Embracing Risk: Solving our Societal Challenges

March 9, 2019 | Philanthropy

Rohini Nilekani’s keynote talk on Embracing Risk: Solving our Societal Challenges at Dasra Philanthropy Week 2019 in Mumbai. India cannot solve its societal challenges, at a scale of one billion people, incrementally. The time to take big risks is now. Rohini speaks about how we can take greater risks, both individually and collectively, how we can embrace failure as an opportunity, and how we can mitigate the downsides

Watch Keynote



So Namaskar to everybody. It gives me great pleasure to come to Dasra functions. I’ve been there watching them, and very happy to see that it is one of the intermediary ecosystem institutions in philanthropy that has been able to perform at some scale, and from the get-go, their theme has been collaboration, everything has been designed around that. So I think for that, let’s just take a second to give Dasra a big hand.

So we’ve all come a long way in the philanthropy sector in India. Apart from the older, very well-known philanthropist, we are seeing the arrival of so many new and very serious and committed philanthropist to the sector getting engaged, and yet as we look around, we see that no matter which sector we are engaged in civil society institutions, as corporate CSR agencies or as philanthropist, that whichever area we tend to engage in, the problem seems to rush ahead faster than our approach, our solution, and we don’t seem to quite get there. You saw the presentation just before, and even today 70 years later, after so many people working in the area of education, so many civil society organizations, most of the philanthropy has gone to the education sector. But if you look at this year’s ASER report, it feels like we might have failed our children, even now so many of them cannot do division, multiplication in class five. Where are they going to land later, we know that.

So it’s very important for us to understand why perhaps that we have not achieved as much as we would like to, though we have done so much. And I really believe in the power of intent, so I think we are going to do better, but societal problems are very complex, and none of us individually or even as sectors like philanthropist, civil society, markets, state, we cannot achieve those things on our own. We know that. Not even if just two of those collaborate. It really requires the whole continuum of samaaj, bazaar, and sarkar, civil society, states, and markets to work together with reduced friction to actually solve very complex societal issues, which is why we come to collaborative action, which is why we come to collaboration. It is absolutely essential, because different actors in these sectors offer, excuse me, offer different skill sets, and have different context from which to come at a problem from multi-sides on.

Luckily, there is a lot more opportunity today to be on collaborative platforms, such as Dasra itself or Co-Impact, which is going to be talked about here I’m sure. We have several others. There’s the India Philanthropy initiative. Some of us got together to look at an area like independent media, and have set up a collaborative giving platform called IPSMF, a very new and exciting area that we’re looking at in collaboration is climate change with some of us led by the Tata trust have set up, The India Climate Collaborative, and it has fairly ambitious goals to spur the ecosystem around working on climate change. So there’s tremendous opportunity right now to think of collaboration, and I think I’m sure today and tomorrow there’s gonna be a lot of talk on it. I’m just highlighting that, this is essential. In our work, my husband Nandan and I over the last four, five years have begun to see how we can create a framework around collaboration. We are calling it Societal Platform Thinking, and my colleagues Sanjay Purohit and others are going to be speaking to this tomorrow.

But collaboration is easier to talk about than to actually do, because it is not at all easy. There’s a lot of friction to collaborate, and maybe two reasons that we cannot achieve the outcomes that would come only through collaborating is that we are not able to take enough risk, that we are not able to really embrace risk. We don’t know perhaps how to trust, how to let go, how to get out of our comfort zones and do things that we now might fail. So embracing risk is a lot about failure and the ability to trust. When I say trust, it means if you are a philanthropist, you have to be able to trust your grantee partners, give them enough flexibility to change what they’re doing based on context, the ability to not ask them to give ridiculous amounts of reporting, so that you feel are doing all right as a philanthropist.

You have to be able to lead with trust, and I’ve found at least in my 30 years old journey in this space that the more I’m able to trust, of course there are some caveats to whom you work with. You should be able to work with trustworthy partners, but once you start off with the relationship of trust, magic happens. I’m sure you all know that, but I just wanted to highlight that is a very key thing if you want to achieve social outcomes. The embracing risk and allowing ourselves to trust, it really opens up our minds and opens up spaces for us to act in. We have to be prepared when we embrace risk, of course, to embrace failure. And once you say, “I’m willing to fail.” It allows you to go where you have not gone before with much more confidence.

So today, for example, I think the need of the hour, as our economy is growing, and as our government is able to do much more social spending, there’s a lot of attention being paid to how we can implement government programs better, and certainly CSR has become even better doing that over the last few years. There are many civil society organizations that helped government achieve its own mandate better at the implementation level. But there are so many areas of society that don’t get looked at enough, where government is not necessarily doing enough, and where we as philanthropist and civil society organizations need to do much more. Look at issues like mental health. Look at the disability panel that was speaking today calling us to do more action, look at issues like justice, access to justice. So many other issues, new issues on environment, livelihoods, that perhaps if we were to embrace the risk and not fear to fail, we would go into those areas as a philanthropist, as new CSO organizations and innovate stuff that could get us out of the usual rot of our societal problems.

