February 15th, 2013
February 10th, 2013
(Atma Executive Director, Mary Ellen Matsui shares her thoughts on the role failure plays while striving for organisational excellence.)
“Last week I facilitated a workshop for one of our Partner Organisations where we were discussing organisational values. While one person talked about the value of ‘Failure’, another person brought up ‘Excellence’.I asked the group how it is possible to list both “failure” and “excellence” as organisational values; we all laughed.
Sure the irony is funny, but it is funnier because it is true. You cannot have excellence without failure. Failure has become a big buzz word over the last few years in non-profits and social enterprise. (In our blog a few weeks ago we talked about the Failure Report issued by Engineers Without Borders.) But why is talking about failure important? How is Failure related to excellence? How is failure related to our work at Atma?
In my work at Atma I work with many different NGO founders. I have the opportunity to talk to them about what’s going well in their organisations and what isn’t. What’s working and what isn’t. In fact, that is part of how we choose the NGOs we work with. The NGOs that are best able to articulate what they’re bad at, or where they need help, are the ones we’re really inclined to partner. It means not only will we be useful to them BUT that they know they need help, that they are not perfect but striving for excellence.
Atma cannot help bring about strong organisational development unless NGOs and the people behind them are willing to change.
So where does failure find a place in this discussion?
Talking about failure is really important. We all fail at some point. In the non-profit sector where we don’t have the traditional market indicators (sales, revenue etc.) to tell us if we’re doing a good job, talking about failure and knowing how and when you fail is especially important. Many non-profits and foundations don’t have strong tools for knowing if they are failing or succeeding. Years of work is based on anecdotal evidence that may or may not prove the effectiveness of an intervention. We all need to talk about how we fail and how we identify our failures. Failure is ok, just do it quickly, learn from it and try again.
How is Failure related to Excellence?
We’ve all heard the phrase “practice makes perfect”. It is common knowledge that any Olympian or a distinguished pianist has had hours and hours of practice ahead of a big game or performance. We know they had to stick to it for hours, days and years, to get it right; to become excellent. What is practice if not failing time and again until you get it right and become excellent?
The NGOs we work with expect their students to study hard and get problems wrong before they are able to master a concept. But as people running organisations do we give ourselves the same space to practice, to fail and eventually excel?
I’ve been there with our NGO leaders on failure days, when nothing seems to be going right. They call up panicked, sometimes close to tears, these are tough days. But knowing that we all face the same challenges, that many before have had the same problems helps them and me to overcome the hardest of times.
Persevering in the face of failure, persisting despite the odds, reworking, re-doing, editing (sometimes just trashing) our work is what will bring us to the place of excellence.”
December 7th, 2012
“In August 2012 I graduated with a dual specialization in organizational and personnel psychology. Not entirely sure about committing to a life in the corporate sector I decided to travel to India for a little while.
On my trip to India however I did not want to see the sun, sea and beach alone; I also wanted to do something more meaningful. I wanted to taste the local life and I wanted to contribute to that life. After extensive research I applied to Atma’s Volunteer Program. Working in a non-profit organization as a volunteer gave me a certain sense of satisfaction. A feeling that I had not experienced yet in other jobs, internships or extracurricular activities. I realised that NGOs give you the opportunity to nurture your professional ambitions whilst also doing meaningful work. Deadlines take on a whole new meaning when the work you do has the power to change someone’s life.
As an Atma Volunteer I was placed with one of their Partner Organisations- Avanti Fellows. Avanti is an NGO that selects, trains and mentors some of India’s brightest students from disadvantaged communities to pursue higher education. I was very inspired by the people at Avanti Fellows because they are extremely motivated and passionate. They work 24/7, straight from the heart. Their work is a mission. During my Volunteership I put together HR policies, an employee handbook and a movie for Avanti Fellows.
