January 30, 2023

Transparency & Processes – Inculcated from the Start

The name ‘Mr. Taparia’ often gets respectfully referred to around the corridors of Ambuja Cement Foundation (ACF) as the man responsible for its set up – the structure, systems, standard operating procedures and way of governance.  Whilst these things, along with the myriad compliances that non-profits need to adhere to these days, are not ‘sexy’ in comparison to on-ground programs, they are in fact, the building blocks upon which ACF has built its reputation, expanded its footprint, and time and again, obtained on ground impacts.

As someone who has been with ACF since the very beginning, he clearly recalls that when the promoters started the first cement plant, there was no CSR law at that time. But they had decided that if they start any business in the area, they must engage with the community. As moral responsibility of any good business is to take care of the communities, they engage it.  “I remember that debate taking place back then, and whilst there was extra work in doing it this way, we had decided that as the plant grows we have to ensure our CSR work also grows,” says Taparia.

"The agenda was that the community development work should be very focused, and we were concerned that the work of the cement plant would ultimately get in the way – surely the Ambuja Cements Ltd team would get drawn into other priorities, and the development work would be put on the backburner and get diluted.” He said.

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 In many other businesses, when it comes to CSR it is either relegated to the HR Department or to the Corporate Communications Department to take care of it and then there are too many reporting managers. Thus, we decided it best to have the business operations separately and the CSR work handled separately in a professional manner by a CEO of the company foundation with necessary expertise expected. The executive will need to take charge of community engagement, the reporting’s and work with magnitude to put everything in place.

So we made it an agenda that the community work needs to be as serious as the plant operations. “ACF became a separate outfit and arm for the CSR work of ACL, that was not interfered with.  I got the not-for-profit company incorporated and handled all the documentation, setting up the basic framework of account keeping and controls.  From the get go, we saw the need for a strength in this area, and over the years it has certainly paid off.” Mr Taparia said.

“But all that didn’t happen overnight!” quips Mr Taparia.  “These things were inculcated inhouse from the very beginning, and over the past 3 decades, we have engrained them into the fabric and way of life at ACF.” He said

Looking back on the achievements, Mr Taparia is clearly proud.  “Today I feel very, very happy that the systems, processes, seriousness and sincerity of ACF are so strong.  Unless you do solid work then people won’t believe you – you are then only talking and not doing the work.” He said.  “Whatever we do, to do it well you must follow a process, have utter transparency and a control mechanism in place that is subject to audit.  Only then will you succeed in this kind of work.”

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However, in the beginning, some didn’t understand the need for so many SOPs in place – People who do business do not like following any SOPs or reporting as they feel it a waste of time. But we had to convince the senior management that by following such processes you can clearly show the work on the ground. The senior management team of both ACL and ACF appreciated these SOPs and made it a long-term philosophy to always design such processes.  “We recognized that at some point, even others may get involved in the work – and partners would be comfortable if we proved that we have our systems and process in place and look at us today, with over 700 external funders contributing 70% annually, that has certainly been the case - it was good foresight to put in place proper rules, accounting, systems, control mechanisms, audits and all the compliance pieces (income tax, environment, local administration etc,)” he notes.

We also ensured that these SOPs were directly communicated to the other levels of our ACF staff. Trainings were conducted, proper briefing was made during inductions to ensure that all are aware of the systems and process. And even at location levels where SOPs needed to be reviewed, we aligned with the location teams, deep-dived into analysis and removed any bottlenecks. Gradually this became a habit to follow such processes in other locations too.

He feels a big part of the success in developing this culture, is attributed to the type of team ACF has today.  “Normally in company setups there would be resistance or discomfort within functions to the types of demands being made of them – they’d say ‘why are you bothering us about this?’  However, at ACF, whenever things were asked to be done in a certain way, the entire team got on board with it including the senior management.  They too saw the need to be accountable to somebody – the community, the government, funders and other stakeholders.  It is commendable the way they embraced it.” He reflects.

Of course, all this also became a key strength when it came to ACF’s approach to grassroots work.  “Everything done on the ground was absolutely systematic, never cutting corners. If someone wanted to do work in a particular village, we would carry out need assessments and speak to the community. Based on their needs we would match it with our forte and expertise in rural development. Projects were then prioritised accordingly.  This in my experience gave an enormous amount of satisfaction to the community – not only would the project happen, but they would be involved in the process and respected for their understanding of the local politics and situation.  This today is one of ACF’s big plus points.” He said.

And it paid off when others started getting involved also.  “In fact, when external funders started coming in, the practices we had adopted from the beginning became a big strength.  New funders would look into the processes, the transparency and the people and realize we did not neglect anything. On the other hand we would provide a required budget expenditure to the partner and ensure atleast 90% of the budget expenditure is spent in the way it was planned. The team on the ground would work with complete commitment to ensure the CSR amount is spent. It proves that we are serious with our work when the outside world sees the expenditure.

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It is in this area that Mr Taparia see’s big opportunities for ACF.  “There are many medium sized companies who have the responsibility to do CSR under the law – but many of them are just distributing money and issuing cheques. These companies don’t have back-ups like ACF to do the work for them and fulfill their CSR.  ACF can support and guide those organisations to do work of their liking.  We have our SOPs in place and are able to tweak them based on partners requirements. Of course, ACF won’t get into anything and everything … but we can, and have, partnered with others in workable geographies and thrust areas.  There is great scope to do a lot more of this.” He said.

“Additionally, high net worth individuals also need support with their philanthropic investments. They are so busy in their work, but they are at a stage when they want to do something in the society, but don’t know where to put their money.  They may have heard negative things about the NGO sector and so hesitate.  ACF’s transparent processes and goodwill in the public eye would be attractive to them.  Of course, a set of appropriate professionals competent to network with such people, and with adequate resources assigned within ACF.  HNIs have been working in a particular style and you have to answer to their queries – a separate division needs to be created to understand their priorities and motivations.  .” Mr Taparia said.

Of course, with the addition of more funders, comes the expansion of reporting and compliances.  “Now that there are more funders, it makes it more difficult to keep checking that everything is in place, in particular, that work is being executed as per the budgeted schedule.  This is the money of others, once you’ve taken it you make sure you spend it the way it was intended.”  He said.  “and also be ready to report to them, provide them with the required resources and get them attracted as they are continuously monitoring the implementation work. 

Whilst ACF has certainly grown overtime, he is quick to note the need for future growth to address the needs of rural India.  “ACF has been growing but needs to grow more - the scope to do so much more is there.  And in growth it’s important to stay focused – if you lose the focus in growth, that is a problem.  We must never deviate from our core focus,” he said, “generating rural prosperity is, and should always stay at our core.”

Mr. BL Taparia is currently a Board of Director of ACF  and has previously worked for 30 years with Ambuja Cements Limited and 10 years as a Whole-Time Director. He possesses more than 45 years of experience in the fields of Legal, Secretarial, Finance, Taxation, Procurement, Internal Audit, HR, Health & Safety and Sustainability.

January 30, 2023

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