Is Civil Society really interested in (ground up) problem solving?

I keep hearing, both internally and externally, that people nod to the idea of playbooks, to alliances, to sharing openly on public fora, to systemic changes needed for sustained improvement and to other things merely because of funding power dynamics.

I personally have had many interesting debates around nuances with many of our partners who disagree with various bits and pieces, challenge our assumptions and thus help extend our thinking. Needless to say, some of these are our closest partners and allies since there’s most respect for their work, views and logic and data backed arguments.

If what I hear about people doing some of these things (which we have come off discussions with and work done on the ground by many partners, and been super careful about socializing extensively, iterating based on inputs and debates, and also present carefully as work in progress that needs further inputs and evidence) is true, does it mean that a lot of civil society isn’t interested in solving issues with community participation and from their or the place’s point of view? Does it mean that funding decisions cloud their thinking and judgement to an extent that they do not care for true, deep and persistent change, or for the communities they work with? Or does it mean that the people who assume these things have become too cynical based on a few experiences and through this cynicism, we end up reiterating and reinforcing this assumption, almost as a self fulfilling prophecy?

I personally don’t have that view and work with the assumption that despite the practical constraints, people truly do care about the problems, communities and hopefully the places they work with and for. I believe that, funding or not, they’d choose to do the right thing, decide with and from the community’s pov to the best extent possible, and want to bring in the best (if/where available) help for the problems they find there.

Perhaps I’m being too optimistic and naive, but I cannot believe that the reality is at the opposite, cynical end of the spectrum either. If it is, we’re kinda doomed and all this effort might come to naught.


Thanks for bringing this up @sameershisodia e effort of NGOs is indeed spent onboarding a donor, tweaking the intervention design to suit their interests, meet their compliance, branding & reporting requirements.

Many CSR partners offer only a 5% admin fee when the actual admin costs for running an organization would be between 15-20%. There is some outdated logic that all HR costs (even if they are 100% dedicated to the project) are considered indirect costs and capped at ridiculously low levels. Systemic change takes decades, while funding for projects is limited to 2-4 years, which can sometimes force non-profits to take certain decisions that are good for the short term results, but may not result in long term impact.

Despite these challenges & pressures, my experience has been that most genuine non-profits are inclined to do what is best for the communities they serve - with the intent being long-term systemic change, to make themselves redundant so the local stakeholders can own the solution without a need for the non-profit’s continued intervention.

If the funding models do not evolve to reduce the ‘pressure’ on civil society, then NGOs will continue to spend 50% of its efforts on satisfying donors, and the resulting impact on the community might take twice as long or more.


Loved it!

Currently, I am reading this brilliant book: Zero - the biography of a dangerous idea. I remember writing a long essay based on Nithin’s vital Tweet - Why do I disagree with the narratives around India’s B2C potential for tech businesses. At the time of writing this essay, I was emotional, and I called myself an irrational optimist.

But this book strengthens my belief in irrational optimism by 1000X. I find it amazing for the fact that we as a human species settle for one numbering system (the current one) even though each civilization has its own numbering system. And even though the West took 2000+ years to accept Zero after so much resistance - it proved the fundamental fact: we can only resist fundamentals - get off track for a while - but can’t ignore them.

Solving problems has been the root cause of the economic development of a nation and its members. And our society is well on track to solve problems from the ground up.

I am glad you are having this very crucial discussion Sameer. I also think that CSOs are genuinely interested in problem solving. I would like to add another perspective though - I think funding decisions are themselves not operating in isolation. If CSOs are responding to where the funds are, my experience in climate has been that funding itself is looking to achieve “wins” or invest in solutions that are relatively more achievable/ implementable than addressing the harder issues which have the potential for systemic change, but also need persistent effort and money, and have significantly higher risks of not managing to deliver. I am purposely not calling this outcome a failure.
There are examples of this in the climate action space - the long term, practical and needed solutions are recognised, but sometimes funding can prioritise areas/ solutions where complexity might be relatively lesser, even if they lead to limited climate impact. This to me is also a lost effort, cause it can’t bring about the change at the scale that is needed to address the problem, when a large part of the problem is not even being adequately addressed.

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Civil society organizations (CSOs) encompass a wide range of groups with diverse goals and approaches. By categorizing them broadly, we can better understand their inclination towards ground-up problem-solving and community participation.

The first category consists of CSOs focused on systemic problem-solving and community strengthening. These organizations are more likely to embrace ground-up approaches and engage with the community to identify and address issues. They also recognize the importance of influencing the broader system to achieve lasting change.