One of my favourite memories is when due to some unforeseen circumstances I had to make a spontaneous trip to the Avanti Fellows Chapter in Pondicherry to shoot a short film. The suddenness of the trip meant that I was completely unprepared. It was only when I reached Pondicherry did I realise that I had nothing to worry about. My colleague and her family were extremely warm hosts during my entire stay.
Our visits to the schools in Pondicherry where Avanti Fellows worked were overwhelming to say the least. My short four day trip turned out to be a very intense experience. One that I shared with my wonderful colleague. I remember being extremely emotional when she dropped me off to the bus that was to bring me back to Mumbai. Here was a woman I had never met before, but she had opened up her life to me- a complete stranger. This was just one of the many moments when I felt privileged to be part of this world.
My experience at Atma helped me gain new perspectives into my own life. I discovered what is important to me and what I truly enjoy. The Atma team is a diverse group of people, many of whom have switched over from the corporate sector. It helped me realise that it would be possible to have a highly satisfying career in the development sector in my home country too. I am so thankful to Atma for this experience. If an opportunity like this were to ever present itself I would take it up in a heartbeat!”
(Since her Volunteership with Atma , Bo has joined a non-profit organisation in the Netherlands that works for press freedom all over the world.)
August 23rd, 2012
Fahrinisa Oswald-Atma Volunteer Photographer
“I can’t say my motivations are entirely selfless. Yes I want to help change some of the injustices in the world. Yes I want to play a part in changing all that needs to be changed. But I also know that this experience, this opportunity for personal and professional growth will be irreplaceable. I will look back at this and know that this is where I really began my journey as a responsible world citizen.”
Fahrinisa Oswald came to Atma to volunteer her services as a photographer. Through beautiful images she has been able to capture the amazing work that our partner organisations are doing in the field of education. Born in the United States, she belongs to a large contingent of Volunteers from across the world who leave the comfort of the known for the unpredictability of the unknown.
Not everyone needs to travel thousands of miles to do this though. Vishal Chauthmal comes from a small town in Maharashtra. Curious about the development sector, Vishal an engineering student from IIT Powai came to Atma not just for honing his professional skills but also to work with people from different cultures and backgrounds. His advice to aspiring volunteers- “Be clear about what you want to get out of your volunteering experience. Set a goal for yourself and work hard to achieve it.”
On the occasion of International Volunteers Day on December 5th, the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme published an infographic that said, ‘If volunteers were a nation, they would form the tenth largest country in the world-over 140 million’. That is a considerable amount of people who are trying to help organisations make our world a better place.
Over the last five years, Atma has hosted over 150 volunteers from over 25 countries. They may look different, they may speak different languages. At the end of the day however, they want to have a say in what the world will look like tomorrow. They do so by giving- giving a small part of their lives to play a bigger part in the world.
Giving really does come in all shapes and sizes. People may choose to share a portion of their hard earned money or share a part of themselves. It is not just a one way street though. Whether it is the satisfaction of seeing your monetary contribution make a difference to someone’s life; or the personal & professional growth that one may experience in exchange for contributing your skills and expertise; giving can change the lives of everybody involved.
(Atma’s Volunteer Professional meetings are an opportunity for volunteers to share their experiences and learnings with each other.)
Be a part of the giving movement. Volunteer with us or contribute to our Global Giving Campaign!
July 18th, 2012
Dear Atma Team,
I’m writing to you from my home in Canada as I reflect over the past few days of my transition and farewell, and the past two years of my Atma experience.
My transition out of the role of Resource Coordinator and out of the core Atma Team occurred over a period of many weeks, allowing me to time to really think about what I’ve been able to give to Atma, and what Atma has given me.
I feel blessed to have come across Atma when we were both at a time of transition and growth. I like to think that in a few small ways, I was able to support and guide Atma’s development as an organisation. In a few enormous ways, Atma has supported my growth, as an individual on a team and as a professional. When there was a lack of clarity, Atma and I guided one another. When there was a change in direction, Atma and I supported one another. I feel as though my every interaction with and through Atma and Atma’s partners has, in some small way, helped our organisations to gain and grow. These same interactions supported my own growth and maturity in a much, much larger way.
