Exactly 2 years ago, on the eve of Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birthday and a major philanthropy summit organized by Indiaspora, we announced the formation of the India Philanthropy Alliance (IPA), an 11-member coalition of nonprofits active in the United States and India, with an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. At the time, we did not know that a pandemic with unprecedented impacts on public health, livelihoods, and politics was on the horizon. With Gandhi Jayanti upon us again, we wish to share some of the lessons we have learned over the last 24 months and how they might be applied to other social movements, especially transnational ones involving diaspora communities.
IPA had been quietly active for 18 months before our public launch. That itself is an important lesson from our perspective: when a network like ours is announced, which represents a point of no return of sorts, it is best to have laid the foundation for a healthy culture and a shared vision of what the core objectives are. In our case, nudges from our members’ financial supporters and the growing costs of fragmentation and isolated (rather than collective) impact were important catalysts.
We are proud of what we have accomplished so far, even though we have only realized a small fraction of our potential. For example, we have:
- Grown our membership to 15 with the recent additions of Agastya USA (an outstanding education nonprofit) and Antara International (the U.S. arm of a leading health NGO)
- Delivered value-added professional development seminars to staff and volunteers active in our network (including some pulled together on the fly related to COVID-19),
- Facilitated 8 bilateral partnerships among our members related to delivering services to low-income populations in India (including multiple alliances involving Arogya World, one of our smallest and most agile members that focuses on preventing noncommunicable lifestyle diseases in India),
- Launched a website and social media presence, received favorable coverage on National Public Radio and in other media that targets the Indian-American community,
- Launched a nationwide youth essay competition now in its second year,
- Created a “one stop shopping” microsite that profiled all of our members’ plans, needs, and accomplishments related to combatting COVID-19 with links to donation pages for U.S. and Indian taxpayers,
- Assembled a mailing list of thousands of Indian-Americans, and
- Created a culture marked by collegiality and what one member aptly termed a “narrative of complementarity.”
Despite the economic dislocations wrought by the pandemic, our members’ collective revenue and impact have grown; this is despite the cancellation of dozens of gala dinners that were previously the lynchpins of most of their fundraising efforts. Indeed, two members – Magic Bus USA and Project ECHO – were among the beneficiaries of MacKenzie Scott’s bold philanthropic debut, and another – the American India Foundation – is on course to quadrupling its heretofore largest revenue year in 2021 as it celebrates its 20th anniversary. Our commitment to growing the funding pie rather than fighting over how it is sliced up has been realized far beyond our expectations, even though the increase in resources to our members has not yet been shared equally.
Obviously, there were some shortfalls and disappointments. One carefully planned initiative was abandoned at the last moment when members feared it could be met with a backlash. Our efforts to harmonize our communications, inspired by the success of the marriage equality movement, have often been met with inertia and even resistance. We have had two members drop out (though one later returned). Sometimes members expectations of cooperation from peers are not fully met. When the Indian government further clamped down on nonprofits receiving foreign funding, as all of ours do, we were able to do little more than track the situation and then share intelligence and potential coping mechanisms with members. Yet our glass is more than half full of achievements – and also of learnings, to which we now turn.
During our monthly calls and (conditions permitting) semi-annual retreats, and through our successes and failures, we have identified some practical and surprising learnings that have made us a more cohesive, coherent, and effective coalition. While some of these might be unique to our particular situation, we believe many of them have applicability to other collective impact or, more broadly, coalition efforts.
- Leadership Matters. We elected Deepak Raj as our chairman despite the fact that the organization whose board he has long chaired, Pratham USA, is already represented in IPA by its executive director (who is a co-author of this article). Raj was not initially considered for the role, but he emerged as a consensus choice largely because he has been a generous donor to nearly half of our members, is a respected business leader, and appeared committed to our goals of increased communication, coordination, and collaboration. On many occasions, he has been able to use his stature to open doors for us to external parties while also pushing the group to make internal decisions that had remained unresolved. Furthermore, we elected two vice chairs – Minoo Gupta of Foundation for Excellence (FFE) and Nishant Pandey of the American India Foundation (AIF) – who brought geographic, gender, and talent diversity to our leadership team. They complemented each other and Raj well, and occasionally assumed the role of acting chair for a meeting or an initiative. While some may have questioned having three leaders among our eleven founding members as a bloated and top-heavy structure, that decision proved wise. Being open to a coalition leader who is not exactly a peer of the other members (i.e., a full time executive director) — but who has nonetheless shown the judgement, stature, and willingness to engage that inspires confidence internally and externally – has in fact proven to be highly beneficial.
