NGO Leadership Development in India: From Pioneer-Founders to Homegrown Leaders

As the trailblazers who built India’s nonprofit sector begin to step aside, a new study shows that NGOs face a significant gap in next-generation leadership. There are barriers to bridging this gap and building blocks to surmount them, but progress depends on founders and funders viewing leadership development as mission critical.

Disheartened over the teacher-student disconnect that impeded learning in India’s mainstream public education system, a veteran educator named Elizabeth Mehta believed she had a solution: a model where teachers, teacher educators, and students learn from each other. In 2003, having developed seven women from Mumbai’s marginalized community into skilled, early childhood teachers, she and her husband Sunil Mehta launched an NGO called Muktangan, derived from Hindi, meaning “free space.”

Over the ensuing years, they launched seven municipal schools plus a teacher education center, and partnered with UNICEF to train government “master educators” who, in turn, trained more than 10,000 teachers in the state of Maharashtra.

As Muktangan scaled and the work of managing the NGO grew, the Mehtas decided to gradually transition out of day-to-day leadership. They recruited three separate executives in succession, in an attempt to find a new leader for Muktangan. For different reasons, all three amicably departed.

The Mehtas have now turned to building a senior team from within the organization and coaching its members to lead, as it is this team that shares Muktangan’s values and vision. They have identified a promising individual from the team, who will ultimately take the NGO’s helm. “If Muktangan is going to sustain and expand, it can no longer be led just by us,” says Elizabeth Mehta. They just had to find the right leader.

The Mehtas’ story is not uncommon. Their conundrum—how to let go of an organization they brought to life and successfully transition to a new leader—extends across much of India’s social sector. Our research reveals that widespread doubts persist about whether NGOs and funders have done enough to develop the leaders who will replace the sector’s first-generation pioneers.

Gaps in Leadership Development

In part, the sector’s misgivings stem from a growing recognition that many Indian NGOs overly depend on a single leader, often the founder. A recent Bridgespan Group survey of approximately 250 NGOs (to the best of our knowledge, the first data-driven study of NGO leadership development in India) revealed that founder dominance runs deep. Founders are engaged with about 88 percent of NGOs launched more than 20 years ago and have remained at the helm (as “founder-leaders”) of more than a quarter of these organizations. And founders are involved in 99 percent of NGOs launched between 11 to 20 years ago. Yet these founder-leaders do not often think about the next generation; 50 percent of the surveyed NGOs do not have any leadership succession plans in place, and more than 70 percent of NGOs lack a succession plan even for their senior-most leader.

Diving in further, we probed a set of exemplar NGOs profiled in the Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Why Indian Nonprofits Are Experts at Scaling Up,” which spotlights 20 organizations that have extended their reach to millions of constituents. With an average tenure of 22 years, founders currently lead—in title or in practice—65 percent of them.

Like the Mehtas, some of the pioneering social entrepreneurs who launched NGOs a decade or two ago are beginning to relinquish their spot at the peak of the organization’s pyramid. Those who are contemplating a transition or have recently done so include: Madhu Dasa, who gave up the CEO post at Akshaya Patra, which he founded in June 2000; Dipak Basu, who conceived Anudip in 2005 and recently brought on an executive director to begin managing the NGO day to day; Matthew Spacie, who founded Magic Bus in 1999, attempted to bring in a successor for several years and recruited Jayant Rastogi as the CEO in 2016; and Vishal Talreja, who launched Dream a Dream with 15 others in 1999 and remains as chief executive, but restructured the organization in part so he could relinquish some of the decision-making.

Given the long tenures of some NGO founders, the pace of turnover will likely accelerate in the coming years. The next generation of leaders will soon have to fill the vacuum. But according to our survey and more than 50 follow-up interviews,1 they are ill-equipped to do so. More than half of the surveyed NGOs do not feel confident that anyone internally could effectively lead the organization in the absence of their senior-most leader.

“Most leaders do not strive to develop leaders,” says Megha Jain, an associate director at the strategic philanthropy foundation Dasra. “Many acknowledge [the need] when pointed out, but do not think about it as a primary part of their job or prioritize it against other urgent, day-to-day deliverables.”