Nonprofit Success Strategies for Partnering with Government: Lessons from India

Nonprofit Success Strategies for Partnering with Government: Lessons from India

October 21, 2022 | Author: Alex Counts, Director of the India Philanthropy Alliance and Nishant Pandey, CEO, American India Foundation

The optimal relationship between the public sector and civil society—and more specifically, between government and charitable organizations often called nongovernment organizations or NGOs—has been analyzed and debated extensively, both in the United States, in India, and beyond.  One traditional role for NGOs is to identify and directly take on societal problems that government does not yet recognize or that it is unable or unwilling to address.  Another is to try to inform government policies with regard to unmet community needs or the well-being of the nonprofit sector itself.  

While those are legitimate NGO functions, organizations in the India Philanthropy Alliance have been focusing on another: designing, launching, and maintaining collaborative programs in partnership with all levels of the governments in India.  This requires that we convince our American—and largely Indian-American diaspora—supporters that this represents a smart and effective way to contribute to India’s development.  We have been reasonably successful at these twin objectives in recent years.  In fact, last year we spent considerable time distilling lessons learned which we are now ready to share with a broader audience.  Our exploration was augmented by the excellent spring 2020 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review that focused on philanthropy and public systems change, which we all studied carefully and highly recommend.

The stakes can hardly be overstated.  Despite the remarkable economic growth India has enjoyed since the liberalization that began in the early 1990s, poverty, illiteracy, gender-based violence, ecological fragility, the plight of smallholder farmers, and underemployment remain serious development challenges.  In India, with a population due to become the world’s largest as soon as next year, nearly everything is big.  Despite being home to 119 billionaires, according to the World Bank, India has 97 million people living in extreme poverty—more than any other nation on earth.  

The liberalization that unleashed dynamic economic growth and entrepreneurial fervor in India beginning in the early 1990s did not weaken the Indian state.  Far from it.  Buoyed by growing tax revenues, the government at all levels grew and developed exciting new capabilities and competencies.  Nonprofit organizations seeking to maximize their positive impact on society have been increasingly drawn to active collaborations with government.  They do so in order to leverage what are often complementary strengths and reach scale that would be impossible while working independently.  

What we are talking about here goes far beyond NGOs serving as government contractors.  Rather, we mean designing projects or programs with government from the earliest stages, and doing so in ways that carefully balance the need to have meaningful input from both public sector employees, potential beneficiaries, and other stakeholders such as representatives of the business community, academia, and youth.  In other words, we are describing the arduous work of co-creation with partners who are usually much larger and more powerful than the initiating institution—and done in a way that the partner ultimately considers itself as much of an owner of the program as the NGO that initiated the process.

One example is the flagship education program of the American India Foundation, a non-profit organization led currently by one of the co-authors of this article: Digital Equalizer (DE). This cutting-edge program is leveraging technology to bridge the educational and digital divide in India by transforming under-resourced government schools in 17 states.  Thus far, DE has empowered over 5.4 million children through interactive STEM experiences in addition to training close to 180,000 government schoolteachers and equipping 24,471 under-resourced government schools.  Another AIF program, the Maternal and Newborn Survival Initiative (MANSI), has worked with both government and the private sector (most notably, with Tata Steel, Hospira, Rural India Supporting Trust and Hindustan Unilever Limited) to improve the performance of government-appointed frontline para-professionals working to promote maternal, pre-natal, and post-natal health.  Through training 4,032 government-appointed health workers, the program has served 202,234 pregnant women and 160,446 newborns to date.  The results speak for themselves: neonatal mortality has been reduced 46%, there has been a 94% increase in pregnant women receiving check-ups, and an 83% increase in healthy weight newborns.  

Another shining example is the WISH Foundation. Begun in 2014 in Rajasthan, it demonstrated how government primary health care facilities could be strengthened to operate in more efficient, effective, patient-centric, and data-driven ways.  After a highly successful pilot, it has been expanded to benefit more than 800 public health centers in Assam, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh that have collectively served more than 27 million people. Using evidence-based approaches, modern management techniques, and tech-enabled digital health solutions, the performance of these clinics has been substantially improved across multiple indicators compared to prior to initiation of the partnership.  And most importantly, those improvements have been sustained over time.  The organization is also providing technical support to various state governments in implementing national-level flagship programs to achieve universal health coverage through providing comprehensive primary healthcare to the last mile population. 

