All posts by Akhila Kolisetty

Akhila Kolisetty serves as a Development Advisor of Justice for All Organization (JFAO), a non-profit that works to strengthen the rule of law and expand access to legal services for women and girls in Afghanistan. Starting in fall 2012, she is also a student at Harvard Law School, and aspires to a career in human rights and development, with a focus on community-based legal services and women's rights. In the past, she's studied legal empowerment at the grassroots level with BRAC in Bangladesh, worked with a civil rights law firm in Washington D.C., and counseled South Asian immigrant survivors of domestic violence. She graduated from Northwestern University in 2010, where she studied at the London School of Economics and wrote an honours thesis on transitional justice in Rwanda and Sierra Leone. This is a cross post from her blog.

What makes an effective non-profit?

In my time working with non-profits and international aid organizations over the years, I’ve noticed certain qualities that make non-profits particularly effective – ultimately for the beneficiaries of the work being done, but also for staff members and volunteers. Of course, since non-profits range so widely in the issues they address, I recognize that it’s difficult to generalize. However, here are some qualities I have observed – particularly in organizations that do direct service work, or that work directly with marginalized groups and communities anywhere in the world:

A non-hierarchical structure

Some of the best organizations I’ve worked with have adopted a more non-hierarchical structure; everyone is welcome to have a voice, to express their opinions, and to take on responsibilities according to their skills and talents. This type of open structure gives everyone a say, rather than just the top management, and I believe is in line with social justice efforts. Certainly, some structure is necessary for any organization. However, even a large organization can retain the philosophy of valuing every employee – from the Executive Director down to the lowest intern on the career ladder. A non-hierarchical structure means that employees and even interns feel that their ideas and contributions are valued by the organization, and feel they are welcomed to do more than what their job position might call for. Employees are able to work with creativity and a spirit of innovation, no matter their place in the organization.

Lead by and for clients and beneficiaries

Organizations that serve particular marginalized groups or communities should ultimately be lead by members of those communities, local leaders, and people who have experienced struggles themselves. Organizations aiming to support Afghan women should be led by Afghan women. Non-profits striving to provide services for survivors of domestic and gender-based violence should have their leadership composed of those who are survivors themselves. Groups serving the incarcerated should be led by those who have been through the criminal justice system themselves, while NGOs addressing health disparities should certainly employ many who have struggled with access to healthcare themselves.

Those who are oppressed, who have faced poverty, violence or discrimination themselves should be the ones to lead organizations that are ultimately striving to help their communities. This is a fundamental concept that many social entrepreneurs and non-profit Executive Directors do not fully embrace, quite understandably because it would mean putting many of those from more privileged background out of work. But in my opinion, organizations that are not led by those who have struggled may not be the best at serving the needs of their communities. We all need to collectively recognize this, even if it means questioning our own roles as leaders – rather than allies – in this work.

Has a clear, inspirational vision

To succeed, any non-profit organization must have a clear vision and mission. A vision allows the organization to clearly define its role and its future direction. A mission defines the specific way it hopes to achieve that vision – through specific types of programs or initiatives. A non-profit that has a defined ‘theory of change’ – how it hopes to make change actually happen –  is more likely to be successful. Without sticking to a model or theory of change, non-profits will not have any sense of where they are going or how to get there. A structured ‘model’ helps organizations to set up programs appropriately, as well as to say ‘no’ to foundations, donors or collaborators who seek to influence programs in a different direction. Some organizations are inclined to agree to every opportunity or every grant that comes their way, without deep and sustained thought as to whether a particular type of project or grant intervention actually resonates with the non-profit’s model, theory of change, or broader vision.

Willing to ‘do whatever it takes’

Non-profits are, obviously, in the business of doing good. But surprisingly, many of them are afraid to rock the boat and take risks. Many organizations are happy to get funding and keep their programs going, without a desire to really challenge the broader structures in society that allow injustices to continue. They are addressing the symptoms, but not the causes of injustice, discrimination, inequality, and exploitation. There is a fear of failure – of alienating funders and donors and of attracting negative attention – if risks are taken. But those NGO leaders who are willing to ‘do what it takes’ will think bigger and be willing to take risks if it means that they can bring change. And sometimes, those that are willing to think big, say what needs to be said, and do whatever it takes – even if it might be unpopular – are the people who will change and define history.

Diversified funding sources

Many non-profits, unfortunately, are heavily dependent on foundations for their annual budgets. However, foundations are likely to have restrictions on their funding, may try to steer your organization in a certain direction that is relevant to their own foundation priorities, or may even drop funding in any given year if their priorities shift. Non-profits need to diversify their funding, reduce dependence on large foundations, and ensure that larger portions of their budgets come from individual giving. Creative options for self-sustaining organizations – such as social business or profit-making projects – should also be explored. The more self-reliant an organization is, the more free it is to be accountable to its beneficiaries, to be flexible and change programs if they aren’t working, and to take risks.

