In Conversation with Neelima Khetan :
CSR & Impact, Early RCT's in India,
Leading Seva Mandir, and more.
- Neelima Khetan, Senior CSR & social sector leader with 30+ years of experience.
Former Group CSR Head, Vedanta, former Chief Executive, Seva Mandir,
former Director, CSR & Sustainability for Coca-Cola India South West Asia
You have had an illustrious career leading a number of globally significant organizations within the development-sector, including Seva Mandir and the CSR divisions of Coca Cola (India South West Asia) and Vedanta Group. In your opinion, how has monitoring and evaluation changed over the years? How has the sector’s understanding of impact changed over these past decades?
I have been in this sector for around 35 years, and since then M&E has come a long way. The first organisation I worked with was PRADAN. I think the focus in those days (at least in my mind) was not so much on impact, but instead on the sincerity and extent of effort that was being invested in creating impact. Someone like Vijay Mahajan (Co-founder, Pradan) was among the few who was using the impact lens, revisiting old projects and asking questions like - What happened to the lift irrigation scheme that was installed by a project a few years ago? In many ways, this seeming non-centrality of impact also had to do with the fact that those were times of intense innovation in the social sector. Very few had ready answers about what can be done and how. Those were also times when the issues that people were working on were not such as lent themselves to metric measurement – such as organising people into collectives, working on caste and gender issues, and so on.
But from there to today, when we are also witnessing the sunrise of ‘impact investing’, the discourse has obviously come a long way. Impact now seems to be central to most conversations around social sector initiatives, with even the government setting up a dedicated division to look into it.
However, we need to understand what the shift has meant – the preference for tangible measurement has also led to a preference for those interventions and programs which can be measured. A quick tabulation of programs being funded through Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives will tell you that the shift towards an ‘impact discourse’ seems to have also coincided with a shift towards more tangible development programs with shorter time horizons (economic empowerment of women and not social/political empowerment).
You were amongst the earlier individuals in the country to embrace Randomized Control Trials (RCTs). Can you tell us about this journey - your experience working with researchers? How easy was it translating highly academic inputs and analysis into practical steps that improved efficiency and impact within your organizations?
Seva Mandir was the first organization J-PAL worked with in India - they were not even ‘J-PAL’ at that time (1996). That’s when Abhijit and Michael came to Seva Mandir. At that time, we had not even heard of RCTs being used in the social sector. However, the culture at Seva Mandir was one of constant reflection and being open to questioning oneself. Hence we welcomed Abhijit and Michael wholeheartedly and were very open to learning from this new approach.
The other reason why Seva Mandir was so open to the RCTs (and in general) had to do with its unusually open and supportive donors. Over the years, they had given Seva Mandir the confidence of not being afraid to fail. If things didn’t work out, we did not have to hide it. This second factor was also a major enabler in Seva Mandir being open to experimentation of the RCT kind.
At the time Abhijit and Michael came to Seva Mandir, we were just about to convert 80 of our single teacher village schools into two-teacher schools. We were hopeful that having two teachers will help increase children’s enrolment and also reduce teacher absence. After discussions with Abhijit and Michael, Seva Mandir agreed to roll out the change in only 40 ‘intervention’ schools, keeping the other 40 as ‘control schools’. And thus rolled out the first RCT in 1996, the start of an amazing association that was to last over 12 years.
As it happens, that first RCT was extremely useful, and helped Seva Mandir take an evidence based decision in the matter of one teacher or two teachers. Further, this RCT ended up generating a host of data on children’s learning levels, attendance, etc. which opened up more questions for Seva Mandir on its overall education program. And even as we began working on these, we launched the next partnership with J-PAL on another ambitious data gathering exercise – on health status of population in these villages, the health care available and costs, people’s health seeking behaviour and also the economic status. This survey was to bring out fascinating insights for both J-PAL and Seva Mandir.
From here on, we just did one RCT after another, each one helping Seva Mandir refine its interventions as also generate ideas that we tried to scale along with the government. Esther had come on board very early on, and over the next 12 years, she and Abhijit and many other JPAL researchers came regularly to Seva Mandir as we designed and implemented several RCTs. You ask about the ease of translating highly academic inputs into practical action, and I have to say that the way the RCT researchers (led by Abhijit and Esther) worked was extremely inclusive, from the problem identification to RCT design and rollout, Seva Mandir staff was closely involved in everything. Hence, when the results did come out, it did not seem as though it was something coming from somewhere else. Not only that, most of us in Seva Mandir felt we learnt and grew – and the work benefitted – due to this association.
RCT’s can be very expensive - sometimes costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and requiring large teams of researchers. Can you provide guidance to smaller non-profits and volunteer groups hoping to make an impact? Do you think monitoring, research prior to launching a project, and the use of technology can help them achieve greater results?
You are right, RCTs can be expensive, which can at times appear as a barrier. However, I am sure that ways can be found to bring down the costs, and it would be a pity if cost became the only reason for not using RCTs.
As you mentioned, one is increasingly seeing instances of use of technology resulting in reduced RCT costs, whether these innovations are on the data collection end or the intervention end. Similarly, good research prior to the start of a project could also help in maybe learning from other similar work already underway or completed. Also, the kind of research repository that Verdentum offers, is another unique way to make RCTs accessible for all.
