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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.

In its essence, collaboration must be an equal partnership of different players and actors. You cannot call it collaboration when there is one power center and everybody has to follow that power center. Collaboration is also difficult in practice because all the collaborators should not only have a common vision and mission, but they must also learn to give up control. Rather than seeking out leadership roles, we need to see everyone as a leader or rather as players on the same team. Good collaboration will only happen when we are able to let go of that 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 across the two.

If collaboration is about conceptualising and visualising the bigger picture, and working towards that goal as part of a collective, then one of the biggest challenges is to enable every participant to see that bigger picture and agree on it, says Arun Kumar. They must commit to a certain concept or ideology, which we often call non-negotiables. Those who have the ability to think abstractly and conceptualise 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, leadership, etc. To be successful in your mission however, a broad agreement is necessary, argues Arun. He mentions the example of CRY, Child Rights and You, which headed an almost seven-year long campaign with a coalition of more than 200 organisations 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.

There are different kinds of collaboration as well. We saw a lot of daily collaboration in the past year, Arun points out. In Mumbai when the lockdown was announced, 14 organisations came together to collaborate and coordinate, sharing information and finding the cheapest mode of transportation, what to procure from where, etc. They were organisations working in different geographies and on different issues, but there was an overriding need and they came together to work collaboratively. Another example is Mission 24 which was initiated by Apnalaya aimed at improving entitlements in M-East Ward, which is right at the bottom out of all 24 wards of Mumbai. But it was difficult to keep people together on questions of advocacy, and to keep them committed for a long time because advocacy is a difficult task. 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, Arun asks whether we can begin to view collaborations beyond the lens of funding a project, and consider it as an investment in a cause that we must stay in for the long term. Perhaps we can look beyond implementation and multiplying operations in the name of collaborations, and look at research, data, evidence, advocacy, and policy change as priority areas since these are where funding is scarce and collaboration is difficult. From my own point of view, having set up and worked with many organisations like Akshara Foundation, Pratham Books, and my foundations, Arghyam and EkStep, I think philanthropists are slowly seeing the need to collaborate. It’s necessary if we want to broadly fund areas and have our impact reach the most people.

Recently, there have been a few good examples of this – the India Climate Collaborative has more than 20 donors and donor organisations 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. So a few of us came together to birth this organisation 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 get-go.

It’s also becoming clearer that collaborations can help you to de-risk from all kinds of failures. So I think the era of collaboration in the philanthropy sector is upon us. I hope this means that a diverse set of civil society organisations 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 conceptualised what we call Societal Platform Thinking. Our main goal for this was to ask ourselves, during these challenging times how can we achieve the most impact at scale? Carrying out a successful pilot and then trying to scale up was not as effective, so we’re 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 societalplatform.org, along with many public digital goods for people to use, toolkits, processes, and our team is always available to answer questions.

If we want more collaboration, we have to learn how to distribute the ability to solve because solutions don’t only come from one end of the pipeline. So how do we create more agency in a distributed way? How do we scale up diversity? How do we use technology for public good? How do we allow people to solve problems in context? And how do we bring the 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, with organisations like Pratham, which is probably the largest education NGO in the world, and requires all kinds of collaboration at all levels. So while collaboration remains extremely difficult because it’s 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 taught us how to collaborate a little better and from the heart.

It’s 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 Samaaj actors, civil society institutions, and Bazaar actors to work together to uphold rule of law. Civil society organisations come from a lens of equity, social justice, etc. and I’m sure many in the Bazaar do too, but it is also about innovation, efficiency, and creating prosperity for a wide number of people hopefully. But 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.

Therefore it is an interest of civil society institutions and Bazaar institutions to make sure that the Samaaj, Bazaar, Sarkar remain in a dynamic balance and that one sector doesn’t 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 corporations that reduce the negative externalities, treat their employees better, and work towards improving the world rather than destroying it, are gaining success while doing so. So there is not only a moral but a strategic imperative to get there. Of course, businesses are not going to put themselves at risk because they constantly need the state to approve of everything that they do. However, there are always openings to collaborate on some things, which are morally undeniable and need to be done for a better society. I think 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 don’t 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 organisations 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 organisations 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 well. I would request my civil society friends to come together through more platforms, tell your stories, and bridge the divide between yourselves and Indian donors. The age of the foreign donor is over 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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