Leap of Faith

Soumya Jayaram is the Chief Financial Officer at Rang De. She is a Chartered Accountant by training and prior to joining Rang De worked with ICICI bank for a decade approximately.  When not busy managing Rang De’s finances, Soumya dabbles in photography, pottery and baking. 

It’s been approximately 8 months since I joined Rang De as CFO. A conversation with a friend contemplating a career switch recently got me thinking about my journey so far and then I couldn’t rest till I had penned these thoughts down. I had been a Rang De supporter for a while before I joined the team, and already identified with Rang De’s work and mission. Once I decided to quit the corporate sector, Rang De became the obvious choice for me, falling squarely in the field of finance but different enough to be exciting and challenging. For me, at least, working in the not for profit sector isn’t a bid for sainthood or a turning away from the material world and its comforts. In fact, it is about engaging with the problems of the material world in a sustained manner and about being a part of the solution as opposed to being a part of the problem.Manipur Field Trip1

So for anyone reading this, who may or may not be contemplating climbing the fence to this side of the field, here’s what you need to know:

First up, your skills are valuable and you can make a difference. I personally know a few career professionals who at some point or another have contemplated a career in the development sector, but have not taken the plunge because they believe that it will mean starting from scratch and learning everything anew. That isn’t necessarily the case. At the end of the day not-for-profits too need to find solutions in a cost effective, efficient manner, just like for-profit organizations. That’s where you can help. Plus, most of the folks that I have met in this space are more patient and forgiving than their peers in the corporate world.

Secondly, doing your homework beforehand is important. Identify the cause you feel deeply about ( children’s rights, concern for the elderly, wildlife conservation, poverty alleviation et al) and then narrow down your search to organizations that are working on these issues. Not all of this will be google-able, so talk to your friends and their friends. Read more. Make an informed choice.

Thirdly, if you imagine that in the not-for-profit space your workday will be considerably shortened and holidays aplenty, well then I hate to burst your bubble. Just like in any other job, the good days and the bad ones will be mixed up with routine days filled with numbing paperwork and meetings. But, here’s the really important bit, your professional goals instead of chasing an abstract number will become centred on helping people and communities who haven’t had the privileges that you and I were blessed with. It is an excellent motivator, one that will drive you that much further.

And lastly, don’t be afraid. This change becomes easier if you think of it as a summer fling, rather than a lifelong commitment. You spend time together, learn from each other, and if it doesn’t feel right you both part on amicable terms. So, give yourself a year to start with. A year is a good time, not so short that you won’t be able to make a meaningful contribution, and not so long that you can’t get back to your old life. But at least there won’t be a “what if” in your life.

At Rang De, we are looking for motivated professionals to join our small team in Bangalore. Have a look at our careers page, and get in touch ! Those on sabbaticals are welcome to apply.

The Middle Ground

This is in continuation of our previous blog on ‘Growth pangs of a non-profit.’ In this blog we make an attempt to share our efforts to create a middle ground of opportunities to raise growth capital for non-profits.

A year ago when Rang De had just completed its 5th year, we started seeking funds to help grow Rang De. Our first grant from ICICI Foundation to establish the model provided us the much needed start up capital to set up a peer to peer model that is aimed at providing access to low cost credit to underserved communities. We used this grant judiciously and ensured that we use it to build the model. Our team size did not expand beyond 10, our operational expenses were moderate and we experimented with the model.

Now we realised was a good time to plan for the next few years and grow our impact meaningfully. Our efforts to get support from foundations failed miserably though – we ended up being offered funds that would not help Rang De’s operations beyond a couple of months.

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Going back to our previous blog post, we felt we were victims of a typical funders’ syndrome of wanting to support projects and not the organisation. As always, we were left with no choice but to go back to the drawing board and look at a more effective way of raising funds for the organisation.

Here were the challenges that we looked at addressing in our new, and what could be a game changing, approach to raising growth capital

 

Challenges of non-profits
1) The valuation of a non-profit is currently based on its financial metric and hence always remains at ‘zero’
2) Lack of growth capital for a non-profit that has established the model and was looking at scale
3) Lack of variety in the types of funding – debt, grants and equity (based on the need of the organisation) which is currently restricted because of the structure of non-profits
4) Perception that non-profits are less effective and not accountable
5) Inability of non-profits to attract human talent because of limited financial resources

 

Challenges of for-profit social enterprises
1) Financial gain getting a greater emphasis, impact taking a back seat
2) Investors’ mindset being attuned to getting financial returns as opposed to creating value in terms of impact
3) Over a period of time, entrepreneur ends up getting disillusioned and faces existential questions for the enterprise itself
4) While a for profit social enterprise may attract human capital – however their motivation and passion may not be around solving the problem at hand
Rang De’s current fundraising model, inspired by Prof.Muhammed Yunus’s social business model helps create the much needed middle ground for social enterprises. In a way, this model is a best of both worlds that combines ‘The doggedness of the non-profit’ to ‘the scale of a for-profit.’

