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I quit a corporate job to work with an NGO. And, this is how it feels

What does it mean to transition from the private sector to a non-profit?

Piyush Mehra   New Delhi     Last Updated: May 3, 2018  | 23:07 IST
I quit a corporate job to work with an NGO. And, this is how it feels

January 2012: Standing at the edge of Bloukrans Bridge, South Africa, the highest bungee bridge in the world at 708 feet, I felt butterflies in my stomach. All hooked up, I wanted to jump into the wind and towards the water in the valley but was scared. My singular thought was - should I take the leap?

January 2015: I had a similar feeling- I had an opportunity to transition from my management consulting job in south-east Asia to a public health non-profit in India. The big pull was an opportunity to work towards social impact, but it meant drastic changes in work and life style, moving countries and managing finances. Three years hence, I am glad I took the leap.

I am often asked what to expect from such a move; how to decide whether to make the move? Here, I lay down some of my learnings for people considering a shift:

Business skills are transferrable and important: Initially, I was sceptical whether I will add value in my new role, given that I don't have a background in public health. Businesses inculcate certain skills which are relevant in any context - structured thinking, problem solving, negotiation, communication, project management and analytical skills are some examples. For example, in Rajasthan we use data analytics coupled with grassroots knowledge to predict and focus services on the most vulnerable pregnant women and children.

Problems that the social sector tries to address are arguably more complex and challenging than in the private sector. Think it is difficult to bring about behaviour change in organisations? Imagine how difficult it would be to achieve this across the population in a diverse country like India. Non-profits can greatly benefit from infusion of business skills.

Transition requires development of new skills too. I thought my communication skills were honed, having worked closely with CXOs of multinationals. When I was to communicate with a group of veiled pregnant women in villages, I failed miserably. While my business experience proved handy, I had to start afresh as a student, in many respects.

Real issues are not apparent: I came to the social sector confident of my problem-solving skills - that is what I had been doing as a management consultant. Soon, my bubble burst. Asking a woman to exclusively breastfeed her baby for the first six months after birth may seem like an awareness generation problem. But, the crux lies in social and economic barriers which hold her back. She may be working in the fields all day; her mother-in-law and customs may require feeding honey and water - typically she will not have a say. Beneficiaries' (or consumers in business parlance) mindset and circumstances are not always decipherable by data - it requires developing a thorough and thoughtful understanding through numerous first-hand interactions at the grassroots.

I met many families who accepted infant deaths as routine and saw 'more children' as insurance against child mortality - they rejected simple solutions like regular antenatal check-ups and immunizations. Supply wasn't the big problem, demand generation was.

Don't shift for an easy life: Often, friends speak to me about wanting to move to the social sector to escape the 'constant pressure of targets' and have better 'work-life balance'. Not only is this a misconception but also ethically inappropriate. Compare failing to meet a sales target resulting in a temporary, reversible drop in profits with failing to address an emergency situation where lives can be lost, or children can be pushed into severe malnutrition. Which is a higher-pressure situation?

Your lifestyle also changes significantly - flights to train rides, high-end hotels to sleeping in schools and so on. Contemplate transition to make a difference or follow a calling and invest your best effort in what you believe.

Money matters: Development professionals earn significantly lower than their private sector counterparts. This is probably the greatest factor why we have not seen an influx of top talent in development. This is beginning to change, and progressively you find development institutions ready to pay at par with the private sector. Development sector needs top talent and should pay for it.

Empathy is non-negotiable: All successful social development leaders have one thing in common -empathy with beneficiaries. Betterment of beneficiaries' lives is their passion. Alternatively, many business leaders owe their success completely to their skills and attitude. They may not believe in the product or service they sell but may still be brilliant salespeople. This works in business - people can be detached, but still perform at high standards, driven typically by recognition and rewards. The principal reward in social development is personal satisfaction.

Look for a cultural fit: I was fortunate that the organisation I joined - the Antara Foundation, was a good fit for me. It was founded and led by an ex-McKinsey director who led the Gates Foundation in India for a decade; the team was a mix of business and development professionals; the philosophy was to have a perennially entrepreneurial and 'start-up like' culture. We had flexibility in designing our programs, making mistakes, learning and trying again. It is essential while making a transition to be reasonably certain that it does not end up being a culture shock either for you or the organisation.

This transition has been an adventure and, in some ways, a journey of self-discovery. It has opened my eyes to realities I didn't know exist and challenged my pre-conceived notions. I have developed a new-found respect for our rural communities and their ability to adapt to harsh circumstances. The adventure has just started and is exhilarating - just like the jump from Bloukrans Bridge.

(The author is the CEO, Antara Foundation. He has worked in management consulting with Arthur D Little and KPMG.)

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