I’m honoured to have been a part of such a dynamic, passion-driven organisation. I’m honoured that I could be a part of a team of such intelligent, strong and dedicated women. My experience at Atma has defined what I would hope for of any professional pursuit, and what I expect from myself. This had led to my desire to go back to school and gain more expertise so that I may continue to be an asset to any future organisation I may become a part of. I will be starting school in September. While I feel truly blessed and excited about this opportunity, I will miss my work and my team at Atma every day.
I want to say an enormous thank you to each and every person who has helped to shape my Atma experience, and helped to shape me as an individual. I will always be in touch and cannot wait to hear what great things happen for Atma in the weeks, months and years to come.
June 18th, 2012
Atma is supported by international fundraising chapters in Canada,Australia and the Netherlands. Recently we have had a new addition to our international chapters-Atma Hong Kong. On July 6th,Atma Hongkong held its first fundraising event. Kanchan Panjabi, founder of the Hong Kong chapter talked to us about her motivations to support our organisation.
Kanchan was introduced to Atma through a relative who incidentally is an Atma Trustee. Her desire to contribute to the development sector coupled with an interest in education drew her to Atma’s cause of Quality Education for all children.
Being a successful entrepreneur, Kanchan wanted to use her skills to set up a fundraising chapter for Atma. The unusually difficult process of setting it up was something she found extremely challenging.
In your interaction with the organisation so far, what has been the biggest draw for you personally?
“I find everyone is really supportive and very quick to respond to any questions or advice that we may require. It’s also great to see how so many different people from all over the world connect for this cause.”
Where do you see Atma Hong Kong going?
“My vision for this chapter is to not only raise a lot of funds for Atma but also to create an awareness amongst people about the existing situation. I would like to set up a solid volunteer program between Atma India and Atma HK. “
At present, Atma Hong Kong is planning its second fundraising event. We feel lucky to be supported by such enthusiastic & driven individuals. Watch this space to know more about their work!
June 1st, 2012
KPMG is one of the largest professional services networks, one of the Big Four auditors, and one of the most coveted and renowned firms in India. Securing a job with any one of these firms is a ticket to the big leagues.
Employing over 145000 people the world over, approximately 50 – 55 percent of KPMG India’s workforce comprises of charted accountants, 35-40 percent comprises of MBAs and Engineers and the remaining by other specialized degree holders.
Recently, a partner at KPMG India wrote a letter to the India- today generation, published in the New York Times under the caption, ‘An Open Letter to India’s Graduating Classes’. This letter is critical to say the least if not downright belittling.
The author shares his perspectives about the dearth of high quality candidates available to employers and the rationale behind this claim. He lists out five basic attributes that an employer looks for and that seem to be lacking in the prospective employees:
- A good command over the English language
- The ability and courage to ask pertinent questions
- A hunger for self development
It is easy to be offended by this public dressing down but similar sentiments have been echoed elsewhere. One French insurance company recruiter said: “The fluctuating economies globally and the constant change in customer expectations requires people to think on their toes. This quality can only be possessed by a candidate with an all rounded personality and not just a mere degree-holder. The ability to think out of the box and to simultaneously work within an inflexible framework is crucial. MBA schools that are churning out job applicants by the dozen are not concerned with the incorrect expectations that they set for their graduates. These applicants will certainly possess degrees, but without any skill sets to cope with the growing expectations of large MNCs and corporate companies.”
That a problem exists is evident. The question that begs consideration is why this problem exists in the first place. For those of us who have been privileged enough to attend good schools, better colleges and for some even better post graduate institutions, there should be no excuse. Yet some educational experiences cannot be ignored.
