INTRODUCTION TO SOCIAL SYNERGY FOUNDATION
We are often asked for information on the kind of support we provide and how we work. We struggle with these requests because we do not have much in the way of offerings, products, standard delivery practices, or approach. The best stock answer we can give is that we provide decision-making support to small and medium-sized non-profits and institutional donors. Often, we ourselves are unsure what that ‘decision-making’ support entails and our second stock answer is, ‘it depends on whom we are working with’.
We have come to this line of response because we either recognise we are irredeemably bad communicators, or what we do is so elemental that we struggle to make it sound more intelligent and interesting than it actually is. The rest of this section is, therefore, to help make sense of the above two seemingly non-instructive stock answers.
We will try to outline how we have come about, how that makes us think, and how we practice.
Evolution of our practice
Our practice is fundamentally influenced by the experience of its founders as management consultants who worked directly with leadership in the public or private sectors to run complex, long-duration engagements which required delicate co-ordination amongst various corporate functions including strategy, finance, governance, HR, operations, business development and capital raising.
This experience has led to the most important principle for our practice: how decisions get made is more critical, and controllable, than the content of the decision itself. If disproportionate time is invested in determining who is involved in decision-making, the process itself, the structure of conversations, their proper sequencing, the pace at which decisions get made and, most significantly, the temperament & ethics of those involved, then one thing is assured: bad decisions can be avoided. Good decisions are then the residue of what remains once all the potential errors are weeded out one by one.
There are many consultants who operate this way, intuitively at least. We are neither unique nor carry any additional value in laying undue emphasis on this. Some of the others also happen to possess far more knowledge of the particular domain they consult in. In our case, our backgrounds also ensure we have very little understanding of the different sectors of developmental studies and science.
Yet, today we are working with organisations in natural resource management, gender, primary health-care, and livelihoods. Further, many of these engagements have continued beyond 3 and, in some cases, 5 years. There is a reason, we believe, we are able to operate this way with some adequate measure of comfort: we have a very general, almost commonsensical framework to understand organisations and their work. It is a framework that allows us to remain close to first principles and away from needless complexity and jargonised thinking.
The source of this framework is rather unusual; we were, and continue to be, intensely interested in how financial markets work and, at one point, were also directly involved in it. Within the theme of finance, our interest was corporate & structured finance and investments, in particular, what is called the value investing philosophy. Within the domain of value investing, we were drawn specifically to the practice of Berkshire Hathway and the writings of Benjamin Graham. Cumulatively, these influences have provided us with the framework through which we peer into any operating entity.
What is this framework, and how is it useful to our work in this sector? In its barest essence, it forces us to ask very primitive questions when we come across anything new: be it an idea or organisation. That is, what does this mean in layman’s terms? What is the value of this thing? How does it generate this value? What will impair its ability to do so in future? Where should capital and resources be directed within it so that it endures and benefits society at large?
When we ask this of non-profits, we are consistently led to the answer that the value resides in its intangibles (reputation & goodwill, community relationships, the longevity of its operating history, the experience and competence of its people, culture, the integrity of character, organisational design, amongst others). All of these intangibles, collectively, constitute what we call the institutional capital and the real store of value of any non-profit. Ideas, projects and programmes matter, but it is this institutional layer which has weaved itself into the organisation’s way of working (or living) that matters far more and, at times, to the exclusion of everything else.
This may seem obvious, but perhaps so obvious that it never gets the importance it deserves in decision-making. It is like the most responsible child in the room that you know you will attend to someday but just not today as you believe he can take care of himself for one more day. What often gets attention is what is intellectually intractable, exciting and forward-looking, not what is valuable, based on the past and somewhat routine & mundane. This misplaced emphasis leads to a preference for high-intensity and concentrated thinking & action versus disciplined, incremental drip-feeding. The former concerns itself with trying to achieve or get something “out there”, “transforming things”, “scaling the impact”, while the latter with the more humble task of going about routine organisational life, knowing fully well how complicated life is as it already stands. Why then, add more when the plate is already full?
