That’s one of the many questions that Sriram Ananthanarayanan, Director - Projects, United Way Bengaluru, and Joel Fernandez, Chief of Partnerships & Strategy, TeamLease Foundation discussed in depth, at another thought-provoking edition of the CSR Dialogues.
With close to 2 decades in the development sector, designing education and environmental projects, Ananthanarayanan’s experience includes working with diverse organizations in geographies ranging from Kanyakumari to the UK. The overarching topic of the conversation was: Defining an effective Corporate-NGO partnership towards creating sustainable impact in the society
The conversation began on how to hard-wire sustainability into CSR projects. Could better alignment between the long term goals of corporate entities and the NGO partners they chose to work with, ensure the long-term viability of projects?
Ananthanarayanan agreed with Fernandez that genuine alignment was crucial to a project’s sustainability. He felt many CSR projects that get green-lit are done in an ad-hoc manner, or in ways that addressed very short-term gains. He pointed out that often NGOs tailored projects to match a corporate entity’s goals or vice versa - whereby a company tailored their CSR goals to match the expertise of the NGO. These certainly achieved good results in the short term, but fail to result in long-term impact.
A novel solution to ensuring genuine, core-value-based partnerships between companies and NGOs that Ananthanarayanan suggested was akin to the Know-Your-Customer practice in the banking sector. If KYC-like rigor was applied to evaluating CSR partners, corporate entities and NGOs would be able to work towards common goals, over years and years, engineering deep impact and upward mobility for vast sections of India’s population.
Joel Fernandez pointed out that if companies set long term plans for their CSR goals, supporting a particular sector year-after year, the cumulative effects would be far-reaching - even becoming a key driver of India’s economy. As an example, he highlighted the fact that India is blessed with the largest population of under-40s in the world. A sustained effort via CSR to continuously upskill this demographic, over many years, would result in a potent, job-ready workforce that could fill the skills gap companies are currently hamstrung by. A short-term approach could result in training a small cohort of youngsters and placing a fraction of them in jobs. But genuine sustainability in a way that impacts the economy, calls for a far more long term vision in CSR planning.
With close to 20 years behind him, Ananthanarayanan also questioned the ‘one size fits all’ approach adopted by many in the skill development sector. He felt that unless the beneficiaries’ needs and ambitions were understood and truly aligned with the skill development offered, such initiatives would not have long term impact. Currently, the training offered is often to fill the skills gaps in the corporate sector - so it’s what companies require, not necessarily what the beneficiaries want.
For more on ensuring common CSR goals for corporates and NGOs, click HERE.
The conversation moved on to how donors and NGOs could come together and design more effective skilling programs, in order to reduce the huge skill gap. Ananthanarayanan highlighted a few key factors to aid this. The first was to acknowledge that no skilling program would be effective if the goals did not align with what the beneficiaries genuinely wanted - the top-down approach resulted in only limited success. The other factor was to truly study the various skilling support programs offered by the government and tap into, align with and benefit from them. Only when collaborating with the pan-India reach of the state, could skilling programs scale and have both long-term and geographically wide-spread impact.
His other suggestion was for corporates to permit some flexibility in their CSR programs since realities on the ground were in a constant state of flux, requiring quick turn-arounds, on-the-spot decision making and new ideas to address newly-discovered obstacles. Taking these factors into consideration could result in higher success rates in skilling programs. Tech adoption too, including Generative AI could play a major role in scaling programs, tracking them in real-time and re-jigging plans to address changing situations on the ground.
For more on ensuring higher success rates in skilling programs, watch HERE.
With 2 per cent of the profits of India’s leading companies being funneled into CSR, it is but natural that equal emphasis should be placed on oversight. So the discussion expanded to cover tracking and measuring the impact of CSR expenditure.
Here again, Ananthanarayanan believed that the very metrics currently used to measure impact, needed a relook. While how many people got jobs after a skilling program was one indicator on how good the training was from a technical point of view, subsequent tracking was required to gauge how many stayed on beyond the first month. For instance, it is common in skilling programs aimed at training rural youth to enter the formal sector in Tier 2 or Tier 1 towns, that drop-out rates within the first 40 days of employment are extremely high.
So analysis has shown that the social hurdles rural youth face in cities far from home are seemingly insurmountable. Hence the RoI on the huge investments made by donors interested in skilling India’s youth, remains low. Metrics that tracked longer term results, analyzed the data to pin-point the specific social hurdles faced - could ensure that subsequent skilling programs included ALL the social skills required (in addition to the technical skills) to fit into the formal, corporate environment, navigate life in a new city without family support, etc. In short, the metrics need to cover not just employer satisfaction, but ALSO employee satisfaction, months into the job.
To learn about the key metrics to track in order to assess real impact, click HERE.
This CSR Dialogue concluded on a key point - the importance of good data. When Joel Fernandez asked how corporates, donors, NGOs and government organizations could adapt, and innovate, to respond to new/emerging issues, Ananthanarayanan’s reply focused on first getting a better understanding of what beneficiary communities really needed, and only then designing programs to address those needs. Currently, the decision on how CSR funds will be spent is often made by the corporate entity PRIOR to any study or analysis of good, current data.
As an example to underscore his point, Ananthanarayanan discussed a project United Way, Bengaluru conducted at a block in Chikballapur. His example proved that only long-term data-driven projects could result in meaningful impact and a genuine, sustainable improvement in the lives of the beneficiaries.
To begin with, rather than going into the project focused on one goal like, for instance, livelihood, United Way partnered with a corporate that was willing to invest in the block-development program in a holistic manner, over many years. So the project first initiated a longitudinal study to truly understand what the needs of the community were. Then came the assessment of areas in which government intervention worked well. With clear data available, United Way with its corporate partners were able to move the needle forward in all the areas they’d judged intervention was needed - and this took over three years.
In short, donors need to be ready to support not just immediate results like ‘the number of youngsters skilled’ in one quarter, but also look at long-term studies as an investment worth making. This would ensure that the CSR funds spent are targeted exactly where beneficiaries need them the most. With satisfied beneficiaries, attrition levels drop and those entering the formal sector, stay there for the long term.
For more on the importance on data to help CSR donors adapt to emerging issues, click HERE.