Social Sector On A Pedestal

EARLIER this month, U2 lead singer and philanthropist Bono took a dig at the world of “impact investment”, to which he also belongs. He said “it was full of good people making bad deals” – a comment that highlighted the lack of real ways to measure a good deal, in this case in the social impact arena, other than financial.

The results of work done in the development space often get buried under exciting buzzwords like social enterprise, not-for-profit, fair trade, social justice, social innovation and entrepreneurship…the list goes on. We want to believe in these ideas and organisations spearheading them. To work for them, fund them, and help them make a genuine difference.

The Times They Are A Changin’

In India, legislation on CSR by the government strengthens this. Volunteering for organisations such as U&I, teaching programmes like Teach For India, environmental projects like Reap Benefit and women’s empowerment groups like Khabar Lahariya inspire us.

A recent US-based survey found 51% of young professionals won’t work for a company that doesn’t have strong social and environmental commitments. Indian millennials too echo similar sentiments, captured in Subramanian Kalapathi’s book The Millennials: Exploring the World of the Largest Living Generation.

The consequence of this buzz, is also a sense of glorifying people and the work in these sectors. The ones who kickstart, work and invest here are our aspirational selves and held in awe. But the allure can be dangerous.

Reality Still Bites

The truth is working in the impact or development sector isn’t a walk in the park. Teams are often small, and structures informal, with employees taking on many roles. There are no performance-linked bonuses and incentives. Employees work towards a common goal and the journey to get there is full of small victories.

Non-profits do not offer weekend beer pong sessions and ‘offsites’ at fancy resorts. This doesn’t mean that they are the pits to work for. Working towards a cause you are passionate about can be exciting, fast paced and fruitful. It isn’t all Cinderella work with no trips to the ball. Though, that’s how the sector often gets portrayed.

The ‘Cause’ – and Effect

Putting a giant halo over the world of development and impact work has its downsides. From employees working longer for less pay to a lack of accountability on processes, strategies and spending – the doing-good sector sometimes looks bad.

Bigger charities like Oxfam and Greenpeace often give better salaries to their CEOs than many for-profit companies. In the UK, the number of non-profit CEOs who make over £200,000 a year is on the rise. Granted, raising funds isn’t as easy as selling soap. But still, can their fat pay cheques, particularly in the non-profit sector, be justified?

Finding the middle ground between financial sustainability and social impact takes us back to where we started – Bono! The rockstar, who is an investor and on the board of The Rise Fund, along with other luminaries such as Richard Branson, said: “Putting profit before people is a non-sustainable business model. I think giving those two equal time is the way forward and in the present climate we need to re-think, re-imagine what it is.”

Pic by: Clare Arni

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