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Evolving Social Purpose Organisations: Building Leadership Capacity

Anuradha Prasad

Anuradha Prasad

Anuradha Prasad is the Founder & CEO of India Leaders for Social Sector (ILSS), a Delhi-based non-profit that works to strengthen the leadership talent pool in the social sector. Prior to setting up ILSS in 2017, Anuradha was the founding Deputy Dean of the prestigious Young India Fellowship (YIF) and a founding member of Ashoka University, India’s first liberal arts university.



Billionaire and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott and her husband Dan Jewett have recently contributed $2.7 billion to 286 nonprofits globally. The grantee list also included Indian Social Purpose Organisations (SPOs) such as GiveIndia, Goonj, Antara Foundation, Jan Sahas, Mann Deshi, and The/Nudge Foundation. These organizations have been at the frontline of COVID – 19 relief efforts since March 2020 in India.


Social Purpose Organisation is a term that describes various organizations like non-profits, charities, co-operatives, social enterprises, and for-profits with a social impact mission. SPOs have been featured in the mainstream discourse on development and leadership significantly since the onset of the pandemic.


Challenges of doing good

SPO’s have historically faced challenges in attracting and retaining good talent. A sector that works on sensitive and dynamic issues with ambitious goals demands high accountability from various stakeholders. Organisation capacity and talent in this backdrop is an area that cannot go overlooked. Lack of requisite talent is an oft-neglected lever that can significantly impact an organisation’s ability to achieve its mission.

Based on a survey with over 250 nonprofit leaders from India in 2013, Bridgespan reports that more than 50 per cent of NGOs had not received any funding for leadership development in the last two years and lacked the talent management processes to build effective teams.



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Key factors that have contributed to the lack of investment in leadership and capacity building:


Attitudes: The sector has grown organically through many on-ground and grassroots efforts, driven heavily by passion and desire to do good. The conventional narrative for many implementation organisations has focused on prioritising the cause and intent over structured management practices and processes. However, it is evolving as the sector matures, and more nonprofit leaders have come to recognise the need to structure their talent management practices.

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Perception: The sector, until recently, was seen as relatively unprofessional and ineffective, with not enough growth opportunities. Top talent has conventionally preferred the corporate sector or government jobs, mainly due to its traditionally associated ROI and prestige. This phenomenon, coupled with disparity in pay scales, has discouraged high-calibre talent to consider the sector as a viable career path.


Resources: This is the biggest challenge for most social sector organisations today. With heavy dependence on external funding, allocating resources for talent acquisition and management, building a robust HR vertical, or investing in learning and development has been near-impossible for most organisations. Moreover, chronic underfunding of India’s non-governmental organisations (NGOs) acts as a brake on their ability to grow programs, to reach more communities and individuals in need.


Leadership Capacity building: need of the hour


Taking a step forward to invest in capacity building automatically puts nonprofits forward in their likelihood of success; it strengthens nonprofits’ ability to fulfil their mission over time and positively impact the lives and communities of people they serve.

During these unprecedented times, the role of nonprofits has come to the forefront, bridging the gap and extending support in areas of need. Investing in building the right kind of leadership talent with nonprofits will go a long way in ensuring sustainable impact.

To this effect, To address the underfunding challenge of India SPO’s in the capacity building and leadership development domain, The Bridgespan Group, along with five leading philanthropies—A.T.E. Chandra Foundation, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, EdelGive Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and Omidyar Network India—to establish the Pay-What-It-Takes India Initiative.

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The initiative is the answer to the systemic deprivation of SPO’s in terms of capital allocated for management cost; the initiative focuses on diverting financial resources for capacity building and leadership development in a pointed manner. This initiative, one of its kind at the moment, can pave the way for Indian CSR’s and other funding organisations and philanthropists to fund capacity building for SPO’s at a large scale.


Corporates as the catalyst for development


There has been an increased focus on the socially conscious role of corporate leaders in the broader society beyond their formal roles. However, from several such corporate leaders, even with the intent to get involved and contribute alongside their day jobs, they may not know where to start, how/where they can add the most value.




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Social sector organisations need strong Boards and Advisory Councils for strategic inputs, functional guidance, fundraising support, mentorship, and overall support in governance. Senior corporate executives can play a significant role in these aspects by leveraging their networks, bringing best practices from the corporate sector to bolster rigour and transparency.

They can tap into their skills and resources to support social sector organisations’ and contribute to critical growth strategies and functions.

Orienting leaders to development challenges and perspectives


With the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been more conversation around social change and social impact, with more people wanting to contribute and be part of doing good. The sudden spike in interest in the sector is a positive trend. However, with more people wanting to be involved, they need to understand the sector landscape and its workings better to be effective and meaningful.

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There are currently a handful of programs that help in building talent and capacity in the social sector. Notable ones include the ILSS Leadership Program, which helps orient and transition senior leadership talent from other sectors to understand and contribute meaningfully to the social sector. Another program is the Dasra , crafted to meet the needs of Founders, Executive Directors, CXO’s and Senior Managers to strengthen their leadership style, decision-making capabilities and be more visionary.

The future of SPO’s could change drastically with focused effort and commitment to capacity building and leadership development. It will mean that there is more talent coming into the sector. Like everything, talent needs nurturing and investment, which will, in turn, ensure retention and growth.

Today with the scale of operations in the social sector, the interest and the impact it has been able to create, it is time to go beyond a short term focus of using all the energy and resources to meet the immediate goal of building projects and providing services. Investing in capacity and thereby growth shows a commitment on the organisation’s part, not just to the mission at hand but also to the individuals on the front line.

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