( This post is part of Blog Adda's campaign on men who are "Soldiers for women:)
I have worked for nearly two decades with the non profit or the NGO sector.  I like to call this the “change” business!  Like any business, this sector also markets commodities in the form of issues in which change is required.  There are socially conscious people like you , me, governments, corporates, who are all  investors in this business of change.

The NGO sector, for the uninformed, is not exactly something that runs on the strength of volunteers or service oriented persons.  There are highly professional people with specialized qualifications who are part of it.  And the process of bringing about change is not simple- it is about as complicated as manufacturing cars from sheets of steel, assembling silicon chips to make an electronic  product or  mixing chemicals to make drugs. The larger the NGO, more the funding that comes in and therefore more complicated it is to run it.    Whatever be the size, the vision for all NGOs is  the same - to bring about change in a certain condition – it could be a situation of water shortage in a village ,income levels of people,  ability to cope with a disability etc.

There are people who think that working in a NGO is a very noble profession!  I will not dispute that but I would like to clarify that for many people in the sector, it is a job like any other. For every five out of ten persons who are part of the sector, it involves delivering on targets,( yes people here also have targets), following instructions, abiding by rules  and hoping that they get their increments, promotions and  move up  in the hierarchy or moving out into another non  profit for a better salary! Nothing wrong with that.. these are people who are making an honest living in a sector that most people do not opt for ! Everyone has a family to support and personal aspirations to fulfill.

What role does leadership play in this sector? I would say that leadership here carries more responsibility than in any other sector because  not only does it call for trusteeship in terms of holding and spending other people’s money for a cause ,it also involves bringing together heads and hearts  among your team mates so that everyone believes and works for that positive change! But sometimes, these changes can be very challenging because they question age old belief systems – beliefs that are so deeply ingrained in the society we want to change and in ourselves who are also part of this society.  

It is in this context that the story of my soldier is set. His war was against a society that made women – particularly poor women, powerless . An extremely quiet and reflective individual, he is the antithesis of the image of a firebrand feminist  who is generally associated with such things. Rather silly perceptions, really.. and anyway whoever said that a feminist was only female?  
I met him for the first time in 2006 and my first impression was “I am not impressed”   So I stood back and watched how he would deal with the mess that we were in at that time!
But deal with the situation he did … and how!!!!

There was a belief  that prevailed at that time among our project team, that we  were helping women if we were able to provide them with physical items – as in “things” . For example, if a fisherwoman was given a fish basket we felt good about it thinking that we have changed her life! As a person, who was involved in measuring change within the project, most people thought I was a very complicated person when I said that giving baskets to women would not really change their lives. Their idea was that more the number of such baskets given more one could say that women had been helped. I learnt to keep my frustration with the situation to myself and go about counting the number of women and reporting on that.

Frustrations however, have a way of expressing themselves-sometimes as vocal outbursts and sometimes in other ways. A perceptive person, this soldier quickly understood that something was bothering me. I spent about an hour one day, trying to explain the situation. I was not sure that he would understand it because, I was new to the organization at that time and I thought probably I was the one with the problem . But he did understand as was evident from the questions he started posing during the team meetings and reviews. And I must say he started creating opportunities to help me use research effectively to see if such change was really happening! I was given a lot of freedom in terms of how I wanted to go about it but the bottom line was that I was accountable  in terms of clearly bringing to the notice of the operations team what was going right in terms of change and what was not. And every finding had to be supported with data!

When we work in the change business there is usually just a thin line that separates the personal from the professional. This is particularly so if we are trying to change the lives of women. When we do this, we question social hierarchies and also address abuse of power. Sometimes it is not enough to just go there and make that change ourselves. We have to enable the woman, who perceives herself as powerless to make that change – it gives her a huge feeling of confidence, a confidence that stays on with her for the rest of her life multiplying itself over the years.

I can state a personal example about how I was made to experience this. An extremely senior man in the organization suddenly took a dislike to me tearing apart a strategy paper  I had worked very hard on. I was very shocked by his response and I suspected that his criticism was not objective.   To say I was humiliated would be an understatement! I was in tears and was ready to quit.

I explained the matter to the soldier- my boss.  I wanted him to "take it up"  with this person .  But he reacted very differently. He  made me write a long mail to this person, challenging the points on which the paper was rubbished! I was sure that this mail was probably the last one that I was sending from that id. But strangely, it wasn’t .. I received an acknowledgement to the mail and also an acceptance that may be there was a point in what I was saying.  There was a strange feeling within me then- a mixture of confidence , faith in myself and elation that I had managed to do this! It was much later that I realized why my solider had not taken up arms. He had wanted me to experience this – it helped tremendously in building faith in myself. Such people are called “enablers” . They lead from behind, giving their troops the confidence to win the battle.

