This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s closing keynote address delivered to the 2019 class of the Strategic Non-Profit Management – India offered developed in conjunction with the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative and offered in association with the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropyat Ashoka University.
People often refer to the social sector as the third sector, but I would argue that it actually has to be the first sector. In the continuum of samaaj (society), bazaar (the marketplace), and sarkaar (the state), the samaaj must come first. Bazaar and sarkaar were created to serve the samaaj. The samaaj includes all of us, and it has simply created the bazaar to serve its economic interests and the sarkaar to serve equality to all people, on a large scale.
However, over the centuries, the other two sectors – the state and the market – have acquired tremendous power. Technological advancement has enabled the accumulation of that power in ways completely unimaginable even a few years ago. It’s crucial that we understand the implications of the accumulation of power by the state and markets. In our hearts, we are citizens first, before consumers or subjects of the state. So we need social organisations that protect the wellbeing of the samaaj, and hold the bazaar and sarkaar accountable.
Balancing the Scales
Both the bazaar and the sarkaar have become extremely successful at driving scale, especially over the last few years. The market will always chase profits, acquire more customers, and accumulate power. Similarly, when the state achieves scale, it’s accumulating a lot of power for its continuing legitimacy. Both these forms of accumulation of power can create tremendous public good. Markets improve our lives in amazing ways every single day. The state enables the distribution of public services in a way that a sole individual could not possibly achieve.
What we really need in the social sector, is a mechanism of checks and balances, to hold these powers accountable to society. Today, civil society has an especially critical role in ensuring that the state increases equity, along with efficiency, and that markets are responsible while increasing profitability. Both the state and the market have also recognized that they cannot achieve success on their own, without the cooperation of the samaaj. Human problems are so interconnected today, that the state and the market are quite open to the intervention of civil society in many areas.
However, there are other threats as well. The three freedoms of democracy – the right to speak freely, the right to associate freely, and the right to practice one’s own beliefs, come with duties, which don’t get talked about enough. People must have the right to speak freely, but without deliberately hurting others; the right to form associations without turning into mobs; and the right to practice one’s beliefs, without preventing others from practicing theirs. So there are duties and rights, but these freedoms are increasingly being distorted.
It’s therefore important for all of us in the social sector to ensure we play a balancing role. While the state and the markets have been remarkably successful at achieving scale, whether the social sector can achieve that has always been a bit doubtful. Sometimes, I wonder if being unable to scale is a failure of imagination on our part. After all, Mahatma didn’t just try to improve the lives of people in the Porbandar District. He wasn’t just trying to improve the lot of all of the citizens of India. Rather, he was trying to transform humanity at its core. His imagination was that big and nothing would come in the way. The trade-off for our independence was not going to be sacrificing our humanity –that was the scale of his imagination.
Vinoba Bhave is another example that comes to mind. He was not trying to rescue land from just one district. He was talking about the redistribution of land, a very primary source of inequity in this country, across the nation. Jayaprakash Narayan’s Sampoorna Kranti was not only about one class or one identity group replacing the other. It was an imagination at a much loftier level. That’s how these stalwarts achieved scale, because of the scale of their imagination and their intent to affect change on that level. I wonder if the social sector now has lost a bit of that zeal for imagination. We all belong to the tribe of Gandhi, Vinoba, and Jayaprakash Narayan, and we need to look to the state and markets to understand how we can achieve scale in this sector as well.
The Need for Societal Platform Thinking
Clearly, the motivation for scale is different in the three sectors. In the social sector, our goal is to improve human dignity, to create better access to goods and services, to restore agency, to increase creativity, and much more. Essentially, it is to give Izzat, Insaaf, Imandari to people. So when our goal is different from the market or the state, it’s clear that we can’t think of scale in the same way that they do.
Over the last 30 years, Nandan and I have been working in very different fields. Nandan has been a successful entrepreneur with Infosys, managing to get some 1.3 billion people another kind of system, as well as doing philanthropic work. I have been working within the social sector, helping individual institutions and ideas spread and grow. Through our work, the goal was to create more public goods in the public sphere, but we’ve also failed a lot in this regard. This is because it’s far easier to make a profitable company or a successful state, than it is to create real, lasting social change. Many wealthy philanthropists I’ve met have expressed the same feeling. They start out assuming that if they can create a successful business, why not a great social sector organisation? But when they actually try it, they find just how hard it is to create scale in the social sector. So we have to understand why scale is very different in this sector.
Since 2015, Nandan and I have been working together on EkStep, with the goal that we will reach the 200 million children in this country with increased access to learning opportunities. We both have different but complementary approaches to achieving this, and through the years, we have developed something called Societal Platform Thinking. When we are trying to solve complex, interdependent societal problems, we have to be careful how we go about doing this. Our methods have to be based on certain morally undeniable principles and philosophies. We have arrived at five of these basic principles, to help us and others get started.
