There’s no secret, quick fix formula to changing habits. It takes years, even decades, to break out of established patterns of behaviour, but philanthropist Rohini Nilekani believes the pandemic has shown us that habits can change rapidly.
“In a year, people have adjusted to this thing,” she says, picking up a surgical mask and tugging at its ends. “Worldwide, hundreds of millions of people are always near a mask—whether wearing it, carrying it, or even wearing it on their chins—because we’ve understood the urgency of the covid situation,” she says. “It’s become a habit. This is something to think about.”
At their core, most non-profits grapple with changing habits—getting people, organisations or governments to understand how certain actions or behaviours impact society or the earth, and working towards transformation. The challenge, most often, is to frame the problem or mission in ways that make people act. “This is a virus, but frankly, so many problems we face from climate change to inequity could be just as devastating. What we in the non-profit sector can learn is this: how do we tell stories and organise our work so that people feel that same compelling motivation to change as they did during the pandemic?” says Nilekani, who recently stepped down as chairperson of the non-profit Arghyam Foundation, which has focused on water and sanitation since 2005.
The power of good intent
Nilekani, who has been involved in the non-profit sector since 1992, says she decided to hand over the reins after more than 15 years as she believes that just like a corporate, a non-profit also needs structured changes in leadership for true innovation to happen. “Otherwise, one tends to have a disproportionate impact on the organisation,” says Nilekani, both founder and funder of Arghyam.
The foundation runs on a personal endowment of about ₹156 crore from Nilekani, who’s married to Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani. In 2017, the couple, worth more than $2.8 billion, according to the Forbes Billionaires 2021 list, signed the Giving Pledge to contribute over half their wealth to philanthropic causes in their lifetime.
“Giving away that much money is not easy. You can’t just throw money at a problem. It needs some strategic thinking so that the mission will succeed, have impact,” says Nilekani, who turned 62 this year. “I want to give, well, in ways that move us towards a more socially and environmentally just society.”
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While she hasn’t openly sought ideas from the corporate world, she realises that years of seeing corporates up close and meeting industry leaders has lent her philanthropy a more strategic tone. “Leadership changes so much in the corporate world, strengthening them. Ashok Soota (Happiest Minds founder) comes to mind not only because he is a philanthropist but also because he has constantly built new organisations. His is a positive continuing journey of learning and achievement.”
She adds that the non-profit sector can also learn financial accountability, being outcome oriented, and putting in place robust processes for HR from the corporate sector, though being too dependent on processes could slow down the work of some non-profits. “NGOs need to be structured for flexibility to respond quickly to social injustice, a natural disaster or even a pandemic,” she says.
And there are big lessons, too, that the corporate sector can draw from non-profits, with the most important being making social accountability part of their mission.
“The power of good intent is definitely something the corporate sector can learn. In most non-profits, the first passion and commitment is to fix something that is broken in society. They have to take a holistic look at the problem—ask is why this happening, how can we better people’s lives or agency. While the corporate sector tries to do that I wish they would have a more societally and environmentally inclusive vision so that there are fewer negative externalities for government or civil society to clean up.”
The idea of being a good corporate citizen has been gaining ground with ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) and CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiatives but Nilekani believes the desire to work towards a more fair and environmentally sustainable market system needs to run deeper in the corporate world. In other words, corporations’ profits could be underpinned by the idea of a larger good towards people and the planet. Such changes could take place within the organisation too—by following labour codes and environmental regulations, and ensuring that equity is built into the organsation’s DNA whether by reducing salary gaps or hierarchies.
“There is research now to prove that companies which put in the extra effort and resources to do this, to be socially responsible, are not faring badly in the stock market or in their balance sheets,” she says. “The corporate sector could do more to translate the power of intent, and that is definitely something they can learn from the non-profit world.”