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India’s Best NGOs To Work For
With improved work environment and employee-friendly policies, NGOs are increasingly mimicking HR practices of corporates

Shruti Venkatesh

When philanthropist Padmini Somani founded Salaam Bombay Foundation (SBF) in 2002, her aim was to address the challenging conditions that children in low-income families face. The NGO (non-government organisation) works with vulnerable children aged between 11 and 17, who are most likely to drop out of school. They encourage these children to continue studying, with the promise of a better future. Interestingly, along with a focus on social work, Somani was equally focused on shaping a strong, healthy work culture at SBF. “Our director, Somani, set up the organisation on the lines of a corporate workplace. We try and give all comforts to our employees. Paintings and vibrant walls make it a pleasant office space,” says Smruti Kasulwar, VP, human resources at Salaam Bombay. The organisation functions as a corporate entity, with emphasis on employee-friendly human resource policies. For instance, mediclaim and gratuity are borne by SBF, above salary. “We make sure that every rupee is going to the right place. Being an NGO, we always aim to ‘do more with less’. Salaam Bombay functions with the brain of a corporate and the heart of an NGO,” she adds.

The social sector is surely coming of age in India. This is reflected in many ways, one of them being their employee policies. The maiden list of Outlook Business-Great Place To Work India’s Best NGOs To Work For 2018 comprises 10 NGOs of varied sizes, working across diverse social causes like education, childcare and health. (see: Top 10 NGOs to work for in India) The commonality: all of them have recognized the need to have  structured policies for the employees.

Shifting perceptions

For a long time, working in NGOs was seen as being detrimental to one’s standard of living. Rizwan Tayabali, CEO, Make a Difference, shares that when he first started working as a volunteer while studying, he was met with strong voices of disapproval. “When I was entering this sector, everybody lectured me on the wisdom of my choice,” he says. Any entity that is operating well and pays a fair wage should not be subjected to such ignominy. “I’ve never met anyone during my travels who entered this sector and ended up penniless. It’s not like we don’t have other options if things go wrong,” he says.

Tayabali worked with non-profit projects during his twenties, then started a web accessibility project for the visually impaired, which eventually went on to help write the British Accessibility Standards that we use today.

Tayabali says that over the years, a lot has changed in the development sector. However, a lot of people look at struggling not-for-profit companies, and believe that’s what the entire sector is like. “They forget that there are transnational non-profits such as Oxfam, global entities such as Teach for India, massive wide-reaching local ones such as Pratham, and pioneering mid-sized ones such as Make A Difference (MAD) that are recognised among the best mid-sized companies across all sectors, and not just NGOs,” he explains.

Vijay Chadda CEO, Bharti FoundationVijay Chadda, CEO of Bharti Foundation, opines that the idea of considering NGOs as a ‘post-retirement’ workplace has long gone. Kalyani Rao, head of HR at Dr. Reddy’s Foundation, says that their workforce includes people with disability, men and women at all roles and levels, from all parts of the country, and across varied age groups.

The industry received a major push with corporate social responsibility (CSR) regulations under the Companies Act, which required organisations to set aside funds for philanthropy. Career in the not-for-profit sector, which was traditionally considered charity, has gradually grown into a profession which bears good rewards and a sense of gratification. Mamta Saikia, COO, Bharti Foundation, says that the biggest benefit of being a part of a large group such as Bharti Enterprises is the support they receive – not only in terms of existing policies and processes, but also the expertise of highly experienced people. “In case of Bharti Foundation, the level of employee engagement across group companies keeps increasing year-on-year. All our programmatic achievements have been well supported by the ‘giving’ spirit of employees within the Bharti Group, through financial support and volunteerism,” she adds.

What further raises the appeal of this sector is the entry of several international organisations in India. Take for instance Room to Read, which strives to improve literacy and gender equality in education in the developing world. Poornima Garg, director, human resources at Room to Read, says that working in such organisations is like working with a typical corporate. One of the differences could be that because an individual’s passion is involved, his/her productivity need not be encouraged through monetary rewards, but other metrics as well. That is evident for Room to Read, as our scores on passion for work has consistently been high,” says Garg.

As the NGOs evolve, there is also a simultaneous shift in their workforce in terms of age, gender and education. Kasulwar of SBF says that earlier, most people applying for jobs at NGOs held degrees in social work, and even arts graduates did not apply. That, though, is changing – people with background in medicine, law and other specialisations have started getting into this field. Giving back to society has become fashionable, and a lot of fresh graduates have started applying in this sector.

Sylvia Priyanthi Associate director (operations), Quest AllianceMirza Musarrathassan Beg, head of human resources, Bharti Foundation, believes that the non-profit sector has career opportunities for varied professionals. The type of work includes ground-level implementation of schemes, executing community engagements and managing CSR funds. Rao says that every functional and programme head at Dr. Reddy’s Foundation has a professional degree in line with his/her work. “I think this is not limited to just us, but is so across the sector,” she adds. At Quest Alliance too, Sylvia Priyanthi, associate director (operations), says, “In addition to people from a not-for-profit background, we receive applications from people working for corporates, apart from engineering, arts and science graduates.”

Tayabali states that people often tend to appreciate those who go down the commercial route and then ‘give everything up’ to work in the non-profit sector. “The real heroes, for me, are the ones that never went down the commercial route at all. They are as capable – it’s not like they could not have gone down the commercial route if they wanted to,” he says.

