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Rohini Nilekani and Arun Kumar | Succeeding in Partnerships

Civil Society | Strategic Philanthropy | Apr 22, 2021

The discussion highlights the importance of partnerships in addressing large and complex societal issues and the need for including partnerships in the organisation strategy.


0:00:03.2 Arun Ji: I must congratulate you and your team for conceptualizing this discussion, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this fireside check, I must confess this is my first time. I’ve never had a fireside check before. Welcome, Ms. Nilekani. I’m absolutely delighted to be in conversation with you on a subject that’s so close to your heart, and without any further ado, let me begin by requesting you to share your thoughts on collaboration, and my first question would be… We have had a number of phrases in the social sector denoting, coming together, working together. Phrases like alliances, networks, fronts, coalitions, and so on. Various policy-related changes like, right to Education Act, right to information, food security and so on, have been realized because of these coalitions and campaigns. Is collaboration something similar or completely different? How do you like to unpack collaboration? Ms. Nilekani.

0:01:19.6 Rohini Nilekani: Thank you Arun Ji, thank you Sheena for inviting me here and it’s a very important topic in the social sector today, collaboration. So, very happy to be here in this fireside check with such an experienced civil society leader, such as you, Arun Ji. Now, all that you mentioned coalitions, networks, of course they are forms of collaboration for a particular goal and I think the main thing, I feel is collaboration as an idea is, that it has to be at least a somewhat equal partnership of different players and actors. It can’t be that in a collaboration, there is one power center and everybody has to follow that power center, that’s not really collaboration. So the reason why collaboration, of course as you know is so difficult, is precisely because all the collaborators, not only do they have to have some kind of common vision, mission towards which everyone is moving, but they also have to learn to give up control and don’t see it as a leadership role so much, or that everyone is a leader, or that it’s a teamplay.

0:02:36.5 RN: And so letting go of that control and truly co-creating the path, that’s what I think defines a good collaboration. And there are many forms of collaboration of course, they can be light touch, they can be very deep, but certainly, I do 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 together between the social sector and the philanthropy sector.


0:03:14.4 AJ: Would you like to ask a question to the social sector, I’ll try to respond to that, or should I ask my next question that I have for you?

0:03:24.7 RN: I would love to ask you, in your long career, where have you experienced the most successful collaborations, and what is the primary friction too, how can we reduce the friction to collaborate? What is the main friction?

0:03:46.5 AJ: I have often felt that a collaboration is about conceptualizing and visualizing a big picture that needs to be perhaps completed by a collective. And one of the biggest challenges, I won’t call it a friction, but one of the biggest challenges of a collaboration is to enable every participant to see that big picture. And agree on its broad contours, so to speak, even as all, everyone bring in their own colour and palettes and brushes and what have you. So the broad contours indicate basically a commitment to a certain idea or concept or ideology. We often call them non-negotiables. So those who have the ability to do abstract thinking, who can conceptualize the big picture, may not also be, as you rightly said, the most skilled in facilitation or negotiations to get the collective going. And this is often results in issues of attribution, clashes of egos, representation, leadership and so on. So this is one learning that I have from my experiences.

0:04:53.3 AJ: Some of those successful ones are the ones in which there is a broad agreement. For instance, if I look at national alliances for right to education, this was almost seven-year long campaign headed by CRY, Child Rights and You, but it was a coalition of more than 200 organizations from all over India. And at that time, I was part of CRY and one learnt how to take the back seat and allow people to have their say. There was no agreement right to start on common school system or medium of instructions, there were various differences. But there was one common theme that everyone was committed to, that there should be free compulsory universal education. So, I would look at that, I would look at the right to information or food security as successful examples of collaborations, but even at a much smaller level, we do have collaborations that we do participate in those collaborations almost on a routine basis. They do not attract much attention simply because of their nature, they are geographically limited in their scope. And so I think there is a need to differentiate perhaps, between what we collaborate at a project level in a given geography, and what we collaborate to change, to bring in change at the advocacy and policy level.

0:06:29.8 RN: Yeah.

0:06:31.6 AJ: That’s what’s my response.