Akanksha Foundation, which in 2007 pivoted from running 60 best-in-class afterschool centers serving 3,000 children of poor families to a bold new model, represents a third case study.  In the revised approach, called the School Project, Akanksha set out to create a scalable model of excellence in education within 27 public schools in Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur—and do so in a way that drives systemic change in the nation’s education system.  Importantly, these schools are run in partnership with the Municipal Corporations of these localities.   They passed the excruciating test that COVID represented and collectively benefited 14,000 students as well as their families and the broader community.  One measure of the organization’s impact is that 77% of the students in one of its flagship partnership schools received “distinction” (the highest score) on their SSC exams, compared to a 27% overall rate in government schools in Maharashtra.  

Each of our other members is involved in some form of partnership or collaboration with government in India.  Pratham, Project ECHO, and the Sehgal Foundation are noteworthy examples, in addition to those mentioned above.   

What all of these positive examples have in common is that neither the state governments nor the NGOs involved could have accomplished alone what they did together.

Of course, not every government-NGO collaboration we have been involved in has succeeded.  We spent much of the last year working together—and with outside advisers from the Indian diplomatic corps, Harvard University, and the U.S.-India Business Council—to identify the most important success factors that can guide us and other ecosystem players in the future, both in India and in other countries around the world. Here is a summary of our findings:   

