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Gain from Non-Profit
NGOs are no longer only for affluent do-gooders. They offer a good career and a decent living.
SITA GUPTA, 30, wears khadi kurtas, Kolhapuri chappals, and slings a jute bag over her shoulders. She talks with passion and aggression about women’s issues. She would truly rather be dead than seen at a McDonald’s. She lives on a near-starvation salary and survives almost purely on her commitment to changing the world.

But people like her are members of a dying breed. Very soon, the description that fits people like her may only be a caricature of the "NGO type" that yuppies love to jeer at. Because while passion and activism still drive this sector, asceticism is hardly necessary. Today, the private non-profit or ‘voluntary’ sector–more commonly referred to as the NGO (non-government organisation) sector–needs qualified professionals and is finding the means to pay them for their skills.

Says Anita Anand, a 16-year veteran of the Women’s Feature Service, a non-profit news agency that deals with women’s issues: "NGOs today can afford good people, unlike earlier where one had to ‘afford’ to work at one. They still can’t offer you stock options, but they can give a decent salary with loads of job satisfaction."

Voluntary commitment
Take Ved Arya, 42, an aeronautics engineer from IIT Kanpur and IIM graduate. In 1984, he gave up his job with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in Mumbai to join Pradan, an NGO that ran programmes for poverty alleviation. His reasons: he was professionally satisfied but had the urge to work directly with "the people".

Arya first joined Pradan for a six-month project. The NGO paid him Rs 1,200 and he was to work in rural Maharashtra. TCS was at the time paying him Rs 1,500, a large portion of which Arya spent on rent. The salary cut was insignificant. Says Arya: "We wanted people to look at the sector as an alternative career–it was necessary to pay them well. Pay scales were revised every three years, and medical and education allowances were also given."

Arya’s six-month stint grew to a 13-year association. He left Pradan only in 1997 to start his own NGO in Delhi called Srijan, which does development work in the agriculture sector. Part-funded by the World Bank and the MP government, Srijan employs seven people, some of whom have 15 years’ experience and degrees from the Indian Institute of Rural Management (IRMA). Salaries at Srijan are between Rs 15,000 and Rs 40,000. Says Arya: "To pay reasonable salaries, I combine consultancy with grassroots projects. We advise the government on poverty alleviation programmes, which are externally funded."

Arya has found the right mix, together with wife Rajani R. Ved. An MBBS from Madras Medical School, Ved gave up what could have been a lucrative career to join Arya in grassroots work. She is now a specialist in maternal health and consultant to some donor agencies including UNFPA and USAID, earning up to Rs 30,000 a month. Says Ved: "After I had my children I decided to freelance. But working in a donor agency tends to make you soft. I miss work at the grassroots level, though I am trying to strike a balance between the two."

Are you qualified?
Ved and Arya are near-veterans in the field, but as Ved’s words indicate, years of working in the sector have not blunted their commitment. That says something for the job satisfaction to be gained here. So, if you are young, enthusiastic, and looking for a viable career option, take a good look at the private voluntary sector.

The social work degree. Good intentions and a desire to help others apart, you do need some training to do social work. A postgraduate degree in an area of specialisation has become almost a requirement. Both Ved and Arya, for instance, believe that a technical degree together with management skills should be backed by a few years in the field before one can qualify for a post at any of the international donor agencies in India. Jobs at these are coveted, since salaries are at least twice those at even large national NGOs.

The premier institutes that impart training in social work are Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Tiss) and the Indian Institute of Rural Management (IRMA) in Anand, Gujarat. Large NGOs and international agencies come here to recruit staff. Apart from these, almost all state universities have schools of social work, and there are schools in Varanasi, Aligarh, Vadodara and Indore. Delhi University offers both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work, as does Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia.

While the voluntary sector is unlikely to refuse you a job if you do not have social work degree, having one helps broaden your options. Says Vinita Nathani, executive director, Prerana, an NGO that works with adolescents in Badarpur outside Delhi: "A master’s in social work opens up more opportunities than, say, a master’s in sociology. This is because the curriculum exposes you to concurrent fieldwork. So, say, two days in a week you are sent to an NGO to do field work." The programmes are also structured to help prepare you for a career in the field. Typically, the second year of a course like this requires you to specialise in an area like labour welfare or reproductive health.

The management advantage. The sector’s transformation from largely ad hoc to one that is more scientific and management systems-oriented has also led to a growing premium on those with management degrees. "Earlier, the work was more individual. But today, there is a link between micro- and macro-level work. There is a lot of strategic thinking that goes on to make a local voice heard at the national level," says Sunita Dhar, who works for Unifem, the United Nations Fund for Women, and has been in the sector for 22 years. Adds Nathani: "It is much like working in the corporate sector. Here, too, we talk of vision, execution, evaluation... For instance, if I teach a group of 10, I first have to do a needs assessment explaining why I focused on that group."