Creativity amongst students is often stifled by an emphasis on rote learning. Authoritarian teaching styles and lack of an open learning environment in classrooms discourage students from asking questions. The average student speaks in at least two languages apart from English. For most people their mother tongue is also the language they think and process information in. Could this have something to do with their inability to speak English as if it were their first language? Students are consistently told that they need to get a good education to get a good (read: high paying) job. Finding one’s calling or true passion is not the focus. This could be why students don’t feel the need to get better at something they don’t necessarily enjoy.
Does this justify the fact that employees are unable to meet employer expectations? No. However, these facts need to be taken into account when trying to understand where the job applicants are coming from. These are realities that are prevalent when our personalities are in their formative stages and it will take more than a scathing letter to unlearn and fight instincts that come naturally.
Sangeeta Gole, an educationist and teacher trainer who works as a consultant for schools rightly points out that change will only happen when we identify the root cause. “If the next generation is to improve, we need to improve the inputs and processes in schools and colleges. Students certainly need to take responsibility for self-development and sharpening their language skills. However these changes cannot take place overnight. As a professional in the field of education I cannot bring systemic changes through casting critical aspersions alone.”
Krishna Ramkumar is the co-founder of Avanti Fellows, a non-profit working to widen access to quality higher education in India. Krishna said: “The root cause is a dysfunctional public school system and our focus on rote learning. However, it is easier to criticise the system than design a solution to address the problem at scale.”
The point? The onus does not and cannot entirely lie with the applicants alone. There has to be a change in mindset and approach, not just of the graduates but in the entire educational support system
With the objective of providing quality education Atma partners with organisations such as Avanti Fellows, Reality Gives, Masoom that use innovative methods to impart education to underprivileged children and young adults, thus equipping them with skills necessary to pursue higher education and increase their employability. Atma endorses the need to build capacity of existing educational organisations and institutions through a widening of outlook and outreach.
Only when we start at the beginning will we be able bring about lasting change.
“There are thousands hacking at the branches of evil for to one who is striking at the root”-Henry Thoreau
May 10th, 2012
In March 2012, two volunteers from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences(TISS) joined the Atma volunteer cohort as part of an internship program through their college. Dr. Siddharth Waghulkar had previously volunteered with Bombay Leprosy Project, National Burns Centre and Lions Tarachand Bapa Hospital. Having worked with the urban slum population through these volunteering projects, Siddharth was more than prepared for the internship. This is what Siddharth wrote about his experience:
‘The goal of this internship was to conduct a research with a sample size of 20 households on the topic, ‘ A study to understand the Knowledge, Attitude and Feeding Practices of Mothers and to check awareness regarding under nutrition among mothers of children under 5 years of age’. To conduct this research I worked with Atma partner FMCH: The Foundation for Mother and Child Health.
I spent the initial few days at FMCH’s intervention site in Dhobhi ghat, Mahalaxmi to study the various resources available to the community in terms of health facilities, doctors, recreational activities, etc. Thereafter I conducted a survey in a sample size of 20 households based on a questionnaire structured to find answers relevant to my research subject.
The most challenging part of this experience was talking to the mothers from the urban households about breast feeding practices. These households tend to be very traditional and conservative which makes it extremely difficult to get the women to open up about subjects that they find uncomfortable or taboo.
However, having said that, I will add that this was a great experience because I had the opportunity to interview and work with people on the ground thus preparing me for higher research studies.
I met many interesting people while conducting research and am thankful for all the support that I have received in the process. I am especially grateful for the guidance and inputs that I received from Dr. Sunil Kumar who was the other TISS research intern with me at FMCH.
Ms. Piya Mukherjee, director at FMCH, was one of the most inspiring people I met during this internship. Her innovative ways of spreading awareness about FMCH through the community and her knowledge of conditions on the ground speak a lot about her professional abilities and personality in general.
I have enjoyed working with Atma as I was able to work at ground zero through their partner organisation FMCH. Ms. Carmeline Christopher was wonderful as a volunteer coordinator and I would definitely like to do a project like this in the future.”
