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Thursday, December 24, 2020

What to look for in a CSR Implementation Partner

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”


In Conclusion


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.


Macro Picture on CSR in India - Direct Implementation vs Implementing partner

Companies in India have adopted different methodologies in planning and implementing their mandated CSR interventions, within the ambit of the CSR law. Two broad trends have emerged – the first being partnering with an external not-for-profit implementation agency and the second being direct implementation through own registered corporate foundation. 

The Current Trend

Direct implementation through foundations has been gaining in popularity, yet a majority of companies still rely on non-profits to carry out their CSR programmes. A recent EY Report[1] found that Corporate India’s dependence on third party vendors or specialists, to lead and execute these programs, has in fact increased over time. A Samhita Report[2] found that 24% of the companies they surveyed, had their own foundation, 52% had dedicated CSR departments and 43% of all CSR funds in the last four years were spent through supporting NGOs with grants. This trend of increasing partnerships is a welcome trend, and a clear sign of recognising the strength of partnerships and collaborations, thus advancing SDG Goal 17-Partnerships for goals. Many companies also follow a Hybrid model for their CSR programs - directly implementing flagship or key programs through their foundations, and funding other programs through partnerships with external CSR agencies.   

How do companies decide which route to adopt?

The decision to adopt a certain mechanism appears to be based on several factors, but two decision variables stand out as significant: 

¨     Thematic Expertise: When companies do have expertise in a certain area, they may prefer to execute projects on their own - this has been most commonly observed in skill training and creating a pool of skilled manpower for the industry sector in which the company operates. On the other hand an implementing partner may be preferred option when the CSR activities are not directly related to their business, or the corporate lacks expertise in a the selected thematic area. Implementing agencies is the more suitable model for their presence in the target geographies, local connections and knowledge based experience in executing social projects which a company may typically lack. 

¨     The Size of their CSR Corpus: Companies with large funds usually prefer to set up a foundation, as it gives them more control over how the money is spent. One of the recurring challenges for companies to carry out CSR activities, has been identification of suitable implementing agencies. Companies have been finding it difficult to ascertain the track record and capacity of a CSR implementing agency to undertake CSR activities to their satisfaction. If a large number of implementing agencies are necessitated due to the size of the corpus, companies may opt to implement some key flagship programs through their own foundations


The Pandemic’s impact on CSR Implementation

The outbreak of Covid 19 has led to companies pivoting, not just their CSR priorities, but the implementation methodologies as well, to address the more pertinent social issues caused by the pandemic.

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has provided corporates the opportunity to expand their CSR footprint and engage with newer sectors and beneficiaries. The Government’s PM-CARES Fund witnessed monumental support from corporates. Additionally, many companies also contributed significantly to the programs and relief efforts of NGO’s and partnered with local authorities of respective state governments to donate medical/food supplies and scale other initiatives to cater to the needs of local communities. Some corporates have also creatively deployed funds towards initiatives aligned with unconventional areas of relief such as promoting mental health during the lockdown and harnessing communications technology to create awareness about preventative measures.


Future Trends

Going forward newer implementation models are likely to emerge, whereby public and private sources of capital come together and develop ingenious methods to ensure that capital flow to the social sector is unhindered and capital is utilised effectively to generate a lasting impact for the community. 

A potential trend is Social Compact companies (SICs) or For profit ventures for a social cause, that could also function as implementing agencies for CSR, receive CSR funds as capital, generate employment and access funds from the proposed Social Capital Exchange when it is functional. 


[2] Decoding CSR Trend In India – Looking Back to Look Forward By Samhita Social Ventures, March 24, 2020

Health & Safety Focus at ACF

Health and Safety (H&S) has been a primary focus of ACF across all programs with customized interventions for different target audiences. Whilst the majority of the year saw efforts focus on COVID-19, the team still managed to carry out a variety of interventions at the beginning of the year at SEDI: 


-      Road Safety Awareness Week was organized in January in coordination  with the H&S Department of Ambuja Cement Sankrail through which SEDI trainees turned volunteers sensitizing two-wheeler drivers on road safety and the importance of wearing helmets. 

-      Fire safety mock drills were organized at SEDI Bhatapara in coordination with Ambuja Cement Safety Officer where a mock drill was conducted. A fire evacuation team was also discussed with trainees and facilitators providing them with situational examples and solutions. This helped trainees be ready for any fire mishap.

-      Safety Classes - In spite of the lockdown, the SEDI Bhatapara team still managed to have a virtual class on Safety covering topics on Electricals, Fire Safety, Road Safety, Pest Control Safety, Women Safety, Lighting and Thunder etc.

