Philanthropist, author, and former journalist Rohini Nilekani speaks to India Development Review (IDR) co-founder and CEO, Smarinita Shetty, on why failure needs to be underwritten in the social sector, and how philanthropists must develop more patience and create a space that normalises failure in the context of nonprofit work.
You can listen to the full episode on Apple, Spotify, Google, Jiosaavn, or on IDR’s website.
To fail is to have dared | Rohini Nilekani
“We need that patient philanthropic capital to allow organisations and missions to go through some failures, some learning, some experimentation and, pull out those things which succeed and will become socially sticky.”
Hi, I’m Shreya and you’re listening to Failure Files — a podcast by India Development Review (or IDR). This show features highly relatable narratives of failure by people working on complex issues of social change. Their stories are a reminder that the path to resilience cannot be built on success alone — failure is a necessary condition for it.
Today, on our very first episode, Rohini Nilekani is in conversation with Smarinita Shetty, co-founder and CEO at IDR. Rohini Nilekani is chairperson of Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and co-founder and director of EkStep, a nonprofit education platform. She is also the founder and former chairperson of Arghyam, a foundation she set up in 2001 for sustainable water and sanitation. From 2004 to 2014, she was also the founder–chairperson and chief funder of Pratham Books, a nonprofit children’s publisher. A committed philanthropist, Rohini also sits on the board of trustees of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), an environmental think tank.
In this interview, Rohini speaks about why we need to underwrite failure in the social sector and how philanthropists must develop more patience, and create a space that normalises failure in the context of nonprofit work.
Smarinita Shetty: Today we have a special episode for you – not just because it’s our very first episode on the show, but also because we’re in conversation with Rohini Nilekani, a long-time advocate, and often a lone voice amongst her peers, for having more open conversations about failure.
Hi Rohini, it’s such a pleasure to be having this conversation with you.
Before we kick off this interview, I’d like to ask you to share with us, a time when you failed. Can you tell us a bit about what was that experience like, and what you learnt as a result?
Rohini Nilekani: In my professional life, I’ve experienced many failures, some worse than others. My very first failure, I guess, in my professional life as an activist philanthropist, if you like, where we ourselves got involved in the solving of some problem was in 1992, after one of my close friends died in a very ghastly road accident. It was really preying on my mind for the years before that. And then I got a few really great Bangaloreans together, and we set up Nagrik with the tagline: For safer roads. We worked in it for a few years with not much of a budget, but I don’t think the budget was the problem. I think the problem was that we didn’t know how to quite go about it. And while there was enthusiasm, and passion and a lot of intelligence in the group, I think we didn’t structure ourselves. I take a lot of the blame myself that we didn’t really know how to be strategic. And so the whole thing faded away. The problem didn’t go away at all. India remains number one in the world, unfortunately, in road accidents and deaths in the world, 160,000 people, often young. But then we dropped it. But it was a failure for sure, at many levels. But it taught me a few lessons about how to not to do things, how to think through things before, how to set realistic goals, how to ensure that you have a professional cadre working with you, not just enthusiastic good samaritans, that’s not enough. So a lot of lessons from that failure. Do I wish we had succeeded and really had safer roads — so that’s one.
At the Akshara Foundation where I also was very active in the organisation. There too, we failed many times in the sense that we kept on and on trying new things. And some of those things were really very difficult to implement. Like we were trying some evening schooling, we tried bridge schooling, we tried so many things that fizzled out because it was not easy to sustain them. Partly because the demand was also not too strong. There were many things we succeeded at too, but many of those small experiments, that in a sense, failed. Again, from that we learnt that it’s okay to experiment and fail, so long as you all very quickly recognise that this is not working, but something else might. So in that sense, those small failures, even though they were many and if you had to write a string of them, they would look impressively long. What they did was allow us to consolidate other focus areas and learn how to do things that would stick.
In Pratham Books, similarly, we tried many things, some of them succeeded wildly. Some of them didn’t. I don’t know whether we should call them failures as such, I think we should call them experiments from which you got to learn what works and what doesn’t. But then I was thinking over the last few days in preparation for this conversation that take Arghyam. I set up Arghyam actually to learn about my philanthropy– how to do more philanthropy better. And then from 2005, we shifted to a full focus on water. But in these 20 years or 16 full years of working on water, if somebody looked at our Arghyam’s work and said, “Hey, the water situation in India has gotten much worse since you started working on water.” So now is that a failure of the organisation? Is that a failure of the vision? I think we could say that maybe Arghyam, could have been much more impactful. Or you could say that the water problem is so huge and so complex that in any case, it is completely unrealistic to expect one organisation to do anything more than shifting the needle in some of the aspects of the water situation.