In thinking like this, we are really placing ourselves in the position of a possessive owner cum investor, one who is as much bothered about preserving his capital as adding to it. Now, an investor in a private enterprise is not concerned about individual parts or functions but how they come together to constitute the whole. Likewise, if we are given overtly circumscribed tasks or scope of the engagement, we are inherently uncomfortable engaging as we realise that it is difficult to support an entity without being involved across practically almost the whole of it.
However, in working with organisations in this manner, we have been guilty of executing tasks for the organisation ourselves, of drawing up check-lists, making plans and managing those plans. With time, we have realised that institutional capital does not get strengthened this way. As an owner, the best way to safeguard your own assets is to invest in only one direction: build competence in others so that they make independent decisions and thereby become better care-takers of what you own but have neither the time nor energy to fully attend to.
We are also adamant on one thing: we will support individuals but not do the task for them. That clearly means we will not produce any presentations or excel sheets as far as possible, even if it means there are life-threatening deadlines at hand. If one has to go with a budget in front of the Board, it has to be a budget genuinely prepared by the concerned responsible individual and not a consultant. What matters is not whether the budget is detailed enough or fully correct, but the fact that the individual took the pains to go through the process, prepare for the presentation and took his best shot at it. The next time, hopefully, he will need us less.
Thus, the most effective way to nurture the ‘institution’ is to enable learning, co-creation and co-operation to happen better across the different moving parts of the organisation. This, in turn, forces us to approach our work with organisations as a long-running process of learning & development, or specifically, a combination of teaching, facilitation, mentoring and, where needed in extreme cases, pushing executive decisions aggressively.
Accordingly, our stance has changed over years from one of directing (consultant), to caring intensely (an owner-investor who is possessive and imposing himself) to one of participation (an owner-entrepreneur who deeply trusts and values those he is co-operating with). One could be forgiven for thinking this as some kind of pop-psychology (which it is), but fortunately, it is also one of those popular things that have helped us anchor ourselves well within the sector.
The Practice of an Owner-Entrepreneur
Given this orientation, when asked to engage with any operating entity, our starting point is, therefore, well-defined: we ask ourselves how should we think and act about this entity if we were its true owner, and effectively place ourselves in the mind of the owner. It is an enviable position to be in: we really are not inside nor accountable, yet possess the luxury of thinking like an owner. In doing so, we hope to bring some more common-sense and reason than would otherwise be difficult.
But how does an owner-entrepreneur really think? If we imagine ourselves as owners of something we have worked hard to build up over the years, something to which we have given the best years of our lives, something that we really are possessive & passionate about, and care for its last operational detail, then our first instinct will be to ensure it survives and continues. It is very much a motherly instinct.
This instinct ensures that a real entrepreneur is least bothered about what others say or do, or what the norm is. He couldn’t care less about scale, sustainability, technology, innovation, best practices, latest management fads or theories of change. He is, instead, cautious, careful, scrupulous, prudent and as conservative as one can be. He wants to ensure no harm comes to his property and takes all decisions consistent with that precept.
But, at the same time, he is not fearful. He is quite shrewd, alert, in the know of how the world is changing around him, and patiently waiting for the right opportunity to come knocking. And, when it does, he wastes little time in latching on to it and integrating it in his own creation, thereby making it his very own.
This calculated thinking is very much what transpires in the minds of those who have really sacrificed something to build something. Just as honest money is a by-product of running an honest business operation, scale & sustainability (to use the latest buzzwords) are merely a by-product of running a developmental intervention well. If the scale happens, well and good, if it does not, it hardly matters. It disturbs not the sleep of an owner. He does not design for scale. He designs first & foremost for endurance. He knows how difficult it is to build things and how easy it is to lose them under the exuberance of distant dreams and speculative ideas.
What value do we bring here? Any leadership is open to being tempted by what others say and think, including their Board, Donors, Media, and one’s own peers. If not tempted, then surely overcome by a sense of anxiety and self-doubt, bothered by the question of ‘am I missing something that others are able to see?’ Temptation and self-doubt multiply confusion and, in hindsight, lead to regrettable errors.