- Building Trust and Consistency. Early on we established a code of conduct, something we would recommend to other coalitions. While useful, by itself it only goes so far. Through our meetings, listserv exchanges, and other communications and interactions, we gradually built a culture that, while imperfect and still evolving, was vibrant enough to keep members involved despite IPA not having any funding to disperse to them. One important element was privately and publicly celebrating as many member successes as possible – achievements that in the past might have been perceived by other groups infected with zero sum thinking as a setback. Another aspect was recognizing the importance of educating each member about the work of each their IPA peers, to such an extent that they could and did become ambassadors for organizations that previously felt like competitors. We recall when, at our year-end meeting in 2020 (far from the easiest 12-month period in recent times), Gouri Sadhwani, then the Executive Director of Akanksha Education Fund (which is now led by a dynamic woman named Sejal Desai), reported that she had worked a reference to the pathbreaking work of VisionSpring to bring eyeglasses to truckers (thus reducing deadly highway accidents) into a recent speech of hers. This surprising act of collegiality emanated from her knowing enough about a peer to do so and from her willingness to tip her hat to an organization fundraising in her market. Having the same leaders always represent each organization, rather than a rotating cast of characters, helped ensure such a positive and sustainable culture – even though it occasionally led to smaller than ideal meetings due to absences. Coalitions should seek to consciously shape their culture in the direction of collegiality and mutual support, with its chairs and vice chairs ideally leading by example from the outset, as ours have done.
- Prioritizing and pacing. One purpose of a coalition is to address problems, sometimes referred to as “pain points,” experienced by all or most of its members. In some cases, doing so collectively is more efficient, affordable, and practical than individually. For example, rather than have each organization hire an expert in resolving an issue, that same expert can be hired to provide counsel to a group composed of the leaders of all impacted groups. But small and relatively new coalitions (ours has an annual budget of less than $100,000) are not always well positioned to help solve its members’ biggest issues, which in the case of IPA includes raising more money from wealthy Indian-American business leaders, consistently measuring outcomes rigorously, and navigating growing regulatory complexity in India. However, we have focused on a second order issue as a starting point to gain confidence and credibility: helping our members engaging youth, particularly second and third generation Indian-Americans, as a way of addressing the aging of their private donors and a possible demographic cliff each of their fund-raising programs face. We have done this by starting a national youth essay competition, sharing best practices from the handful of members that already have robust youth engagement programs (most notably the Iowa-based Sehgal Foundation), and revised our membership criteria to include a strong recommendation that governing bodies have at least one member under the age of 35. More is planned in this area, and as we mature our efforts here, working on the higher order issues may become more feasible. They key lesson here is not only that coalitions should focus on solving member problems, but also that they should focus on those issues that they are capable of delivering results on.
- Being agile. When IPA adopted its annual plans in December 2019 and 2020 for years that were about to begin, it was obviously unable to anticipate the first and second waves of COVID-19 that would shape the realities of its members in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Yet when those tragedies struck, IPA followed the lead of members as diverse as the WISH Foundation and CRY America that rose to the occasion that the pandemic demanded of them by putting on hold our original plans and pivoting to more relevant activities. These shifts in priorities included organizing question and answer sessions with public health experts, hosting a 90-minute seminar on how to conduct virtual gala fund-raisers, putting up a microsite summarizing all members’ COVID first and second wave response work in ways that emphasized complementarity, and disseminating information on offers of partnership related to setting up field hospitals and importing oxygen concentrators without delay. Likewise, when there were revisions to the laws governing foreign funding of Indian nonprofits in the fall of 2020, and enforcement was stepped up earlier this year, IPA called in experts in compliance and government affairs to advise – and where possible, to reassure – our leaders. In these cases and in others, simply creating a space for our member representatives to share information and ideas and to openly share feelings of frustration and sadness related to a fast-moving crisis was valued. To take another example, when one member mentioned that they lacked the expertise to launch a planned giving program, an expert was identified to speak at a special IPA webinar on that topic within a few weeks. Coalitions that stick to their plans irrespective of changing circumstances are doomed to irrelevance; indeed, our coalition planning process has benefited from including some slack with which to respond to unexpected opportunities and crises.