 

The key features of the model are:
1) A valuation based on social impact and sustainability
2) A quarterly impact guidance that ensures the organisation is transparent about its impact targets
3) Adopts principles of lean to ensure that the organisation is effective
4) Offers no financial returns to investors but provides a tangible social return

We launched our fundraising efforts last November and we have gained significant traction. Here is an article that was published in Economic Times about the model.

And here is a link to Ram’s TEDx talk in IMT Dubai
If you would like to get involved in our efforts, please get in touch with smita@rangde.org or ram@rangde.org
And don’t forget to attend our Google + Hangout with Team Rang De on 3rd November at 20:30 (IST) to know more about the middle ground Rang De is treading.

Growth pangs of a not-for-profit

There are 1 million non-profits in India – all working to tackle a specific problem. I am sure all of us, at one point or other, have wondered why  most of the problems that the non-profits are working to solve have remained unsolved. Having had the opportunity to start one ourselves, we believe we may have just discovered one of the main reasons for the growth pangs that a non-profit faces. Popular belief remains that most non-profits are not what they seem to be and have severe challenges with regard to accountability and transparency. However, for every 1 such non-profit, there are probably 5 who are striving to succeed, to break the glass ceiling and achieve the scale that the problem demands. So, what is stopping all of us from growing?

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If we look at our own journey of starting Rang De, the first couple of years were dedicated to understanding the problem, devising a strategy that is suitable to solving the problem. It was impossible to talk of scale here as the focus was very much on understanding and experimentation. It clearly takes about 5-6 years for any nonprofit to arrive at a solution that works and there will always be a need for it to evolve to meet the needs of the community. During this phase, it is most important to have the backing of enough funding and the flexibility to test, and the luxury to fail. Very few non-profits are fortunate to get this support at the initial stages. If, by stroke of luck, the organization has got the kind of funding it needs, if it manages to survive the experimentation phase, then comes the growth phase.

Today for a non-profit that is looking at growth, there is little support out there. Mainly because, most foundations/donors only fund projects based on impact. There is very little capital available for the capacity building of the organization. Building and running an organization is often termed as admin expenses or overheads which nobody wants to fund. However, what would happen without these so called ‘admin expenses’. there would be no impact anyways. It’s the classic chicken and egg conundrum.

This is perhaps not a new problem. For years, non-profits have gone through this cycle. The survival strategy of a non-profit then means accepting project based funding whenever it comes their way. That also explains why many non-profits change their course of action, sometimes even their mission in order to survive. You would rarely see a non-profit that has dedicated itself to fulfilling one mission.

While this is the perspective of a non-profit organization, what about the funders’ thoughts. Why do they think and fund the way they currently do:

1) For generations, foundations have donated to causes as an act of giving, and not always to solve the problem.
2) Notions about Non-profit organizations as inefficient, lacking the expertise and wherewithal to think and execute holistically still remain.
2) Connected to this notion is the cost of overheads – which included even basic costs such as salaries, marketing and other necessary expenses
3) The desire to take claim for the impact created on the ground often exceeds the desire to help build the organization that solved the problem

The good news however for the non-profit sector does not stop at just one:

1) A small but amazing bunch of youngsters are hanging up their corporate boots are eagerly getting into the social space. This talent needs to be harnessed, mentored and nourished
2) With well qualified, well meaning individuals getting into the space – issues with expertise and knowledge can be rested
3) Running a non-profit is no longer just a passionate endeavour, meant for part timers, but young people are hoping to make a career in the space. If not, corporate salaries, they need to be paid to help meet their expenses.
4) Without strong, mission oriented organizations – impact will only remain flaky and superfluous. A strong, sustainable organization can help create sustainable impact.

A few years ago, there was a move to change this and tackle the challenges of funding in the non-profit space. That gave rise to a new school of thought called impact investing. Typically meant for for-profit social enterprises, here was a new breed of investors looking at investing in impact and making money at the same time. The for-profit model seemed to cater to this mind set. So, how different have these for-profits been in terms of creating impact – have they been able to address the social problems holistically? Unfortunately, the answer is a big no. From our limited experience we have realized that doing well and doing good in the social space is more of a misnomer. It is impossible to achieve a balance between social impact and financial returns. Often, the latter which is more easier to achieve is what keeps the entrepreneur going. Unlike in the case of a non-profit start up where they had the time and space to experiment before arriving at a business model and an impact model, the for -profit social enterprise has no choice but to get started from the word go.

A classic example where the for-profit model of social entrepreneurship as well as investments went terribly wrong was what happened in the micro finance space in 2010. We strongly believe that there is a need to create a middle ground that will help address these problems holistically.

At Rang De, we believe in creating our own solutions, approaches to solving our problems when existing models have failed to deliver. And we are doing just that to raise growth capital. This blog series is aimed at sharing this model with the larger audience. We hope that more and more non-profits will adopt this model or devise their own ways of raising capital.