While entering the sector with a degree in social work helps widen your options, a management degree can help you land a better salary. So much so that old-timers such as Rita Panicker, a Tiss graduate who set up the Delhi-based NGO Butterflies in 1987 to work with street kids, complain of discrimination. Says Panicker: "When I began working with VHAI (Voluntary Health Association of India) in the early eighties, I was paid Rs 600. But a colleague who had an IIM degree was paid Rs 2,500. I thought this unjust because he did only administrative jobs while I was the one professionally qualified to do social work." She insists the ‘discrimination’ still exists because management graduates who choose the non-profit sector over big corporate houses get compensated for having done so in their salaries.

What you get
Issues of salary apart, the increasing professionalisation of this sector is also making it more attractive. Large national NGOs like Pria, Development Alternatives (DA), and the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), to name a few, are involved in not just grassroots work but also in research, advocacy, and in influencing policy making. Explains Rajesh Tandon, an electronics engineer from IIT Kanpur and an MBA from IIM Calcutta, who founded Pria in the early eighties: "We are a research-cum-support group and partner several local NGOs. Our work includes monitoring, planning and human resources development." Pria, which is largely concerned with empowerment of the marginalised, employs people from a variety of backgrounds–postgraduates in social work and economics, as well as management graduates. They select candidates mainly via summer placements from different institutes and through newspaper advertisements.

Salaries. The starting salary at Pria is between Rs 6,000 and Rs 7,500, and people with five to six years’ experience can earn up to Rs 15,000 a month. These salaries are fairly typical in the industry, although smaller NGOs may offer a newcomer only Rs 4,000-5,000 in the city. Local agencies in rural areas, however, are unlikely to pay a new entrant more than Rs 3,000. Argues Tandon: "This sounds like very little, but in rural areas– where food is cheaper and other expenses are low–Rs 3,000 is almost a saving."

Remember, however, that your salary negotiation may depend on the funding an organisation gets in a particular year. Since funds are allocated largely on project basis, the finances of an organisation can vary year to year. Which means that remuneration, too, could change.

But Sunita Dhar of Unifem says it was job profile and not salary that led her to join the profession. Even today, she claims, "It is not necessary that salary determine the challenge. Salary becomes an issue much later." And for some, it never does: while Panicker argues for greater salaries for social-work professionals, she takes home only Rs 5,000, even though average salaries at her organisation are between Rs 8,000 and Rs 10,000.

Work environment. The non-profit sector may not yet be able to match the corporate world in terms of salaries, but there exists, as the cliche goes, a trade-off. What you lose in salary, you stand to gain in job satisfaction and work culture–it’s no coincidence that people don’t talk of ‘burn-outs’ in the sector. Part of this owes to the fact that most people are there because they actually believe in their work–often passionately. So, while many do work a 9-to-5 schedule, few organisations are rule-bound about issues like work timings.

Indeed, a lot of NGO work is part-time– there are plenty of opportunities to work on a per-project basis and as consultants. Jamal Kidwai, an M.Phil from the Delhi School of Economics, works as a consultant with Oxfam on a Violence Mitigation and Amelioration project. He says that although there is a lot of consultancy work in the area, prospective consultants should have spent at least 10 years in the field. Kidwai has worked with NGOs in Lucknow and with CSE (Centre for Science and Environment) in Delhi. He gets Rs 16,000 a month as consulting fees from Oxfam and is free to pick up other jobs. He claims that one can earn up to Rs 2,500-3,000 a day, plus expenses, on assignments for international agencies.

What are your options?
A master’s in social work gives you a range of options. First, you could join a ‘people’s movement’. But this requires that you be totally committed to a cause and that you forget about earning anything more than a sustenance salary. The most well known example here is that of activist Medha Patkar, also a Tiss graduate. Then, you could join a grassroots-level NGO, which typically works in rural areas. A national-level NGO is also likely to operate out of bigger cities. A list of registered NGOs can be had from Capart (Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology), a government organisation set up to support NGOs. Another useful Capart document: a list of NGOs blacklisted by the government.

At the top of the ladder–even if only in terms of employee compensation–are the international funding agencies and bilateral agencies. The World Bank and Asian Development Bank, with the UN agencies, are donor agencies; bilateral agencies are development agencies of various governments that work through local NGOs.

But talk of increasing professionalism, rising salaries, and a clearer structure have not obscured the fundamentals: the primary driver for people in this sector is a desire to do something worthwhile. Take Geetanjali Dhaka. An MA in economics and former public relations and market research executive, she joined an NGO floated by a friend, gets paid just Rs 6,000 a month, and works at least 10 hours a day. And she’s loving every minute of it. n

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