November 18, 2022

India’s ‘Values Driven Companies’ & CSR

Niyati Sareen is the Project Director (Water & Education) at Hinduja Foundation, which partners with ACF via its group companies, IndusInd Bank, and Ashok Leyland. and Hinduja Leyland Finance. She found her calling in life when she was asked to Head CSR & Sustainability at a large infrastructure development organization, and from there went on to join the Hinduja Foundation.

 In a detailed discussion, Niyati outlines why impact work has become her passion, the benefits of working with partners, and the uniqueness of India’s ‘values-driven’ companies.

 1.  Hinduja Group is very much built on values and family tradition, as is Ambuja Cements Ltd.  Do you think this is a unique facet of businesses in India? 

 Indians are born with that innate ability to support, for the distance between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is very large.  Every home will do something that they need to do – starting with supporting their helpers at home, providing education to their kids, and ensuring their health is good, among other things. 

 The Hinduja group and the Foundation are deeply rooted in the philanthropic principles of its Founder of Hinduja Group, Shri Parmanand Deepchand and his belief “My Dharma (duty) is to work, so that I can give!” This has a profound influence on the values and culture within the company.

 Indian companies also have an inherent nature and requirement to mitigate risks. What will not be available if farmers can’t get the things they need? Or if education is not there?  Due to the nature of the situation here, we have a responsibility to ponder ‘what is the bigger impact on the country’ of things like that.  Each one of us believes in it, and if you work in a company that believes in it, there is nothing more fulfilling.

We continue to do some philanthropy but will work to the need of the day and where there is high impact.

 2. How has your experience been in working with ACF and what are your thoughts on the projects being executed in partnership together? 

 When we started with ACF we started with IndusInd Bank – supporting an existing program to achieve scale.  We invited ACF to work with us in Alwar and Ajmer – areas where ACF had no presence at the time – and they came, helping us look at both sides of the coin when it came to water – both supply and demand.  We have helped increase their scale and reach in that regard.

 I’m a firm believer in the power of partnerships.  You have to – it’s better to learn from each other than to reinvent the wheel. I’ve learned a lot from ACF – how they tap into age-old heritage practices, and how they harness the local people.  Frankly, if I’m not learning I’m bored.  So, one of the reasons we work well together and have a great relationship is that we think and ideate together.  We look at a problem and brainstorm possible solutions.  I also like that they are not averse to looking at new solutions and are very open to suggestions and inputs.  It works because it is a collaboration.  Everyone can’t be an expert at everything – you need to work with others and harness their expertise.

 3. Does Hinduja Foundation execute all its work via partners, or do you do any direct implementation work?

We operate where our companies want us to operate – in and around our businesses.  Our focus is to be water positive and group companies like Ashok Leyland are water positive within the fence.  But we also work outside the fence in the communities around the business. We do a need analysis to understand the problem and relevant solutions, then I invite partners from the beginning to do the baseline and prepare detailed project reports.

 Hinduja Foundation is a lean, 5 person team.  Whilst we implement with partners, we do not have a typical donor relationship with them, it’s more collaborative.  From the beginning we work with partners to understand the ground reality, what the problem is, the solutions, and how to implement.  Once we have deeply understood, only then do we invest the money.  And once the implementation starts, we like to work with a very systematic approach.

 4.  Rural Development & Water are big investment priorities for you as an organisation, as they are with ACF, why?

 When you work in the water space you can’t be isolated – there is a need to focus on both supply and demand.  With supply, you are restoring natural resources and increasing quantity of water, but if you don’t work on demand also, then that is also a problem.

 Water as an issue is also very entangled in livelihoods and health.  All our water programs are in rural India and in a rural context you can’t be isolated and just work on water – we need to also demand how best that water is used to sustain them for a period of time.  That’s when you need to look at livelihoods also.

 5.  How did the ACF partnership come about and what interested you in partnering with ACF?

 The IndusInd bank is one of our group companies and they were looking to work in Rajasthan – there was a common friend who introduced us to Pearl Tiwari and IndusInd Bank decided to do pilot with ACF. The pilot is important - I look and see if a program is working well, then I look to expand it to the other group companies. 

Ashok Leyland has a big factory in Alwar and we wanted to initiate some work there.  So we invited ACF to move across into that area, and they did. Only if a program has done very well, impacts are very high, convergence with community and government schemes is high, and the ease of working with partner is very high, do we then look to expand our work with a partner. ACF ticked all these boxes for us.


6.  As someone with strong CSR background, what do you think of recent changes to CSR rules and how do you think this is supporting/impacting the sector?

I was actually a part of its framing from the industry – in fact I was one of the dissidents back then.  My feeling was that if they made CSR mandatory, and it became a statutory requirement, it would then be driven by the finance department of a company - and nothing would ‘come from the heart.’  You count every penny to ensure you’ve spent all the money, but it becomes a finance department project.  Fortunately overtime, Finance departments have understood how the work is helping and there are many good cases where heart and finance go hand in hand.

 There are a few things which have happened that are good.  NGOs that were in ‘lala land’ earlier, have had to put systems in place.  Today, you have to have convergence with Government Schemes, you have to maximise the impact of every penny.  Now that overhead costs have been limited to 5%, the maximum cost goes into a project, which is good.  The latest changes have been helping to put systems in place which makes life easier, and makes NGOs realise that they have to perform better, work together and do it well.

 It’s been a good thing for the donor sector – it’s meant that CSR can’t be adhoc and when you streamline things its easier for the NGOs to work also.  One of the reasons we like ACF is that there are so many systems, processes and documentation in place, we don’t have to teach and build capacity – they have learnt it from the parent company. 

 7.    You have had an interesting career path - how are you finding the transition from CSR/Sustainability, into heading programme verticals at the Foundation level?

I’m a Civil Engineer by profession, and I specialised in Environmental Engineering.  Funnily enough, I never did hardcore Engineering – and always found myself in roles implementing innovation and big picture ideas. In my previous job, Sustainability and CSR was a new department in the early 2000’s, and I wanted a new challenge - belonging to the business side of the company for most of my career, I was able to look at CSR spends through an impact and sustainability lens.  That’s when I transitioned from the corporate world into the Foundation.  I’m not a social worker.  I bring business perspective to everything to make sure the program itself is sustainable.  I think more of that is required in this field.



November 18, 2022

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