Our role is, therefore, to bring a sense of critical scepticism to the thinking, very often by asking questions like: do you agree with that idea? If so, why? If you really think hard about it, how do you think it fits in with what you already have? In achieving this, what do you stand to lose or gain? What kind of disturbances would it create? In balance, does the risk-reward equation stand up to scrutiny? If not, why don’t you drop it? If yes, why wait?
The example of Zubaan, a familiar organisation, will illustrate the point: back in 2015, we were asked by Zubaan to help prepare a ‘business plan’ for their for-profit enterprise for a potential European investor. After two months of joint deliberation, we effectively responded with: the value of Zubaan is, in fact, within its grant-making operations, and the for-profit is a necessary and essential adjunct to it. Still, it cannot be the pivot around which the operations will rest. The investor lost interest along with the hope that Zubaan had of raising some serious money. We, of course, never intended for this outcome, but all kinds of reasoning led us to no other conclusion. Zubaan had to struggle through for a few years after that, but today, it has managed to retain its heritage and prepare itself to fight more interesting battles.
If one is able to establish this practice of honest reflection consistently enough over a number of years, the net result is that the organisation is able to hold its own and preserve its independence, a significant achievement in & of itself. For, if an entity can sustain itself honestly, energetically and prudently enough, the mere fact of its survival and existence means it contributes something every day. It may not be able to do more, but then, many a time, that is good enough.
But, of course, no owner or entrepreneur is satisfied simply with survival and preservation and calculated growth. After a time, he is equally concerned about ‘cohesiveness’. Do all his actions fit together? Are there some fundamental pieces of the puzzle that are missing? Is he taking decisions, small they may be but, which nullify or subtract from his earlier decisions? He, therefore, seeks some firm order, a framework so-to-speak, to girdle together all his efforts.
This, we admit, is not an easy skill, and comes only by training. A consulting background always helps but is not necessary. Rather, what it requires is a training of the mind to structure things, organise ideas, and design solutions. Some of these skills are most in evidence in certain disciplines of pure aesthetics (such as an ability to write a highly engaging novel), architecture, computer programming and managing investment portfolios, amongst others.
Cohesiveness is a latent need of many in the leadership, and actually, across much of the organisational ladder, though individuals may not have the words to express it clearly. As a result, a lot of our work involves constantly designing things: processes, systems, roles & responsibilities, organisation structure, donor conversations, board composition, and so forth. These, in turn, flow from the most important thing we design: a model of the entity. This is nothing but relationships between important parts of the organisation’s work that we always carry at the back of our head.
Again, by way of illustration: we work with an organisation called Mahila Housing Sewa Trust (MHT) in Ahmedabad. It works in urban areas by combining gender with issues of habitat (this is a simple characterisation). When we first engaged with the organisation, the organisation spoke in terms of different verticals of work they were involved in housing, sanitation, water, energy, etc. We had a nagging intuition that this really does not represent the essence of the organisation and, therefore, does not provide a firm and consistent basis for long-term decision-making.
But then we looked at the ‘how’ of what they did. In particular, we happened to attend a meeting of women from the communities they work with. Listening to the discussions, we realised that here really is the ‘model of MHT’. The fundamental skill that it possesses is its ability to work with women in urban slums to mobilise, educate and leverage private funding to tap into public financial resources for the development of local habitats.
This simple idea has formed the basis of our four years, and continuing work with MHT. Slowly, this idea has also seeped into the organisation’s own vocabulary. Over time, they have, somewhat sheepishly, directed more resources to strengthen these women’s collectives, talking about urban governance, and so forth. This is also one of the rare cases where we have actually encouraged the organisation to look at the scale in a very serious way, because we believe that if one thinks about their model of work this way, and makes decisions based around that, then there is significant embedded non-linearity into their operations.