The second category includes CSOs that have a specific solution and aim to promote it within the community. While they may also adopt a community-based, ground-up approach, their focus tends to be more local and implementation-oriented. They may engage in conversations and projects related to government initiatives but may not prioritize systemic change.This funding model can create a cycle where organizations prioritize short-term, project-specific outcomes to secure future funding.

The third category comprises lifestyle organizations whose founders run them to both live a certain lifestyle and contribute to the community. These organizations often have a predetermined solution and are less likely to engage in ground-up problem-solving. Their primary objective is to implement their solution and directly benefit the community.

The fourth category involves organizations that establish their own systems and work within their confines. They may not actively seek community input or engage in ground-up problem-solving. Instead, they operate within their predefined framework, expecting it to benefit others.

The role of funders in this landscape is crucial. Besides providing funding, funders should aim to create an environment that encourages the desired approach to problem-solving. Funders can influence the direction of work but should also trust CSOs to make informed decisions. Additionally, funders can facilitate collaborations, alliances, and networks, as CSOs may lack the perspective and resources to do so themselves.

Ecosystem players and social enterprises can also play a role in building capacity and introducing new perspectives to CSOs. However, expecting CSOs to be proactive in seeking these opportunities may be unrealistic due to their heavy involvement in implementation.

Ultimately, power rests with the funders and gatekeepers of public and philanthropic capital. To enable effective ground-up problem-solving, a delicate dance is required. This involves setting certain rules, creating a safe environment that allows for experimentation and learning from failures, and periodically observing the dance floor from the balcony to provide inputs and create networks. The goal is to ensure that CSOs have the necessary support and guidance to address community needs effectively.

While the categorization I provided may be oversimplified, it is essential to recognize the existence of different types of CSOs and the potential for learning from one another. To foster this learning, platforms and environments closer to the problem statements and communities themselves, rather than distant urban areas, are needed. This way, capital and expertise can be brought together in a way that facilitates meaningful and inclusive problem-solving.


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My answer is largely no. (This is just clickbait headline, the point below is more nuanced :grinning:)

I will setup my definitions, assumptions and such upfront making it easier for those who want to disagree.
Every org, individual, firm, govt etc is part of a System. Systems analysis can be done by setting up temporary boundaries to have a scope. Without this everything is up for analysis and eveything is connected to everything else and we dont end up making any specific point. So wanting to make a point is to Bound and this always opens up one to errors of what was missed in defining the boundary. Just a caveat…

One of the key aspects of any System that adapts and survives is Feedback loops. The example of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is a good example.

Any System solving a problem should be actively responding to the subsystem where the problem is. Hence CSOs should ideally have their ears to the ground and understand and adapt to their beneficiary communities.
For this mere good heart is not enough. There has to be a Transmission mechanism to communicate Value. Payment and Money is one such super mechanism that Human systems have evolved for millenia. However we now know that payment cannot track Value when some are very Poor. However Poverty only means that the Scale of Payment will be lower (and when it is lower than the most frugal cost of Delivery, there is the famous Market Failure). It doesnt change the Concept that Payment will Track Value.
Most CSOs provide a Goods or Service where this key Feedback mechanism is cut and the key feedback ends up coming from either Donors or Research studies.
Donors would have way less Time spent on the ground than the CSO. So Trust can be the only way they fund the CSO and to some extent verification of few kinds. They are not the best source of Feedback on Value.
Coming to Research studies, here a series of Tools are used to Track the on ground Reality. Survey, FGD, secondary data, even ethnographical material. When these are done, there is no Cost to the Feedback given by the End Beneficiary to the Researcher. He / she can say anything like in an Exit Poll. Issue, to be clear, is not one of knowingly lying. But one of saying things when there is no Cost involved. This is not Reliable. Whereas if you are asked to pay even Rs. 10 the Reality comes out!

Now by setting up such a System of Donor funding and CSO delivery, we often let go of civilisations oldest and most enduring mechanism of giving Feedback!

It is bound to Fail by Design. I spent 13 years seeing this up close. The only thing that went well in all of those 13 years was the Good Heart of the Donors and the CSOs. But a Good Heart is a complement and not a substitute for a Hard Headed decision to pay Rs. 10 or not pay it. If you pay, you cannot use that Money for buying one extra packet of biscuit for your families evening Tea. It’s gone…

This is why when after my reasonably long experience with being a Donor and working for CSOs, when i left and started my own Org, i chose a Pvt Ltd company. Is the story any better for me? Absolutely not (you thought this was a Comedy, no the Tragedians always get Reality more right, start from Sophocles onwards please). I could easily retire poor ideas due to being a Pvt Ltd company. “Fail fast” as we say in startup community.

