Loving their living

Great Places to Work’s first ever employee survey of India’s humanitarian sector

Though most of us spend our time competing with peers in terms of job satisfaction, the fact that there are jobs in the social sector beyond the purview of such petty politics is more than apparent to each of us. After all, doing something for your fellow human beings ranks high on the list of self-satisfying actions. It is to quantify this satisfaction that research, consulting and training firm Great Places to Work (GPTW) moved past its corporate-centric surveys to list the best NGOs to work for in India instead this year.

With over 20 organisations participating in the survey, GPTW discovered that, on an average, 77% of the respondents believed that their organisation was a great place to work for. So, what makes it a ‘great place to work’? GPTW’s practice head Preeti Malhotra says, “Trust, pride and camaraderie are our top criteria, among others, when we decide if a place is indeed a great place to work at. We check whether the employees trust the employers, see if they feel proud to work for their organisations and if they get along well with — and look up to — their peers."

If you ask Malhotra what really makes people stick around at the top NGOs in the country, she says the reasons are two-fold, “These organisations have simple, single-minded mission — that is what larger corporates could learn from. Also, what we noticed is the equity of treatment. They look at each employee as an individual who contributes to the greater good of the organisation and as someone who has the opportunity to voice their opinions and be part of executive decisions.” 

Ask any of the employees of the top ten NGOs on the list and they will tell you that they are proud to be working where they are. Case in point: Vrishi Reddy of primary education organisation Make a Difference (MAD). The survey claims that 92% of the respondents are proud of the contribution their companies make to the immediate community through their presence, support of community initiatives, response to crises or the needs of the national or global community.

Says Reddy, “Our organisation is just as people-focused as it is impact-focused.” An average day at MAD begins with a team huddle — quite like in group sports — to offer the employees a pep talk to tackle the challenges ahead. The responsibility of educating children doesn’t distract the management from treating its employees fairly. In fact, MAD has not only featured on GPTW’s top 10 NGO list, but made it to the corporate list, too, for two years running. This could be because of the three self-professed values the NGO believes in — cause above self, leadership through ownership and a sense of family. 

The fact that it has two CEOs at the helm is one way to prove its commitment to making MAD a great organisation. Co-founder Jithin Nedumala heads the strategic operations team alongside relatively new entrant Rizwan Tayabali, which in layman’s terms would mean they are both CEOs.

Explains Tayabali, “A major change we made was to scrap the commercial organisational model and hierarchies in particular, as our objectives are different. In terms of organisational design therefore, a major aspect of our success has lain in designing and developing an organisation that is specifically built for impact, outcomes and the non-profit sector. For example, as CEO’s we ourselves form a strategic operations team, which sits alongside all the other support functions that enable the impact delivery teams. We do this to make it clear that there is no implied driver of hierarchy other than impact.” In effect, this means that it is the teams working directly with children that have the highest priority and drive internal decision-making and design. “Everyone else’s role is to make sure that they’re enthusiastic and enabled to make the difference we strive for,” adds Tayabali. 

Something that comes up often in conversations with members of the organisation is the need to maintain a sideways hierarchy. Every Thursday, MAD conducts something called a ‘culture meet’, where two or more of the organisation’s members set up activities not related to work for all staff members. Reddy adds, “We have ended up having philosophical discussions in the process.” MAD’s employees are anywhere in their mid- to late-20s, with some even having been hired right out of college, as was the case with Reddy.

All new recruits have to go through an internship programme that lasts anywhere between a week to two months. As HR head Shilpa Manari explains, “It is a way of not only making sure that the new recruits get acquainted with the organisation, but also a way for us to figure out if they fit in our work culture. After the internship period is complete, the entire team collectively decides whether the new recruit would be offered a job. It is not restricted to an executive decision.”

Intern central

When it comes to internship programmes, Mumbai-based WRI India prefers hiring from top corporate companies, they do have freshers in two programs — internship and early professional program (EPP). The internship is two-months long and in a year they hire around 25 interns. The early professional program is for people with up to two years experience and the hires are on contract for about six-twelve months. They  have around 10 EPP at any given time. 