Moving on, we now have an owner-entrepreneur who is conservative-aggressive and fairly coherent in how he thinks. Does it stop here? Is there something that is fundamentally required? Yes, but it takes that rare owner-entrepreneur to get there. It revolves around the ability to ask of oneself this singular question every day: to whom are all my actions accountable? Is it just for my satisfaction or in pursuit of some ideal that I have rationalised to myself that I am striving towards? Or is there something or someone to whom I must submit and hold myself to account, something that makes me constantly look back and ask what consequences did those actions of mine have?
All public actions are, by definition, accountable to society at large. All tax-exempt non-profits are, in our opinion, effectively organisations whose real ownership is held with the public, and, thereby, every little action of theirs, especially the financial ones, would need to closely take this into account. This is how we run our non-profit and also advise those we work with.
It is also the point on which, we, in our opinion, have added the greatest value to our associations. We have consistently questioned, sometimes aggressively so, the moral rationale of some of the most strategic trade-offs that are made. We have called out a) allocations of funding resources (projects that are prioritised) wherein the clear intent by non-profits is not to improve public good but achieve self-serving aims, b) who gets to decide what is important within an organisation, c) how surplus should be distributed in case of social enterprises, d) compensation policies, e) frivolous spending on marketing and networking events, f) taking an adversarial position with the government instead of co-operating with it, g) investing in your own people first before leaning permanently on high-cost outsiders, h) not incurring expenses with an aim to save on taxes, i) spending liberally on high-quality auditors and compliance officers, and so forth.
It is amusing to us that our clients allow us this lee-way, especially when it calls into question their personal ambitions and desires. This stance of ours sometimes also creates certain tensions within organisations and, at times, re-shuffles decision-making powers within an organisation. We are reminded of a strategic planning meeting we were asked to attend for one of our clients. In the room, one could clearly see there were two cohorts: one from the headquarters, and another from the field. As the day progressed, grand ideas emerged, such as thinking about the next five years, setting up a for-profit venture and pegging the number of beneficiaries. When we were asked to contribute, we started with the simple question: what do these women from the field sitting here think of the whole thing? Have they understood any of this? Do they agree with what has been said? And indeed, do the “beneficiaries” of the organisation really want the organisation to expand, or is it effectively the need (and hubris) of a few individuals that all of this represents?
Expectedly, this injected a fair bit of tension within the room, and in typical fashion, it remained under the surface. Some of it still persists to this day. But it triggered an internal process wherein those manning the field and some from the headquarters came up after the meeting and said that this was their thought, except that no one was willing to speak up. It eventually led to the establishment of a separate team that is engaged in connecting the organisation’s overall work more consistently with the real needs and demands of the communities. It is both a change in the operating culture and power dynamics. Is this an article of faith we adhere to? No. Then why did we trigger a process of this sort? Simply because this is the process which really reflects the meaning of what the organisation claims to be its mission. It is a matter of accountability 101: there need be no difference between what you preach from your practice.
This triad of conservatism, cohesiveness and accountability form the cornerstones of our thinking and action. Institutions are less about well-defined SOPs but more about the skill with which any entity puts this into action. It provides meaning to its work and longevity to its operation.
While we have given examples of non-profits, our work with donors (there have been two main ones so far) operates along similar lines. We engage with donors with exactly the same attitude, though, we admit, building this kind of free-thinking space within cultures of funding institutions is far more difficult. But, we keep hoping.
The Mechanics of our practice.
Fortunately, there is no elaborate process to execute any of this. If the aim really is to come from a space of learning & development, then the first rule of our operation is: one must show up, preferably without a very clear agenda. The only way capacities get built is through constant conversational contact. This contact has to be kept personal, relational, informal and using structure to only a limited extent. Each side has to take a liking to the other and would want to talk to one another.
This contact typically takes the form of one on one conversations (our dominant mode), small-group (typically not more than 3 to 5 people) meetings, attending review meetings, participating in Board meetings when asked to, and meetings with external stakeholders. It does not include workshops of most kinds, especially those that are about debating mission, vision and strategy, as we, frankly, lack the requisite skill to help larger groups arrive at any meaningful agreement or alteration on some of the more deeper organisational concerns.
