Successful CSR-SPO partnerships are about the alignment of ‘the head, heart and hand’


Aarti Mohan


Co-Author: Smriti Harsh

Corporate philanthropy is not new to India. Just like any other country in Asia, India has a rich legacy of companies supporting lesser-privileged communities or social causes around their areas of operations, building public institutions and contributing to greater good. However, these are interesting times indeed – with the inclusion of the CSR Law in India in 2013 where companies have to compulsorily spend a 2% share of their profits towards community welfare. At the same time,  non-profits are going through a significant evolution themselves. The two entities have an impetus to partner with each other more than ever before, yet, are chalk and cheese. From organizational structures and processes to culture, way of working and motivation, the partnership is often of two differing objectives and hence takes significant work.

Business-civil society partnerships are an imperative to solve the social impact problem at scale in India. So how do you make them effective, long-lasting and sustainable? We at Sattva have a few answers, having hosted over 4 city-based roundtables and a national event bringing together over 1000+ leaders from the corporate and social ecosystem, in addition to studying several CSR practices in India. Here are a few learnings we have gathered around what it takes to partner effectively:

Understand the context and match the vision

For corporates, stakeholder engagement, measurement and setting/achieving targets are a critical part of their functioning, whereas the community’s welfare and development is at the centre of what the SPO does. There is hence a need to meet midway by absorbing each other’s strengths and considerations. For example, SPOs can enhance their monitoring and evaluation strategies, KPIs planning, while corporates can equally embrace the fact that everything in development is not measurable. Corporates have had to change gears significantly internally within their organisations to accommodate themselves to the 2% CSR law and further adaptation will require time and effort.

During one of the recent roundtables, Dr. Balu, co-founder of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, stressed that there are 6 ‘R’s to a successful partnership: Resources, Responsibilities, Roles, Risks, Rewards, Review. Aligning on what is the common purpose of the partnership and clarifying each other’s roles can reduce much of the discord that may come up during implementation or review.

Whatever be the program, understanding the context and needs of the community is paramount – both organisations should invest in understanding the issues and aspirations of the community they seek to serve before starting off on the partnership.

There is a time for flexibility and a time for rigour

The relationship between CSRs and NGOs is an evolving one. Adaptability, acceptance, appreciation takes time and an awareness of this helps organisations stick longer together.

Program implementation could face several hurdles due to political aspects, weather, community compulsions and so on. While it is important to be rigorous right through the planning and execution to monitoring, there should be some flexibility. Mrinalini Kher, the co-founder of Yuva Parivartan, an SPO that focused on skilling in over 19 States in India, suggests that MOUs between the two could be 1/3rd standard, 1/3rd compliance based and 1/3rd open to adapt to changing circumstances.

Trust, Empathy and Patient Investing

It is a reality today that there is a significant trust deficit between corporates and SPOs. And for a successful partnership, trust, empathy and capability ramp-up are key. Secondly, areas like healthcare, nutrition, education etc or for that matter, most social issues, need multi-year investment before demonstrable impact. What SPOs need are patient investors, who can pose faith and invest in multi-year partnerships on equitable terms. Corporates like L&T enter into 3 to 5 year programmes, but with setting the expectation that they wish to see the initiative becoming sustainable at the end of the 5 years – that eventually, there is an exit strategy – these kind of program designs result in successful and robust partnerships.

Trust also grows with tangible results – Vivek Talwar, Chief Sustainability Officer at TATA Power, shared in one of the discussions that it is important for SPOs to not spread themselves thin so there is the danger of dilution of results. While the SPO might have a very positive reputation, the program outcomes depend on the quality of the field officers the SPO deploys in the partnership.

Bring people force into the partnership

The employee force in corporates are a hugely underutilized resource in development. Bringing people’s professional competencies and personal passions into programs could be a big value-add to partnerships as long as it is designed in a way that is exciting and beneficial to both.

Accenture deploys its consulting to do pro-bono contribution, where the CSR project is treated like any other business consulting assignment with employees involved in co-creating roadmaps and solutions for their partners and supporting them through realising this growth. Each implementation partner has a dedicated Managing Director offering strategic oversight to their organisation; solutions are diverse and varied – from streamlining operations to inventory efficiency building, function-based training, software development, curriculum development or MIS technology solution development. Volunteering could be a great way to build enduring partnerships between a company and SPO, which goes beyond funding or numbers.

Sustainability, Capacity building and exit strategy for CSR are linked

At ACC, a large global cement major, the philosophy has been to see how CSR initiatives could be made sustainable in the long run. ACC works in over 14 States in India, a very widespread CSR, most in remote rural areas. According to the CSR head at ACC Cements, Prayush Panda, the sharp focus is on training stakeholders and making them self-sustainable. ACC has a 3-pronged strategy of empowering the employees, civil society partners and community volunteers and bringing them together to make a change. Thus while ACC might exit the project locations in a few years, the technical know-how still persists in the community and the initiative is sustainable. In Chandrapur, Maharahstra, ACC brought together SHGs which over a period of 5 years got federated and were able to earn revenues upto 5 crores, thus effectively becoming equal partners in community development.

Exchange more than money

CSR is an extraordinary mandate and opportunity by all counts yet the larger force is not money. It is the market connect, mentorship, influence, networks and expertise that CSRs can bring into the game as well as the tremendous social expertise and passion that NGOs bring – these non-monetary exchanges of expertise can be force multipliers for CSR.

Invest in organisations

While investing in causes is the popular route for CSR spend, it is equally critical to invest in capacity building and organizational support. For example, EdelGive Foundation enables small and mid-sized NGOs to scale through its employee volunteering as well as bringing onboard informed co-donors for the cause.

Support entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship can be a force multiplier, and this is an area of partnerships that could bring in disruptive innovation and scale. Shashank Tripathi, Partner at Strategy&, refers to “a ‘diamond’ rather than a pyramid, where the top 300 million were well off and the bottom 300 million needed help which could be brought about by charity. The opportunity is in growing the potential of those in the middle – 700-800 million youth with energy and passion, who with mentorship resources and direction could create sustainable solutions to the tremendous challenges we are seeing today.”

The secret across is aligning at the level of the vision (head), the cause (heart) and the execution (hand) at all times for sustainable partnerships.

Aarti Mohan is a co-founder and Head of Knowledge at Sattva Consulting. With contributed writing from Smriti Harsh, Sattva and inputs from roundtables hosted by Sattva


A. Environmental Stewardship
To protect the environment, we organize programmes like mangrove nursery and Reforestation, Coastal and River Clean-Up, Community Based Environmental Solid Waste Management, Environmental IEC Campaign and Eco-Academy

B. Food Security and Sustainable Livelihood
To ensure a sustainable livelihood for the community, eco-tourism include Buhatan River Cruise Visitor Center Buhatan River Mangrove Boardwalk are run by the community. Others include Organic Vegetable and Root crops Farming, Vegetable and Root crops Chips and by-products Processing and establishing a Zero waste store.

C. Empowered Communities
To empower the community, we provide product and Agri-Enterprise Development Training, Immersion and Learnings Exchange Program, Earth Warrior Training and Community Based Social Entrepreneurship Training


Aarti Mohan

Aarti is a co-founder at Sattva and she heads the Research, Advisory & Programmes Practice at Sattva, that works closely with Foundations, Multi-laterals, and their ecosystems to deliver impact. Aarti has over 12+ years of experience spanning consulting, research, content creation and business leadership at Sattva. As part of the Research Advisory practice, Aarti has led the creation of several flagship research and knowledge reports. Aarti has also led multiple engagements curating knowledge exchanges in the sector bringing together funders, philanthropists, foundations, and non-profits; she has also spoken and curated discussions at leading conferences. Aarti also leads the government advisory engagements that Sattva executes on in multiple states in India. Under the Covid-19 situation, Aarti is also leading efforts in solutions that can help rebuild livelihoods for small entrepreneurs and integrated rural development models. Aarti has a degree in computer engineering from BITS, Pilani and is an alumnus of the Management Programme for Women Entrepreneurs (MPWE) at IIM-Bangalore.

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