Given the increasing trend of corporates partnering with external CSR implementing agencies to execute their CSR, the task of ascertaining the credibility and efficacy of an implementing NGO is daunting for many corporates.
India is home to 3.2million registered NGOs who conduct a wide spectrum of developmental work - a minefield for any CSR professional to navigate. So what should one look for when selecting a CSR implementing agency?
Thrive caught up with Anurag Mishra, Head Cipla Foundation and Sharukh R. Taraporewala, Head - Partnerships - Corporate Social Responsibility, HDFC Bank Ltd to garner their thoughts on selection criteria. Both organisations run large CSR programs executed by outside implementing agencies, and are well experienced in selecting the right partner to meet their needs.
What should one look for in an external CSR implementing agency?
The lack of standardized reporting procedures, readily available and transparent information and easily comparable benchmarks compound the complexity of identifying the right implementing partner - a serious problem for companies that require information about the NGO for their own compliances. But legal compliance, responsible governance and financial sustainability, whilst important criteria, are not sufficient. There is a need to consider additional factors and look at a 'good fit' with an implementation agency, taking into account the dynamic nature of their work.
HDFC Bank's HRDP - Parivartan program works with a large number of partners. To deal with due diligence challenges, Sharukh R. Taraporewala said "We've developed a comprehensive online tool for a multi-tier vetting process that covers all aspects of the organisation - statutory, governance, financial position, thematic and project implementation expertise, management and leadership, among several other criteria."
"Over and above this, we look for some key aspects to make a final selection. The NGO partner's vision and the alignment of their vision with our own CSR vision, is very important to us. Additionally we look for synergies between us and our prospective partners and how we can leverage each other strengths and expertise to create greater impact." He said.
"Field visits and interaction with project beneficiaries and ground level implementation staff are a very crucial part of our vetting process, as these give us the true picture of the project. The confidence the beneficiaries have in the project, gives us the essence of value the NGO partner is able to create," Mr Taraporewala said.
Cipla Foundation too, follows a very structured, multi-level due diligence process.
"Over and above the basic due diligence criteria there are certain criteria we look for in our partners", said Anurag Mishra. "Whilst it's important that the project be located within our operational geographies to ensure collaborative working, we are equally flexible on this criteria where the thematic focus of the project and expertise possessed by the NGO is significant to our CSR strategy."
"We also look at how well the project synergises with ours and partners objectives. Flexibility of the NGO partner, willingness to share data and transparency and public image of the organisation are also very important to us. Field visits and interactions with field staff can be very revealing of the organisations' capabilities, and if these indeed resonate with the organisation's claims." He said.
"We generally like to commence our partnerships with a pilot project - It is important to start small and then gradually build it up into a bigger partnership." Mr Mishra said.
Beyond Due diligence - A Partnership Approach is Key
Both, Anurag Mishra and Sharukh Taraporewala, concurred that merely conducting a robust due diligence is not a panacea for a successful CSR implementation through an implementing agency - organizations need to adopt a partnership approach in its truest sense, through the life cycle of the partnership. There is no one implementing agency that can possibly fulfil all the criteria. It is important to identify the non-negotiables and consider capacity building and training to address other areas where the partner maybe lacking.
Sharukh Taraporewala believes that a partnership approach is essential as it works to the advantage of both of the CSR and the implementing partner organisation. "NGO's are good at what they do, but very often lack expertise in areas such as finance, communication, social media and reporting. They are unable to tell their story in a very compelling way. Hence, we continuously identify their capacity building needs and create customised training programs for them." He said.
"We consider our partners, as an extension of our CSR team; therefore by building their capacity , we are in a sense helping ourselves too. By adopting this approach, there is much that we too have learnt from our partners over the years," Sharukh said.
"At Cipla foundation, we invite our partners to conduct a due diligence on us and guide us for improvement ", said Anurag Misra. "We have stringent reporting requirements and whilst we provide intensive training on reporting, it is important that the NGO also have the chance to assess if they equally find value working with our foundation."
"NGO's do face a lot of challenges which we are very cognizant of. We are reasonable in our expectations and through interactions with our partners, and by developing an understanding of their challenges, we have always aimed to evolve a mutually beneficial approach. This is essential for successful CSR implementation"
There are a few independent institutions, currently working to develop an accreditation system for NGOs based on a standardised due diligence. This new accreditation system, when in place, would no doubt take care of a lot of the challenges of vetting NGO partners, especially for organisations that do not have the necessary internal resources. But one thing is clear, and that is - capacity building and training of implementing partners will be as important as due diligence, in building successful partnerships, in the future.