-      ‘Response to the Epidemic’ Soft Skill Class – This is a topic now added to the Soft Skill Module wherein Soft Skill Trainers conduct a module on COVID-19 through a virtual class. The trainees are being guided on how to face the pandemic and also strengthen their immune system.

-      Foot-press Sanitizing Machines were installed at entrances, hand sanitizers and face masks were distributed, banners and posters were placed, social distancing areas were marked and weekly sanitization of every classroom is carried out. 

-      Safety Audits are also conducted by the Technical Teams to ensure that centres like the SEDI institutes are under the H&S guidelines. In SEDI, Chandrapur Shock treatment charts are displayed at various locations of the workshop. Signage to use face shield for grinding and lathe machines are displayed. Electrical grade mats are also laid in the electrical workshops. 

-      Monthly Safety Ambassador’s meetings were also organized wherein the SEDI trainees are nominated as safety ambassadors and assigned responsibilities which are reviewed during these meetings. A safety module was also introduced recently through an online session to build more understanding about the subject. The team has also initiated conversations on HIRA (Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment), Toolbox Talk and Emergency Preparedness


Being COVIDIENT: Employees, Trainees, Communities

A 5-week engagement program encouraging stakeholders to be COVIDIENT (a person who strictly follows the health directives and precautions during the coronavirus outbreak) was organized through activities like quizzes, articles and other activities. This program was first initiated as a pilot program for SEDI employees, but the success of the program then led to the same format being extended to the SEDI trainees and later to the communities.


-      5 behaviours were selected as part of the initiative, including the use of facemasks, mental health awareness during the pandemic, social distancing, handwashing and hygiene management. Based on each behaviour a week long activity was organized amongst employees to increase their knowledge about the virus. Positive feedback from the program encouraged the co-ordination team to extend this program to other stakeholders.

-      To enhance awareness and safety regarding COVID-19, ACF initiated various programs and activities like quiz’s, face mask making videos, handwash demonstrations, poster making on social distancing among others.  The involvement of both trainer as well as trainees was encouraged and recognition was provided to the best participants. For spreading the information about these activities, there was a group created in which two employees from each SEDI were selected to promote the initiative.

-      On the community front, the same format was used of quiz’s, facts and myth busters, engagement games and audio-video messages. On ground activities were conducted, like taking the COVID-19 warrior oath, delivering myth busters and dissemination of COVID-19 theme based placards. In some communities, theme based paintings and awareness videos on Village Health Nutrition Days were also organized.

To know more about our COVID-19 interventions click on this link: https://www.ambujacement.com/images/covid_updates/ACFsinterventionsCOVID19_29thNovember.pdf

3 CSR Implementation Partnerships that are Enabling Rural India

As a CSR implementation agency to numerous partners, ACF brings both relevant expertise and experience in leading and implementing CSR projects at scale. Here are three partnerships that are today enabling people in rural India.

Project: Rural Development with a focus on Livelihoods


Investor: HDFC Bank

Locations: Sikar (Rajasthan), Haridwar (Uttarakhand)

Duration: 2018-2021

In Sikar (Rajasthan), the community suffered from severe drinking water shortage, along with a myriad of problems involving agriculture, its primary livelihood source. Erratic rainfall, poor quality of water and soil, limited technical knowhow and crippling loans from moneylenders were rendering agriculture unprofitable and unsustainable, impacting every area of life.

Meanwhile, in Haridwar the community suffered from a whole other set of challenges. With limited skills and resources for livelihoods, both women and youth often turned to a life of manual labour with low incomes. Making matters worse, in 60% of the villages surveyed, 70% of the men were affected by alcohol and substance abuse. Infertility in livestock was also a problem. Moreover, being located next to Rajaji National Park, wild animal attacks were leading to loss of livestock.

In 2018, ACF joined hands with banking giant HDFC Bank (along with the Government and community) as a CSR Implementation partner to address the issues in these two communities. Sharing a similar vision to generate sustainable livelihoods in rural India, HDFC Bank Parivartan invested in the project while ACF drove the implementation and monitoring. In Sikar the focus of the partnership is on water resource management, agro-based livelihoods, education and renewable energy by building ‘people’s institutions’ to make the development sustainable. In Haridwar, the projects focus on financial inclusion, skill development and livelihood enhancement, health, sanitation, and education. 