0:06:34.4 RN: Yeah, yeah. Do you think that something that is finite, like there’s actually a goal which everyone understands, that we need to bring in a policy shift, we need to bring in the right to education, the right to food, or the right to work, all of which have been very successful campaigns in India? Do you think that form of collaboration for a relatively short-term goal, even if it took seven years to get there, and it’s mostly advocacy for one thing, do you think that kind of collaboration is easier than working with other organizations to continuously deliver a society goal? Is advocacy for a particular thing, which then ends there, is that form of collaboration easier than actually collectively working towards fulfilling a mission which always runs a little away from you? As you know, it’s not very easy to actually finish successfully and sustainably driving social change in any sector.

0:07:34.0 AJ: Certainly, the latter is easier. I mean, daily collaboration is quite significant, and I purposely use the phrase daily collaboration because if I see our last year’s experience in Mumbai, once the lockdown was announced, 14 organizations came together to collaborate, to coordinate, sharing information, finding out the cheapest mode of transportation, what to procure from where, all of those things which are new to all these organizations. We have not been in supply chain kind of system. They are organizations that are working in different geography on certain issues, but because there was a need, we all came together, and it worked. It worked beautifully.

0:08:24.1 RN: Yeah.

0:08:24.7 AJ: I can give example of Mission 24, which was initiated by Apnalaya. It was basically about improving entitlements in M-East Ward, which is right at the bottom, out of all 24 wards of Mumbai. And we had very limited success, simply because I think, as you rightly said, to keep people together on questions of advocacy, to keep them for a long time, committed for a long time because advocacy doesn’t come overnight, is a difficult task. And at the same time, advocacy and policy level change, invariably, knock at the door of ideologies. So it becomes that much more difficult to keep everybody together, but if we look at sustainable change, if we look at impact, sustainable impact, in that sense, then perhaps there is no running away from those big agenda, big tickets here.

0:09:22.8 RN: How Can philanthropy and philanthropists help civil society to collaborate more effectively? Is there a role for philanthropy to play at all, to increase collaboration across civil society?

0:09:42.7 AJ: Beautiful question, because I think that’s what people from civil society organizations always look for to voice their wishes. [chuckle] Allow me to ask three questions in response to your question. I think, I hope I’ll be able to articulate what most people would like to know, would like to ask. Could we look at collaborations beyond the lens of funding a project, and consider it as an investment in a cause, therefore stay invested for long? And to do that, that’s my second question, would it be possible to look beyond implementation, beyond multiplying operations in the name of collaborations? Not that they’re not important, but there is a need to go beyond multiplying operations from one geography to another. And for enhancing impact, I think, can we look at research, data, evidence, advocacy, policy change, as priority areas? Because these are the areas in which, in general, funding is scarce, and even collaborations are difficult. And finally, is it okay if collaborations are more expensive than the regular implementation? Because invariably they are, they will be.

0:11:02.8 AJ: If we look at… Instead of funding one organization, we are talking about multiple organizations, expensive skill sets, like research or advocacy, long-term commitment, etcetera. All this are needed to have that sustainable impact that we’re talking about, and I think because we won’t be repeating a micro-level implementation to 10 locations, for instance, and call it scaling up and be happy about it. I think the answer in affirmative to all these questions will help us bring in the sustainable change that we all want.

0:11:41.5 RN: Yeah, thank you. I agree with you. I think, from the philanthropy point of view, which is now what I represent most though, I also consider myself part of civil society institutions, having set up and being in the implementing mode in many organizations like Akshara Foundation, Pratham Books, and of course through my foundation, Arghyam and EkStep. I think that philanthropists have more and more understood the need to collaborate, among themselves so that they can more broadly fund some areas, which it is hard for individual philanthropists to continue to fund, till it reaches the impact that it needs to reach. So just recently, there have been two or three good examples which is the India Climate Collaborative, where more than 20 donors and donor organizations have come together to say, how do we respond quickly and effectively to the challenge of climate change, which is only going to grow? And we are finding our feet in the ICC, but the commitment seems to be there, and it is very much from the get-go collaborative framework.