This was a strategy that we began to follow in all our work with women. Under his leadership, we began to look at ourselves as enablers. He demonstrated to us through his words and actions that for a change to sustain, the women whose lives we are setting out to change must develop the confidence and trigger it. It might take time but it was well worth the wait!

We started approaching issues very differently.  Every action that we planned had to be well thought through before we took it to him.  Though he encouraged us to be creative in our ideas, he was quick to spot wild ones. He told us the risk of putting on the ground some ideas that we thought were “revolutionary” in terms of their ability to bring about change. He cautioned us about the repercussions it could have on the lives of poor women should they fall through. Every idea therefore had to come from the women themselves and had to be  thoroughly discussed with them before we approved through our funding!

Like a good soldier, he was quick to spot the ones in his team who were fired with genuine  passion . He placed passion at a premium investing his time and efforts in molding  people who had enough of it!  Like a true general he was able to differentiate between the “mercenaries” and the “patriots”. He dealt with them differently!  

The non profit sector like any other, thrives on myths . There is a belief that only women can lead organizations or projects that deal with empowering women. Some people even believe that only women can work with women. But I think such beliefs absolve men from taking on the responsibility of addressing issues around women’s lives.  Empathy is gender neutral. Any sensitive person can understand the pain of another.  The lives of poor women in this country is an example of pain borne bravely on thin shoulders. So, why does the burden of having to lighten it be thrust only on women? And about being a soldier- it is not only a man who can be a soldier. All of us can be and are potential soldiers.

One does not necessarily need an organizational platform to be that soldier. But it is a pity if one is sitting on that platform and not helping another with conviction. A person  who believes with passion that change , however difficult is possible is a hero/ heroine . Such people take others along with them infusing positive energy. A coming together of such energy is what causes social change- it is what makes that subtle difference between doing a job well for that increment at the end of the year to bringing a smile on a poor woman's face.

My soldier did not receive any awards but I know for a fact that if he were to visit any of those villages where we worked, even after all these years women would come out in droves to greet him. Now, isn’t that what true appreciation is all about?
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  1. Hi I am first time seeing your blog and I cannot stop myself from reading all your archives! It's just so much sensible here unlike the jibber jabber of others!

    I completely agree with you that counting the number of baskets you gave is absolutely bonkers to determine your success rate. Alas! our government understands it too.

    And I don't mean to criticise your boss or anything but what all he actually did was just back your it's you who is the real winner here. But let's not get into any controversies here.
    Loved your blog
    Have a nice day :)

  2. Very nicely written.The soldier or your boss as I could makke out believed first in empowering the women who were the change agents before they empowered the women for whom changes are sought to be made.he could distinguish between the workers who received their salaries and the workers who worked for a cause,salary being incidental.Above all he built self faith and confidence in the people who worked in NGO while making them answerable to the outcomes in terms of changes in attitude and confidence at the beneficiary end and not in terms of tangible things delivered.
    You have brought out with clarity the role of NGOs clearly and that there is equal scope for men to participate in this cause of empoweing women

  3. Nice post. Love it.

    That senior executive is a nice person,I think. If he was tearing apart your strategy paper that does not mean he “dislikes” you or “hates” you. “Suddenly took a dislike to me”? I don’t think so.

    Senior executives behave differently in different countries. Here, if I send a proposal to my Senior Vice President and if he/she does not like it, they don’t tear it apart. He/She will ask about 2 or 3 questions. You reply. More 2 or 3 questions. You reply. More 2 or 3 questions. Then you realize (or a soldier will tell you) to drop the proposal all together. Proposal is dead.

    Sorry to say a corporation is not a democracy.

  4. Iheard you- welcome to this blog and thanks a lot for your encouraging comments. You are right about my idea being backed. But the trick is to know which is the idea that can be backed and also to identity ideas that are backed by passion. I hope to see you more here.

    @ KP thanks for your comments. NGOs are like any other organization- there are those who like what they do and others and who do it because there is something in it for them.

    @SG welcome back after a long break :). Actually, NGOs are not different from corportations. You are right to raise those questions. I wish I could tell you the "tale behind the tale" but it is beyond the scope of this post. The only cue for you is the line where I say that I suspect that his critcism was not entirely "objective" Every organization has its politics and it is not fair that I write about it publicly!

  5. I was on vacation. Just came back. I very well understand what you are saying. Been there before.

  6. M, you gave a pretty insight an impassioned one into a different world.

    May be it is that each of us is a carbon chunk waiting to be polished . And the man here did the same in a way .
    From my experience I believe that leadership blossoms in an non offensive way and constructively when the pride and ego that are trappings of positions is absent. I have seen how egregious ego and haughtiness violates constructive atmosphere and possibilities.


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