Smarinita: You make a very important point you’re making about how time-bound the perception of failure can be, especially when we’re working on complex issues of social change. What’s viewed as a failure today, might actually only be a setback on a path to success. So how can we create space for people and organisations to fail openly, and to recover from those failures? If philanthropists need to be partners here, then what needs to happen for them to stay the course, even in the face of such setbacks.
Rohini: Yeah, I completely agree that we have to be very conscious of timeframes when we are talking about failure. As you said, correctly, what looks like a failure today may look like success tomorrow. And when will that happen? Sometimes you cannot predict. So especially philanthropists have to be very aware of this. And I think civil society needs to put forward more stories and examples of that. Yes, something seemed to be failing in the beginning, but as the demand caught up, and the supply side had to react to the demand. Just take the education sector, for example, about 25 years ago, parents were not so committed to putting their children through 14 years of school, especially those in agricultural families. The dropout rates were horrendous. The out of school, non-enrolled children were very large. As the demand and the understanding that education might lead to a better life for their children began to sink in, thanks to government policies, thanks to NGO work, thanks to markets also, seeking more educated employees, the demand for education built up so rapidly, that earlier all the work seemed to like throwing effort into the desert. And then suddenly, those seeds took root and they began to flower. Today, all our children are enrolled in school. The pandemic was a setback, but the idea of education being necessary has been completely internalised in India. So it took some time, but what might have seemed like a success to a scattering of NGOs and philanthropists, today looks like a lot of success. So, once more stories like this and more understanding of this are shared, I think philanthropists will be open to having a longer timeframe. We need that patient philanthropic capital to allow organisations and missions to go through some failures, some learning, some experimentation and, pull out those things which succeed and will become socially sticky.
The relationship between the philanthropist and NGO partner has to start with trust so that the NGO feels accepted when they are trying to do something different. Because if they’re not trying to do something different, how are things going to change? And then when they do something different, and the demand is not ripe, or the institutional structures are not ripe, as we saw in my example, with Akshara, etc then those experiments will fail and will have to be tweaked. And so the philanthropy organisation has to allow that to be, first of all raised and explained, and then more experimentation allowed. So that’s the very first simple thing. The second thing is, once you trust an organisation, can you commit to multi-year funding so they’re not spending 30 to 40 percent of their organisational bandwidth, trying to raise funds instead of trying to innovate on the ground. So I think these are the two main things, the three main things trust, patient capital, and allowing the conversation on failure and allowing the conversation on failure and innovation to be upfront and transparent.
Smarinita: On the topic of allowing for an open conversation with nonprofits grantees and donors, many organisations might be hesitant to talk about their failures in the fear of losing funding. In order to create a safe space for such conversations, it also becomes important for philanthropists to talk about their failures. Why do you think those conversations are not happening-not only in the social sector, but even in the private sector?
Rohini: I think in the peer group that has been much more of conversations on– ‘you know, I tried this, it didn’t work and now our whole mission focus has moved to something else.’ So I think that has begun to happen. And I think it’s probably been happening before also outside India. But the talking publicly about failing as a philanthropist– who wants to listen to that story? I mean, somebody needs to want to listen to that story. There’s is no use going out there and beating your chest in public for no good reason. You probably need to do it to the right audience. And that audience is probably the civil society sector where philanthropists can speak about how they themselves at a meta-level experimented with certain sectors then lost passion in them perhaps, or saw that their approaches would never get them to their goal, or whatever it might be. So there needs to be some forum for philanthropists and NGOs to get together.
But the philanthropist and the organisation need to be very sure that, again, I’m repeating that failure is not glorified. We are not trying to achieve failure, we are going to fail because it’s not always possible to succeed, but we are not trying to fail. See in the corporate sector, sometimes they really glamorise failure that fail fast, fail forward, etc. I think in the nonprofit sector, we have to be a little careful not to say that and use that framework because we are talking about people and their lives and we’re talking about their well-being emotional and financial and social and we are not trying to fail. We know we will fail we will have to accept that we failed. We have to recognise failure early but that’s one thing.
The second thing is that we have to be also careful to distinguish between the failure of the organisation and the failure of some individuals within the organisation. Because if it is the clear failure of some individuals, perhaps from a moral lapse, then there is a different way of dealing with that failure then when the failure is coming out of a good intent to innovate. So of course, that if it is a moral lapse then is very important to weed out. And secondly, if we don’t recognise failure quickly, how on earth are we going to turn around and try something else. So, creating the space to analyse failure– first internally by the organisation and then a little more openly, should become some kind of structured process. I’m sure many organisations have it, is not like nobody does these things. But since we’re talking about these things publicly, perhaps together, some people and organisations can come up with some frameworks, toolkits, processes, which are easy for organisations to follow. So that we are acknowledging and analysing failure.
