• India Development Review : Sharing Real World Knowledge To Create Social Impact

    (Pictured above: For L to R: Smarinita Shetty, Devanshi Vaid, Rachita Vora)

    Founded as a  nonprofit in 2017, IDR was conceived to highlight voices on issues that matter and to share cutting-edge ideas and real-world practice on the development sector in India. With a combination of Not for Profit and journalistic expertise, the IDR team talks about their journey so far and shares advice for social sector leaders & entrepreneurs.

    What inspired you to create IDR?

    During our years in the sector, we started noticing a recurring theme: If you wanted to learn more about innovation or understand different approaches to an issue, or even understand what had or had not worked, there was no place to go. You either had to know somebody who knew something about the issue or one had to operate from a place of little or no knowledge. We wondered then: Is this why we were seeing change happen so slowly in a land where there were so many committed and capable social entrepreneurs trying to address problems at scale?  Given the complexity of the problems facing our country, how could we expect real change if leaders and organisations didn’t understand the linkages and dependencies of sectors and issues?

    From our past experience, we knew the impact that knowledge and insight could have on industries in terms of better decision making, surfacing disruptive ideas, improving efficiency, and encouraging collaboration — all of which lead to a stronger and more robust sector.

    The other thing that bothered us was the fact that despite a large number of high-impact nonprofits, the ones that were covered by mainstream media were only the ‘popular’ ones. These were the same organisations who also ended up getting all the donor money because they were urban, suave, and spoke the right ‘funder’ language. Ironically, they may not necessarily have been the ones creating significant change. This meant that a large section of rural, community-based and grassroots-focussed organisations, didn’t get either the investment or the attention they deserved.  For us, it characterised everything that was wrong with our world. How then could we shine the spotlight on the lesser known but high-impact organisations? We needed a platform for these voices. We needed an accessible forum that was committed to reflecting the diversity, complexity and inventiveness of the sector.

    IDR was founded as a result of this urge to make our sector one that represented voices and ideas, regardless of where they came from, as long as they spoke to issues that mattered and could change the lives of the millions of Indians whom we work with and for.

    What were the challenges involved in founding the organisation?

    As with all startups, funding was a challenge. Given the space we occupy in the sector – we are not a ‘programme-driven’ or implementing organisation–there are very few funders out there willing to invest in an ecosystem-building organisation like ours.We were fortunate enough to have Ashish Dhawan seed fund us; plus the partnership with Ashoka CSIP gave us credibility, and access to networks, which are critical if we are to cover a range of issues and conversations in our sector.

    The other big challenge was the actual setting up of the organisation. We chose to set up a Section 8 company because it forces one to be more transparent and have stronger governance. But the process of setting it up takes a lot of unnecessary founder bandwidth. It took us over four months to set it up, which meant that we couldn’t raise or access any external money during this period. It took us another six months to get our 12A registration, again because the tax authorities are unfamiliar with the concept of nonprofits who don’t do project work on the ground.

    Most funders wont fund you if you don’t have 12A and/or80G. While we understand the constraints on the part of funders, we also know that startups—be they in the commercial or nonprofit space–need financial and human capital to build a strong solid foundation. In the absence of this, they will always be built for the here-and-now versus receiving investment that allows them to design and build for scale.

    In an era of instant information & short attention spans, what has the experience been at IDR, where the focus is on long format , analytical pieces?

    Prior to launching IDR, we interviewed and surveyed over 100 leaders at foundations, corporates, nonprofits, research and consulting firms, and philanthropists.  The goal was to understand the information and knowledge gaps faced by decision makers in our sector, and how they sought to overcome them. Most of them said they didn’t have the time (and in many cases) the inclination to read.  We also realised that while there was a lot of information out there in form of long reports and reference material, it either was inaccessible to the people at large and/or in a format and style of writing that no one wanted to read.We realised then that we would have to communicate insight and analysis driven pieces in an easy-to-read form without being simplistic.  And that’s what IDR tries to straddle. The goal is to communicate key insights, practices, and perspectives in a manner that is easy-to-read, easy-to-understand and encourages thought, discussion and action.

    What advice would you give to budding social entrepreneurs?

    a)Identify and understand the market opportunity and do your homework before you start an enterprise. 

    It’s easy to think that we have this great idea and that it will help solve what we think is a big problem.  But as individuals, we only know so much. It is important to go to the customers/ stakeholders whom you plan to serve and understand what their needs are, what are the gaps you are trying to fill, and how they would like to be served.

    If there isn’t a sizeable market opportunity, you won’t be able to build a sustainable business.

    b)Talk to people all the time but don’t always take their advice.

    As an entrepreneur you will understand your business and your customers best. Despite this, it is important to talk to people in the sector to learn from their experiences and expertise – they will tell you things that you would have never thought of.  But it’s also important to exercise your judgement on what bits of that advice will take you closer to your organisation’s goals.

    People, especially funders, will want scale, they will want ‘sustainability’, they will want you to run fast, when you’ve barely learned to crawl. Listen to it all, use it to refine your thinking and product, but stay true to your customers and your mission.

    c)Always think about the money

    As a founder, it is your job to think about money in the bank all the time. Without money, you really can’t build an organisation for the long term–your mindspace will become about struggling and surviving versus building and growing.

    You must therefore always have a funding pipeline, always have some ongoing conversation with funders. And don’t get excited about any of these conversations or proposals or agreements till the money actually hits your bank account.

    d)Don’t do it alone

    Starting and running a social enterprise is very very hard especially because unlike the commercial space, we don’t have a supportive start-up ecosystem. Have a co-founder(s) you trust and respect. There are many moving parts to setting up an enterprise—operations, creating market demand, quality, business development, partnerships, admin, people management, etc– and taking it to steady state. It is NOT possible to do it alone.

    e)Have a Plan B, C and D

    Think about all the things that can go wrong –not being able to hire good people, poor market demand, running out of funds, etc and atleast have a kernel of an idea on what you will do it any of these things do happen. Believe us, they will happen, and you might never be fully prepared when it does. But being aware upfront also ensures that a part of your brain is always thinking of a fall-back option

    How important do you think it is, for young people to be involved with civil society , in whatever form or capacity ?

    It’s a cliché but it’s true – the young will change the world. Age brings with it cynicism and a tendency to look after oneself and one’s own. The young have no such boundary conditions. More importantly they have the idealism – that the world needs to be a better place, and an infinite belief in oneself – that they have the power to change it. What they need is exposure, access and opportunity.

    That being said, we think it is imperative that today’s youth be involved with civil society. This does not necessarily have to be through their jobs or professions. You do not have to be employed at a nonprofit or a foundation to be a part of creating the change that you want to see. Instead, you can work with your communities (write, organise, educate, support) or volunteer your time (to a cause or an organisation). What matters is that you take the values you stand for and find a way to bring them to action.

    You can read more about the organisation or connect with them here : http://idronline.org