Impacts to date:

·       Demonstration of RRWHS in 45 households

·       82 handpumps repaired and 6 new installed

·       10 village ponds/johads created as water harvesting structures

·       2 SEDIs established at Haridwar and Roorkee

·       13 schools developed and 17 schools provided with teacher learning materials

·       Demonstration of non-conventional energy through 10 biogas, 100 solar home light systems and 100 biomass challahs


Project: Health Care Centres for Truckers

Investor: Apollo Tyres Foundation

Locations: Sankrail & Farraka (West Bengal), Surat (Gujarat), Nalagarh (Himachal Pradesh)

Duration: 2009 – Ongoing

With unusually long working hours, extended periods away from family, and difficult road and driving conditions, the physical and mental health and wellbeing of truckers is a major concern. In particular, the spread of HIV/AIDS is an issue affecting truckers, due to the high prevalence of drivers accessing Commercial Sex Workers, and only 34% of truckers using a condom frequently during casual sex.

Ambuja Cement Foundation (ACF), as a CSR Implementation partner, decided to help truckers tackle the problem – collaborating with Apollo Tyres Foundation to establish a Health Care Centre, and under a Public Private Partnership (PPP) model, also sought Government support. The first Health Care Centre was opened in 2009 at the Dhulagarh Truck Terminal on the outskirts of Kolkata which sees approximately 6000 trucks halt every day. The Health Care Centre provides a range of health care services such as the prevention, identification, and treatment of HIV/AIDS along with other sexually transmitted infections. The centre also works on vision care, awareness on tuberculosis and other non-communicable diseases including diabetes and high blood pressure. The programme also has a heavy focus on Behaviour Change Communication, conducting puppet shows and holding information stalls to engage with truckers and teach them betters ways to protect and manage their health.

Seeing the success of the Health Care centre, ACF and Apollo Tyres Foundation have expanded the programme to other key locations, establishing Healthcare Centres in Surat, Farakka and Nalagarh where trucks converge at Truck Terminals. 

Impact to Date:

·       464975 truckers reached

·       43990 truckers tested for HIV

·       81388 truckers counselled

·       259 truckers diagnosed HIV+ referred for treatment

·       872575 condoms distributed via campaign 


Project: Skill Development for Youth and Women

Investor: Hindustan Zinc Limited (HZL)

Locations: Dariba & Agoocha (Rajasthan)

Duration: 2018 – Ongoing

Realising the need for skill development in regions surrounding its mines in Rajasthan, Hindustan Zinc Ltd approached Ambuja Cement Foundation for a CSR Implementation strategy.

Subsequently, ACF conducted detailed need assessment studies in Dariba and Agoocha and presented a detailed implementation strategy for the selected CSR activity. Insights were gained on the aspirations of the youth toward skill development and its acceptance in these regions. Furthermore, attitudes within the community towards the establishment of skill development institutes were gauged along with an understanding of the most necessary skill development courses.

In Dariba for instance, most of the youth aspired to be employed as electricians or security guards. Women in the village were observed to be proactive towards skill training and the most desirable trades for them were Bedside Nursing, Tailoring and Beauty.

In Agoocha, on the other hand, women were found to be less responsive to Skill Development courses and interest in acquiring technical traits was also exceptionally low. Youth aspired to be employed as trained Security Guards or in the Electrician trade.

Armed with such specific insights, a skill training centre (SEDI) was established in both Dariba and Agoocha. The new SEDI centres aim to train 2900 youngsters by 2023 in trades such as Security Guard, Microfinance, General Duty Assistant, Electrician, Data Entry Operator and Retail & Sales Representatives. The partnership aims to train at least 30% women in the courses.


·       Number of SEDIs established in collaboration: 2

·       Number of students trained/skilled: 1078

·       Number of courses offered: 7

·       Average income of students placed: Rs. 10,567

To partner with ACF for CSR Implementation, reach out to us at ceo.acf@ambujacement.com

Partnerships for CSR Implementation in Rural India – Some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

 Thrive addresses some of the most asked questions on ACF’s corporate partnerships through a conversation with Manoj Agarwal – DGM at ACF.

Thrive: As a corporate CSR implementing organization itself, why did ACF decide to start working with other corporate partners?

Manoj: ACF has been working in rural development among the poorest of the poor, implementing what we now call Corporate Social Responsibility for over 27 years. Our experience and in-depth understanding in this sector enables us to move beyond the core geographies of Ambuja Cements Ltd. and reach out to other underserved areas and communities across the country by partnering with other CSR & donor agencies. We understand that for rural development to be implemented effectively, it is imperative that like minded partners get together to achieve the scale that India needs. In this context, while the Government rural development projects and programs as well as NABARD are major partners, from the last 3-4 years ever since the CSR contribution has been mandated, we have been working with other corporate partners as an implementing agency to work together to co-create rural development projects and roll them out on-ground. 

