What young people looking to start up in the non-profit sector should know.

India has a number of problems – poverty, unemployability, a lack of access to quality education and training, and many more – that call for innovative thinking. These are problems that can’t be addressed through public policies and programs alone. They also need to be tackled through rapid and ongoing innovation from dedicated non-profit enterprises. 

However, the non-profit sector in India is yet to fulfill its potential as a key player in tackling these issues. There is data to back up this observation. For example, for a country that has the second largest number of poor people in the country, India does not have a single non-profit in the top 250 of the world. Countries like Liberia and Bangladesh, on the other hand, have a number of non-profits that have broken into the global top 100 group. They have not only been able to find capital for innovation but have also shown that they are capable of sustained growth. What is more impressive is that these are young, new age startups that have pulled these results off without the kind of brand power and recognition that large organizations such as United Way enjoy.

So, what exactly is the Indian non-profit sector missing? This is definitely not to trivialize the challenges that non-profit entrepreneurs face when it comes to attracting funds, particularly when they are trying to develop technology platforms or other solutions that require time to deliver impact. 

That being said, there are factors that account for the non-profit sector’s lacklustre showing in India. Aspiration levels are one such factor. These are nowhere near what you would see in the for-profit sector. In a city like Bangalore, you see numerous tech startups that aim to innovate for more than just local problems from day one. They have their sights trained on broader target markets — pan-India at a minimum, and possibly even the rest of the world. Their projections for growth involve a hockey stick kind of growth curve. There is definite aggression in their push for growth and they do all the right things to be able to attract talent and funding, among other vital resources.

In the non-profit world, on the other hand, the primary focus for any given solution tends to be very hyperlocal. It is driven by the needs of one community or region. Very seldom do you find social innovators evolve a disruptive solution and roll it out globally. Historically, this is a sector that has not had the kind of role models – individuals like Vijay Shekar Sharma or Binny Bansal planting the idea of a unicorn in others – you see in the for profit world. There are a handful of organizations (such as Akshaya Patra) that have done incredible work but their journeys have not been easy. They started in an era before CSR funding, when there was limited access to resources. Growth in these enterprises was a function of hard work and dedication and typically followed a linear path, not a hockey stick curve. This history tends to reflect in the mindset or aspirations of people who join the non-profit sector. 

What is heartwarming and encouraging, though, is that young people today are seeking purpose earlier, right from the beginning of their careers. The sheer numbers of them willing to give up higher salaries to make the growth story more equitable and make it a fairer world for everybody is highly inspiring. 

For those weighing a career in the sector, it’s important to break away from thinking of it with the volunteering model in mind. No purely volunteer driven program can operate with a sense of rigor and speed and create deep meaningful impact. While it is important to tap into the volunteer spirit to augment what you are doing, the core team driving it should be obsessively working towards clearly defined goals. 

For that to happen, non-profit entrepreneurs and professionals have to be able to make a living in the sector. Doing good for others shouldn’t come at the cost of doing reasonably well for yourself. It’s important for these entrepreneurs to budget for sufficient compensation for themselves and their core teams. You can ask those at higher levels – particularly second career professionals who are motivated by the idea of more meaningful work – to take a greater cut in their salaries. But young people starting out in the sector and for whom this is their first career, need to be adequately compensated. This kind of salary structure should be built into the non-profit’s business model. This is how you can ensure you are running an efficient ship that meets its commitments to donors and delivers on outcomes.

On the topic of donors, while the grantmaker ecosystem is still evolving in the country, there are severel positive trends on this front. Philanthropy and awareness of its impact has grown, with more examples of it now out there in the public domain. And CSR funding is, in theory, widely available, although many organizations are still figuring out how best to deploy their funds. They are waiting for the right idea or talent to emerge and prove itself deserving of their support.

So, it’s clear there are real opportunities for disruption in the non-profit sector. Incubation of ideas along with mentoring by veterans in the space can help raise aspiration levels and create greater hunger for success. It can show non-profit entrepreneurs that there are pathways to achieving audacious dreams, connect them to the grantmaker ecosystem, and equip them with tools to tell their stories effectively.

My primary advice to people starting up in the space would be to spend a lot of time just understanding the problem. Sustainable change comes from deeply understanding the context and providing those little nudges that make it possible for people to solve their own problems. A solution first approach where you think you know all the answers and then try to frame the problem to fit those answers, is likely to backfire. But if you go in with an open mind, you have a better chance of getting to the core of an issue and then finding new ways to solve for it.

It’s important for non-profit entrepreneurs to show a greater sense of urgency and an appetite for scale in their ventures. It’s equally important for them to be focused on meaningful impact and on building agency in the communities they are trying to help. 

N/Core is currently accepting applications at ncore.foundation

CEO of N/Core, which helps nonprofits solve problems at a...