How does learning happen in these conversations? There is no presentation we make, or exercises we conduct, or knowledge that we impart. Real learning happens through solving real-world problems that an individual in an organisation faces every day as part of his role. We have recently discovered that there is a term for this: experiential learning. As you engage with the challenges of your own life and try to solve it in partnership with someone you trust, it is incredible how much latent learning starts happening without even being aware of it.
We have, over the years, worked with individuals and teams to help them solve a variety of problems such as managing balance sheets of lending operations, designing processes to build community volunteer groups, designing team structures and setting responsibilities, recruiting individuals, preparing budgets, thinking through fundamental alterations in the organisation’s strategy, converting simple projects into long-term programmes, and so forth.
In helping individuals solve these problems, we have no pre-fixed template. We, instead, take into account the competency of the people involved and the way the organisation does that task today. Many a time, some of the most fundamental conversations and shifts have emerged from the most trivial of conversations without clearly set agendas, no timelines or milestones. Our experience seems to validate that it is in such an environment that capacity accelerates and value silently unfolds.
However, every time there has been an artificial attempt to impose constraints, the process has broken to the detriment of all concerned. To make things clear: submitting a proposal to a donor in time is not an artificial constraint, nor is preparing for a meeting with a government official on a due date; it is what defines the task at hand. An artificial constraint is when the leadership imposes its own ambitions and restrictions that are fundamentally inconsistent with the nature of the problem, task or action at hand. There is a saying: after a certain point, temperament matters far more than intelligence. We could not agree more.
The real measure of our success is this: making ourselves more and more redundant, yet the organisation wanting to continue to engage with us. This can, hopefully, imply one thing: internal capacities are developing enabling the organisation to increase the power of its actions using the same set of resources and, hence, it finds more uses for the likes of us.
To repeat: in our practice, the only thing that matters is to show up without fail. It is easy to show up when you are co-located, and we make sure to show up at least once a week, or preferably twice. But as the distance grows, we have to find newer ways to ‘show up’. Skype conversations work when both sides are familiar with each other fairly well, and importantly, value the relationship. It works less well in the initial stages.
We, therefore, acutely recognise that this kind of approach (informal, relational) has its severe limitations placed by distance. Our second challenge continues to be to get like-minded professionals who can engage with the non-profit sector with the sensibility of the sector, who are willing to accept the bounds of their abilities, knowledge and expertise, and stay within it, and who are generalists who think like entrepreneurs.
What is a donor to make of all this?
When we work with donors, as is our practice, we will put ourselves in their position and ask: if I owned and was accountable for this capital for the generations to come, what is the best way to go about its deployment, in a manner that builds intelligent and efficiently on the grantee’s past yet preserves its ethos and independence?
Over the years, we have worked with Omidyar Network, Nasscom Foundation, Womanity Foundation and Welthungerhilfe. The typical steps in funding involve due diligence, structuring, planning, deployment and monitoring. Different providers of capital may term these steps differently and go about them with different levels of details and intensity. But their cumulative effect is to establish some form of upfront structure to the flow of funds.
Therefore, when presented with a note of this kind, the most critical question a donor should ask of itself is: is their method of funding compatible with an approach underpinned by the notion of emergence, hesitancy, caution and ambiguity which is essentially about working on the culture and craft of decision-making?
There are two fallacies that are endemic across how resources are managed today: the need for a strategy, and then a plan to execute the strategy. This leads to the folly of templatisation, starting with a template to conduct an organisational diagnostic. We have done our share of need assessments based on third-party frameworks. Our sombre conclusion is that they do a fine job of providing a false sense of clarity and security to all concerned. They also do an admirable job of putting bounds on creativity and imagination to emerge. A framework to guide thinking is very different from a framework of thinking. Perhaps an analogy will help.
Imagine a highly complex jig-saw puzzle with a number of minute pieces. There are two ways to approach the task of solving the puzzle: you search for the picture or the map that encodes all the information and then go about the task of piecing it together according to the map. But what if you do not have the map? Then you hire an expensive consultant to put it together as per some best practice believing that the result documented really is the map.