0:12:53.1 RN: Similarly with the Independent And Public-Spirited Media Foundation, we recognize that a good media is the foundation for a good democracy, and then a good society, so about a few of us came together to birth this organization which has some very and noteworthy trustees who make decisions to find good media so that the voices of the people around our country can be represented better through our various media, especially digital media, that’s also been a collaboration from the get-go. And people realize that collaborations also help you to de-risk from all kinds of failures. So I think the era of collaboration from the philanthropy side is very much here. And I hope that means that a diverse set of civil society organizations will get funded. And diversity is very important for me when it comes to solving complex societal problems, because you need different kinds of even ideologies, methods, experiments, innovations, to be backed by philanthropy, backed by citizen movements, backed by civil society leaders, so that when something works, we can try to scale, though I do sense what you’re saying, it’s not about cookie-cutter scale at all. And that’s why, we have our team which we call societal thinking or societal platform thinking.

0:14:18.0 RN: There’s a whole team that has been involved, along with Ashoka innovators for the Public, along with many other organizations to say, how can we achieve, in these challenging times, how can we achieve more impact at scale? Not by simply just doing a pilot successful, then try and scale it up. So in fact, we’re flipping that around to say, let’s find out, let’s not just scale what works, but understand what works at scale. And for that you need obviously, Samaj, Bazaar, Sarkar, all sectors to be involved if you are really going to solve any, any simple, societal issues so difficult and complex. So our whole effort of this team is to reduce the friction to collaborate between these three sectors. And for that we’ve put together a framework, everyone is most welcome to look at There are many public digital goods put out there for people to use, toolkits, processes, lots of information, and our team is always there to answer questions. But there we are saying, if you really want more collaboration, then we have to learn how to distribute to the ability to solve. Because it’s not just solutions don’t come from only one end of the pipeline. How do we create more agency in a distributed way? How do we scale up diversity?

0:15:44.2 RN: So the team has actually put some great amount of thought into it, and we believe we have some indicators and we’re always looking to learn more from others, as to how to do this better. Right now, there are some eight missions that we have got involved with, to see if some of these collaboration principles work. How do you use technology for public good? How do you distribute the ability to solve? How do you scale up, not cookie-cutter versions of scale, but how do you scale up diversity? How do you allow people to solve in context? How do you bring Samaj, Bazaar, Sarkar together to do what they do best? So that’s how we are looking at collaboration. And even, I think globally, we have seen now increasing examples of good collaboration. And even from the civil society side in India, I think, apart from the many great examples you mentioned Arun Ji, even organizations like Pratham, which is probably the largest education NGO in the world, requires all kinds of collaboration at all levels. So that you know, from literally, they have funders from outside, they have teams on the ground, they support research like you’re talking about.

0:17:02.9 RN: And I think while collaboration remains extremely difficult because at the end of it, it’s hard for people to give up their space, their egos, their branding, their sense that they want attribution. Yes, we always deal with those things in us and in others. The need for collaboration has trumped the need to go it alone. It’s becoming increasingly clear, and I think in the pandemic, as you mentioned one example, we saw a lot of people coming together in ways in which they had never done before. You know, they had to mount a whole logistics model to tackle the pandemic-related issues, they had to resolve their differences to be able to work together. And I think so we learnt in this year, how to collaborate a little better from the heart. And I think that’s always very important to me.

0:18:00.9 AJ: That’s so reassuring actually to talk about, to think about. Encouraging diversities in terms of different agencies coming together to solve societal issues, it’s not something that we hear every day. And your articulation formulation of Sarkar, Samaj, Bazaar is something that I always keep referring to whenever we have, you know, our internal discussions and even otherwise. I have one question with regard to that. I am specifically referring to your article in IDR in January last year, when you were talking about collaboration among these three, Samaj, Sarkar, and Bazaar. Two-part question, first is, what would be some examples of Samaj and Bazaar collaborating with each other, to keep the Sarkar in check, that’s your phrase that you used in that piece, specially in these times when many sociologists or political thinkers are saying that perhaps in India, the distinction between the market and/or state is disappearing? So that’s the first question. The second one is, I distinctly remember you use the lens of law, the respect of law, why it is important even for the Bazaar to collaborate with Samaj? If we changed this lens of law, with the lens of justice, do you reckon the market will still be keen to collaborate with Samaj?

