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Why The Development Sector Is Not Just About NGOs – And How You Can Join It

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By Gaurav Shah, Founder of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM):

When people ask me what I do and I reply saying that I work in the “development sector“, people usually assume that I mean IT or real estate. It takes several rounds of clarifications and consequent blank stares, going from “social development sector” to “social sector“, till I hit upon the magic words – “NGO sector” – and understanding dawns.

For a very long time now, the social sector has been ably represented and identified by this all-encompassing term – NGO. It represents not just an organisational form, but the sum of all the work, ideas, cultures, mindsets and even lifestyles of an entire sector and its people. The kurta pyjama (or jeans & dhoti), sandal wearing NGO professional with a jhola/bag on their arm is the first image that emerges in many people’s minds then they hear this word (given my upbringing in Calcutta, there might be a slight Bengal bias to the imagery).

However, over the last five to eight years, the sector has evolved at a rapid pace. While NGOs still represent an overwhelming majority of the work and people in this space, the sector is now much more diverse in terms of opportunities and thereby more open to accepting and providing these opportunities to people from different backgrounds, with different hopes, aspirations, skillsets and visions of change. The simplistic answer to the question “How do I work in the Development Sector?” is no longer “Join an NGO”. This question deserves a little more thought and careful analysis to find your sweet spot in this sector. Here I attempt to highlight a particular line of thinking that one could follow while making this decision, and a set of questions one should look at answering for the self:

1. How Much Time Do You Have?

Almost everyone I meet wants to help improve people’s lives and contribute in some way or the other. The easiest way to do that is through charity – which is also the least involved decision. Using time as a parameter for analysis, one can move from a zero-time contribution model (pure charity) to a small time commitment (volunteering), to a higher time commitment (part-time) to the highest time commitment (full-time). Your passion for social change combined with the realities and compulsions of your life will decide which of these options you take up at any point in your life. Some always remain at the charity level while others spend their whole life working full time in this space. You may also shift in and out of these phases.

2. What Issue (s) Are You Concerned About?

The UN has designated 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) which define the development agenda over the next 15 years for the world. Which goal(s) one chooses to work with will be determined by a combination of an emotional (what tugs at your heart? What bothers you the most?) and a cognitive (based on numbers, statistics, world realities, theory of change) decision-making process. Given the technical nature of each of these areas, it’s important to get an in depth understanding of some of them and combine that with an ability to view things systemically and design holistic change interventions.

3. What Kind Of Organization Works For You?

NGO: Even NGOs are not all homogenous, they can be categorised based on many different factors – geography (local, regional, national, international), theme (education, health, livelihood etc.), strategic orientation (rights-based, service delivery, advocacy etc). Each such category represents different kinds of work (working on the ground with communities versus coordinating with a group of implementing NGOs), requires different kinds of talent and has very different compensation levels.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Organisations: With India CSR budgets ranging from Rs. 15-20K Crore, they increasingly need people who understand field level realities and have the ability and the mindset to work in a corporate setting with the challenge of managing and internal stakeholders.

Social and Corporate Foundations: Typically, large organisations which either act as a source/funnel of funds or have their own funding and implementation teams, require the ability to identify and work with partner organisations to help deliver on the project mandate and budget.

Social Enterprises: Largely for-profit entities with a strong social mission. For example, microfinance, microinsurance, affordable schools etc. require people who have the ability to balance social and commercial goals.

Support Organisations: Includes a range of organisations like social consulting organisations, social investment bankers, social recruitment platforms/portals etc.

Think Tanks: Typically, these create and disseminate knowledge – conduct relevant research, publish papers etc.

4. What Kind Of Work Are You Really Good At?

Choosing the kind of work that one wants to do is one of the most important decisions to make. It should typically arise from what you really enjoy doing and where your actual skillsets lie. Some potential work areas are:

Research & Knowledge Creation: If you have an academic bent of mind and enjoy teaching and/or research (knowledge creation and dissemination), the sector now has lots of opportunities for your skillset. Like any other space, this sector continuously needs to refresh its knowledge base and develop and disseminate new theories and ways of working.

Social Work: If you are basically a technical person, enjoy delving into the meat of social issues to understand the reasons behind them, and love working at the grassroots level with communities to ideate and implement solutions, then training to become a Social Worker, with perhaps a deeper understanding of some of the sub-sectors (education, health, etc.), is a great idea for you.

Development Management: If you are excited about the idea of building world class social organisations, and you want to design, implement, evaluate and monitor large-scale social interventions and develop collaborative ecosystems which can together deliver sustainable social change at scale, then you should go down the path of Development Leadership and Management. This would include areas of work like Organization strategy, People Management, Communication and Engagement, Financial Management, Organization Design & Development, Program Design and Management, CSR Management, Fund Raising, Partnerships & Stakeholder Engagement etc.

Consulting/Investment Banking: If you like looking at the broader picture and not getting into actual operational roles (on the ground or the organization level), or if working on a variety of different problems gives you satisfaction (width versus depth), then social consulting roles could be for you. If a preference for number crunching, developing effective storyline presentations, and engaging with donors and investors sounds like your thing, then social investment banks might be a good fit for you.

This is just a thought framework that I have found useful. It is neither exhaustive nor does it seek to depict decision making as a linear, chronological step-by-step model. Decision making is complex and will happen simultaneously with multiple iterations. However, focusing on some of these questions without getting stuck on them will potentially help you understand yourself, your aspirations, and your skillsets better – and thereby help in making a more informed choice about where you want to work.

While part of this thinking can be done individually, supplementing it with a lot of secondary research, this process should involve a lot of discussions and deliberations with people doing work in your area of interest and if possible, actual internship/volunteering stints in particular areas. This will introduce the realities and flavours of real life to your thinking and give it the depth required to make better and more appropriate decisions.

In a college discussion, a girl once told me that she does not want to give up her Starbucks Coffee by working in this sector! I just want to end by saying that the sector has evolved a lot over the last few years and offers tremendously rich opportunities to do meaningful work and live lives of choice and dignity. You don’t need to give up your coffee (or whatever it may be) for living a life of meaning and satisfaction anymore!

Happy hunting, and may you find your sweet spot!

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  1. Ashutosh Sundaram

    Thank you for the lovely article, Gaurav. It indeed is very interesting to see the shift in the development sector. I am sure that you all will be doing a great job at ISDM helping students graduate with focus on their sweet spots.

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