  • The importance of precedents in delivering innovative services in partnership with government.  Government officers often acknowledge and emphasize that one of the key benefits of working with NGOs is their ability to bring innovations into service delivery that, once proven, can later be scaled up or replicated by the government upon the programs’ success.  In an era of competitive federalism in India and beyond, NGOs are often seen as essential partners of government agencies in getting things done.  However, when embarking on any innovative program that requires change in policy or approach, government agencies in India rely heavily on precedents or at least on the existence of credible research in a community setting. It is therefore important to identify those components of any proposed innovative program that have worked in any previous government partnership (even if in other countries).  It is often practical for the NGO to get the most innovative components funded through their own budgets. 
  • NGOs can serve as connective tissue between state governments and embedding new cultural norms.  We have seen time and again that NGOs can serve as intermediaries who bring success models from one state to another, even where rival parties are in power.  State government officials often lack the time, curiosity, or incentives to look for new ways of doing things.  When an NGO presents a model that has a positive track record elsewhere, competitive fires can be lit, and inertia overcome.  Sometimes, naming the state of origin for a development program can be helpful, while in others it is best left unspoken.  In another vein, NGOs can bring their emphasis on measuring development results as a precondition for entering into a partnership, and in so doing slowly convince public sector leaders to emphasize project outcomes and impact as much as inputs and output, which tend to come more naturally to government institutions.  Such a cultural or mindset change can have profound implications over time.   
  • Share credit.  When a collaborative project with a public sector entity is successful, a wise NGO will go out of its way to deflect credit to the government, which after all has the legitimacy and responsibilities that come with having been elected by voters that they will have to face again before long.  Public perceptions matter in other ways as well.   One of our members published an article about their work with one state government, but inadvertently offended them when an accompanying photo of beneficiaries was clearly from another part of India.  More often than not, if an NGO praises its government partner in visible and tasteful ways, that partner is likely to repay the favor with its own compliments or other meaningful gestures down the road.  
  • Minimize dependency.  Many of our members report that being able to work in partnership with government is much easier when NGOs retain a large degree of financial independence from its public sector partners.  In some cases, that has led them to not seek any funding from governmental partners, but instead to entirely self-fund their participation in these projects.  In other cases, limiting the share of government funding support for any specific program or for the NGO as a whole to a defined percentage has proven effective.  In still others, ensuring that the NGO itself contributes at least one-third of the total project budget gives it a degree of leverage and credibility that makes equitable decision-making and, ultimately, success, more likely.  Regardless of the approach, paying close attention to who holds the purse strings is clearly important.    
  • Engage with elected leadership and civil servants.  We have observed that  in larger and older states, elected political leaders are generally stronger and more hands-on than bureaucrats. In such states, commitment from the political leadership is essential for the program to take off and be implemented.  In the smaller and newer states, decision-making is mostly done by bureaucrats, with the political leadership being relatively inexperienced. NGOs traditionally have preferred to work with bureaucrats alone in all states, which has worked against their success in larger ones. The limitations of this strategy are even more pronounced after the pandemic, with the political leadership in even smaller states realizing the importance of partnerships with NGOs. NGOs are finding themselves increasingly working with elected Chief Ministers for initiating large programs while continuing to engage with state and department officials on program implementation. NGO leaders who are skilled in working with both elected and career government officials are having the most success.  The traditional concern with working with elected leaders is that they can be voted out of office at inopportune times.  This can be mitigated by creating champions among the midlevel officials in the state once a project is launched.  One success strategy for doing so is insisting on monthly or quarterly project review mechanisms with local bureaucrats that get institutionalized within the government system as early as possible.
  • Ensure proper documentation.  In India, collaborating with the government can be a powerful way to achieve scale and influence, but it comes with many inherent risks.  One of them is that a change in personnel or in the party in power can bring progress to a halt.  One of the ways a member of IPA learned to mitigate this risk is to prefer a “Government Order/notification” as the basis for launching a partnership over alternatives such as a Memorandum of Understanding.  While this may not apply in all states, carefully scrutinizing the extent of public sector commitment through visible and enforceable documentation is crucial—something that is often neglected in the rush to launch a project at a time when optimism often prevails over sober analysis of risks.
  • Adopt an early involvement and overcommunication strategy.  As mentioned above, what we are advocating goes way beyond being a government contractor.  In this process of co-creation, involving government on “day one” is the bare minimum required.  As one of our leaders put it, a public sector partner should ideally be at the table from “day minus two” onwards.  This gives the best chance of success since it can imbue a sense of ownership among government partners.  And once a project is underway, overcommunicating with public sector partners, and carefully choosing whether to do so in writing, over the phone, or in person—as dictated by the unique aspects of a given set of circumstances—represents the art (as opposed to the science) of effectively partnering with government.  If your public sector partner finds out about a problem through the media, don’t expect many easy days in the weeks ahead.  In fact, you may need to entirely wind down your program.
  • Strategically choose where you start.  In general, we believe it is important to avoid working in states known to be inhospitable to working with NGO partners.  (The names of those states are well known to experienced NGOs.)  It is even more important to carefully select where to start a public-private partnership.  This is especially true if you have aspirations of working in multiple states over time.  While it would again be indiscreet to offer names, it is clearly advantageous to begin a public-private partnership in a so-called “leading state” that others tend to look to as a role model.  If that leading state is also welcoming to NGOs, it should be the prime launching pad for new development models and modalities—even if it is not the easiest place to raise money for.  

An influential article in the in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “Creating High-Impact Nonprofits” argued that the best NGOs both provide direct services and seek to influence government policies/practices through active government engagement (as opposed to doing just one or the other).  We tend to agree with that assessment.  In modern day India, we have found an important corollary to this insight: The best way to influence government officials is sometimes to provide services alongside them.  Doing so can stretch donor dollars, magnify impact, change mindsets, and convince public sector officials that going it alone is not always in the public interest or the best use of their resources.

Let us conclude with a modest proposal about a change in government policy that could benefit not just India, but many other countries around the world.  The creativity and efficiency of India’s leading nonprofits, often the result of well-designed partnerships with government, can and should be a resource for developing countries that look to India as a “leading nation” of the world.  Yet provisions of the Income Tax Act of 1961 actually prevent Indian NGOs from working outside of India (though a few have spread their innovations through setting up international affiliates and sister organizations).  As a result of this antiquated policy, many transferable success models don’t cross borders and the global influence of India’s vibrant civil society is stunted.  Unleashing this force for good could be one of India’s greatest gifts to the international community.


Alex Counts (@AlexCounts)  is the Director of the India Philanthropy Alliance, the principal at AMC Consulting LLC, and the author of four books including Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship



Nishant Pandey is the New York based CEO of the American India Foundation, providing strategic leadership to its operations globally. He is an economist by training, anthropologist by heart and entrepreneur by mind-set.