Ashish serves on the board of several non-profits including Akanksha Foundation, 3.2.1 Education Foundation, Teach For India, Centre for Civil Society, Janaagraha and GiveLife. As Founder and CEO of CSF, Ashish hopes to bring a fresh impact-based approach to philanthropy in India. He was recently recognized as the NextGen Leader in Philanthropy by Forbes India.
You must have been asked this question a million times before but we would still love to hear this from you. How did CSF happen? We know that you always were close to education but what exactly triggered this transition?
Essentially, this was something that I always wanted to do. From a personal standpoint and also from the country’s perspective, this was an important area that I felt needed to be focused on. There are NGOs and foundations that do a lot of work in education, healthcare and livelihood, but I felt that there was a need to narrow things down and focus on certain aspects within education. That was my calling.
What is your modus operandi? Is it impact investment or pure play philanthropy?
There are two parts to CSF’s strategy. The first, already in action, is to make seed stage capital available in the form of grants to startup non-profits.
The second piece in CSF’s strategy involves research and advocacy.. “At the end of the day, philanthropic capital is limited and you cannot scale beyond a certain point. You need to involve government and policy makers.
We realize that no goal can be achieved at the ground level without bringing in changes at a policy level. Hence, we must strive to create an ecosystem for all the non-profit organizations and the reformers to come together and work on a common platform. To address this need, CSF organizes special programs like Excellency Seminars and also provides open education resources and conducts media workshops as steps to improve the quality of education. The organization also interacts with policy makers and carries out extensive research and advocacy activities.
Why did you choose education as a sector? What specific areas within the space is CSF is focusing on? Do you have precedence to education based advocacy?
CSF only focuses on the K-12 category and not in the higher education space. We are not doing charity, but are trying to make a difference on the larger scale. There are 2 ways to do this and both are connected. One is to build evidence by funding through a dedicated corpus that can have a longer social impact and help non profits grow, but more importantly build evidence that can then be connected to policy. The second is on the policy making and advocacy side. Our belief is that by gathering the evidence that we build and also by coming up with new ideas and advocating them, we can add value. Again there are different ways of doing this; either we come up with new practices like introducing standard assessment techniques for schools which can be used throughout or we could focus on something that already exists and do it better. For example we have 14000 teacher training institutes and we have come up with a rating framework to evaluate these institutes. We are currently running a pilot program with the ministry on it. The third level could be to introduce some micro changes in the policy.
Everything that we do has to have some scalability and replicability within the system. If it’s a school, it has to be at the same cost as a government school so that when we go to the government and ask them to replicate this model; they cannot raise the cost issue. Our venture capital side looks at scalability and replicability.
In the Western world, there is a lot of work happening on education based advocacy. For example at the Gates foundation, they spend a lot of money and time in advocacy. They sponsored a very critical piece of research for teacher effectiveness which focused on learning outcomes, teacher observation, managing student teacher ratio etc, and are now advocating these changes across different states. They are also advocating changes in the evaluating systems and change in the pay systems based on their research. There are several other models globally. In India, we have a Centre for Science and Environment approach, which is looked at as a more activist approach. They have very good reports to advocate for change. For example, if we look at Delhi, small industries have now moved out and the pollution levels have also decreased in the last 15 years, and CSE deserves a lot of credit for making these issues mainstream and educating people and policy makers alike. There have been a lot of instances such as these in India and we have had people like Vinod Raina advocating for Right to education for 10 years before it was finally passed, RTI etc and there have been a number of people who have managed to make an impact based on research and through constantly advocating their points to politicians.
How is CSF taking care of its funding requirements?
So far I have been investing in the company. We are over two years old now and my belief is that at least for the first three years, I should fund it. I shall continue to do it beyond three years as well. I realize that it is during the first three years that you make a lot of mistakes as there is no clear strategy. I do not want to lose somebody else’s money. Now we are comparatively clearer in our objectives and know what are strategies are going to be. By the end of three years we would have had a lot of achievements and wins on the advocacy front; would have all our systems in place and have a proper functioning board. We would also have had our research published by then, and it is only then that we would like to invite others as donors. My belief is that before I go to a friend to ask him to invest in my venture, I would like to prove to myself that I am making a difference.
Tell us a little about your current portfolio? How would you measure impact here?
There are 2 million NGOs in India but it is hard to find those that fit our criteria and so speaking in a VC terminology, I would say that we need to create a lot of deal flow even though there is not a lot of moneymaking. Even with new social entrepreneurs, the pool is nowhere as deep as the corporate pool. In terms of impact and measurement, we are clear that we want to work with people who believe in matrix; which could change depending on its pull. We look at input matrix and use hard numbers to look at student learning. The High Income Group schools use Asset-test as a measure of learning and the target that we had set for ourselves was that our students should be at least at a 50th percentile on assets. It is a very ambitious target as we expect a child from a slum to do as well as a child from the upper income group. We set these types of targets and measure them monthly and annually and have a clear sense upfront of what we are looking to change, the scale and what kind of evidence we want from this initiative. All this is very important as otherwise one wouldn’t know where the money is being spent. We have daily conversations with all the people involved and have reviews every month.
You have been awarded the Next Gen Leader in Philanthropy? What is your take on Philanthropy in India? Does India require a different approach?
The signs in India are positive and the quantum of people doing it; especially with the first generation entrepreneurs who have made their money in IT, pharma, financial services etc type of cleaner businesses is heartening. These people are actually making a difference and are looking at giving back to the society. A change that I have seen is that now people are more systematic in their approach, contrary to how it was earlier when a business man would give money to a project that was being headed by his wife and which had no clear objective. Also, people are now more focused on what are the areas they are most passionate about and try to make a difference there. There are however some areas where there should be a lot of improvement. People need to take a little more risk at the start. There is a check the box kind of mentality and people are not looking at philanthropy with an open mind. For example, someone might be interested in your cause but then they would think that it is just a small new organization they have not heard of and that they would rather invest in something more famous. We need more research; and if someone is donating to an organization, they should be sure that they are giving to the right people and be aware of the landscape. Also, I feel people are punching well below their weight when it comes to advocacy based on research. They need to be pumped up and need to back their claims by research if they want to make a difference.
What takes most of your time nowadays?
The whole advocacy part is what remains at the top of my mind most of the times. It is long term, hard to measure, difficult to prioritise between long term and short term, very relationship based and subject to change. It is something that I did not have to do in my prior job, but I see that as an opportunity. Being able to work with the government is also something that occupies a lot of my mind. No doubt that the government is more open, but getting them to move at our speed and getting them to focus on our matrix is difficult. The fact that their vision of quality is very different and there isn’t necessarily a belief that every child can study. Breaking that myth is a huge challenge.
You have been one of the most successful and influential dealmaker over a decade. What is your current read of the PE industry in India?
I think the PE space is turning and is in a phase where the men will get separated from the boys. We might also get a bad name for a year or so because some of the exits will be bad and some people would be stuck with their investments, the returns on historic businesses will not look very rosy, but if you are investing today, you need to look at it from a 5 years perspective and not look at history. People are negative on India currently but the environment is only going to improve. We have had head winds in the last 5-6 years and I see tail winds coming now. PE is a derivative of the economy and the market sentiment and if that improves, then we see improvement. I however do not see a lot of improvement in the next 1-1.5 years, but will improve post that.
What do you do when you are not working? Tell us a little about your family?
I read a lot when I am not working. I like skiing and travel a lot. I have 3 children; 2 girls and a 3.5 yrs old son. My parents and my wife’s parents live in Delhi and so do all of my siblings, which gives me enough opportunity to bond with my family.