- Managing growth carefully and flexibly. From the outset, defining who qualified to be considered an institutional member of IPA was tricky. We wanted it to be narrow enough to ensure cohesion, but diverse enough to achieve critical mass and allow for cross-pollination and learning. We knew we didn’t want international humanitarian organizations active in 50 countries, where operations in India were or could become a backwater concern; but we were unsure about whether to limit ourselves to organizations programming exclusively in India? Ultimately, we decided that if at least half of an organization’s program expenses were in India, they qualified. It has proven to be a good compromise, at least for now.
We have insisted on dues being paid by all members annually, and have not pressured members who wanted to leave to remain in IPA (though we have continued to court former members, efforts that helped led to Dasra, the impressive philanthropy ecosystem building organization, to return to the fold earlier this year). We have not insisted on admitting only organizations that have similar operating models or are roughly the same size. Indeed, we have organizations that span the gamut from think tanks, networking groups, and service delivery nonprofits; from those operating through local partners and others working directly with clients; and groups working in in a single domain (e.g., health, education, livelihoods) to others working in multiple domains. Moreover, we have members with global budgets of under $1 million and a few over $25 million (which occasionally has resulted in the smaller groups having one conversation and the larger groups having a different conversation relevant to their circumstances).
In general, we feel we have struck the right balance between homogeneity and heterogeneity, but we need to remain aware that what works well today might become out of whack in the future. We will seek to add new members, but only 1 or 2 per year in order to avoid destabilizing our culture and modus operandi. When an existing member ceases to meet one of our membership criteria – say, related to minimum budget or staff size – we have allowed them to remain in the coalition. We would urge other coalitions to pay attention to these issues not just at the outset, but throughout their lives, and to eschew the extremes of rigid and unchanging policies on the one hand and overly flexible and everchanging ones on the other.
- Creating value for leaders by facilitating networking with peers and professional development. Especially in coalitions like ours that do not function as funding intermediary doling out grants, helping our member representatives to develop themselves as leaders, establish and deepen trusting relationships with peers, and deal with the “slings and arrows” inherent in running mission-driven organizations is essential. This is especially true for leaders of small and/or virtual organizations, who often feel isolated and far from the programming action in India. We often bring in guest speakers or assign and discuss articles that address these needs. However, simply having flexible agendas and facilitation allows for these needs to be met naturally in the course of our business meetings and other gatherings. Many of us have been in one-off meetings of nonprofit leaders that lead to a call for the creation of “executive director support groups.” But very few of these ever get off the ground or progress beyond holding a meeting or two or establishing an online discussion group dominated by a few people with too much time on their hands. Rather, building these elements into the workflow and value-add of a focused coalition with a broader agenda is much more likely to be sustained.
- Building a strong holding environment. Coalitions rarely succeed without at least one staff member who keeps group’s “trains running on time,” mostly by ensuring well prepared and facilitated meetings and diligent as well as timely follow-up. When one of the busy members tries to play the role of the coalition’s secretariat as an additional responsibility to leading their own organizations, things inevitably fall through the cracks and progress can grind to a halt for long periods. Since budgets are usually tight in coalitions where member dues are the main or only source of revenue, some coalitions delegate the staff work to a junior person who can be hired or deputed to do it. However, their lack of stature and experience often leads to frustration and turnover, as members tend to not be as responsive to a leader whom they don’t consider a peer. The problems with this model can be exacerbated if this individual spends only part of their time working for the coalition and the remainder for one of its members (which can create the perception of divided loyalties). We have gotten around these traps by employing Alex Counts (one of the co-authors of this article), who was once the CEO of one of our members (thus giving him peer status). This would be impossible if he was not available to work 3-4 days per month for IPA as part of his consulting practice. In this way, he plays a similar role to what the late Peter Bell did for the NGO Leaders Forum after he retired as CARE’s CEO. It also helps to have an efficient and effective fiscal sponsor, a role played efficiently and generously by our founding member Indiaspora.
Ensuring a Coalition that is Built to Last
Going back to a paradigm characterized by zero-sum thinking, where our members view their colleagues as competitors rather than as friends and fellow travelers on the path to a poverty-free India, is unthinkable to us now. However, as far as we have come since our public launch, there are many ways our coalition must continue to evolve and mature in order to avoid a slow decline into sporadic engagement and irrelevance. We see four main challenges:
- Addressing even bigger challenges in our next phase. To date, we have been unable to align on how to design a campaign to increase Indian-American philanthropy, approach major institutional funders together, or appeal for more supportive laws – much less get into action on these critical issues. Much is at stake. According to an important survey done by IPA member Indiaspora, Indian-Americans give $1 billion to charities today, but could easily give triple that if their wealth-adjusted, per capita donations matched those of the U.S. public at large.
- Rotation of leadership and succession planning. Our chairman and vice chairs have done excellent jobs. However, good governance principles suggest at some point we should give new people a chance to lead, or at least propose how they might take us in newer and better directions. But we risk losing a key element of our (not so) “secret sauce” – a strong, focused, respected, and cohesive leadership team. When and how to start this transition are challenging questions. In addition, the one individual who has been the driving force behind creating and sustaining this group is still involved, and arguably his departure – which is inevitable – could lead to a crisis or at least a loss of momentum. We must figure out how to create and maintain such a strong value proposition to members that our future is not dependent on any one leader or organization.
- Raising the bar on members’ measurement of outcomes and impact. Like most nonprofits, many of our members have struggled to secure the resources and talent needed to consistently and rigorously measure outcomes and impact. Raising our collective performance in this area will help us attract increased funding from sophisticated institutional donors. We see this as an opportunity. With outside assistance and determined efforts, we can raise each members’ performance in monitoring, evaluation and learning. In fact, if we do so together, we may be able to aggregate our insights use them to inform policy and practice well beyond our network. How we rise to this challenge is a critical issue the next phase of our existence.
- Increasing membership while retaining our culture. We estimate that there are around 25 organizations that meet our membership criteria or come close to doing so. We would like to attract most of the remaining groups into our coalition, but in a gradual way that allows for a well-designed on-boarding and integration into our culture (while helping to shape the next phase of its evolution). We will endeavor to relate to those who qualify but choose not to join with respect. There are already pressures to freeze membership and (conversely) to loosen our standards so as to attract a significantly larger group. We will need to respond to these competing impulses thoughtfully. At the end of the day, we envision ourselves emerging as an increasingly effective and credible collective forum for and voice of a growing community of civil society organizations with ties to the world’s two largest democracies.
Coalitions and other collective impact initiatives are hardly a panacea for addressing societal problems and ensuring that philanthropy is impactful. But they can make substantial contributions if their culture, leadership, staffing, and activities are forged in a collaborative, action-oriented, and thoughtful manner. At IPA, we believe we have gotten more right than wrong so far, and we hope our insights can benefit others trying to overcome the institutional fragmentation and personal isolation that too often characterize social change.
Note: This blog post was updated slightly in mid-December 2021.
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.
Balakrishnan Venkatachalam (@bala_ven) is the executive director of Pratham USA, the US fundraising arm of Pratham, India’s largest education NGO. He has a diverse array of experiences across finance, operations, strategy, and fundraising in both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Bala is passionate about scaling solutions at the bottom of the pyramid and is one of the founding leaders of the India Philanthropy Alliance.