Smarinita: And how does the perception of failure differ, when it comes to, say, the corporate sector or the public sector, vis-à-vis the nonprofit space?
Rohini: You know, failure, failure in samaaj, failure in sarkar, and failure in bazaar, are looked at a bit differently. Okay, as I said, in bazaar, failure is underwritten very structurally by markets and financial markets, right? You’re allowed to go there and try something really crazy. And if it fails, yeah, of course, it’s not a great thing at all. But it is entirely possible that you can dust off that the limited liability company that was set up allows especially for this structure, isn’t it? You can dust off your failure, file for bankruptcy or whatever, in the West especially. And then somebody else will back another idea that you bought. So the whole structure of failure is underwritten very well, by financial markets
In sarkar, actually, it is very hard to fail. No, it’s very hard for sarkar to accept failure. And that’s fine because their goal is not to provide risk capital to society, but rather to provide equity and service delivery. So sarkar’s failure, and bureaucrats especially, are incentivized not to act in case they fail. So the failure is really a failure to act rather than innovate, try something, fail, accept it, and then do something else. However, the politicians are used to failing, and it’s a class that is used to winning and losing. So they kind of tend to take failure to win elections in their stride, because who knows they may win the next one. And because there’s a political party structure, it doesn’t matter, there is a space for failure because even if you fail to win an election, you can sit in the opposition.
Now we come to the samaaj space. And by samaaj I mean, not people in general but civil society institutions. There again, there is a greater risk appetite to try out things to help society. And we need to make sure that there is much more underwriting of that failure. And the reason we are having this conversation is much more needs to be opened up about real failure, about bad failure and good failure. And there is space in civil society to fail for sure, but there is less underwriting of that risk of failure.
Smarinita: I want to go back to something you said earlier, about how when organisations fail, there’s a loss of knowledge, especially in the social sector. Because many of these setbacks and the lessons learned from them, are internal to the organisation. But surely there are advantages for other organisations, when they can learn from others’ mistakes, and not repeat what has already failed before. Do you think there’s a way to make that knowledge, and those insights, available to the larger ecosystem of players? How should we be thinking about that?
Rohini: This is a very important point because the goal of the social sector should be that we should ensure that even if organisations and institutions and leaders fail, they might, right that is the way of life. But how can we make sure that the mission or the public goal, the societal goal, the societal idea doesn’t fail, or doesn’t fall by the wayside, because some organisations failed? How do we keep space for others to continue the task, the societal task? One way that our teams have been thinking and practising, is to convert the effort and the knowledge into digital public goods. And because digital is so much easier to scale, and you can, people from all over can discover digitally much more than physically.
What if we had a process to look at the failure and success. I’m not saying there’s never the only failure. But what if we created mindshare and time to look at the failures of India civil society over the last 40-50 years that we have to understand. Because by now, the social sector should have been even more thriving than it is now. It should have been, in less risky spaces. Could we have done something differently together? I mean, the extreme buoyancy of the civil society in the 80s, post the Emergency, a lot of things began to happen. And I think there’s a second wave now because young people who think very differently from the leaders 40 years ago have a new kind of energy in the social project to increase equity, access, etc, using technology, using very young leaders this time, using very different methods. So what can this new wave of civil society actors, some of whom we are very lucky to support, what can they learn from the old wave of civil society actors in India 40 years ago, from the 70s to the 2000s. What were their failures? What can we learn from that and do things a little differently? I would love to see a gathering of some of our stalwart leaders to share what they feel civil society as a whole failed at doing and what these next wave should do differently.
Thank you so much Rohini for joining us today to talk about something that’s really important when it comes to nonprofit work. There’s a lot that we have covered today, but I’d like to leave our listeners with two important points. The first is that all of us within the social sector need to make space for failure. We cannot carry on like we have done before. We need to analyse our failures and most importantly learn from them, because failure, as we all know, is inevitable. And secondly, philanthropists must trust nonprofits to do their work. They have to develop patience so that nonprofits can take necessary risks, to grow, to change, to experiment. Thank you.
Failure Files is produced by Disha Acharya, Pallavi Deshpande, Rachita Vora, Tanaya Jagtiani, and me, Shreya Adhikari. This podcast is part of a larger initiative at IDR, where alongside 15 partners, we are creating a space for candid conversations around failures in social impact. To read more about this growing movement, check us out at idronline.org. You can also share your own failure story with us at email@example.com. Thank you for listening, and see you next week.