0:19:37.0 RN: Yeah. I mean, as you know already, these are all long processes, and it’s not easy to see endpoints so clearly, but I think we have to keep trying “Lage Raho Munna Bhai”. But I think first of all, to make it clear, to articulate, and to keep on the table, that there is a common interest between Samaj actors, civil society institutions, and Bazaar actors, companies the CSR brings, to work together to uphold rule of law. I think civil society organizations very much come from a lens of equity, social justice, etcetera, and I’m sure many in the Bazaar do too, but even if you assume that the Bazaar is about innovation, efficiency, creating prosperity for wide numbers of people hopefully. Even then, both of them, in some sense, need to uphold the rule of law, even to be able to function, to have the license to operate in society. Corporations need to not only follow the rule of law to the extent possible, but also to uphold the rule of law, so that business can be done peacefully. So first of all, to just get more and more people to understand that there is a common interest, sometimes the state can do excesses, not just in our country but all over the world because power does extend itself in human beings. When they have power, they try to extend their power, and the state has a monopoly on many powers.

0:21:08.2 RN: So, it is an interest of civil society institutions and Bazaar institutions to make sure that some Samaj, Bazaar, Sarkar remain in a dynamic balance, that one sector doesn’t become so powerful that the other two are left at the mercy of any one of them. So that’s why that keeping that balance, just like Samaj and Sarkar need to work together to keep corporate excesses in check, because Samaj gives the eyes on the ground for the Sarkar to hold corporations accountable, for pollution, for labor violations, for all kinds of negative externalities that they create. So there has to be those partnerships, constantly attempted to keep this dynamic balance for a good society. And so that’s what I was talking about and we were asking about the lens of justice. I think more and more research globally is pointing to the fact that it is when corporations are attempting to be literally better corporate citizens, where they are reducing the negative externalities which society has to pick up the cost of, when they treat their employees better, when their employees feel like the companies they’re working for are trying to improve the world, not destroy it, that those companies are doing better in this actual solid research coming out on this, and it takes a while for companies to evolve to get there.

0:22:38.3 RN: But it’s becoming more and more clear that it is not only a moral, but a strategic imperative to get there. So, will people support justice? I mean, businesses are not going to go out of the way to put themselves at risk because they constantly need the state to approve everything that they do. They have to acknowledge that, but there are always openings to collaborate on some things, which are morally undeniable and need to be done for a better society. And last point is, you said that in India you can’t tell the difference between the market and the state sometimes. I think that is less true in India than in other countries. I think there is still a separation, good separation between the market and the state in India, and that’s why I see the opportunity for Samaj institutions to work with the state to ensure that we have better and better markets that are not trying to capture value only in one end of the spectrum, but distribute value down the line. So the age of partnerships and collaborations is truly here. We will fail in some, we will succeed in some, but we have no choice but to keep trying.

0:23:45.7 AJ: Absolutely. Those are beautiful words. Final question. I think we have about one minute. What would be your message to civil society organizations in terms of facilitating, encouraging collaborations?

0:23:58.7 RN: Yeah. I think it’s not so easy, I understand, for civil society organizations necessarily collaborate with people whose ideas about that issue may be completely different from theirs. But given the circumstances when 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, and civil society institutions is better represented with a diversity of views. I mean, corporations so successfully create all their bodies to represent corporate interests with government, right? CSI, I mean, sorry, CII and ASSOCHAM and all the others, FICCI, etcetera, NASSCOM, whatever it may be, I think civil society institutions really need to come together much better, collaborate better, and I think they can seek some philanthropic support for this organizing as well, because sometimes it’s that we are not good at storytelling, we are not good at presenting our messages well, so that we can get redressal of our grievances with state policy, etcetera, quickly, so that kind of collaboration is becoming very necessary.

0:25:13.9 RN: So I would request my civil society friends to come together in more platforms, write more, tell your story more, bridge the divide between yourselves and Indian donors. The age of the foreign donor is going away everywhere. In fact, my husband talks of philanthropy nationalism, which seems to be emerging. Everyone wants to fund in their own countries, and Indian philanthropists are coming together. There are many new funds happening where philanthropists are coming together to say, we will contribute together for some cause, climate, environment, COVID relief, whatever it may be. Similarly, now civil society actors have to come together as well.

0:25:51.8 AJ: Wonderful. Wonderful. Thank you. Thank you, Rohini Nilekani. Sheena, is it…

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