The first thing we’ve learned is that however great a certain solution might be, if our aim is to solve at the root cause level and scale, just pushing one solution down the pipeline will not work. We have to design to distribute the ability to solve. This means that you need to implicitly trust people, and trust in their ability to be part of the solution. It becomes a question of design, where people need to see clearly, and be trusted to get involved in coming up with solutions.
The other thing that we learnt over time is that resources like money, people, talent, etc. are hard to come by. So many things, in terms of public goods, are hard to come by when you’re trying to scale something. So we began to think through this, and we found that if you unpack complex social problems, you often find a core that is common. When you look at the common core, you realize that there are ways to make those scarce resources plentiful. Sometimes there is abundance under your nose, it just exists in different forms. For example, if we think about education, it’s very difficult to find professional, competent teachers. But if we look at the system, there are parents, and para-teachers in abundance. So now the question becomes how to involve them as part of the solution?
Most of the problems that we need to scale for are contextual. The solution that might work in one place, might not work 100 kilometres down the road. There is a lot of diversity in India, and therefore pushing just one cookie-cutter solution won’t work. So how do you design to scale up diversity? How will your solutions work for diversity at scale? For that, in your design, you have to create a unified but not uniform intervention, design, infrastructure, and framework. Unified because we all have to achieve the same goal. There’s no use having a completely disparate kind of structure. It has to be unified but not uniform, so that you can achieve this contextual diversity at scale, which is necessary in a country like ours.
To ensure this, you need a digital tech backbone to distribute the ability to solve because you need multi-directional feedback loops. You need data coming in, not just being delivered at one end, but moving around all the streams so that people can use the data. But while technology is needed, we have learnt that you have to be technology-enabled. If you’re technology-led, you tend to make a lot mistakes about outcome thinking, because technology-led solutions can give you false sense of success. You can just rack up the numbers, rack up some data points, but you may not actually get the social outcome that you want. That’s important to keep in mind, because people today can get carried away thinking that the technology is the solution.
These are the kind of building blocks we are using at EkStep to design, to reach those 200 million people. We’re working with the state, and civil society, and the markets, to move the needle to reach those kids. So in the social sector, when we are thinking of scale, we need this kind of societal platform thinking, these social innovation labs where we can generate ideas, and more importantly, we can fail and learn from them.
Taking Risks and Embracing Failure
We all fail, but what’s important is that we are not afraid of failure. I think a lot about Gandhi, and how one of the reasons he went to South Africa was because he had failed as a lawyer. That failure launched a transformational epoch for humanity. Clearly, it’s how we deal with that failure that matters. Social innovation labs allow for that, that pull and push of failing, getting up, failing again, and succeeding.
However, in this sector, it’s very hard for us to acknowledge failure. Philanthropists are very risk averse. Most philanthropists are very successful in business, and they’ve taken huge risk to get there. But often, when they move to the social sector, they forget how to take risks. Since they are now dealing with people’s lives and futures, and common public goods, they want every venture to succeed. Businesses are allowed to fail. In fact, failure in Silicon Valley is celebrated. But in the social sector, if you fail, you might adversely affect a thousand people’s lives because of your mistake. As social sector organisations, it’s very hard to tell your donors that you’ve failed, but still need more money from them as well.
However, it’s time that we create spaces and platforms where donors, foundations, and members of civil society organizations come together and destigmatise this notion of failure. The question should now become how we do deal with failure, so that we can keep innovating? When we think about scale, we need failure, because without failure, there’s no innovation, and without innovation, there’s no solution for scale. So fear of failure may also lead to fear of scaling, and I think we are stuck somewhere in that fear. We should strive for platforms where donors and civil society organizations can meet in a safe space to talk about these things.
Although we live in a digital age, civil society in India has a lot of catching up to do. Some of my civil society friends are downright techno-phobic, and they assume all technology is bad. This is a huge challenge for us as a country of people who are not digital natives, but need to advance a younger population who are. We cannot afford to stay the way we are, because the accumulation of power is also happening digitally. Unless we understand how to work efficiently in a digital age, and through digital means, we will not have the internal resources and external tool kits to hold the sarkaar and bazaar accountable. The Indian civil sector needs to come into the digital age, which means the donor community needs to support this as well.
At the heart of all this, the motivation for our work is to restore dignity and agency to people. Roosevelt once said, “Look to the stars, but keep your feet on the ground,” and I think that’s what we should keep in mind when we think about scaling our work, especially in the philanthropy sector.