Thrive: What kind of Corporate partners does ACF work best with?

Manoj: ACF typically works well with large reputed organisations with a clear board vision and CSR mandate and also match our values and ethics. Organisations that have a presence in any of the 11 states we operate in are preferred, primarily because of ease of implementation and aligned focus on programmes.

Thrive: Why do Corporate partners choose to work with ACF?

Manoj: Corporates are always on the lookout for very credible and professional NGOs. In that context, ACF’s reputation as a CSR Implementing organization stands out. Specifically: -

-        Our USP is the high levels of credibility & integrity in the system. 

-        Our financials are clean and strong, ensuring every rupee is well spent on the society only 

-        Highly specified and experienced team of professionals to think and fast track execution of projects on the ground. 

-        We are run by a professional management which reflects in the projects we pick and execute and the teams that implement them.

-        We have an ability to penetrate deep into the interiors of the country and quickly mobilise in remote communities.

-        Our experience and expertise allow us to lead and implement CSR projects at scale

-        We are geographically spread across 11 states in India which means that CSR projects can be implemented in numerous locations across the country. We have, furthermore, recently started working in regions where we have no presence as well. For instance, we work with Asian Paints in Vishakhapatnam on Water Resource Management projects, a location where we have had no presence in the past. 

-        Our monitoring, evaluation and reporting are very robust and give partners peace of mind when looking at measuring progress and outcomes.

Thrive: What is the process of working together on projects in a Corporate-Corporate relationship?

Manoj: Post the initial discussions where we present the work we have done, our programme areas, our impact, our board, our CSR policy, and examine the proposed project; we do a needs and demand assessment survey of the regions where the project is proposed to be implemented. For example, when Hindustan Zinc Limited approached us with the need to implement a CSR project related to skill development in the regions surrounding Udaipur, we did an on the ground study where primary and secondary data was collected and a feasibility report was presented on what would work best in the region. Once the investment size is defined based on the feasibility report, the project is formulated, and a project proposal is submitted which outlays the investment, the process of implementation and the outcomes. This project proposal is then whetted by both the CSR committee and the finance committee after which a final go ahead is given, and an MOU is signed. A Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is also shared which focuses on ethics, trust, and transparency.  A capable team is put in place while the senior management closely monitors the progress of the project. As part of implementation, monthly reports, quarterly audits, quarterly reports, yearly reports, and yearly presentations are provided to the partner. Through all of this, a relationship of trust is established which allows the partnership to offer the best outcomes to the targeted community. Moreover, the scope of the partnership itself expands, moving to regions well and beyond the original location.

Thrive: What is the role that the Corporate partner plays in the project? 

Manoj: Partnership is beyond just funding. Earlier while funding was the primary goal, Corporate partners today play an active role in the project and hence, development. They play a crucial role in deciding the geography and sometimes, also play a joint role in deciding the Project Implementation Committee, the team that will implement the project. They also actively monitor the progress through our monthly project reviews, often suggesting changes to the process. They are thus actively engaged as equal partners when working with ACF.

Thrive: How do you address the notion that ACF being a corporate agency, will choose to highlight its own brand in any CSR implementation project?

Manoj: This notion was definitely a stumbling block for us 2-3 years back. Most corporates were apprehensive that in any partnership with ACF, their brand would lose out on visibility. We have since addressed this by deciding a clear joint branding strategy where the corporate partner and we decide on how the branding needs to be implemented before the project starts. This approach has helped put to rest most of the fears around brand visibility. At the end of the day, enabling the community is the goal of the partnership.

Thrive: Who are some of the corporate partners that ACF works with today?

Manoj: We have been fairly successful in finding and working with like-minded partners who share a common vision for rural India. In this context, HDFC Bank works with us in implementing multiple projects in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh. IndusInd Bank works with us in Rajasthan and West Bengal. Hindustan Zinc Limited started a small project with us in one geography but seeing the quality of work we bring to the table, has quickly expanded the scope to include 3-4 more geographies in the areas of skill development and water resource management. We work with Asian Paints in the remote regions of Andhra Pradesh. All in all, we work with more than 25 partners in different geographies and across programme areas.

Interested in a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) partnership with ACF to enable Rural India? Write in to ceo.acf@ambujacement.com