Samhita Social Ventures – Enabling Stakeholders to Take Purposeful Action for Large-Scale Social Impact

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    Samhita Social Ventures is a social sector consulting firm which collaborates with various stakeholders such as companies, donor organisations, government agencies and social organisations and builds long term partnerships between them to develop and deliver impactful, sustainable and scalable solutions. Along with their non-profit initiative Collective Good Foundation, they have strategised and executed impactful social interventions for companies across sectors and the geographical landscape of India. Samhita has, over the last ten years, mobilised over INR 500 Crores from companies across the geographical landscape of India. CSR Mandate spoke with the firm’s CEO & Founder, Priya Naik to gain a better understanding of the collaborations, projects and the Samhita Model of combating COVID-19. 

    When did Samhita Social Ventures come into being? 

    Samhita was founded in 2009 with a vision to build long-term partnerships between companies, donor organisations, government agencies, and social organisations to maximise social impact. We were first incubated by Mr N.S. Raghavan, Co-founder of Infosys. Since then, we have grown in size and reach, and expanded operations across Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, and Chennai.  

    Can you tell us about the Samhita business model and coalitions? What made you tap into this arena? 

    India, with all of its diversity and complexities, has multi-faceted social issues. We work with the corporate sector to develop their approach to corporate citizenship, which includes CSR as well as business practices, along with other stakeholders in the development ecosystem to form collaborative platforms around these issues. Below is a brief overview of the work we do under each area:  

    Corporate Consulting 

    Though Samhita was established long before the introduction of the CSR mandate, the 2013 Companies Act was critical in formalising the role of the corporate sector in India’s development narrative, and encouraging companies to leverage their innovation and business sense to make intelligent investments. Our Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) consulting practice has worked with over 50 leading companies to understand their CSR needs, shape CSR strategy, manage programme implementation, facilitate partnerships between companies and social enterprises and NGOs, and assess the on-the-ground impact of such initiatives. We work across the spectrum of sectors and industries.  

    Beyond CSR, we believe in companies integrating social responsibility into their business practices. We have developed the Responsible Corporate Citizenship Continuum (RCCC) to articulate the role of the private sector in society and to provide companies with a framework to conceive human rights and social and environmental responsibility in their business practices as well as CSR. The framework represents a continuum that allows for and encourages synergies across categories.  

    Platforms and Alliances 

    India’s development challenges, from water and sanitation to gender inequality to sustainable livelihoods, are vast. It is difficult for any stakeholder to mobilise the resources and the expertise to address each of these issues with the appropriate nuance, rigour, and ability to achieve scale. We believe that forming collaborative platforms around particular development priorities is a solution to this. As part of these platforms, each stakeholder – corporate, philanthropic, civil society, and government – play their unique role aligned to their core competencies, and this comes together to create a more significant impact. We hold these collaborative platforms together and engage with all partners involved to leverage their specific expertise.  

    Any effort to build a collaboration platform is based on developing an understanding of each partner’s objectives, resources, and competencies, and integrating them with that of others, all with expert guidance and advice. Every effort is taken to ensure complementary contributions that centre around a critical social issue and to support each partner to communicate and execute according to their priorities while keeping common goals in mind. 

    Whom do you work with to get this cycle of collaboration working? Could you share in detail the approach you take towards each of them – Companies, Donors, and NGOs in bringing them together to create a symbiotic relationship between them? 

    Over the last ten years, we have been involved with different stakeholders such as companies, NGOs, donor agencies, philanthropists, foundations, researchers to support effective implementation and management of projects building long-term impact. Below is a summary of the types of work we do with each of these stakeholder groups.  

    For Companies 

    • Designing strategic programmes for social impact that leverages client core competencies and maximises impact on the ground 
    • Providing comprehensive consulting services like CSR strategy, programme design, research, programme implementation support, monitoring, and evaluation 
    • Enabling a conception of social responsibility beyond CSR, towards a triple-bottom-line approach that considers people, planet, and profit 

    For Social Enterprises and NGOs 

    • Partnering with Social Enterprises and NGOs and connecting them to funders seeking implementation and on-ground support partners 
    • Supporting them in programmatic scaling and organisational efficiencies 
    • Building capacity of implementation partners for project-specific needs 
    • Conducting workshops to disseminate sector best practices 

    For Governments 

    • Facilitating corporate partnerships for Government projects 
    • Working in conjunction with government bodies to take interventions to scale 

    For Multilaterals Organisations and Philanthropic Donors 

    • Creating platforms and programmes for strategic, scalable, holistic, and contextualised solutions 
    • Using technology and innovation to drive sustainable projects on the ground 
    • Facilitating corporate partnerships for specific projects 

    Any effort to build a collaboration platform is based on developing an understanding of each partner’s objectives, resources, and competencies, and integrating them with that of others, all with expert guidance and advice. Every effort is taken to ensure complementary contributions that centre around a critical social issue and to support each partner to communicate and execute according to their priorities while keeping common goals in mind.  

    Since the social venture started, how many multi-stakeholder partnerships have been established? Could you elaborate on the key projects that these stakeholders have been investing in and working on? 

    Over the course of the past decade, we have facilitated hundreds of partnerships. Most projects which we have conducted with multilateral and international donors have been multi-stakeholder in nature. Some of our most significant collaborative initiatives are described below.  

    The WASH Platform and United Nations Foundation initiatives pre-date the COVID-19 crisis. India Protectors Alliance (IPA) and REVIVE were set up in the early days of India’s response to COVID-19, and are strongly focused on ensuring efficiency of the funds that are being deployed, using evidence-backed solutions. These platforms have taken special care to leverage the start-up ecosystem’s expertise in technology-enabled solutions to enable quick and effective intervention. 

    The Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) Platform 

    The ‘Corporate Platform for WASH in Maharashtra’ strengthens the drive to achieve an open defecation-free society through access to water along with safe and sustainable sanitation and hygiene practices; a goal emphasised by the Central and State (Maharashtra) governments. A joint initiative by the India Sanitation Coalition (ISC) and Samhita Social Ventures, the platform is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Government of Maharashtra. CEPT University lends knowledge support to the initiative.  

    Though corporate involvement in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) has significantly risen since 2014’s kick-off of the Swachh Bharat Mission, the size and persistence of the sanitation challenges are still huge and corporate funding is essential to plug key gaps in the value chain. The platform supports companies with comprehensive services that enable them to make better decisions in the WASH cause area and implement solutions in critical areas like behaviour change and faecal sludge management.  

    The United Nations Foundation 

    The United Nations Foundation (UNF), together with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK’s Department for International Development, and Merck for Mothers, has launched an initiative to work with companies who have large global supply chains employing millions of women workers, to take action to improve the health and well-being of their workers. We have partnered with UNF to facilitate corporate commitments to transparency and improved operating and reporting standards in India.  

    India Protectors Alliance (IPA) 

    The India Protectors’ Alliance aims to support India’s response to the public health crisis – COVID-19. It extends critical support to the people who are fighting on the frontline of the war against the pandemic – healthcare practitioners and sanitation workers. This Alliance provides Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), training, and capacity building to the healthcare personnel and aims to provide access to innovative financial and insurance products. Upcoming initiatives include behaviour change communication on health and safety practices such as mask-wearing.  

    REVIVE 

    REVIVE is aimed at facilitating economic protection and recovery for the most vulnerable in our workforce – gig economy professionals, construction labourers, truck drivers, daily wage earners, and other blue-collar workers – through a host of interventions. While the early days of the crisis necessitated quick and efficient Direct Benefit Transfers (DBTs) to those most in need, REVIVE is now focused on enabling more long-term economic recovery from the crisis. This includes tailor-made solutions for individual industries, enabling access to government schemes, and building an innovative returnable grant model alongside multiple highly-reputed funders and experts.  

    All our projects are linked to the larger United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and all approaches are derived from working closely with partners and evolving strategies backed by sector experts, research, and data.  

    Which are the regions, groups, sectors that are given the most attention? Are they as per the immediate need? 

    Traditionally, we are agnostic to sectors and regions and work in tandem with all stakeholders to address the need generated from communities; with a preference for leveraging and amplifying existing efforts by the government and other funders rather than creating new and parallel projects. In the past, our interventions have greatly focused on the sanitation ecosystem, skill development and training, gender empowerment, and education, to a few. All our projects are linked to the larger United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and all approaches are derived from working closely with partners and evolving strategies backed by sector experts, research, and data.

    Our platforms to respond to the health and economic crises of the age of COVID-19 – the IPA and REVIVE – are specifically designed to address the needs of the neediest. Women, who have faced heightened challenges during this crisis, make up a key part of the demographics we are seeking to support.  

    IPA is aimed at those on the frontline, who are most critical and also most exposed in our fight against mitigating public health threats. A large part of the support has been funnelled towards the brave doctors, nurses, and hospital staff who have been working tirelessly to treat rising caseloads under dangerous circumstances. We are also seeking to support sanitation workers, who have long since been one of the most vulnerable groups in our country. More than half of the five million sanitation workers in India are women, who face myriad challenges due to their work in hazardous settings and social stigma and discrimination related to their occupations, as well as their gender. 

    Similarly, REVIVE seeks to support those who have been most economically-disadvantaged by the crisis. Informal workers form about 80 per cent of the country’s workforce and large proportion work in unstable and vulnerable circumstances and lack social safety nets, adequate income support, and capital to sustain their lives and livelihoods. Other critical workers, especially during lockdown periods, include those in the gig economy – delivery personnel, taxi drivers, home service providers, among others – whose working conditions and incomes have become unpredictable in recent months. Migrant workers, whose vulnerability has been all the more exposed in recent months, are highly represented in these categories.  

    What has been the impact of these collaborations on beneficiaries across India? 

    Samhita has a PAN-India presence, with operations in over 20 States covering 149 districts. It has been heartening to see the actual on-ground impact of all our projects. These collaborations enabled us to reach to myriad beneficiaries through a multitude of projects. To date, we have reached over 1.8 million individuals directly and about six million indirectly.

    The pandemic has been the biggest crisis hitting the world. And India has been deeply affected by it in every sense of the term. What have you been able to do to mitigate the effects of this pandemic? Do share about the two Alliances Samhita has been spearheading. How do they work and how are they different from one another? 

    With the spread and onset of the virus, we could gauge that India would be hit hard given the size and density of our population and the observed rate of infection. It became clear that the Government’s initiatives had to be supplemented with collaborative private and social sector involvement for an adequate response. It was in response to this need that we formed the alliances IPA and REVIVE, which are described in our response a few paragraphs above. Since time was and is of the essence, we constituted a collaborative response mechanism with an urgent call-to-action for the private sector to come forward to safeguard the lives of our protectors and provide economic support to workers and facilitate recovery of workforces.  

    For both Alliances, we are enlisting support from sector experts and influencers to drive knowledge, share best practices, guide investments, and mobilise more action. We have formulated a funding mechanism for companies to collaborate and provide quick, transparent, efficient and effective support to these heroes, thereby maximising their impact for the cause. The following is a description of some of the activities undertaken by each alliance so far:  

    • REVIVE: In the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis and the lockdown, REVIVE facilitated Direct Benefit Transfers (DBTs) into the workers’ accounts in collaboration with a Fintech platform. As a mid to long term response to provide sustainable recovery for the informal sector workers, we set up a returnable grant model that involves a revolving fund mechanism. The returnable grant aims at creating a solution for sustainable recovery to get India back to work. 
    • IPA: The immediate response involved providing frontline workers with on-job protection through PPE & Sanitation Kits, enabling the capacity building to strengthen the response to their virus control efforts and providing them with health insurance. It is also providing easier access to eligible government schemes. As we delved deeper into the supply chain and logistics of making these amenities available to the frontline workers, we realised the need to create a solution that caters to post-COVID concerns. 

    How many lives have benefitted and given hope during the COVID-19 war? Have you set a particular target for these two projects considering the need that is still glaring at us as the lockdown is still in place and more people are losing their jobs? 

    We have reached upwards of 29,000 people between the two Alliances thus far. We have set targets to deliver support to upwards of 600,000 people between the two Alliances, including 500,000 under IPA and 100,000 under REVIVE. Though it is challenging to measure the indirect impact on the overall healthcare and sanitation ecosystem, we expect the aid to translate into saving many more lives.  

    These are several lessons that our track record of enabling effective collaboration has taught us. The most important takeaway has been the importance of realistically assessing the objectives and capabilities of various organisations, and leveraging good intent and an inclination towards the correction of inequalities in society.

    The inescapable truth is that the pandemic has cost millions of jobs lost. The pandemic has amplified the challenges of India’s poor; hunger and poverty have affected millions. At least 10 crores poor Indians will be pushed below the World Bank-determined poverty line of $3.2, which is slightly above Rs 240. How do we deal with this? 

    This is an issue that was highlighted by Nobel laureate Dr Esther Duflo in a webinar Samhita hosted with IDFC Institute in May of this year. “Abhijit Banerjee and I really insisted on the need for the government to act quickly and swiftly to prevent a lot of people who are not ultra-poor but merely poor, or maybe not even poor…to avoid those people to completely collapse back in a situation where it would be much harder to get out,” Dr Duflo said of her own and fellow Nobel laureate’s views. “That in a sense is something that would affect them personally – an individual poverty trap – but can also create society-wide poverty traps.”  

    This is a very real threat. This is why REVIVE’s objectives are to extend the support that the most vulnerable need to achieve some economic resilience and recovery. The solutions we have extended and are planning to do so going forward, including direct cash transfers, insurance, and social security, and capacity building and upskilling support, have been developed in partnership with experts, corporate and civil society leaders, and the government to mitigate these risks.  

    What have your collaborations bring in terms of experience and a newer understanding of how to reach out to the most vulnerable in our society?  

    These are several lessons that our track record of enabling effective collaboration has taught us. The most important takeaway has been the importance of realistically assessing the objectives and capabilities of various organisations, and leveraging good intent and an inclination towards the correction of inequalities in society. Each stakeholder then brings its advantages to the table. For example, the government can bring immense resources and expand reach to remote communities. The corporate sector brings an inclination towards innovation and the effective, efficient use of resources in addressing a challenge. The NGO sector brings in-depth and detailed knowledge of community dynamics and needs, and critical last-mile implementation capability. The start-up ecosystem affords technology and an agile approach to addressing complex problems. The philanthropic ecosystem offers flexible capital that can extend support through innovative approaches, such as the Development Impact Bonds (DIBs) or our recent Returnable Grant (RG) model. Multilateral and bilateral organisations can bring additional funds and high levels of expertise. If one can combine these elements intelligently, it enables the funnelling of support towards those who need it the most. 

    The work you are doing is to bring hope and rejuvenate lives. Could you share some client testimonials?  

    Krishna Nanda, CSR Head at Brihati Foundation, reiterates their commitment to solidarity and the promise that the REVIVE Alliance brings: “Standing for everyone in this tough and testing time by contributing in a small way will bring us closer to win this fight for saving humanity.” 

    Ashish Rohatgi, Head and Company Secretary, Idemitsu Lube India Private Limited: “Idemitsu has been working with Samhita for a couple of years now. Samhita has helped us in consolidating our individual CSR interventions and developing a focused health and nutrition programme. The programme has been highly impactful in providing last-mile healthcare connectivity in the remote villages of Patalganga, Raigad region in Maharashtra. We are also highly impressed with the comprehensive partner selection process that Samhita undertakes to identify the most effective implementation partner.”  

    Johnson & Johnson: “Samhita’s expertise in working with NGOs and understanding corporate priorities has helped immensely in smooth execution of the programme.”

    EdelGive Foundation: “Samhita has been our trusted partner in the EdelGive Social Innovation Honours for two years. Adept management of the end-to-end online application process and widespread outreach resulted in large increases in the number of quality applications from NGOs across India. Samhita’s strength lies in their extensive NGO network and a very professional and committed team.”

    PeaceTechLab, United States Institute of Peace:  “Samhita Social Ventures stands out far and away as the best organisation we have worked with. The Samhita team was fabulous throughout – from initial planning to site preparation, participant interaction, event execution, post-event interaction, and reporting. The USIP would highly recommend them without reservation to anyone looking to initiate high impact projects.” 

    Is GoodCSR in any way related to the above or is it something on a different platform altogether? Could you shed more light on the projects you are focusing on in this sphere? 

    The GoodCSR platform is aligned with the work mentioned above in that it facilitates partnerships between companies and NGOs working to address critical social issues across India. Samhita GoodCSR can be used by companies and NGOs alike. Companies can find NGO programmes to support as well as float SmartRFPs to invite programme ideas. NGOs can publish their programmes to invite corporate support or apply for funding through SmartRFPs. The platform enables CSR managers and teams in executing their entire project management lifecycle by providing them with effective and easy-to-use technology tools, which supplements Samhita’s commitment to the efficient roll-out of projects.  

    We developed the platform in close partnership with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Tata Trusts by using our years of experience in the social sector and by undertaking regular consultation with social sector experts and technology experts. 

    What is the way forward for our country in this fight against the pandemic? 

    The way forward for our country is closely tied to what our two Alliances are working towards supporting our healthcare ecosystem to be able to meet the rising demand and urgency while balancing the recovery of our economy. We need to follow expert-recommended approaches to preserving public health, both on an individual level (social distancing, mask-wearing) and a systemic level (building the capacity of healthcare staff and facilities). Our path to economic recovery needs to include a focused approach on the most vulnerable, and a strategy to either enable them to return to their livelihoods or find alternate sources of income.  

    We cannot flag in our efforts. This will be a marathon, not a sprint. We must balance the need to deliver the right support to the most in need quickly, with building the stamina to continue this work over the coming years.