Consultants, like economists and weather forecasters, can be wrong many a time, yet prosper in their profession. Errors of consulting are less of commission and more of omission and, therefore, much harder to spot. What is the probability of the scenario that the map produced by the consultant for the puzzle, despite accommodating a majority of pieces, being concise, clear and pretty-looking, is still outright wrong? If you think carefully about it, very real.
Is there a simpler approach? The clue lies in observing how a child instinctively goes about the same task. Grab the most obvious piece (the one representing one of the four corners) and start finding kindred pieces. As they coalesce together, the narrative slowly emerges and accelerates the pace at which the rest of the puzzle develops. This, essentially, is the folksy way of conveying how we work.
When you have made 100 puzzles, it hardly means you possess any normative framework that makes you any wiser about solving the 101st; it simply ensures that you will be more skilled at the craft of making puzzles in general. You will continue to follow the exact same process as that of the child; except you will be better at knowing which route to pursue and which to avoid. Expecting a normative framework is the result of thinking of a statistician or a scientist; hoping to become more skilled at something is a potter’s way of thinking.
When we engage with any entity, we too spend time understanding it – we call it perspective building instead of due diligence or need assessment, as the latter in particular implies de-facto that something is lacking. If a donor is involved, we produce a document but one in which we ourselves place little faith as we know deep down, it can hardly represent anything of real substance and intelligence. At best, it can present a collection of data points and, at worse, a fractured and disjointed view of the organisation. To understand anything new with a sense of synthesis, unfortunately, takes time, no matter how skilled one is.
Our real aim then is to search for something that makes sense, to begin with, or latch onto and start with. Sometimes that something is as banal as re-doing the charts of accounts in the accounting system, or as complex as structuring the relationship between a for-profit and a non-profit. This initial hook then presents the next series of steps of its own accord as we continue to engage.
Is it really possible to tie a large grant commitment with a process of this type? It is, provided two conditions are met: drip-feeding the funding on demand instead of deploying it in neatly defined chunks and letting go of the expectation that a majority of it must be deployed. If these are met, then they release all the tension accompanying a funding commitment, especially the one channelled towards strengthening institutional capital and allow the funds to really find their most productive avenue in just the right measure. They help a donor avoid two critical errors in capital deployment: mis-allocation (allocating to the wrong thing), and mal-allocation (over or under allocation).
Today, we have five very long-term commitments involving clients who placed their trust in us when we started, and to whom we will continue to devote our time in the same measure we do today; and then there are a few medium duration commitments. With the limited pool of resources we have, all of these consume a large portion of our time.
Hence, whatever time remains, we are extremely wary of committing it to engagements that may steer us away from our own natural mode of practice, and demand of us ‘consulting tasks’. We have, over the years, built an independent niche for ourselves, especially the freedom to work the way we want. We exercise hesitancy while venturing into new relationships, where those relationships can sour due to misplaced expectations, driven by differences in institutional temperaments, styles and personalities.
As a small and self-contained practice, we have no top-line targets to meet and no large manpower whose costs we must support. Our Board has adopted a no-bonus policy, and our compensation growth is, like everything we do, crawling at a snail's pace. We have absolutely no intention of expanding or growing our operations as we have wisely come to the conclusion that the demands it places on our freedom are not worth the trade-off.
As a result, whatever large sums of monies we could earn will find three immediate beneficiaries: the Department of Income-Tax, the Department of Goods & Services Tax, and the line item of Surplus & Reserves on our Balance Sheet. Recently, our Company adopted a resolution to deploy a meaningful chunk of its surplus to fund micro and small non-profits or to encourage professionals to participate in this sector (www.sosynergy.org/sdp). A non-profit structure and, a sense of decency, ensure that there is no way that remaining reserves will find their way into our personal accounts. Thus, at the margin, the spare time we have has little by way of direct financial benefits to offer us.
The question then for us is where, with whom, and how do we spend this time? Our answer is very clear: with like-minded people who realise that timelines and bureaucratic processes & documentation do more harm than good and that the liberty to live a fuller life trumps all other considerations.