Human Capital Crisis In The Social Sector

by | Aug 27, 2021

During our India Fellow midpoint training in Udaipur, we got to be a part of multiple readings, presentations, activities and a ton of discussions. One such discussion that stayed with me and made me want to think more about, was with Rajiv Khandelwal, co-founder of Aajeevika Bureau, an organization that has for the past 18 years been working to provide lasting solutions to economic and socio-legal problems of migrant workers by blending innovative services with policy, research, and advocacy.

He touched upon the human capital crisis in the development sector. Personally, being someone who is exploring this space at grassroots, I was intrigued to understand the barriers of the inflow of rich human capital. What might be contributing to this apparent crisis?

Skill with(out) craft

It can be largely observed that grassroots organizations employ local staff for their on-field operations like mobilization and facilitation, their ease of communication coupled with belonging to the community, and of course the most realistic understanding of issues at the grassroots. However, most of these employees end up spending years in the same role and continue to contribute in one way. They become masters at their skills but develop little craft. There might be a level of complacency or comfort in what they do best. The reasons could be two-fold, one that the organizations often can invest only little in the personal growth of their employees, and secondly the employees themselves lack the motivation to push their boundaries in developing that competency or craft out of their skill with the strive to polish it further.


Organizations at the grassroots continue to have the same leadership for years, sometimes decades. Is it a question of too much familiarity translating into the tight grips on the reins at the helm? Self-sustaining organizations should implode if new leadership is not found, Rajiv ji had exclaimed.

As hard as it can be for a leader to step down, they must develop a second line solely for the reason that they have something to pick when they bow out. He added, to himself and to us “The focus of a leader should be more on giving than receiving and on the why of what we do rather than the how. Stay or leave for the right reasons.

An example of scale due to brilliant leadership is Amul. It is a giant largely because it had Verghese Kurien and other titans as its managers. Also, perhaps one of the prime reasons is that the scale of progress and decentralization has not been observed in other FPOs despite several measures. Sometimes those two weeks of good quality managerial manpower are crucial for such institutions. In fact, if we promote humble and ambitious managers with the best interest of farmers in mind, then FPOs will succeed. It is necessary to devise measures to attract such talent to the sector. 

Sunk Cost Fallacy 

The sunk cost fallacy is a tendency to continue investing in a choice purely basis the reason that you do not want to make an initial investment go in vain or rather justify the effort already put into an activity. Coming into the development, it is evident that it takes a little more than a few years than usual to get your roots in. However, by then, one also may realize that significant time, energy, and effort has been invested. This is what sometimes applies to not only leaders but also to employees of organizations.

People are so fiercely invested in their communities, their cause, that sometimes the lack of constructive outcome is not visible. Sometimes what requires a pivotal change in one direction is ignored due to the overwhelming passion, heart, or just sheer involvement. Thus, letting go of one’s personal attachments to work is crucial, and looking ahead at the bigger picture in order to know when is the right time to hit the brakes.

Lower Remuneration (or the apparent perception)

It is widely accepted that remuneration at organizations in the social sector, largely the not-for-profits are far below corporate standards. Perhaps also the reason why the whole ‘corporate to social’ transition is given its glory. ‘Oh she quit her fancy corporate job’ is always perceived as a matter of pride and a heightened sense of altruism.  Government bodies, CSRs, and non-profits included do value expertise enough to incentivize well. The skill gap is so widened, that any opportunity at bridging it is received with open hands and wider pockets. Besides, there is also an ocean of philanthropic capital that can be used as a meaningful lever for change across the world

External Communication 

Grassroots tend to spend little to nothing on marketing needs. Also, quite obviously, funding comes in for on-ground implementation. So why waste precious funder money on ‘Instagram and ‘Facebook’?

Talking about my organization itself, the work for the last three decades speaks for itself and we do have a strong funder base. So there was hardly any need felt for well-defined marketing as our two major stakeholders, women and funders, were content and aware. However, today, we realize the need to invest in communications, within and outside the sector.  As I see it, the prime reason being to attract rich human resources. There are tons of people out there willing to offer their expertise and learnings from non-development sectors that would be key in solving issues like technology, scale, and efficiency.


Birds of the same flock fly together. This is what might apply here, aptly. Non-profits have a wide network comprising a group of the most brilliant minds. However, the exchange of ideas and learning somehow, more often than not, transpires amongst this house. There is little to no interaction outside. How often is that a social scientist, an artist, and a start-up CEO were encountered in the same room and not by coincidence? There is an unquestionable need to create common forums that will further interdisciplinary interaction in order to grow and adapt.

Thus, in order to increase turnover, manage change, create operational efficiencies, employee engagement, and sometimes function as a business are areas that organizations in the development sector should pace faster towards. And more so than anything, working towards bridging this gap that is in the form of human capital is where efforts need to be concentrated. 

More and more of us see that there lies a whole world of learning in social science that could be employed in our corporate counterparts. But is that ocean of knowledge receiving its due credit? When you can talk about your work in the simplest way without complicating it for the listener is when you know you’re doing your job right, and that is a skill I witness most in my field staff.

Those who run from village to village, away from computer screens and technology, down at the roots – They understand the community, they understand systems, they understand empowerment and they understand the vision. That is learning so priceless, yet to receive all its due glory, and here’s hoping more of us seek out this value that cannot be learnt anywhere but at the grassroots.

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