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Leadership and Management Development
     Rana Kapoor
Column  Updates
August 18' 2010

Civil Society Organisations on the Path to Sustainability
      Civil society involvement has long been an integral part of the Indian landscape providing grassroots response to government and market failures, channelling philanthropic funds towards crucial gaps in the economic, social and environmental fabric of the country.

However, civil society paradigms are today in transition with the central focus being sustainability i.e. sustaining efforts over the long-term, leveraging mainstream resources to make a measurable impact on development issues.

Indeed, the sheer scale of issues being addressed by Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) necessitates a move beyond philanthropy. Take for example maternal healthcare – in 2005, more than 99 percent of maternal deaths occurred in developing countries with South Asia accounting for a third, and India alone accounting for 22 percent (UNICEF).

To even begin to address this and other social infrastructure issues requires models to be implemented on a massive scale. And, while philanthropy has contributed significantly in the past to the development space, the future truly belongs to CSOs that evolve into social ventures tapping mainstream funds enabling them to formulate business solutions for social problems, somewhat based on market principles.

The future is unfolding right before us as the very role of CSOs is undergoing a transformation. CSOs are increasingly being viewed as strong partners to formulate inclusive, ground-up, innovative and sustainable solutions to social issues. While at one end of the spectrum, some CSOs are walking the profitability path to fulfil their mission,

at the other, some profit oriented entities are expanding into the social domain. Philanthropic funding to such entities then assumes the role of “seed investments” that help cushion initial risks associated with such ventures.

This again reflects a reorientation of donor outlooks e.g. donors engaging with CSOs to make “giving” strategic with a clear focus on transparency, reporting, accountability, results and impact assessment. Now, philanthropy too has its eyes on returns i.e. financial returns that will help bolster social and/or environmental returns.

Case in point being the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with one of their guiding principles being: “Delivering results with the resources we have been given is of the utmost importance—and we seek and share information about those results. ”

In fact, the advent of “new brokers for connecting donors and recipients” (Fulton & Blau, 2005) i.e. Acumen Fund and GlobalGiving or closer home Aavishkaar or GiveIndia, signals a change in attitude towards the market which is being perceived as part of the solution rather than the problem.

In this transformative scenario, I believe, CSOs would do well to adopt a more “business-like” approach focusing on core competencies, maximising resource utilisation and leveraging inherent strengths/assets without compromising their missions.

This may require CSOs, for example, to revisit their current legal structure in consultation with advisors e.g. registering as a company may be a viable option to mainstream funds and engaging in income generating/profit-making activities.

Walking the Talk – going beyond the realms of theory, a number of CSOs are adopting an entrepreneurial approach toward fulfilling their missions:

  • Microfinance – has moved away from its NGO roots to transition into a profitable, commercially viable business opportunity that successfully continues to address social issues. In fact, microfinance has been singularly responsible for demonstrating that the poor are bankable and can work their way out of poverty with the help of formal financial tools.

The sector today comprises many social enterprises catering to double-bottom lines – enabling inclusion in a financially sustainable manner.

  • Maya Organic & LabourNet – are initiatives of MAYA, a Karnataka-based development organisation set up in 1989 to address issues of livelihood and education. With an initial focus on addressing child rights and issues of child labour,
    MAYA has grown to recognise that eradication of child labour requires systemic interventions in livelihood and education reform.
    This understanding evolved into its livelihood approach based social ventures Maya Organic and LabourNet.
  • Maya Organic – works with informal sector workers and artisans involved in production of toys, furniture and garment making. It trains and supports workers to form SHGs (self help groups) that function as independent micro enterprises in producing very high quality products.
    The initiative establishes infrastructure, trains workers in business and production skills and enables groups to build capabilities.
    The design and marketing functions are handled through a front-end company, Maya Organic India Private Limited, set up as a social venture, which has already created a well recognised brand of lifestyle products- furniture, toys and educational aids.
  • LabourNet – registers workers onto a database, whose services are available on call to customers for a fee. The workers are registered through worker facilitation centres that offer various services to workers including training, insurance and other benefits. Customers get to access these services (such as construction, maintenance, domestic help etc) through a call/service delivery centre.The initiative is now operational in Bangalore, Gurgaon and Hyderabad.
  • Aseema – established in 1995, the organisation focuses on protecting and promoting rights of underprivileged children and women. Aseema’s primary programmatic focus is on offering quality and relevant education to underprivileged children helping to inculcate a desire to learn and to further complete their education at formal institutions.

One of its unique programmes includes transformation of children’s art into marketable products.
The art programme is guided by art teachers and professional artists that are invited to work with students helping each child develop his/her individual style.

Products thus created are sold at Aseema’s offices as well as various exhibitions including the ‘Harmony Art Show’ and “through the sale of products, Aseema hopes to eventually become self-sustaining”.

While these can serve as examples for transformation in to social ventures, none are meant to represent a one-size-fits-all solution. Adopting a business-like approach is imperative to the long-term sustainability of CSOs but the choice of a suitable path is an individualistic one taking into account the CSO’s immediate environment including its stakeholders and, more importantly, its ultimate mission.

In sum, to attain long-term sustainability, it is vital for CSOs to actively consider transforming into social enterprises that are able to leverage a judicious mix of funding sources to enhance financial and operational independence to successfully broaden their reach and heighten the incidence of impact. (Word Count 1011)


Fulton, K. & Blau, A. (2005) Looking Out For the Future: An Orientation for Twenty-first Century Philanthropists, Global Business Network & Monitor Institute, Monitor Group

UNICEF (2008), The State of the World's Children 2009, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)


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August 18, 2010
Civil Society Organisations on the Path to Sustainability
Civil society involvement has long been an integral part of the Indian landscape providing grassroots response to government and market failures, channelling philanthropic funds towards crucial gaps in the economic, social and environmental fabric of the country.  More

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