May 7th, 2012
May 3rd, 2012
Resource constraints are the primary obstacles in the path to development. To a layman, resource constraints could simply mean a lack of funds. However, this could not be further from the truth. To channel and utilise funds effectively, skilled manpower is a necessity. A significant section of the development sector has woken up to this reality, giving rise to a number of volunteering and/fellowship initiatives. These programs are designed to provide skilled human resources to organisations and at the same time, to be challenging and intensive learning experiences for the fellows/volunteers.
(IDEX cohort 2011; Image Courtesy IDEX)
‘The IDEX fellowship is a 10-month program that offers professional, cultural and social immersion into the field of social enterprise for college graduates interested in launching a career in the sector. Fellows are strategically placed to work with entrepreneurs to develop a blueprint for change. Fellows work in enterprises that span across five focus areas:
- Market Knowledge & Insights
- Strategy & Operations
- Business Development
- Innovation & Sustainability
- Impact Assessment & Analysis
The IDEX program was launched in 2010 by Gray Matters Capital (GMC), a private operating foundation based in Atlanta GA (Founder, Bob Patillo). The foundation first identified a need in the marketplace to invest in the ecosystem of supporting services and businesses. This would help deliver financial services to the world’s underserved with greater scale and expanded social impact. The IDEX fellowship is a key program component in GMC’s mission to transform the lives of the poor by researching and co-creating initiatives with partners to build sustainable, replicable business models.
With an initial focus on Affordable Private Schools (APS) in Hyderabad, 2012 will see this program expand to two other cities, Bangalore and Mumbai, to include Social Enterprises under its purview. Relatively new to this sub-sector of development, IDEX began looking for partners to assist in the fellow management process. Enter Atma.
Since its founding, Atma has hosted over 120 volunteers from 29 countries. Skilled volunteers are one of the four basic services provided by Atma to its partner organisations. Atma’s goal in building the Volunteer Program was to support partner organizations by providing much needed services, while also providing volunteers with incredibly relevant and challenging work experience opportunities in a supportive environment, both personally and professionally. Through a combination of local and international volunteers, this program aims to identify, nurture and harness talented human resources.
Collaborating with IDEX (GMC) seems only natural at this point. They are two different programs with one common goal-to positively impact the development sector through an exchange of experience and expertise.
Combining our talent pools to create a common cohort of intelligent, sensitive and courageous change-makers is a unique opportunity. IDEX’s expertise in the area of affordable private schools can compliment Atma’s knowledge of NGOs to create a mutually rewarding experience.
Atma has engaged over 120 volunteers since our founding in 2007.
On 2nd May 2012, Dharavi had a high profile visitor.
(Image Courtesy: Reality Gives)
During his one-week visit in India, His Royal Highness, Prince Andrew, Duke of York came to see Dharavi, one of Asia’s biggest slums. He came to learn about the benefits and challenges of industry, the issues related to vernacular medium schools in Mumbai, and how art programs are allowing children to explore themselves and their worlds in Dharavi.
The Royal Highness chose to visit Dharavi with Reality Tours and Travel, an ethical tour company to learn more about the strengths and issues of the slum community as well as to see the impact of the social programs run by Reality Gives, its sister NGO. Since 2006, Reality Tours and Travels has run educational tours through Dharavi to break down negative stereotypes about its residents and raise social awareness. Eighty percent of its profits go towards Reality Gives, an NGO founded to provide social services requested by the community. Reality Gives is an Atma partner providing services in education and extra-curricular activities such as arts and sports with the goal of personal and community development for the residents of Dharavi.
Summer Starr,Executive Director at Reality Gives said,“We spoke with Prince Andrew about our art program and our work English support for vernacular schools.It was an honor to host the Prince and explain the work we are doing to raise social awareness about Dharavi as well as the work we are doing in the community.”
A huge congratulations to Reality Gives from Atma on a successful Royal visit.
To learn more, visit the Reality Gives Blog.