As the team leader from WRI India says, “We hire bright people leaving well-paid jobs at lower salaries with the promise that they can do quality work and make an impact. We try to do as much as we can with our limited resources.” While MAD claims that there is no culture of looking over the shoulders of its employees, WRI India and some other organisations prefer to keep a constant track of employees to help smoothen things out. WRI pays attention to how the employee responds and interacts during the annual programmes as they break everything down activity-by-activity. As extensive as it may seem, they scrictly follow it in this manner.

Extensive and expensive, to be honest. There is no doubt that the whole process comes at a cost to the organisation, as it is an automated programme that helps it track performances, as opposed to goals set at the beginning of the year. They have an online system to keep things in place which is facilitated by constant follow-ups and online management. 

While most people think automated systems would be alien to NGOs, the top 10 on GPTW’s list are up to speed with review and monitoring systems used to align the goals of the organisation with those of the employees. 

A peek inside

Here is a look at the organisational mix of the top 10 on the Good Places to Work list

And since most of these places have limited funds at their disposal, they realise they have to be more creative than throwing cash at their worker bees. SOS Children’s Villages has adopted a programme called HR Connect to communicate changes in policies as well as invite feedback from its employees. Says secretary general Anuja Bansal, “It’s about having equal opportunities and equal voices in the organisation.” MAD has one of its own, too.

Says Tayabali, “We build our own specialised web technologies and mobile apps to track and share data and have adapted the Scrum Agile framework for project management. We have set up systematic, purpose-oriented approaches to problem solving, coupled with minimum useful documentation, which not only reduces reinventing the wheel, but improves internal sharing, insulates us against the risk of losing people and enables team members to easily change roles or cover for each other.” 

Some of the companies on the list have also outsourced the job — Delhi-based Learning Links Foundation hired an agency to help design some of the processes that keep track of work. Founder Anjlee Prakash says, “The foundation on which all our engagements rest is a strong process-driven implementation model that promises excellence in delivery and derives its strength from accountability, transparency, and flexibility.”

Places such as Room to Read, whose India HQ is in Delhi, actually assign a substantial part of their budgets to training and development. Says Sourav Banerjee, country director, Room to Read, “As an organisation, we assign 7% of our budget to staff development, of which 5% goes to professional development programmes and 2% goes to team-building exercises such as celebrating birthdays, regular development exercises and team-building trips.” 

Anuja Kishore worked with Infosys before leaving her cushy corporate job five-and-a-half years back to join Teach for India (TFI). Today, the head of the HR department at TFI, Kishore says, “We don’t believe in micro-management. We don’t have a policy to keep looking over our staff’s shoulders and pester them about their deadlines. We don’t have a system to check on their attendance at work either.” A look at the organisation’s office gives you a clue about what she means — there are no cubicles, just long tables that everyone including the CFO shares. Its hiring process involves a rigorous need to be of one mind with the organisation. Kishore says, “If there’s a candidate that is competent and has the skills the job requires but is only 80% aligned with our mission, we won’t hire them.” 

TFI tracks its employees’ progress with a leadership development plan instead. As part of this programme, managers discuss the leadership development of all their team members individually and give feedback on their strengths and weaknesses. Post this discussion, everyone together comes up with a detailed leadership development plan that focuses on personal and career growth for every member of the team. These goals are measured in the form of the progress made in various sections of children’s development, such as reading, writing, mathematical skills, values and mindset. Apart from this, an article or a video is sent to the staff every week in line with areas of development that have been identified at the time of engagement surveys conducted twice a year.

Quite like MAD, TFI’s focus on individuals and their feelings is obvious. Says Deepti Balwani, programme manager, TFI, “Our organisation is a space where we are allowed to be vulnerable. While our annual performance is measured, it doesn’t define us.” Alankrita Khera, head of communications at TFI, says, “There is no restriction when it comes to contributing to the cause that the organisation works for. Because of the open-door policy, I know I can walk up to the heads of other departments and give them my suggestions, and vice versa.”

TFI is not the only one that allows this cross-departmental communication. GPTW noted that a sense of ownership is usually what keeps an employee in the company for longer. Says Banerjee, “We have a system of doing regular town-hall meetings with the field staff, where they are allowed to raise concerns and queries. This gives us a chance to eliminate the barriers between top and low-level management.” 

