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What makes Mahindra’s Nanhi Kali program so successful?

Women hold up half the sky, so goes a popular Chinese saying. If that is indeed true, the sky in India is surely tilted. For across a range of human development indicators,from life expectancy to literacy to income, women have consistently fallen behind men – and continue to do so.  While the root of this problem is a society that sways to traditional mores in preferring boys over girls, the social and economic consequences for the countryhave been enormous. Today, even the World Bank warns that there is a price to pay for countries that under-invest in their girls.

For Anand Mahindra, chairman of Mahindra &Mahindra, it was precisely this realization that motivated him to found Nanhi Kali over 15 years ago. Aimed at girls from low-income families, the Nanhi Kali programme offerscomprehensive sponsorship, comprising both academic and material support. While academic support includes after-school training and mentoring from professional coordinators to bridge gaps in learning, material support includes school uniform, bags, shoes and socks, which are necessary for any student to attend school with dignity. In addition, the programme team works with parents and community members to sensitize them on matters of gender equality.

Today, Nanhi Kali stands out in India’s Corporate Social Responsibility landscape as an extraordinary success story by any measure:

  • It currently supports more than 75,000 girl students from low-income families in both urban and rural areas – many girls, who could barely pass their exams before, now feature regularly in the merit list of their district examinations
  • It reaches a vast geographical area spanning 10 states in India, including some of the biggest and economically-backward ones such as Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan
  • And it reports a drop-out rate less than 10% in its project areas, and an increase in learning level by more than 20%

For any CSR manager in corporate India, these results are nothing short of impressive. But behind the numbers, do they hold any lessons for CSR managers in how they build and manage their own organization’s initiatives? Are there specific strategies and organizational changes the CSR team at Mahindra engineered that onecould learn from? To find out, we spoke to Sheetal Mehta, the Executive Director of the KC Mahindra Educational Trust, the CSR arm of the Mahindra & Mahindra group that runs the Nanhi Kali programme. And from what we learnt, there are at least four broad principles that any organization will find helpful to emulate.

Integration, Integration, Integration

Today, for any company that has reached a certain plateau of success, CSR is a priority.As the company grows, so do the number and scale of its CSR initiatives. But oftentimes, these initiatives are simply not integrated into the workforce. They are run by isolated teams withlimited engagement and support from both the management and employees.

In 2005, when Ms Mehta moved into Mahindra’s CSR team, one of the first things she did was to make a case for a consolidated and coordinated approach towardsrunningthe group’s CSR initiatives. The management, in response, threw its weight behind Ms Mehta, setting upa CSR Council that brought under its purview the entire gamut of Mahindra’s CSR programmes and activities. The Councilcomprised not only CSR figureheads and representatives, but leaders of the group’s various business units. To lead the Council, the President of Mahindra’s Human Resources came on board. These structural changes sent a clear signal to everyone at Mahindra that every business, every team and every employee now had a stake in the success of the company’s CSR initiatives.

To focus and target Mahindra’s initiatives better, the Council identified three focus areas where the group could make the maximum impact: Education, which the Mahindra has supported for long,and Health and Environment, where its businesses already had clear underlying strengths. It decided that every company in the Mahindra group will allocate 1% of post-tax profits to their CSR programmes, of which0.5% will be allocated toEducation, thereby squarely putting the Nanhi Kali programme under the spotlight. But the Council was also careful to not mistake integration and focus for rigidity. It allowed individual companies to use the remaining 0.5% of their profits on any of the other focus areas, while it monitored implementation and impact.

Leading from the Front

If there is one factor that binds all companies that are successful in their CSR initiatives, it is that they all have their top management rallying at the front to ensure employee participation at the highest levels. Mahindra, however, took it further. The group’s leaders, including Mr Mahindra himself, all invested their personal credibility, time and effort to ensure not just employee participation, but also that of the company’s partners, competitors(!) and the wider community.In fact, as we saw earlier, Nanhi Kali was borne of the personal commitment of Mr Mahindra himself towards the cause of Girl Child Education.

In addition, as we saw with the example of the CSR Council, the group’s leaders invested significant portions of their time to shape and direct the group’s CSR strategy, monitor implementation, and measure impact.

Reaching Out to Maximize Impact

When Mr Mahindra ventured to found Nanhi Kali, he was clear he didn’t want the programme to be limited by his or his group’s ability to support it. He wanted to engage as many supporters and donors as possible. This enabled Ms Mehta’s team to reach out to an array of supporters, starting with the group’s employees to non-profit partners to other individual and corporate donors.

Their efforts seem to have paid off rather well. Today, of the 75,000 girls the Nanhi Kali programme supports, more than 1/3rd are supported by employees of the Mahindra group. And the remaining 2/3 through the support of over 8,000 individual and corporate donors, counting some of the biggest names in the Industry, including HDFC, HPCL, and Johnson & Johnson.

Interestingly, Nanhi Kali’s success also convinced some of Mahindra’sfiercest competitors to partner on this venture. Capgemini, a competitor of Tech Mahindra, has nearly 8 of its international offices supporting the programme. In fact, Capgemini’s support covers nearly 10,000 of our girls, reveals Ms Mehta.

But is it only Nanhi Kali’s success that has drawn such wide participation? Not really, she says. The fact that the Mahindra group put together considerable resources of its own and its credibility behind the programme convinced a large number of partners to not just join but also to progressively ramp up their investments, she explains.

Finding the Right Implementation Partner

In early 2000’s, when the KC Mahindra Education Trust was scouting for implementation partners for Nanhi Kali, its key challenge was in finding an organization that had the scale and reach to support tens of thousands of girls across the country. Most organizations the Trust found operated in two or three schools at most.

It was around this time that the Trust met and partnered with the Naandi Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Hyderabad. The Naandi Foundation had already developed a proven model of supporting Girl Child Education, and was operating at scale across Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The partnership proved so effective that only a year later, the Foundation was brought on board as a joint managing partner. By rapidly scaling the number of girls under Nanhi Kali’s support,and quickly exceeding all initial targets, the Foundation proved especially integral to the success of the programme. Today, the Naandi Foundation alone is responsible for delivering academic and material support to nearly 71,000 girls, reveals Ms Mehta.

For Mahindra, the partnership with the Naandi Foundation has also borne fruit elsewhere. It has now expanded beyond Nanhi Kali to several other CSR initiatives of the Mahindra group, including

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In summary,the success of the Nanhi Kali programme is a combination of several dominating factors. It’s clear that an organization-wide focus on a particular cause can harness the collective energy and resources of a much larger number of people than is possible through individual teams or groups. Choosing a right partner is especially vital in scaling and sustaining the programme. Finally, leaders who provide both strategic support and creative imagination will ultimately prove decisive in rallying the entire organization and the wider community in to supporting the cause. Clearly, with all these on board, will it be any wonder when Mahindra & Mahindra reaches its 2012 goal of supporting 100,000 Nanhi Kalis!