Willingness to admit and address failure

In 2008, Engineers Without Borders Canada made splashes when it began publicity admitting its failures through an ‘Annual Failure Report.’ The organization went on to create, which encourages the development community to recognize and learn from, rather than hide away, its failures. My experience working at BRAC – the largest development NGO from the global South – taught me the importance of the capacity for self-criticism. BRAC has developed a relentless ethic for ‘learning’ and innovation, which frequently manifests itself in self-criticism. The organization constantly commissions reports by its Research and Evaluation Division (RED) to evaluate the effectiveness of their programs. A quick look at these reports reveals that they are often highly negative, almost relentlessly critical and filled with suggestions for change. The reports are available to the general public, but BRAC uses them internally to constantly improve their programs.

Organizations that are willing to admit failure are also most likely to be open to flexibility and change: they are willing to change course if a program isn’t working, and to drop some programs altogether if necessary. In the best case scenario, every employee is encouraged to provide honest feedback and criticism about what’s not working when it comes to the organization’s programs – and also encouraged to take steps to actually address those problems. Non-profits need to have the spirit of learning and self-criticism at all levels for things to actually change; senior managers need to be open to criticism and to admitting that things need to improve. Only then can non-profits best serve their communities as well as constantly innovate to do better work.

What are your thoughts? What are some defining qualities of effective non-profits?

This is a cross-post from Journeys towards Justice, Akhila Kolisetty’s own blog. Check it out here.

Purpose and patience is key for Gen Y in development

In the past few days, I blazed my way through “Work on Purpose” by Lara Galinsky and Echoing Green, devouring the stories and winding pathways of the five social entrepreneurs profiled within.

This book is a reflection of our generation – slightly confused, constantly searching, never settling, seeking meaning. For Generation Y, work has been transformed from a simple means of supporting oneself to an opportunity, a blank space which we can paint with our passions and imbue with our spirits. Work is no longer about plain sustenance, but about creativity, innovation, and possibility. And most of all, our generation seeks a deeper purpose for our work. Helping large corporations make more money is no longer satisfying; being a cog in a robotic machine is deeply unsettling.

But you have heard all this before. The way the Millennial generation views work and meaning and life and purpose is nothing new to you. We have been inundated with blogs and articles examining my generation’s characteristics in painstaking detail.

Yet, many see my generation as entitled–we feel like we are above grunt work and endless spreadsheets and paying our dues. We do not want to settle for something we don’t love. And yes, perhaps this quest for meaning reeks of entitlement. But aren’t we all working towards a world where our children have the freedom to pursue their passion for a living? And isn’t it a good thing– no, a great thing– if this generation springboards from entitlement into a generation of social change leaders? And this, indeed, is what is happening. We are experiencing an unprecedented movement of young people passionate about tackling deeply entrenched social problems. And I would argue that our entitlement is, in part, what has allowed us to do important work. What has freed us up from the need to focus only on salary, allowed us to pursue work for reasons beyond supporting our families.

Work on Purpose echoes this quintessential quest that myself and many of my peers are undergoing. What is inspiring, and different, about this book is its painful honesty. The social justice leaders profiled did not follow a linear path to doing good work. Indeed, the roads they took were often winding, painful, and confusing. Most of them did not find their ideal job doing game-changing work that also harnessed their valuable skills immediately after college:

“Although the words and actions we absorb in our homes profoundly shape our ideas of what is important, when it comes time to start a professional life, we often put those early experiences aside. They can be overshadowed by the desire to earn a good salary, the pressure to follow a particular path, and the need to satisfy competing demands from our families, our peers, and ourselves.

Few people fall immediately into jobs or paths that satisfy all these desires, let alone stem from what they think is meaningful. Most people…wander or take misguided turns.”

Cheryl Dorsey, President of Echoing Green, did not find her place in the world until 38! She spent time meandering, learning, falling in and out of graduate programs and ill-fitting jobs. She went to medical school, got an MPP, and even enrolled in a history graduate program. None of them seemed to click or truly ignite her passion — she did not want to be a doctor or a policymaker — but she kept seeking. She found the right place once she joined Echoing Green. She got there eventually. And it’s a lesson to all of us that we can find the right fit — we may just have to exercise a bit of  patience and refuse to give up in our quest.

Along the way, we must ask ourselves certain questions:  What moments from your childhood shaped what you think is important? When in your life have you felt out of whack? In those out of whack periods, what was out of balance? What would you do if you were not afraid of failing? When have you felt in the zone, like you were doing exactly what you should be doing? What is your issue or cause to own?

Why do you do what you do?

Ultimately, Lara Galinsky comes up with a powerful formula: heart + head = hustle. The perfect career lies nestled in this combination: passion and love for what you do and your mission (heart) and the utilization of your concrete skills and talents (head). If you find work that allows you to harness your professional skills to your fullest potential while also allowing you to do something you love & feel strongly about, you have stumbled upon something truly magical.

This is the journey of our generation, and future ones. My pathway seems blanketed in fog for now, but at the same time I know where my feet are taking me. I am asking myself the questions that matter, while knowing things will become clearer with time. This book gives me faith that I, and you, will eventually find that magical balance that sets things in motion to change ourselves, and the world.

We just have to have a little patience.


Ed: What motivates us all in the workplace? In a most entertaining 10 minute animation, find out: