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Rohini Nilekani and Arun Kumar | Succeeding in Partnerships

Civil Society | Strategic Philanthropy | Apr 22, 2021

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Arun Kumar on Succeeding in Partnerships. The discussion highlights the importance of partnerships in addressing large and complex societal issues and the need for including partnerships in the organisation strategy.

Collaboration is an important topic in the social sector today. Collaboration as an idea should, in its essence, be an equal partnership of different players and actors. You cannot call it collaboration if there is one power center and everybody has to follow that power center. Collaboration is difficult in practice because it requires that all collaborators should have a common vision and mission, and learn to give up control. In collaboration, we need to see everyone as a leader or rather as players on the same team, rather than seeking leadership roles. Good collaboration is possible only if we let go of control and truly co-create a path together. There are many forms of collaboration, which can be light touch or very deep, but I believe that this is the era for us to learn how to collaborate better, both in the social sector and in the philanthropy sector, and between the two.

According to Arun Kumar, collaboration is about conceptualizing and visualizing the bigger picture that perhaps needs to be completed by a collective. One of the biggest challenges is to enable every participant to see that bigger picture and agree on its broad contours, which includes a commitment to a certain concept or ideology, which are called non-negotiables. Those who have the ability to think in abstracts and to conceptualize the big picture may not always be the most skilled in facilitation or negotiations to get the collective going. This often results in issues of attribution, clashes of egos, representation, and leadership. 

To be successful in your mission, a broad agreement is necessary. Kumar mentions the example of Child Rights and You (CRY) which headed an almost seven-year long campaign with a coalition of more than 200 organizations from all over India. Although there was no agreement on how to start a common school system or the medium of instruction, there was one common goal theme that everyone was committed to – that there should be free, compulsory universal education. Kumar also mentions the Right to Information and food security as other successful examples of collaborations.

Kumar speaks about his experience in 2020, where after the lockdown was announced in Mumbai, 14 organizations came together to collaborate and coordinate, to share information and find the cheapest mode of transportation, making sense of the procurement. They were organizations working in different geographies and on different issues, but there was an overriding need, and they came together beautifully. Another example shared was of Mission 24, an initiative by Apnalaya. It was aimed at improving entitlements in M-East Ward, which is right at the bottom of all 24 wards of Mumbai. With limited resources, it was difficult to keep people together on questions of advocacy, and to keep them committed for a long time. Advocacy and policy level change invariably knock at the door of ideologies, so it becomes that much more difficult to keep everybody together. However, if we are aiming for sustainable change and sustainable impact, there is no running away from collaboration.

But we also need to consider broader questions when it comes to collaboration. For example, Kumar asks whether we can view collaborations beyond the lens of a funding project, and view them as an investment in a longer term cause. What we can focus on is research, data, evidence, advocacy and policy change since these are areas where funding is scarce and collaboration difficult. This would mean looking beyond implementation and multiplying operations in the name of collaborations. 

Having set up and worked with many organizations like Akshara Foundation, Pratham Books, and my foundations, Arghyam and EkStep, I think philanthropists have understood the need to collaborate. More so among themselves so that we can fund areas broadly, which it is hard for individual philanthropists to continue to fund, till it reaches the impact that it needs to reach. 

There have been a few good examples of collaboration recently. The India Climate Collaborative has more than 20 donors and donor organizations working together to respond quickly and effectively to the challenge of climate change. The scale of the problem is only going to grow, and although we are still finding our feet in the ICC, the commitment and collaborative framework is in place. Similarly, with the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation, we recognise that good media is the foundation of a good democracy and a good society. A few of us came together to birth this organization which has noteworthy trustees – who make decisions to find good media so that the voices of the people around our country can be better represented through various media. This has also been a collaborative effort from the beginning.

It is becoming clearer that collaborations can help you to de-risk from all kinds of failures. I think the era of collaboration in the philanthropy sector is upon us. I hope this means that a diverse set of civil society organizations will get funded. 

Diversity is crucial when it comes to solving complex societal problems because we need different kinds of ideologies, methods, experiments, and innovations to be backed by philanthropy, citizen movements, and civil society leaders so that when something works, we can try to scale. Cookie-cutter solutions will not work at scale – this is why our team has conceptualized what we call Societal Platform Thinking. Our main goal for this was to ask ourselves, during these challenging times, how we achieve the most impact at scale. Carrying out a successful pilot and then trying to scale up was not as effective, so we are flipping that around to understand what works at scale. For that, we need the Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkar, to be involved if we are going to solve complex societal issues. Our whole effort was focused on reducing the friction to collaborate between these three sectors. In order to do that, we’ve put together a framework on www.societalplatform.org, along with many public digital goods for people to use, toolkits, processes, and our team is always available to answer questions.

Solutions do not come from only one end of the pipeline, and if we want more collaboration, we have to learn how to distribute the ability to find solutions. How do we create more agency in a distributed way? How do we scale up diversity? How do we use technology for the public good? How do we allow people to solve problems in context? And how do we bring Samaaj, Bazaar, Sarkar together to do what they do best? This is how we are looking at collaboration. Globally, we are seeing increasing examples of good collaboration as well as from the civil society side in India. NGOs like Pratham, probably the largest education NGO in the world, require all kinds of collaboration at all levels. 

While collaboration remains extremely difficult because it is hard for people to give up their space, egos, branding, and their need for attribution, the need for collaboration has trumped the need to go it alone. The pandemic has made it increasingly clear that we need to work together rather than in silos. We saw this happen over the past year, with people coming together in ways they had never done before, mounting a whole logistics model to tackle pandemic-related issues. They had to resolve their differences to be able to work together, and I think it has taught us how to collaborate a little better from the heart.

It is not an easy task to work across sectors, but we must keep at it and keep in mind that there is a common interest between society actors, civil society institutions, and market actors to work together to uphold rule of law.

Civil society organizations come from a lens of equity, and social justice; I am sure many in the market do too, but it is also about innovation, efficiency, and creating prosperity for a wide number of people. Both of them must uphold the rule of law to be able to function and have the license to operate in society. Corporations need to not only follow the rule of law to the extent possible, but also uphold the rule of law so that business can be done peacefully. Of course, the state is not infallible, in our country or anywhere else in the world. Power does extend itself in human beings and when they have power, they try to extend their power, and the state has a monopoly on many powers.

It is in the interest of civil society institutions and market institutions to make sure that the Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar remain in a dynamic balance and that one sector does not become so powerful that the other two are left at the mercy of any one of them. Each needs to work together to keep the others in check if we want a good society. 

Global research points to the fact that when corporations attempt to become better corporate citizens – by reducing negative externalities ​​which society has to pick up the cost of, by treating their employees better and working towards improving the world rather than destroying it, those companies are doing better. There is not only a moral but a strategic imperative to get there. Businesses are not going to put themselves at risk because they constantly need the state to approve of everything that they do. But there are always openings to collaborate on some aspects which are morally undeniable and need to be done for a better society. 

In India there is a good separation between the markets and the state, and I see the opportunity for samaaj institutions to work with the state to ensure that we have better markets which do not try to capture value only but distribute value down the line. The age of partnerships and collaborations is truly here and whether we fail or succeed, we have no choice but to keep trying.

It may not be easy for civil society organizations to collaborate with people whose ideas may be completely different from theirs. However, given the circumstances now where the trust between the state and civil society organizations has reduced considerably over the last few years, I think it is imperative that civil society actors create new networks for collaboration so that the interests of society are better represented with a diversity of views. 

Civil society institutions need to come together and collaborate better. They can seek some philanthropic support for this as well, because sometimes we may not be good at storytelling or presenting our messages. I would request my civil society friends to come together through more platforms to tell your stories, and bridge the divide between yourselves and Indian donors. The age of the foreign donor is going away and there may be a kind of philanthropy nationalism emerging. Everyone wants to fund in their own countries and Indian philanthropists are coming together to fund new areas and new collaborations. So civil society actors have to come together as well.

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