However, in my experience I have found that if there is an interesting RCT idea, the money has somehow been found. Additionally, RCT is about how you approach a problem. It requires one to break down the problem into smaller components for effective analysis: highlighting the factors that can be changed and those that cannot be.
As the head of a large CSR fund or non-profit, you must be concerned about ensuring that the funds you have are deployed in the most efficient manner possible. In your years as a leader within the sector, what measures did you take to ensure that the money you were spending actually ended up creating an impact in the lives of vulnerable communities you were working with? How difficult a task was that?
There are several ways to ensure this. For me, the most important thing, especially in the corporate context, was to choose a project that would make a real difference to the lives of communities, as opposed to one that would merely improve corporate visibility or public relations. While these two objectives are not mutually exclusive, but knowing which one is more important can make all the difference.
Secondly, it is important to remember that the metrics for assessing efficiency and impact have to be different when looking at social change programs and when looking at profits and productivity. Knowing this difference will help you design the right indicators and also have the right expectations.
Another aspect that I would underline is for the need to consult experts within the sector and choosing the right implementing partner. Throughout my stint as a CSR head, whenever we found good and strong partners, our programs bore strong and sustainable results.
And the most important factor of all is the creation of an atmosphere where there is trust and openness. Given that social initiatives do not always follow predictable paths, there must be mutual trust and confidence where the partners can review progress and failures honestly. This goes a long way towards building programs and partnerships where good and effective outcomes emerge.
Do you think that the value of data in the social sector is still undermined in India? In your opinion, are organizations putting efforts into ensuring the quality of data used for driving decisions?
I agree with you that the social sector still does not look at data as much as it can or should. Granted that this is a space of work where everything cannot be converted into data, and also collection of data can at times be expensive. Of course, there are certain areas (such as microfinance) where the work is largely data driven. However, it is also true that often we do not even look at data that is available or which could be easily gathered. Maybe it is to do with how the sector evolved where effort was far more important than outcomes; and where the emphasis was on areas of work which could not be measured easily – such as caste, gender, etc. However, all this has started changing and we are likely to see more and more of data informed work, with the possible danger of that-which-cannot-be-measured falling out of favour.
If you had to give three pieces of advice to leaders within the CSR space, what would they be?
1. Humility and a desire to learn – social sector programs are new for most companies. Gradually, people will begin to ask questions on the actual change that happened due to the CSR funding. We therefore need to have programs that bring about change that matters and which endures. It would help CSR leaders design better programs if they engaged in greater conversations with social sector organisations so as to learn from their experiences and thereby develop an understanding of the issues and the interventions that could be possible.
2. Partners, not vendors – quite often, the systems and processes within companies treat every third party as a vendor. While that description may be appropriate for business partners, it is wholly inappropriate for social sector partners. Unless we form relationships of equality, and a climate of working together towards common goals, we may not get the bets outcomes.
3. Innovation, risk taking and the long term – just as companies invest in R&D and innovation in other areas, it is important to also encourage innovation in the CSR space. In other words, do not only look for tried and tested programs. Also, some interventions will show results over a longer period – be open to those as well.
In a previous interview with Educational Initiatives, you had mentioned that there is a gap between NGOs and Corporate CSR organizations in the way of working, in the perception, and the ability to work together. What measures would you suggest for bringing them together and creating synergy?
There is one obvious difference between NGOs and CSR organisations, which is that the money is with the CSR organisation, and that creates its own dynamic. However, the other difference is to do with the fact that NGOs have their roots within society and CSR has its roots within a corporate. Often-times, non-profits have been in positions of confrontation vis-à-vis for-profits. This history does not make it easy for the emergence of trust-based relationships between the two. As a result, even when the two come together on a shared purpose of an education project, or a health project or something similar, there is often a baggage of that past.
However, having worked on both sides of this perceived divide, I can only say that I have had the privilege of working with some of the finest human beings on both sides. Often-times, just the coming together of these two sets of organisations, working together and getting to know one another is enough to dissolve much of the mistrust and questions. In that sense, CSR offers a huge opportunity for making possible such partnerships.
Lastly, there is a lot of conversation on how the non-profits need to learn from the practices and efficiencies of for-profits. But we do not always hear of how the for-profits could benefit from the perspective and practices of non-profits. In this context, the CSR law provides an excellent opportunity. The law requires every company to set up a board committee for CSR. In most cases, this committee is also required to have an independent director. It would be wonderful if companies were to use this as an opportunity to invite people from the social sector onto these committees, thereby making space for enhanced dialogue and mutually learning from each other’s perspective.
Neelima Khetan is a senior CSR and social sector expert with over three decades of experience in this space. Currently, she is a Visiting Fellow with the Centre for Social and Economic Progress (earlier Brookings India). Prior to this, she has been the Group CSR Head for Vedanta Group, Vice President CSR for Hindustan Zinc, Director of CSR and Sustainability for Coca-Cola India and South West Asia, India Country Director of American India Foundation, Chief Executive of Seva Mandir and Acting Director of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA). She graduated from the Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi University and then did masters in rural management from IRMA. She is the recipient of the Lakshmipat Singhania-IIM Lucknow National Leadership Award (2006) and the Maharana Mewar Award (2007).