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Cause and effect

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August 11, 2007
Labonita Ghosh

Yashu Chowdhary likens her job to a prayer. "It brings smiles to so many faces," says the 28-year-old co-founder and director of Icongo, an umbrella organisation of voluntary groups.

Four years ago when she was a software developer at Wipro, Chowdhury thought her job was dead-end. "I asked myself everyday what I had achieved, and the answer was always, nothing," she says.

That's when she decided to give non-profit work a shot. "My friends thought I was crazy to give up a lucrative job," she says. "My father was so upset, he stopped talking to me. But today they 've all come around because they see me happy."

Chowdhary's not the only one. More and more young people are quitting jobs in management, finance, human resources, infotech, engineering and media for social sector positions. Sudeshna Das, 26, who works with a financial rating agency, recently started a voluntary organisation to help unemployed youngsters, with four of her friends - three management graduates and one engineer.

"We still have our jobs, but only just," says Das. "When we scale up operations in November, some of us will have to quit. I, for one, would rather leave the job than give up my work." Reasons for this crossover, as experts have labelled this trend, are many.

A decade ago the transition from private to social sector was only among older professionals who had made their money and their mark, and were looking for new challenges.

"I had been a banker for 28 years," says Ujjwal Thakkar, CEO of the child rights group Pratham. "But I joined Pratham 12 years ago when I felt it was time for me to do other things. My kids had grown up, so I could afford to take casual paycuts to join a non-profit." Today, many youngsters either opt for NGOs as their first job, or spend a few years in the corporate world before switching over.

For many of them, making a difference is not the only reason. "NGOs are no longer considered the domain of social workers," says Vimmi M Budhiraja, human resources general manager at Child Rights and You (CRY).

"They have become a viable career option where you end up doing work that is as high-profile and interesting as in the corporate world." As for payscales, NGOs in India are not exactly cash flush but many are able to chase corporate salaries, thanks to better resources management.

And funding; a white paper published by a recent conference on "Crossing Over" estimates foreign funding to NGOs in the country in 2006 was a conservative Rs6,000 crores. "We can't match corporate payscales, but some organisations do pay well," says Pushpa Aman Singh, COO of Give India, which is ready to fork out Rs10,000 for a fresh graduate in corporate communications - only about 30 per cent less than a comparable job in industry.

For people with four to eight years experience, it could be anything between Rs 30,000 and Rs1 lakh a month. Some NGOs benchmark salaries to those offered graduates from social sector institutes: a starting package of Rs 22-25,000 a month, up from only about Rs 8-10,000 a few years ago.

Still, when it comes to pay, itâ's a struggle for non-profits to attract young talent. "We're not always able to recruit young professionals because they have lots of other jobs options," says Tina Chatterjee, director (special assignments) at Concern India Foundation.

"Even call centres and retail outlets pay better than NGOs." Adds Thakkar of Pratham: "When it comes to youngsters, my primary concern is that they will give NGOs a miss to somehow meet their families' expectations about pay and job profile. One has to be really passionate about voluntary work to overcome all this." This just makes it harder for organisations to lure jobseekers.

There are, however, other intangibles besides pay, says Meena Galliara, chairperson of the social entrepreneurship cell at the Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies. "Social sector jobs offer a recognition and visibility that can come to you only at the highest rungs of the corporate world," she says.

The sector is also opening up in other ways, says Pari Jhaveri of the headhunting firm, Third Sector Partners. "Non profits today are better organised and more professional. They take brand building, positioning and fund raising much more seriously now, creating a need for youngsters with specific technical and managerial skills."

In a competitive market, NGOs know they need to, in a manner of speaking, "go corporate". Prospective funders also play this card. "NGOS come up with beautiful proposals, but no follow-up," she says. "So funding agencies insist on more professional staff before they put down the money."

B-schools across the country, having noticed this trend, are jumping in with facilitators. Some IIMs and IITs have corporate-NGO liaison cells, while Mumbai institutes like HR College of Commerce and SP Jain have a social sector component in their management curriculum.

The social entrepreneurship cell at Narsee Monjee was introduced three years ago following a "market demand", and today a fifth of the 120-strong graduating class opts for non-profit jobs, says Galliara. International grant-makers like Acumen Fund or Gates Foundation offer fellowships, while some youngsters take the company's CSR route to full-time non-profit work.

Greater exposure is happening through schools and colleges, says Singh of Give India, which has over 70 per cent of its staff drawn from management, tech or engineering. "NGOs like ours also make a direct pitch for more IT and b-school grads, when we advertise on IIT and IIM websites or the economic newspapers," she says.

Indeed, organisations benefit from this, too. "The management or tech graduates bring in professionalism, and are very good at putting concepts, systems and business models in place," says Budhiraja of CRY, where 45 per cent of employees is from non-social sector areas.

"This is useful for resources mobilisation, fund raising, advocacy with donors and administration in general." It's clearly symbiotic, as an engineering graduate with Akansha puts it. "I didn't find myself a good fit in the corporate world, but my work here is much richer," he says. Something that is true of both the NGO and its employee.

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