Resilience makes India a Leader in the Social Sector: Shehzia Lilani, Amani Institute

This weekend, February 27, 2021, marks World NGO Day, and what better tribute to the strength of India’s social sector than to understand its growth possibilities going forward in global settings.

In 2015, the CBI filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court Friday, stating that there are a total of around 31 lakh NGOs in 26 states (Karnataka, Odisha and Telangana had not yet submitted their data). This number includes organizations and bodies that have registered as a trust, society, or section 8 company. 

What are these NGOs doing for India? How are they supporting the world? This two-part series of articles explores two organizations based in Bangalore, and spreading their missions throughout the world. 

Amani Institute is a leader in the social sector, and its India Country Director, Shehzia Lilani. Shehzia has had a diverse background before arriving at Amani Institute some 3 years ago. Her first career track was in learning and development in the corporate sector. At Amani, a Swahili word for peace, Shehzia is responsible for leading the work in India, their base for supporting changemakers across Asia. She manages their flagship Certificate in Social Innovation Management program, has been an integral member of Amani’s custom-design programs team and has led trainings with The Rockefeller Foundation, The U.S. Consulate General (Chennai), the National Health Authority, University of Chicago, CRY, Upaya Social Ventures, Melton Foundation and Nilekani Philanthropies, to name a few.

Shehzia is full of smiles as she speaks, even while her mind is moving through her many responsibilities at Amani Institute, and all the fellows who have come through the India program over the last 4 years. Amani is a premier institution for enthusiastic freshers from around the world to step out of the traditional corporate career path and learn about the various styles of management in the social sector. Known for its Social Innovation Management PG Diploma course, it has branches in Brazil, Kenya, and India. Over the last decade, Amani Institute has trained 1000s of passionate individuals in its Social Innovation Management program, and has also developed programs in India. 

Tell us more about Amani Institute. Tell us about its vision, mission, core values, goals, and the current strategic plan. Who are the members that make up Amani? 

Shehzia writes enthusiastically about Amani: “Amani Institute’s mission is to develop professionals who create social impact. Responding to the widely recognized shortage of leaders in the social sector on one hand, and the growing hunger of people around the world to make a difference with their careers, Amani Institute was incorporated in the United States in June 2011 to create a new model for the higher education of existing and aspiring changemakers around the world. In 2012, Amani Institute was incorporated in its first country of operations - Kenya. This was followed by launches in Brazil (2015) and India (2017). From these, Amani Institute has conducted several varied and innovative training programs with individuals and organizations across all sectors, around the world, to build the skills needed for 21st century careers in social impact, as well as unique events and a robust social media presence to generate awareness of the possibility of such careers amongst the general public.” 

When discussing any social sector organization, it is important that every member has a clear understanding of the vision. Shehzia defines the vision in a crisp manner, stating, “The Amani Institute envisions a world beyond boundaries. These include boundaries between nations and, therefore, between peoples. Between disciplines and ideologies. Between the classroom and society. Between making a living and making a difference. The values that guide us in this journey are vision, courage, empathy, changemaking and global mindset. These values are front and center for every member of our team across the globe, a diverse multicultural team representing 10 different countries. However, the Amani Institute doesn’t end with its employees. Crucial to its existence is the 500+ strong community of alumni who are constant cheerleaders and most trustworthy ambassadors.” 

Amani has been involved in many projects, and has morphed into what the world needs. “In response to the varying development needs of organizations, Amani Institute also works with institutions across the globe to develop tailored interventions. As of 2020, the institute has worked on 160+ custom-designed leadership and management programs in 5 continents across the world for 100+ organizations including UNICEF, Ashoka, Vodafone, Deloitte, Georgetown University, University of Chicago, USAID’s Young African Leaders Initiative, UN Women Afghanistan, The Rockefeller Foundation, CARE, and Oxfam.”

How does Amani fit into the international social sector arena? What is Amani Institutes's dream for the next 10 years leading up to 2030? Are you working towards any particular UN SDGs? 

Shehzia explains how the Amani’s reach is to all the SDGs and beyond: “I would say the SDGs that Amani Institute directly works towards are SDG 4: Quality education and SDG 17: Partnerships for the goals. However, considering our work as a capacity building and training institute, we have enabled work on each of the 17 SDGs through our clients and partners that we have worked with over the years. 

Our latest project in partnership with Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs India and the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai, was focused on SDG 5: Gender Equality and was designed to facilitate a program that culminated in the creation of an all women social entrepreneur’s community. The project closed in December 2020, with the establishment of WISEN - Women in Indian Social Entrepreneurship Network - a self-sustaining body with their own core team dedicated to the growth and support of Indian Women Social Entrepreneurs.

Our dream for the next 10 years is to take our insights and offerings to the next level. We aim to be working out of many more countries and spreading our impact far and wide. So far we have operated in and out of the global south, we are geared now to take insights learned in this part of the world to the rest of the world. We dream to be leading individuals across this planet towards purpose driven careers and lives, enabling change across sectors.”

In the past, the social sector was wrought with low income issues, which lead to lack of value by society. As such, good talent was difficult to locate. “The interesting thing about this problem is that there is a growing interest in the social sector. Working in the social sector is no longer seen as ‘lesser than’. It also no longer comes with the caveat of having to sacrifice a decent income and lifestyle. The gap lies in educating and skilling individuals to excel in the social sector, as well as avenues through which organisations can find and identify the right talent. We are focused on bridging this gap, in India and globally.”

As Amani has been able to reach out from India, how can other social enterprises and NGOs from India expand to other countries? 

“We believe that the best way for social enterprises to expand their organizations (and their impact) is by harnessing the power of communities and collaboration. The Amani Institute is a testament to this. One of the pillars of our existence is the 500+ strong alumni community of the Social Innovation Management program. It is through this community and other clients and partners that we grow within the ecosystem. Further, when people and organizations working towards the same problem find ways to build on each other’s strengths, open up networks and support each other, ecosystem level impact starts to be created.”

Why is Indian leadership important in the social sector? 

“The two primary attributes that make India an essential player and leader in the social sector are - resilience and density. The resilience of individuals working within the social sector, but also of the general population of India is noteworthy. This can be attributed to the complexity of problems being faced and the vastness of disparities across class, gender, caste, etc. 

Another attribute about the Indian social sector is the density of the population being dealt with when solving for problems such as poverty, lack of access to education, housing and sanitation, etc. The notion of ‘scale’ becomes quite different when solving problems for a country of 1.4 billion people. However, this challenge has caused people in India to embrace creativity and problem solving in ways that have strengthened the leadership capacities of its people. There is much to learn from Indian leadership in terms of how they tackle complex problems and keep fighting the good fight.”

What is your dream for India's social sector? 

“We dream that India’s social sector no longer exists. By this, I mean that the need to identify impact work as ‘social sector’ work unnecessary; the words ‘social sector’ become redundant. Because every organization, for-profit or not, is working towards creating some form of positive, sustained impact. ‘Social’ becomes a part of the DNA and ethos of all work. We believe we are already on our way to this future, this dream. Lines are already blurring between sectors. The term ‘social sector’ is expanding to include anything from NGOs to impact investors. We hope to be a critical player in the materialisation of this dream.” 

Learn more about Amani Institute.