Right recruiting

So, what exactly do these NGOs look for while hiring? Chadda says, “Apart from core functional skills, we look for people who are passionate and can connect well with the cause that the organisation stands for.” Being a jack-of-all-trades comes in handy while working in this sector, as do abilities such as teamwork, critical thinking and quick learning. 

Aligning personal ideologies with the purpose of the company is also very important. As Vinoj Manning, executive director of Ipas, says, salaries in this sector are never going to match that of the private sector. “But, people are looking for more than that. They are looking to work for a larger purpose, and we search for that,” he adds.

Vinoj Manning Executive director, IDFEssentially, organisations look for someone who prioritises purpose over monetary growth. Gayatri Desai, gynaecologist and trustee at Sewa Rural, says that they are seeing a mixed scenario when it comes to hiring younger employees. “People would like to work for a social cause, but not at the cost of material comforts,” she points out.

People who are willing to make that sacrifice are rare, which is why Tayabali believes that the real financer of any NGO are those who are content with just a third of what they could be earning elsewhere. “If you look at Mad, we have more than 4,000 people volunteering pro-bono for formal, part-time jobs on annual contracts. If we pay everyone even a basic stipend, our operating cost would be around 600 million. But, we actually operate at around 45 million because people are working without remuneration. This means that if you are funding us, the doer is subsidising your value proposition by a factor of higher than 10,” he says. Kasulwar further adds, “For the doer (employee), the value addition to life and the satisfaction of contributing to society is an intangible factor that you cannot monetize with a rupee figure. We hire people for whom this holds more meaning than a large salary.”

Empowering personnel

To retain and nurture the influx of a diverse workforce, organisations have to build policies that are conducive for their personal as well as professional growth. At IDF, this starts with the first handshake itself, says Manning. As soon as a candidate accepts the offer letter, a welcome kit is sent across to his residence, which includes a welcome letter and videos that provide a background of the company, employee views on the work experience. “The whole idea is to get them hooked on to the purpose, and raise excitement even before joining,” says Manning. After joining, the employee is assigned a ‘buddy’, who acclimatises him/her with organisational values and internal processes. The company also sends across ‘thank you’ letters to families of employees, for being a source of support.

The reverse of this happened at Room to Read, where Garg received a letter from the father of one of their employees, expressing how overwhelmed he felt to be part of Room to Read’s extended family. “Policies such as tri-annual promotion cycle, group medical insurance with parents and OPD/IPD cover, pre-term gratuity disbursal, work from home, flexible working hours and cross-department/state exposure help in making the organisation a preferred place to work,” says Garg.

MS Mahala, career development facilitator at Quest Alliance, says, “During the induction, I came to know about ‘Reach for the stars’, which allows employees at Quest to develop and grow professionally alongside the company. That’s what makes Quest a great place to work, where individuals have an identity, and the space to grow and make an impact.”

These NGOs also organise various events, and celebrate festivals and birthdays of employees to build a more cohesive workforce. For instance, at SBF, other employees are allowed to donate leaves to their colleagues in case of emergencies. They have also reduced working hours by 30 minutes to eight hours per day, and 10 days of privilege leave is available for every employee at SBF. Employees also get value addition to their lives in terms of honing new skills. Kalpana Phawde, project coordinator at SBF, says, “In my last 10 years here, I have improved my communication skills, confidence and leadership abilities.”

At Sewa Rural, management policies are key to promoting employee satisfaction. Mahendra Parmar, an employee at Sewa (name changed upon request), says, “As part of our grievance redressal policy, I have the freedom of directly writing a note about problems that I have faced, even if it is against my supervisor. Such things are unheard of at any organisation.”

Some organisations have also started dedicating ‘days’ to improve employee engagement and promote learning. Quest Alliance has formulated a long list of days such as the ‘first Friday’ of every month, where the team comes together for activities such as cooking, music and games. They also celebrate sports day and ‘Quest day’, to thank their stakeholders and families of employees by bringing them all together.

Caring touch

Such policies help solving real problems of employees, thereby keeping them motivated to do better. For instance, Vishakaben, an employee at Sewa Rural, says that her son was very shy and would run away from strangers, before placing him in Killol day care. Now he is playful, communicative and mixes well with guests. “Because of this facility, I rejoined my job as a part-time employee, after returning from maternity leave. After a few months of settling in, I decided to switch to full-time. I am very pleased with the arrangement,” she says.

Rao of Dr. Reddy’s Foundation acknowledges that an ailing family member, a bad day at home, non-aligning priorities and worries of achieving aspirations all impact people, and their work. “We try to reach out to our staff in the best way. Emergency funds, advance salaries, bereavement leaves for immediate family and funds for professional growth are small steps, but I think what’s important is they know that they can count on us,” she adds. 

Having a competent management leading the way is also important. This, fortuitously, is an attribute that all NGOs on this list boast of. Garg of Room to Read says that their management is keen to understand how an employee can be kept happy. “This has not just helped us to maintain single-digit attrition rate, but also develop high-performance teams. Our work and commitment from staff is acknowledged by our donors, government partners, school authorities and other important stakeholders,” she adds.

The NGO sector is booming, with a younger workforce joining in on the effort to give back to the society. As Tayabali says, well-run companies and non-profits often look the same structurally, but the former are usually better places to work at, as they also provide the opportunity to live a meaningful life that contributes towards a more humane culture.

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