At MAD, too, the reinforcement of the flat-organisation philosophy focuses on one of the core values – leadership through ownership. Tayabali says, “Over the past couple of years, we have successfully transitioned away from the more traditional permissions culture to a recommendations-based one, from an instruction-giving culture to an initiative-taking one, from a reviewing culture to an empowerment one, from a transactional culture to an appreciative one and from an appraisal culture to a developmental one.”

Bengaluru-based Parinaam’s CEO Mallika Ghosh says, “If we don’t empower employees, it will be difficult for us to empower beneficiaries. For example, we offer an education grant starting from ₹5,000 per month for the children of the employees who are just slightly above our beneficiary bracket.” Helpage India CEO Mathew Cherian says, “We have a strong performance management system where everybody is evaluated once a quarter and we give them our feedback. The performance assessment is a two-way process in our organisation. The subordinate can also assess the superior’s performance as well as review their feedback.”

Women lead the way

The development programme at Paragon Trust’s Muktangan chiefly focuses on its women. With a female-favouring gender ratio of 1:0.03, Muktangan is working on building the skills of women from the community, who in turn teach the children. Says HR head Vineeth Iyer, “The focus on employee development is very high. It usually is a checkbox on a set of criteria that corporations tick when training or evaluating their employees. Over here, we have around 32 ‘woman’ days a year of training. This is needs-based training, which means that we focus on what the employees are best at. Since they are the beneficiaries as well as the protagonists, they see a major personal transformation as well.”

It is interesting to note that these workers are well-trained to check for learning disabilities and about how to deal with children with minor disabilities. But all these perks aside, what are the biggest problems plaguing NGOs when it comes to managing staff? Says GPTW’s Malhotra, “Fundamentally, they don’t always have very defined policies. A lot of it is driven by the leaders and people who founded the organisation and people connected to the cause.” 

Regarding target assessment 

Since NGOs have different targets from the corporates, their systems of assessment should also vary. A lot of them are following the corporate model of mid-year and annual assessments so that they are able to assess the achievements of their employees as per the desired impact of the organisation.

Manari said, “Our impact assessment is done on the basis of on-ground core improvement of child outcomes, the feedback that we get back from their school teachers and shelter home authorities, exam scores, and how many of them progress into further education, apprenticeships or vocational training.” Learning Links Foundation (LLF) runs along the same principles. Agnes Nathan, senior vice president, LLF says, “I think one of our great strengths is that we are often able to exceed the expectations of our beneficiaries by maintaining high quality in our projects. This often bodes well with the organisations we partner with, and they come back to us with larger enhanced engagements.”

SOSCV includes fundraising targets and the cost of the project undertaken as well. Anuja Bansal of SOSCV says, “We see success in a project if we pull it off at 30% the cost of fundraising. We also look at the number of youth who settle down and have a look at the first incomes that they are able to earn. Right now, most of the impacted youth are able to earn over ₹10,000 per month.” Paromita Thomas, HR Head, Helpage India adds, “ Those employees, like fundraisers, whose job is to raise funds for the organisation’s activities are assessed on the basis of their individual targets assigned at the beginning of the financial year. But we also have physical targets to be met such as how many beneficiaries reached out, beneficiaries linked to the various schemes, villages or blocks covered and the likes.” 

There are also organisations like Piramal Foundation and Muktangan which hire third-party services to assess the success of their endeavours. Iyer of Muktangan explains, “We have an agency named Grey Matters on our payroll that conducts standardised tests and uses other such tools to assess impact of the teachers on the students. We also conduct managerial audits in cooperation with Dasra in which we analyse the framework and processes of our organisation.” 

Room to Read’s Poornima Garg explains how besides the usual organisational goal assessments, they have something called lights-on goals, such as being on time and maintaining the work ethic and impacting the children to the best of the worker’s ability, which as she says are placed to “maintain the basic hygiene of the organisation”. 

Overcoming obstacles

Then, since the organisations all run on funds and grants provided by donors, they find it challenging to retain talent in the organisation. Says the team at WRI India, “Financial resources are always a challenge, whereas a lot of people we want to hire need to be technically sound. Often, they are not able to fulfil that at the salaries we want to offer.”