 

The doors of perception

This is a post by Rang De’s team member, Hitesh Bhatt about his recent trip to Parvati Swayamrojgar

If the doors of perception are cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.- William Blake

On 6th of October, on the occasion of Baqr’Eid, the second of two religious holidays celebrated by Muslims worldwide each year, I got another opportunity to meet our Rang De borrowers and join them in celebration. Pune, a city which celebrates every festival with a zeal that I have not experienced elsewhere in the country, was the place I went to meet our impact partner (PSW- Parvati Swayamrojgar) and the borrowers. Crossing through the posh areas of Pune, I finally reached the slums of Ghorpadi.

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What a stark difference in lifestyle you can see within the same city. On one hand there are people who possibly have more than what they want and on the other there are those who have less than what they need. It reminds me of Gotham city from DC Comics Batman. Do we also need a Batman to come and fight this crime? But perhaps this is one fight Batman might just lose, because the crime is not so evident. And there is no single perpetrator of this crime. This crime is hidden within bad government policies, lack of moral responsibility and political will, indifference of the well to do and so on. In every Indian Tier 1 and 2 city, there are huge, energy guzzling shopping malls and sky high residential apartments all located alongside dingy, urban slums. It is ironic that people who have constructed buildings for the rich and given up their lands to corporations are often branded as uncivilized, untrustworthy, or lazy. Here are few more adjectives that we don’t hear used too often to describe the poor: kind, generous, hospitable. When I visited people in the slums, all of them, literally, all of them offered me vermicelli which they had prepared for Baqr’ Eid. None of them turned down my request to talk to them for a few minutes, no matter how busy they were. I met a borrower who stitches clothes for Sheikhs and his products are sold mostly in Arabian countries. I met a 65 years’ old woman, a vegetable vendor, who lives all alone and is still as spirited as child. She really inspired me and I couldn’t resist getting a photograph clicked with her. They all gave their precious business time to me without complaining, in fact with much hospitality.

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I conclude this write-up by saying that everyone I met is talented, creative, and passionate about their likes and dislikes, full of love for life in their own ways. Given platforms to showcase their talent; they have the power to surprise the whole world with their entrepreneurial skills and generosity. There is so much more to learn from the people if only we stop stereotyping and neglecting them.

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I appeal to all the readers to do their bits to make a change. No change is big or small. If it brings a smile on someone else’s face, it’s always big.

Chanda and her shooting stars

This is a blogpost by Chanda Jain, a TFI Fellow in Delhi, who is doing something truly remarkable with her “small wonders” in the classroom. Here she introduces you to the shooting stars, as they like to call themselves, and her campaign. We are truly humbled that Chanda chose us to be a part of this beautiful initiative. Support Chanda’s campaign and cheer for her little shooting stars.

Good values are good actions and good words.

‘Can you give me an example of a good value?’

‘Didi if my friend does not have a pencil, I will give her my pencil. I am being helpful.

‘If my bottle falls down and the water is on the floor, and didi scolds the class, I will say didi it is my bottle. I am being honest.’

‘If you are talking, I will say excuse me didi, can you please help me’.

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One year down the road and I began to realize the importance of wording out the good and the bad to my girls. In an environment where 8 year olds hurl the choicest of abuses, fathers gamble under the sun in afternoons and marital fights are everyday affairs, ethics do not constitute a part of their daily life.

I started integrating values into the coursework or narrating stories with morals at the end. It created ripples. I could now refer to the hard-working tortoise who never admitted defeat or the lazy grasshopper who starved through the winters. But we needed more, a bigger cause. Something which would make the students think beyond their immediate community and expose them to the world outside of their homes.

That is when I chanced upon the Rang De website. A social investing site, it aims to lower the cost of micro credit to underserved communities through peer-to-peer lending. I introduced the website in the class along with the concept of savings and investment. What happened next was something even I had not prepared myself for. An open discussion ensued. About the less fortunate. About people striving to fulfil their dreams. About poverty. About propelling yourself out of poverty. And then my girls gave me the answer. They told me they wanted to pitch in.

 

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Now, the class comes forward in droves to drop in a rupee or two into the piggy banks I instructed to bring for the class. They try to do without a packet of chips or that typhoid-on-a-stick chuski sold right outside the school premises. Instead these ten-year olds are religiously putting aside their money so they can make their first collective social investment and help fund a dream.

Some days they pick up the piggy banks and weigh them in their hands to figure out if they have saved a respectable amount. Some days they chide themselves for not having saved enough. And every day, they inspire me.

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With Chanda’s consent we have launched a campaign where our social investors can triplicate the amount these little girls save for Rang De’s borrowers. Lets celebrate these little heroines. Please visit Chanda’s campaign on Rang De to add your contribution

And to keep up with Chanda’s journey as a TFI Fellow please follow her beautiful blog