Making L&D work for India’s social sector

May 2, 2020
Sindhura Chakravarty

Learning is the key to evolution; whether we are talking about humanity as a whole or about organizations or even individuals. This is especially true of organizations working on development challenges. Today, more than ever before, social organizations need to evolve rapidly – to be competitive, agile, and capable of responding to crises like the COVID-19 pandemic that can affect a range of development outcomes, such as public health, unemployment, food security etc.

Yet, not enough social organizations in India are committed to  a culture of learning, the downside of which is that individuals trying to build their career in this sector rarely find opportunities for learning and development (L&D). This hampers their performance and ultimately their organization’s ability to grow, evolve and sustain its impact.

I see a critical training need for mid-managers in social organizations. It is very difficult to hire at that level externally as NGOs provide limited incentives. They need to promote internally. Therefore individuals, approximately in their mid-30s working in NGOs need support and training and there are not enough training programs geared towards upskilling them.

– Senior Manager, Corporate Foundation

By increasing their focus on learning, organization leaders can provide a positive and nurturing environment for their employees to sharpen their skills. However, it is not enough to value professional development; key players in the social sector also need to understand how to get behind L&D efforts that deliver results.

Decades of research have proved that adults learn differently from children: they need to be able to practically apply their education to their work and require far less oversight. In fact, the Creative Centre for Leadership found that 70% of professional development happens on the job, 20% occurs through peer networks and 10% takes place through training programs1. Which is not to say thatL&D programs are not important, it just means that well-designed programs should activate and amplify what professionals already learn through their work and from peers.

Improving L&D could go a long way in raising the quality and lifespan of developmental initiatives in India. As someone with an interest in the sector, here are some steps that you can take.

1. If you’re a social sector leader: Provide opportunities for your employees to learn and grow

A recent conversation with an organization leader helped drive home this point. Let us call him Dr. Rao from Care Plus, a healthcare start-up2. He spoke about how early on in the life of Care Plus, he realized the need to build talent and keep them informed of healthcare trends. Initially, he relied on his senior management team to informally coach and up-skill new employees. As CarePlus started to grow in size, Dr. Rao decided to introduce a formal, organization-wide professional development plan, backed by an L&D budget. While these efforts took considerable time and money, they allowed Care Plus to attract and retain a motivated workforce that drove the organization’s expansion to multiple locations across India. Dr. Rao plans to retire within the next two years, but will leave behind a strong team to carry forward his vision. Like Dr. Rao, more social sector leaders need to start recognizing the value of investing strategically in their people. The organizations that thrive will be the ones that provide opportunities for employee growth – from encouraging employees to play leadership roles on projects, to providing mentorship and access to training. All of this can be done without having a large budget to send employees to expensive L&D programs.

2. If you’re employed in the social sector: Take ownership of your learning

During the tea break of a workshop that I recently attended, I overheard two employees of a reputed social organization laugh about how L&D sessions are a good break from work. Many professionals across sectors view L&D programs as a way to build their resumes or acquire professional certifications to impress recruiters or managers. Yet, as the instance that I mentioned suggests, many treat L&D as something that they have to do, and are sometimes even cynical aboutits impact. However, individuals working in the fast-changing world of social development need to take responsibility for their own learning if they want to have a positive effect on the world. Self-reflection and positive intention are core to learning; and employees need to make the time to reflect internally on their own performance, identify areas of development and apply new learning to their work. Unless one is actively committed to evolving as a professional, even the best L&D initiatives are not likely to enable career growth.

In order to develop effective training courses, it is important to understand the needs of your target audience and make your training curriculum as specific as possible. It is also important to have trainers with sector experience and provide opportunities for peer learning.

– Program Officer, Training Service Provider

3. If you deliver L&D programs: Start adopting methods that yield outcomes

As a consultant, I’ve often been requested to recommend L&D programs for mid-level professionals working in non- profits or start-ups. Yet, while there are some quality leadership development programs in the market these days (e.g., Ashoka University’s Strategic Non-Profit Management – India program), many out of the current crop of training programs are just not able to attract and motivate social sector professionals. Many corporate training programs focus on experiential learning and use gamification and simulations to involve participants and change behaviors. However, programs catering to the social sector often focus on academic insights (that may not be of practical relevance) and adopt town-hall formats that make it difficult for participants to engage with the content.

While both leadership and employees of social organizations have a long way to go to reap the benefits of L&D, even those providing training services need to rethink how they run programs and evaluate impact. Here are some of the questions they need to start asking themselves:

  • Do our trainers have long-term experience in the development sector? Are the trainers using relevant examples and case studies to engage their audience and contextualize learning?
  • Could we adopt any innovative methods, such as simulations of real-world scenarios or problems to solve in the workplace or on the field, into our programs to motivate and engage participants?
  • Are we following up with participants to track the effect of our program on their work? Are we talking about the tangible learning outcomes from our training program?

It is only when L&D service providers start designing programs that are both cost-effective and impactful that we can expect social organizations to take L&D seriously.

4. If you are a funder: Evangelize and support L&D programs

Long-term donors recognize the importance of learning and fund professional development programs. Some well-known examples include Ford Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and A.T.E. Chandra Foundation. Such funders also support the efforts of partner social organizations to upskill talent and build leadership in-house. If the goal is to build organizational capacities within the sector then more funders need to start subsidizing access to quality L&D programs, and encouraging other funders to do the same.

Whatever be your interest in the Indian social sector, you have a role to play in building a culture and ecosystem that promotes learning within the sector, thus ensuring that its workforce is equipped to solve India’s most intractable challenges.

1. Center for Creative Leadership. (n.d.). The 70-20-10 Rule for Leadership Development. [online] Available at:
2. Some names and identifying details have been changed to maintain confidentiality.
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