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Lessons for corporate honchos from NGOs working for street kids

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December 18, 2009
The Economic Times
Dibeyendu Ganguly

At a conference in Mumbai last month, corporate honchos listened rapt as Ramesh Ramnathan presented radical ideas on 'functioning without power.' Don't select people for assignments unilaterally, he said — give them a chance to volunteer. Now Ramnathan's standing in the corporate world comes in part from his earlier career with Citibank in New York, but today he's famous as the founder of Janaagraha, an NGO that works in the field of urban renewal in Bangalore.

And the ideas he presented at the National HRD Network conference in Mumbai were based wholly on insights from the NGO sector. "NGOs function with volunteers," he says. "We get things done without the use of power and authority. It's a skill set corporates would find useful in a scenario where they increasingly have to collaborate with people outside of the organisation , including their competitors." There was a time when NGOs were meant to learn efficient management practices from corporates. Seldom was it the other way round.

But time has rearranged the furniture and a few tables seem to have been turned in the process. For NGOs know a trick that's the envy of the corporate world — they can persuade people to work for free. But it's not just in the field of people management that NGOs can provide lessons for corporates. In these frugal times, they're models for cost management, whether it's in operations, logistics or marketing.

"NGOs are adept at doing more with less, making seeming unviable projects viable," says Venkat Krishnan, founder of GiveIndia, a fund raiser for other NGOs. "For example, an NGO called Goonj delivers a donated piece of clothing from a city to a villager in another part of India at a cost of Rs 1.30 per piece. Compare this with what a courier charges for delivering a tiny envelope within a city. We are able to do things at a cost that no corporate would consider possible."

On Shoestring

Operating across 21 states, Goonj moves 400 tonnes of clothing from donors in the cities to the rural interiors. The operation is not only a study in cost management, but also holds lessons on how to serve the bottom of the pyramid . Anshu Gupta worked as a manager at Escorts before starting Goonj and he believes that corporates who wish to really understand the rural economy need to send their employees to work with NGOs as volunteers. "They would realise , for example, that villagers don't want charity ," he says. "We give them clothes in exchange for labour. In the villages, self respect is important and people want to work to buy what they need."

NGOs have also proved themselves to be adept at building brands — without spending on advertising or hiring public relations agencies. CRY and Akanksha, for example, produce Christmas and Diwali cards out of paintings created by the children they work with. Akanksha's kids also put up a musical production in a big auditorium in Mumbai every year and they take part as a contingent in the Mumbai marathon.

These are events the media never fails to cover and Akanksha has become a highly visible brand name as a result. "You do whatever it takes to succeed," says Akanksha founder Shaheen Mistri. "We're lucky to be working with kids, who enjoy making cards, putting up shows and taking part in marathons."

Good marketing of the Akanksha kind helps NGOs garner donations, and even more importantly , volunteers. Most work with a very small staff of their own and depend mostly on outsiders to donate their time and energy for the cause. But volunteers are a fickle lot and here, NGOs can teach corporates a thing or two about managing attrition.

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