With employee turnover as high as 24% for TFI, Kishore says, “We have a very young workforce so we are learning as we gain experience and are deeply thinking about scale and what would it mean to retain quality and impact when we get to thousands of more kids. Due to the age of our workforce, we often see employees leaving either due to personal reasons (marriage or relocation) or to pursue their higher education.” Both Helpage India’s HR head Paromita Thomas and Parinaam’s Sunil Kutty maintain that retaining talent is the challenge when it comes to managing staff. Their bosses, though, are slightly more upbeat about the topic.

Says Ghosh, “Our team is driven by passion and the tangible difference they make in the lives of the families they work with. As a non-profit business, our only source of funds are grants and donations so we need to make sure the money we receive is utilised to the beneficiaries’ maximum benefit.” On the other hand, Helpage India’s Mathew Cherian says, “We are not able to pay staff as much as we want to. But I am not constrained by this. People know what they’re getting into when they join our organisation.”

Another problem that people face is the work-life balance that they lack when working for NGOs. Volunteers Jumana and Dhanushree from Muktangan say that their families have started poking fun at them for being so involved with ‘school work’. But when your need to be a part of a cause is so great, what are the consequences on your life? While respondents didn’t necessarily complain about the respective leave policies and most organisations do understand the need to work from home sometimes, work timings are still a cause for concern for all employers.

Rakesh Saha of MAD says, “You can’t just close up at 5 pm and walk out. It takes a lot of work to make the changes you want to make on a large scale. From a long-term point of view, it may not be sustainable to work as hard as we do. I think our teams are working on a solution for this.” Manari confirms this by saying that MAD has added a wellness program that not only focuses on the employees’ work-life balance, but also ensure that their diets are taken care of by tying up with caterers that deliver wholesome food to its office.

The third challenge is that of communication. While most of these organisations try their best to keep in touch over cell phones or the internet, it is hard to keep in touch with every member that is out on the field. Says Thomas, “Our locations are pretty far-flung. It becomes difficult to keep track of everyone on a day-to-day basis.” Adds Cherian, “We are not able to meet nationally. But we do meet regional teams on a group level; these are mostly workshops or interactions with other teams.” 

While annual, quarterly or weekly updates might be de rigeur, volunteers in far-flung districts find it difficult to be a part of the same. Most of the organisations spoken to work under the same model of the corporate sector – that of directly reporting to the human resources department in any case of conflict. For teams such as MAD and SOSCV, there are HR representatives available at field level as well to be able to communicate their problems with them.

In case the problem escalates, they can always take it to a redressal committee consisting of senior management. Marina Boyle of Piramal Foundation says, “The HR representatives have monthly chats with the employees to check on their status and address any grievances.” Sunil Kutty, HR head of Parinaam says, “If there is any problem, employees are free to discuss the same with their supervisors or alternately with the regional HR Manager, Head HR. But, we take conflicts of an ethical nature with utter seriousness, and it may even result in termination.”

Driving change

It is a common misconception that the social sector is for the older and more mature section of the population. But, one of the best things about the organisations featured on the list is that they’re as young and dynamic as you wouldn’t expect them to be. Kishore of TFI says, “When I joined this organisation, I came in with the realisation that the best way to drive change in the education or any other sector in the country is to harbour the power that the youth have to change things.” That reflects in the organisation as they are part of an elite 27 club, which is the average age of the staff there. 

MAD and TFI both prefer hiring their employees from fellowship programs to ensure that they have some field experience, which ensures that their organisations remain young. SOSCV has the highest average age of the lot at 41 years, but does also hire 28-30 management trainees every year from top institutions in the country. These hires usually have a Masters in Social Work attached to their resumes and total to 132 of the total employee count of 1,100.  

As the process at Muktangan involves teachers from the community being trained from scratch, around 90% of the organisation is made of freshers with their average age at 30 years. Says Iyer, “The developmental process ensures that the teachers grow with the students as well.” 

Though there are no doubts whatsoever about the level of dedication the employees demonstrate towards their respective organisational goals in this field, what actually makes them stick around towards this mission? If you ask them, they all intone the similar answer — “Love.” That’s what makes the world go around now, doesn’t it?