Embracing Risk: Solving our Societal Challenges

Mar 09, 2019


This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s keynote talk on Embracing Risk: Solving our Societal Challenges at Dasra Philanthropy Week 2019 in Mumbai. Rohini talks 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.


We’ve come a long way in the philanthropy sector in India. Apart from the older, well-known philanthropists, we are seeing the arrival of so many new and seriously committed philanthropists to the sector. But no matter which sector we are engaged in, as civil society institutions, corporate CSR agencies, or philanthropists, the problems seem to rush ahead faster than our approach. Despite our solutions, we don’t quite seem to get there in time. Even after decades of work in the education sector by so many civil society organisations, this year’s ASER report makes one feel as if we’ve failed our children who, even now, cannot do simple math in class five.

Collaboration Is Essential

It’s important for us to understand why we haven’t achieved as much as we would like to, though we have put in the work. I 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 as sectors like philanthropy, civil society, markets, or state — can achieve those things on our own. We know that. Real, far-reaching change requires the whole continuum of samaaj, bazaar, and sarkaar, i.e. civil society, markets, and the state, to work together to actually solve these complex societal issues. This is why collaborative action is absolutely essential, because different actors in these sectors offer different skill sets, and have different contexts from which to come at a problem.

Luckily, there is a lot more opportunity today to create these collaborative platforms, like Dasra, Co-Impact, and India Philanthropy Initiative, etc. To target an area like independent media, some of us have set up a collaborative giving platform called IPSMF. Another area for collaboration is climate change, for which The India Climate Collaborative has been set up with the help of the Tata trust, with the goal of driving climate change action among philanthropy and CSR communities. In other words, there’s tremendous opportunity right now to create models based on collaboration, which is essential. In our work, my husband Nandan and I, have begun to see how we can create a framework around collaboration, that we’re calling Societal Platform Thinking.

The Importance of Trust

But collaboration is easier to talk about than to actually carry out. There’s a lot of friction to collaborate, and maybe two reasons why we cannot achieve our intended outcomes is that we are not able to take enough risk, and that we are not able to really embrace risk. We don’t know how to trust, how to let go, how to get out of our comfort zones and do things that we know might fail. So embracing risk is a lot about failure and the ability to trust. When I say trust, I mean that 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, and not expect them to give you ridiculous amounts of reporting, just so you can feel like you’re doing all right as a philanthropist.

You have to be able to lead with trust, and in my 30 year journey in this space, I’ve found that the more I’m able to trust, the better I can lead. 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 a relationship based on trust, magic happens. It’s the key thing if you want to achieve social outcomes. Embracing risk and allowing ourselves to trust really opens up our minds and creates space for us to act. We have to be prepared when we embrace risk, to embrace failure as well. Once you say, “I’m willing to fail,” it allows you to go where you have not gone before, with much more confidence.

For example, 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. Certainly, CSR has become even better at doing that over the last few years. There are many civil society organizations that have helped the government achieve its own mandate better at the implementation level. But there are so many areas of society that don’t get enough attention, where the government isn’t necessarily doing enough, and where we, as philanthropists and civil society organizations, need to do much more. Issues like mental health, disability work, access to justice, environmental concerns, are all areas that need our attention. If philanthropists and CSO organisations were to embrace risk and not fear failure, we could innovate solutions that could get us out of the usual rut of our societal problems.

We keep saying that the social sector doesn’t scale. However, if personal and corporate philanthropists were to say, “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,” that might change the game entirely. I really believe that 10 years later, when we look at what’s happened during this new age of Indian philanthropy, we will be able to show something new, that perhaps had never 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. But now, when we talk about one district or even 10 districts at a time, perhaps it’s not enough. We need to go beyond just measuring things incrementally, and that means looking at a much larger 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 we need to design for that scale is a crucial factor.

Lessons Learned

I don’t think we talk enough about failure in the sector. Failure can lead to a lot of interesting outcomes. Certainly, in 30 years, I have failed repeatedly in the work that I do. In an article I recently wrote, I was thinking about 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. Look at what one failure led to — the transformation of humanity in some sense. So we should not be afraid to fail, but be immediately ready thereafter, to embrace risk and set out to sail to shores yet unseen.

In the last 30 years of working in the social sector, I feel like I’ve learned three concrete lessons. In 1992, when we started Nagrik for safer roads, for example, I think we didn’t understand the root cause of why our roads are unsafe. When you don’t go deep enough to analyze the problem you’re working on, you tend to come up with band-aid solutions, and the whole thing collapses under its own weight. The second lesson I understood when I worked with the Akshara Foundation, Pratham Books, Arghyam, and now EkStep, is that you need to clearly demarcate the role of samaaj, bazaar, and sarkaar and not confuse them. Allow the three sectors to do what they do best. But if you force bazaar to go below the line of profitability, if you expect sarkaar to do what citizens should be doing, or if you expect citizens to take on the ownership of what sarkaar should be doing, it tends to create confusion and not achieve the societal outcome you need.

The last thing I learned was that if you really want societal level transformation, you need to recognise that none of us have all the answers. But there are people who have answers in their own context. So the question becomes how we should 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 things up. We need to create platforms and allow public goods to be created from the work that we do. So for example, with Pratham Books, once we realized that we were to open up the creation, distribution, sales, translation work, i.e. once we 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. We owe it to the work that we do and to the ambitions that we have, to deliberately work to create open, digital public goods, so that other people can build and innovate on a platform that we help to support as philanthropists.

As we begin this new age of Indian philanthropy and re-dedicate ourselves, let us decide that we will commit to not just working incrementally, but in terms of societal transformation, and we will do that through collaboration, by embracing risk, and without the fear of failure.



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