Supporting Indian social entrepreneurs with ‘more than just money’

Alison Bukhari

Philanthropists and social sector leaders exist in a vicious circle. Social entrepreneurs on the ground are so caught up in running their day-to-day operations that they have very little time to put their head above the parapet and ask ‘what does my five-year plan look like?’ They may have their broader ambitions in place, but often cannot work out a way of realizing their goals or demonstrating their impact. Funders, on the other hand, are somewhat suspicious of the social sector. They complain that there are not enough good organizations out there to support, criticizing specifically a lack of business plans and visible impact. Those of us on the ground know that this is not the case, but we have realized that there is a gaping void in communications between these two groups, and a lack of skills within social sector organizations to enable them to demonstrate suitably solid plans for growth.

In last year’s report on the Indian social sector NPC called this a ‘broken funding market’ and called for more intermediary organizations to bridge the gap.

In all new areas of operation there needs to be an investment of time and money in market creation. Of course, the social sector in India is not a new market, but the landscape for organizations looking at widespread impact, pan-India growth and sustainable scale is relatively new. As yet no one has focused on the right kind of capacity building and leadership development to help these organizations to scale.

If you are a for-profit entrepreneur there are a plethora of courses that you can take or consultancy firms that you can engage to help you take your ideas to the next level. If you are a struggling social entrepreneur, the situation is very different. Even if you can afford to take an MBA, it is not necessarily going to be all that you need to get your ‘poverty solution’ or service to scale.

Programmes that look at social entrepreneurship do of course exist. The Ashden Awards have in the past sent some of their winners to INSEAD to take their ISEP course, and Santa Clara University is home to the Global Social Benefit Incubator. However, one cannot necessarily learn all the skills needed to be a successful social entrepreneur through the usual textbook and blackboard channels, far away from home. Experiential learning is the key.

Developing an education programme

Social-Impact International realized the need for technical assistance and mentorship through thorough research back in 2006; and Dasra came to similar conclusions during its ten years of working with philanthropists and Indian social sector leaders. The two organizations have now formed a partnership that runs Dasra Social-Impact.

India’s social entrepreneurs can now access a dynamic programme, run annually in Mumbai over a nine-month period, while continuing with their day-to-day work. A group of 30 non-profits and social businesses come together three times a year as a peer group to learn and share ideas. They also receive ongoing mentorship online, through visits and over the phone between the workshops.  

The programme cannot really be described as a ‘course’ or pure ‘education’; it is perhaps more of a melting pot of heterogeneous social sector leaders coming together to brainstorm on how their organizations can create catalytic change in India in the poorest communities. It has all the elements of executive education, but it is more than that, pooling together diverse resources such as corporate mentors, academics, a team of social sector organizational development experts, impact investors, strategic philanthropists, and of course the experiences of the cohort themselves.

The workshops put together in a room for seven days a diverse mix of young entrepreneurs, experienced social sector activists and leaders, successful business leaders now focused on social impact, and expert educationalists, medical professionals and community leaders. They arrive with a diverse series of questions, and brainstorm ideas to find the best answers. A recent example is: how can I access rural networks and get my tried and tested solar fridge to where it is needed most?

Ongoing support

Between workshops, mentors adopt one or two of the social entrepreneurs for the nine-month period and dig deep into their business plans, challenging the models and lending technical assistance or networks of support where they can. Mentors come from companies such as Bain, KPMG, HSBC Private Equity and APL; we also have returning Dasra Social-Impact learners lending their experiences.

More important than the classroom learning is assessing each organization’s current capacity to scale and identifying areas for intensive hand-holding and skills building. For some, their resourcing strategy needs work, and the skills need to be built to assess the most appropriate financing to apply for, given their stage. For others, it’s about creating the right organizational structure to bring sustainability, better governance and increased efficiency to their programme delivery.

A further aspect of the programme is Village Capital, which involves groups of social entrepreneurs analysing each other’s business plans and then deciding among them who will get a share of a real pot of funding provided by DSI supporters. Not only does the group work mean that participants get additional feedback on their business plans, but the competitive environment is a real inspiration to work harder at it. (To find out more, visit

Among the 53 alumni of the programme are Husk Power, Industree, Saath, Water Literacy Foundation, Servals, Educate Girls, SNEHA, Under the Mango Tree and Sabras – a group of organizations with work as diverse as generating electricity through rice husks, ethical cotton retail products, urban resource centres, consultancy on rainwater harvesting, sustainable rural energy products, girls’ education, domestic violence, bee boxes for small-scale farmers and salt pan workers’ cooperatives. Last year over £1.5 million was raised for 15 of the course participants, but most organizations would agree that this was down to improved plans and the scaling capacities they developed and were able to demonstrate to funders and investors.

The government’s latest figures on the number of social sector organizations in India, published in September, topped 3 million, and there are a great many new social businesses popping up all the time that are not included in these figures. What India needs is fewer, bigger social sector organizations, and this can be made possible by more collaborative approaches, consolidation and scaling the very best organizations. Dasra Social-Impact hopes to have a series of powerful case studies in a couple of years that demonstrate sustainable, large-scale, accelerated social impact as a result of ‘more than just money’.

Photo credit - Charlotte Anderson The case of Mann Deshi

Mann Deshi is a respected hybrid organization in Maharashtra. Alongside a more traditional offering of banking and financial services to poor rural women, it also delivers a powerful business education programme to women entrepreneurs to help them grow small enterprises into more profitable businesses. (The picture shows the rural business school in action.)

Last year Mann Deshi was one of the winners of the Village Capital ‘think like a funder’ exercise. During the year they were on the course, Dasra was able to connect their members to a pool of funders and offer additional hands-on assistance. They exited Dasra Social-Impact with one of the best business plans in the class, and Dasra has gone on to advise them on how to liaise with a highly engaged group of funders. In addition, they have streamlined their reporting processes, created key performance indicators and measurement tools, restructured the organization to improve the efficiency of both their for-profit and non-profit entities, created a robust financial model for the business school and developed the curriculum to transition the school from a vocational training programme to a business education programme.

The plan has leveraged additional funding, and the knowledge that Mann Deshi is receiving management support to help the organization grow has also given certain funders more confidence to leverage additional funding. The team from Dasra Social-Impact continue to spend considerable time working with Mann Deshi at their offices as well as behind the scenes.

Alison Adnitt is Director, Investor Relations at Dasra. Email

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