Today marks the beginning of my third week in Mumbai. I’ve been trying my best to soak in as much as possible since getting here – it’s amazing how little everyday things can teach so much. By this point I also have a solid sense of what the rest of my work experience here will be like (it seems like 1-2 weeks is the magic amount of time for making that happen!).
I’m working to develop a standardized portfolio-wide impact assessment framework for Dasra and its portfolio companies. Impact assessment is the process of determining whether, and how much, social change an organization is actually creating. There are many organizations, especially in the Indian NGO space, that do good things. Impact assessment tries to understand how much good they do and how much this matters to individuals, communities, and society.
Impact assessment is important for a number of reasons. First, it represents a movement away from “feel good” social work into high-impact, problem-solving, society-altering action. It represents a professionalization of the nonprofit sector, as measurement and reporting enables us to demand the same accountability that we expect from for-profit businesses.
Second, it gives valuable knowledge to social impact investors. When an investor is thinking about investing in a for-profit company, he has many facts and metrics at his fingertips which give a sense of what his return on investment and risk of investment are. Philanthropists and investors in social businesses are becoming increasingly strategic in their resource allocation. They therefore demand concrete data to justify their investments.
Third, impact assessment is the foundation from which a sector-wide knowledge base can be built. There’s a lot of literature out there about education, women’s empowerment, nutrition, etc. Impact assessment forces us to think about all of that knowledge against the fundamental question of – does it work? As impact assessment procedures become more widespread and more standardized (hopefully), we will have a large database of many different but comparable problem solving strategies. When people have enough data, they tend to start seeing patterns. When people start seeing patterns, they might be able to find the principles of strategy that build successful solutions in a particular sector.
Philosophically, it is a grand idea. Practically, it’s tough to implement on the ground. The fundamental problem is this – every day you spend on impact assessment is a day that is taken away from your bottom line. Would you rather focus on teaching kids or on impact assessment? Most nonprofit and social business leaders will focus on the bottom line instead of impact assessment. This is especially true considering nonprofits’ limited resources. We’re trying to get around this in a couple of ways. First, we acknowledge that most organizations collect data of some sort to help them achieve their goals better. Our impact assessment framework will include this data and leverage what is already being collected, so doing impact assessments should be directly beneficial to the company as well as to us. Second, we’re focusing on metrics that are easiest to measure on the ground but which indicate extremely meaningful information. But it’s tough. Currently, I am building the impact assessment frameworks for an organization called Muktangan which improves the quality of teachers in the Mumbai public education system by training teachers. I should have a draft completed by the end of the week. Next week, I will get to visit Muktangan to determine the feasibility of my framework and to see what they think about it.
Aside from work, I’ve been exploring the city with friends and coworkers. There are a lot of foreigners working for NGOs in the city right now, and it’s been pretty easy meeting up with them. I’m meeting a lot of interesting people from different geographic and academic backgrounds. I also joined a local meditation class on Wednesday evenings, and I’ve met some cool locals through that. Bombay can be separated into South Bombay, or Old Bombay, and the ‘suburbs’ which lie further north. I live and work in the suburbs (which aren’t much less urban than most of Center City Philadelphia). I’m thinking about taking a local tour this weekend to a nearby village at which a million+ fireflies gather by the water – it sounds like an incredible sight, and the tour group is a social business focusing on sustainable tourism.
Like I said at the beginning of this post, it’s amazing how much you can learn just by being here and keeping your eyes and ears open. Just walking around has taught me about the effects of Westernization and the extremely wide wealth gap. Conversations with my host family and coworkers taught me about the business climate, opportunities, and obstacles to development here. With my unseemly mixture of Bengali, English, and Bollywood catch phrases in Hindi, I’ve been able to get around and have already covered a relatively large part of the city. Like many of the other interns have already said, I’m extremely thankful for the opportunity to be here and to learn so much.
I’d like to conclude with a brief note to the other interns – I was talking to Aparna recently and she mentioned that at least a few people were thinking of coming to Mumbai at the end of their internships. If you are planning to do so, please let me know, as I can still rearrange my post-internship plans. It would be great to meet up again and talk about our different experiences.