A strategic review of Seva Mandir
A high-level team of international development experts and academics from IMAGO Global Grassroots has carried out a strategic review of Seva Mandir at the request of its management. The team assessed Seva Mandir’s past, present and potential future strategy on the basis of extensive consultation with the extended management team, existing documentation and field visits. The experts believe that Seva Mandir is at an important juncture, driven by a significant change in the environment in which it works, including substantial changes in the funding context and changes in the nature of the state’s engagement in development work and its stance vis-à-vis civil society.
The team’s remit did not allow of a comprehensive and detailed appraisal of all of Seva Mandir’s existing units, but it concentrated on three areas: village institutions, education and gender. The report is full of praise for the NGO’s work in these areas.
On village institutions, it says: ‘We were impressed with Seva Mandir’s village institution work on creating GVCs (village development committees). They are the embodiment of Seva Mandir’s values. Everyone comes together as equals on the same jajum (carpet), they are governed by democratic processes, and they attract people in large numbers to debate and act on issues in the common interest. This is against a backdrop of communities divided by caste, gender and political party, Panchayats governed by patronage politics, and often weakly functioning Gram Sabhas (village assemblies) where most action is top-down rather than bottom-up. In the context in which they operate, the GVCs’ values and processes constitute a major achievement…
‘We visited communities which fought for and won rights over land, have mechanisms to distribute benefits impartially, and sanction offenders. Seva Mandir’s preschool balwadis and primary schools (Shiksha Kendras) are the second most important programmes that bring GVCs together, and the schools we visited had teachers selected by the GVC, that also regularly monitored teacher performance and attendance, with modest fees collected from parents… When they work, the GVCs are examples of the often heard, but rarely realized, ideal of participatory development.’
Turning to the GVKs (village development funds) set up with Seva Mandir’s help, the team comments: ‘The GVKs’ raison d’être is not the development projects they finance, but the public resource they represent for the community. We heard multiple testimonies from villagers that, even if all Seva Mandir staff left their village tomorrow, meetings would continue in order to manage the village fund.’
On education, the report has this to say: ‘Seva Mandir’s schools achieved much better outcomes than government schools despite input standards way below the new norms… Between 2012-15, Seva Mandir ran far fewer schools than planned due to budget constraints, but had only somewhat lower enrollment than planned. This means that more students were enrolled per school than expected, signaling continued high demand for Seva Mandir’s schools on the ground, but stretching teacher-student ratios in some areas… Fee collection… was reported in our conversations to be far above targets, and also to have exceeded expectations in the amount collected per family. This reinforces a picture of high family satisfaction with schools.’ And on teacher attendance in Seva Mandir’s schools: ‘The incentive system used by Seva Mandir continues to be a tremendous success. [The time stamped photo system]… has resulted in high rates of teacher attendance – significantly higher than in government schools.’
On gender, the report comments: ‘Seva Mandir applies a gender lens to nearly all the work it does. This is in response to the unique and disproportionate challenges women experience in their daily lives in the area where Seva Mandir works… Against this backdrop, Seva Mandir is to be commended for the breadth of its commitment to gender, and the attendant breakdown of much of its reporting by gender, which allows it to keep track on progress. Activities include some programmes that are entirely focused on women’s issues – including the women’s social and economic empowerment unit and the bulk of the health unit – and other programmes which involve multiple groups but pay careful attention to the equality of benefit for women – including the balwadi preschool programme, the education programme, and Seva Mandir’s core work on governance.’
On social empowerment, they comment: ‘The Women’s Resource Centers are an innovative model that, in our visit, we could see is a platform allowing women substantive and confident representation to formal state institutions, such as the police, to informal social structures, like the caste panchayat, and within Seva Mandir’s own GVCs. They resolve well over 100 cases of domestic violence per year.’
Although the IMAGO team did not set out to examine the NGO’s financial management in detail (there was a separate outside team looking into this at the time), they nevertheless commented: ‘There are good budgeting and solid accounting practices. We were impressed by the clarity of accounting reports as well as by their quantity. The amount of information on income, expenditures and the Independent Auditor’s report published in Seva Mandir’s Annual Report is comprehensive. It puts Seva Mandir ahead of many, perhaps most, local NGOs in India. This strength will serve Seva Mandir well, especially in the current external environment of heightened scrutiny over the practices and procedures of civil society organizations.
‘The same applies to the way that money is transferred to the field. In many organizations this is a source of risk when transactions are made on a cash basis, making it difficult to trace the use of resources, and confirm that this is as intended. We understood, from our interview with the CFO, that in Seva Mandir all financial transactions are made by direct transfers to the bank accounts. This is the dream of many CFOs we have met who are working with grassroots and NGOs who have a large field presence.’
Following their review of the implementation and outcomes of these specific aspects of Seva Mandir’s work, the team concludes that, with such a good story to tell, the NGO needs to work on communicating its successes: ‘There is… substantial scope for better documentation of its impact, and this is of rising importance in the changing environment.’ The team suggests additional types of data that the NGO could collect, and ways in which it could better analyse this data to enable it to highlight more effectively (in funding proposals and donor reports, for example) the positive results it is producing in the villages. In education, in particular, the report concludes that ‘simply by reorganizing its data, Seva Mandir could greatly enhance the way it communicates the remarkable achievements of its schools.’
Another recommendation of the report is much greater use of comparative data, in other words, ‘setting the performance of Seva Mandir’s programmes side by side with the performance of government or peer NGOs. The annual reports, website and other internal documentation we investigated during the review currently benchmark Seva Mandir only to itself. This has the
effect, in our opinion, of underplaying Seva Mandir’s strong performance relative to other players. It also makes it much harder for external organizations, particularly donors, to judge the effectiveness of Seva Mandir when they are choosing where to allocate their scarce resources… Having data and ready arguments about programme efficiency will be a key asset as Seva Mandir adapts to a changing external environment of more corporate and outcome focused donors.’ In education, for example, having examined available comparative data, the team produced a chart showing that ‘children learn 2.5 times more in Seva Mandir schools than government schools’.
In addition, it recommends comparison, ‘where this makes sense’, of the results in Seva Mandir’s work areas with those in control areas not benefiting from the NGO’s intervention. One example of this approach is the current McGill/IFMR study of the impact of balwadis on women’s empowerment, which is looking at villages where the Seva Mandir does run these daycare centres and also at villages with no such provision. Another example is the ongoing collaboration with Professor Raj Desai (Georgetown University) and Professor Anders Olofsgard (Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics) who are studying the long-term impact of the NGO’s interventions on enhancing cooperation in communities. In relation to the latter, the IMAGO team says: ‘Preliminary data from this study shows promising differences between Seva Mandir’s “treatment” villages and comparable non-Seva Mandir “control” villages in terms of forest quality and the ability to speak freely at the Gram Sabha.’
The report goes on go examine the identity and tone of the organization, commenting that: ‘Seva Mandir’s values are an important source of strength for the organization. They are clearly present in the way staff engage with its beneficiaries as well as the way staff relate to each other… Seva Mandir’s tone, or organizational culture, is well aligned with its values… people feel that they work in a positive work environment and this is what makes it attractive to work in Seva Mandir as well as the content of the work… The tone in Seva Mandir is humble, people are self-reliant, people feel they are taken care of, there is a culture of service. This is another beautiful balance between caring for others and being taken care of…’ However, ‘while Seva Mandir’s values are clear, they are not systematically presented’ so as to ‘bring inspiration and clarity to staff when they first join or when teams face difficult decisions.’
In terms of the NGO’s structure, it concludes that this is ‘largely aligned with its values but presents some challenges that the organization is very well placed to tackle… Clear career paths for young people and targeting streams for external recruitment could help reach a better balance.’
The reports looks at Seva Mandir’s IT systems and how these could be improved to increase efficiency, particularly the transfer of data between the field and head offices and the use of tablets and smartphones.
In considering the changing environment affecting all NGOs engaged in development work, the team examined a number of choices that Seva Mandir faces, in terms of its business model vis-à-vis donors, alternative modes of engaging with the government, and the case for a significant expansion of revenue-earning social enterprises.
Looking at the NGO’s engagement with government, it examines three possible strategies: working jointly with the state as a project implementer (as it does, for example, in relation to MGNREGA where Seva Mandir implements the government’s rural employment scheme); ‘building an explicit strategy for engaging directly with the formal political space at the local level’ and supporting claim-making on the state.
The recommendation is that Seva Mandir should, with certain conditions in place, ‘engage with government service provision strategically’ where appropriate.
As the NGO faces the need to adapt to its changing environment, the IMAGO team examines the management team who must decide how to achieve this. ‘First, this team – most of whom have been with Seva Mandir for many years – clearly collectively sees the need to change, and is ready to engage with change. Second, we witnessed… an impressive capacity to work collectively in small groups, that achieved consensus remarkably quickly, often developing quite extensive recommendations on specific designs in a short space of time.’ It sees these two characteristics as ‘important sources of organizational capital for any change process’.
The report says: ‘Whichever route Seva Mandir chooses, we believe it will benefit immeasurably from telling its story better, through more systematic data collection (backed by further use of new technologies), along with careful documentation and interpretation of its work. This will also
support its capacity to engage more effectively with the new donor environment, as well as underpin its internal processes of management… It is of great importance that any changes build on its current organizational strength, with explicit attention to the maintenance of its core values and identity during a period of change.’