Because otherwise, we keep saying that social sector doesn’t scale, social sector, even if the organizations don’t scale, it is the issue that has to be played out at scale. And here as well, philanthropist, if corporate philanthropy and personal philanthropy are able to say, “Alright, I’m going to go into slightly risky areas such as justice, and allow people to innovate, to fail a little perhaps, but then to understand why they fail in trying new things.” I really believe that 10 years later when we come back to look at what’s happened in this new age of Indian philanthropy, we will be able to show something new that perhaps has not been tried before. Sometimes I wonder if we are suffering from a lack of imagination. When Vinoba Bhave started Bhoodan and Mahatma Gandhi started the Salt Satyagraha. They were thinking at a universal human level of change and maybe now when we talk about one district or even 10 districts at a time, maybe, that is not enough. At least some of us should be able to say that we will go beyond just doing incremental things, and that means…

That means, talk at a much larger scale, at an population scale, how can we bring change at the population scale? There is a method to achieving that. Intent is not enough and the collaborative frameworks that you need for that need to be designed for scale that is always very important. My colleagues will talk much more about this tomorrow. Failure. Again, I want to touch for a bit on failure, because I don’t think we talk enough about failure in the sector. Failure can lead to a lot of stuff, very interesting stuff. Certainly in 30 years, we have failed repeatedly in the work that I do. And in an article I recently wrote, I was thinking of how Gandhi actually failed as a lawyer here. He just couldn’t get his practice together, and then he embraced risk and set off in a boat to South Africa and look what one failure led to the transformation of humanity in some sense. So we should not be afraid to fail, but then immediately thereafter, to embrace risk and set out to sail to shores yet unseen.

I felt three lessons from all the failures that I was able to, I hope, embrace in 30 years of working in the social sector. Some of the three quick lessons that I just want to talk is, sometimes when we started Nagrik for safer roads for example, way back in 1992. I think we didn’t understand the root cause why our roads are not safer, and when you don’t go deep enough to analyze an abstract whatever problem you’re working on, you tend to work on just bandaged solutions and the whole thing collapses under its own weight. The second thing I understood when I worked in Akshara foundation Pratham Books Arghyam and now EkStep is that you need to clearly de-market, the role of Samaaj, Bazaar and Sarkar and not confuse it. Allow Samaaj to do what it does best, allow Sarkar to do what it does best, and encourage Bazaar to do what it knows how to do best. But if you force Bazaar to go below the line of profitability, if you expect Sarkar to do what citizens should be doing, if you expect citizens to take on the owners of what Sarkar should be doing, it tends to create confusion and not achieve the societal outcome you need.

And the last thing I learned was, and this is very important for philanthropist to really understand, is that, if you really want societal level transformation, none of us have the answers, right? But there are people who have answers in their own context. How do we distribute the ability to solve. A very key way to distribute the ability to solve instead of pushing one solution down the pipe is to open up, to create platforms and to allow public goods to be created from the work that we do. So for example, in Pratham Books, once we realize that were to open up the creation, the distribution, the sale of books, the translation, once we a created a Creative Commons platform where everybody could do what they do best, we were able to scale to tens of millions of children. So this is a very important lesson. When philanthropic capital is being used, that capital in the hands of government would otherwise be taxed, right? So, we owe it to the work that we do, to the ambitions that we have that we deliberately work now, especially now in the digital age to create open digital public goods, so that other people can build and innovate on a platform that we help to support as philanthropist in areas that perhaps people have not been bold enough to go before.

So I would like to close because I see the two minutes sign, that maybe today, at the end of two decades of work of Dasra, the beginning of a third decade in some sense, Dasra’s journey is synonymous with new age of Indian philanthropy. As we begin this third decade and re-dedicate ourselves, let us all say today, no matter who we are, no matter what work we are doing, that we commit to saying that, at least in one area, we will not just do incremental but transformational and we will do that through collaboration, we will do that through embracing risk, and we will do that without fear of failure. So on this International Women’s Day, let me again say, thank you so much for the opportunity. I’m sorry, but like a bad penny, I’m gonna turn up at the stage again tomorrow, but I’ll say, something different. I hope not to bore you again. I very much look forward to the rest of the day. Thank you Dasra. Thank you for the opportunity, thank you for this great audience and this actually beautiful stage where I used to come 50 years ago to watch Manoj Kumar teaching us lessons in patriotism. Thank you very much.

Embracing Risk: Solving our Societal Challenges

More from Philanthropy

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *