Amitha Pai - Contributing to Social Change through High Impact Projects

ISB alumnus Amitha Pai is the CEO of One Good Step,  a not-for-profit venture that takes up and executes high impact social projects. In an interview with Reema Gupta, Head of the Centre for Management Learning and Management Practice at ISB, Amitha discusses the development work of One Good Step and her journey from the corporate world to the social sector. 

Q1) Is One Good Step a non-governmental organisation (NGO) or a social enterprise? After having worked with many NGOs before you set up One Good Step, how do you differentiate between the two? 

One Good Step is structured as an NGO, which is a trust essentially. What I found across various NGOs is that if you look at the social space, there are actually two or three kinds of activities that happen. One is welfare services, another is development projects where you try and address the problem — whether it is water, sanitation or something else — and then there is activism, where you try and challenge the current models of working and see if you can do something better, for instance, in the environment space. One Good Step is a development NGO and what we try to do as a differentiator is to bring rigour and management principles into the social sector. What I mean by that is that all of our work is development- or project-based. We go in, we take up a problem, and we see if we can structure a project around it and whether we have the expertise to address that particular problem; if we don’t have it, we don’t do it. If there is a solution already available, we see if we can we utilise it. So it runs with the same amount of return or the same amount of rigour as a non-profit organisation that we apply to the social sector. That is our key differentiator and the way we have positioned One Good Step.  

I have also found that many NGOs have their own ideas and their own expertise, which they have built over the years, but they do not know how to put it in the form of a robust programme that they can take across multiple geographies, multiple communities, etc. That is something that I, from my experience at ISB and elsewhere, have been able to do. To my mind, that is the way forward and that is the way this sector is going to progress because we have to become more accountable. If we really are to move toward any development goal, we have to practise this sort of agenda within the social space as well. 



Q2) When you talk about project-based work, how do you finance it? One of the new models emerging as that of the social enterprise, is the sustainability. How are you thinking about your projects and their long-term sustainability?

In the social space, there are NGOs and social enterprises and each works for different causes. Some of those causes can be monetised and others cannot. At One Good Step, much of the work that we do is in education and with people who do not have access to resources because we work with the absolute bottom-of-the-pyramid, if you will. For example, if I say the cost of educating a child is INR 2,000 per month and I try to claim that from the parent who is struggling to earn a daily wage, it is going to fall apart. In such cases, we do have to count on philanthropy, donations and grants to get funds. In the last one and half years, we have also been able to create CSR associations for ourselves for these kinds of projects that cannot be easily monetised.  

On the other hand, there are projects which can be monetised — where you can create a revenue model — and we factor in age when we try to create livelihood opportunities where people have to earn and provide for their own upkeep. For example, we would give them the necessary inputs, the necessary material and everything else, but they have to earn their livelihood and give it back to us in some way, if not in the form of profit, but at least by sustaining themselves. The way I see One Big Step is that it is going to depend to a very large extent on philanthropy because of the nature of the work that we do, which is education, and the beneficiaries, who are people at the bottom of the pyramid.  

I self-financed One Good Step to get it started and off the ground. I look at One Good Step as my life’s goal or legacy. Sustainability is really a function of how things develop; having sustained the organisation for three years, I am confident we can go on to 30 years and beyond. By virtue of the network that we have — from both ISB as well as inputs from the community — whenever we have set out with an objective for a project, we have been able to raise funds for it from individuals as well as the corporate sector, mainly because people like to see output. That is how we are looking at the financial model for One Good Step. If we diversify into more activities that can be monetised, we will then have to look at alternate revenue models. 


Q3) What was your experience of moving from the corporate sector to the social sector?  How was the transition for you, and what do you miss about corporate life? What can people who may wish to make such a transition potentially learn from you? 

The biggest transition is that in the corporate world, when you take on a project, you already have some visibility as to where the money is going to come from for that, and then you go ahead and try and solve the problem. But in the social sector, it is just the opposite where you say: “We have a problem, and we are going to solve it no matter what. Now let us try and figure out where the money is going to come from.” And that itself is a big move out of the comfort zone of the corporate sector. In the social sector, you are accountable for every single aspect of what you are going to deliver, and that is purely the execution part of it. But the bigger challenge is actually going to where there is a need; the transition to working in the social space is effective only if we can do this. A large part of that is going to places that are outside of our bubble — for example, going to remote villages or slums or places where there are a lot of sick people. So I think it is not as much a question of personality or a specific trait, but rather that you should be comfortable being with all sorts of people and in all sorts of environments going into this sector. Thankfully for me, I was able to make this transition because I was exposed to all of this from a very young age. The other part of making this transition is that there is a lot of uncertainty in terms of how you define success or failure for a particular project or initiative. Anybody who transitions into the social space must be able to anticipate a lot of variables that are extraneous to your own effort. While all this may make it seem very challenging and difficult to move into this sector, I think the gratification that comes from seeing that your efforts are actually making a difference actually makes it completely worth it. The transition is definitely not a breeze, but it is a learning experience. You learn and you grow. 


Q4) Let me put this bluntly: Do you miss the corporate paycheck? 

Of course! The first month when I didn’t get that salary, I nearly wept. I did save up quite a bit before I made the move to the social sector. But having said, there are a lot of people who enter the social space and become entrepreneurs, and there are foundations within organisations and social organisations that can provide you the same amount of money. 


Q5 ) How do you see yourself and your organisation growing over the next five to 10 years? Are there milestones that you have set and would you say you have achieved success if you meet them? 

Currently we are working with rural government schools. From a work perspective over a five year horizon we are trying to see if we can move the medium of education for 800 government schools in one district and then and create very different education models opportunities for all the kids in that particular district. We are also adding various fairly complicated problems that we are working with in and as part of our work, whether it is in health where we are treating blindness or trying to tackle challenged kids. For me, success would be if we are able to significantly influence the education system in the geographies that we are working in and from a purely deep impact perspective. The way I look at success is I am not looking at the numbers, the numbers will automatically come. If we do our job well we are going to be able to achieve significant change and development over time. From a work perspective we are looking to see what can be done best. Ten years down the line I definitely want to make sure that the programs that we have started in limited geographies cross various countries  because we are capable and built into each of these projects these will actually happen. I also hope that for me success If  this organization has to bid for more people who are in the for-profit space and who are also balanced with the social needs of our country and our people. If I am able to do that successfully I think that would be a service rendered and what one would actually set out to do and that’s where I see success. 


Q6) Are you getting CSR contributions from companies and, if so, has that pool grown over the years? 

Yes we do get CSR contributions, and they have progressively increased. For the first two years, we were unable to raise CSR donations. But this year has been a good year in terms of CSR and a lot of that came from companies and also the ISB network.