And pivot. Its true that the pivot ends up making one do the following:
Now that there is no light (payment by poorer segments) where i lost my Key, i will search for the Key under the street light 2kms away…

Ending this on the tragic note as it rings truer to Reality.

The Reader can figure out their answers and solutions, i am not going to work it out…

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Hi @sameershisodia ! Thanks for brining these anomalies to the surface. It kept me thinking since yesterday. I could not completely comprehend the situation that might have led to this post. But to respond to your last line, there are plenty of examples for us to be hopeful! Across the vast geography of India, so many local champions, local organisations, local initiatives are moving the needle forward. Of course these do not fit into the modern day outcome impact linearity. Little do they care to check if they are making any signifacnt “dent”. By being frugal, they take action everyday using whatever little that they have at their disposal. People like them just respond to what they see needs to be done.
Not too long ago we had seen this very land gave rise to people’s movement that turned the tide. Sundarlal Bahuguna Ji, Baba Amte, Jyotiba Phule, NBA and thousand more that I have not met or read about, they never waited out for any donors. They were clear on what they wanted to do.

Besides, the trajectory that our country boarded the post independence while it helped millions raised the lifestyle bar, it definitely also put us on a track of environmental destruction. So the journey that we travelled in the past 7 and half decade, how can that be turned around in matter of a decade? Isn’t societal change continuous and a cyclical process? Dose it not happens at snails speed? It might be possible with technology to shorten it, but can we really fast forwarded it to our like? perhaps not, so does it not ask us to be patient? who are we anyways!

From the larger question to few basics, by the Government record, we have around 168,000 NGOs in India, even if just an optimistic assumption that 20% of them are working with the communities, that is ~32,000 NGOs, does that not qualify as a critical mass?
How can we not be optimistic?
For all the problems that we have at hand? I sure believe that there are more than hundred reason to be optimistic. I feel the existing pressures will force us to collaborate, it is just a matter of time before these efforts starts to find their own collective order.
While writing this, I am reminded of a quote by Prof P Sainath," between the cynical pessimism and overwhelming optimism, there lies a territory called hope, we live there"
May be then we all qualify in the category of being naive.


Dear Sameer, I am perhaps more cynical than most and yet…

If we delve deeper into your question. Once we arrive up on the set of people who are genuinely interested, we can quickly see that there are two divisions in this
(dharma) - the ones who are busy but care (who would typically earn elsewhere and donate)
(karma) - the ones who care but do not have the money, so they work

Now, let us think why this two set of people with a common objective struggle to achieve their goal. Would an investor listen to the volunteer on how his investment should be best used?
So we have the curious case where the investor has difficulty letting go, or having faith in the SME who is on the ground and understands the problems having seen them up close. Where do you think such a system is headed?
I think it was Swami Vivekananda who said that if you want to give alms to the beggar, give, without bothering to agonize over whether they would misuse it.

I speak routinely to committees who manage the impact funds set aside by investors (both private and government) and they have the same standard questions:

  1. What is the innovation? (by this, they mean technological they have no room for any other concept in their minds)
  2. Impact (How many people’s lives will be changed?)
  3. Current revenue and profits (I was told that I should have at least 1 lakh current users to apply for a grant of 25 lakhs. Seriously? When did the CAC become 25 rupees per customer, I wonder)

On the contrary, I would argue that shouldn’t such committees give money to people/institutions who will find it impossible to raise money from non-impact investors? So, how can impact investors have the same questions/objectives as the non-impact ones?

Circling back to your question on whether civil society is interested in this - definitely yes. But, they are not cut from the same stone as the majority. The very mindset of independent thought makes for difficulty in working well with others - the Delphi principle. The logical thing would be, of course, to do independent interviews with each of these folks, gather the thoughts, make sense of it and then move forward - a major project in itself. So, we proceed as we always have - stalemate.

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Sameer, interesting that you raise this point. CSO driven solutions with community participation very challenging to arrive at consensus and drive the outcomes. Imagine if we want to do say no till farming, and community knowledge says it wont work, how to drive the consensus, we have failed repeatedly in such attempts; but what has worked once we have a credible data post such intervention, involving the communities will bring in different perspectives. in my opinion funding is not a driver, it is the time that is of essence.