In late 2001, an internal announcement at Wipro told us that Dileep Ranjekar, corporate executive vice-president, would lead the efforts at the Azim Premji Foundation as the CEO. I was based in Delhi. I had already heard about Mr Premji establishing the Foundation, and Dileep’s move was most interesting given that he was in a challenging and responsible role in Wipro.

Busy as I was, trying to improve the last quarter results in a difficult year, I carefully noted this development. On April 1, I took the first flight out of Delhi and arrived at Dileep’s office in Bengaluru. It was his first official day there and I was his first visitor. I told him that I wanted to join the Foundation. Two weeks later, leaving my wife and 15-year-old daughter (she was entering class X) in Delhi, I moved to Bengaluru as one of the earliest members of that fledging organisation.

Back then, few people made the transition from the corporate world to the non-profit sector. Those who felt the tug of contributing in the social development domain would generally do so later in their career; many, in fact, doing so close to retirement. I was over 45 when I made the change and was fortunate to make a seamless transition after over two decades in corporate because of some enabling reasons and circumstances: (a) The idea of moving into the social sector had been in my mind for a few years; (b) my family lived a simple life, which meant we were not shackled by a consumerist lifestyle; (c) my wife was not merely supportive of this move but felt it would be perfect for me, and (d) I joined when the Foundation was a small organisation and thus had the opportunity to do a variety of things and build my understanding.

The pull of the social sector has increased since those early years and almost acquired an allure. In recent times, more qualified professionals are making the transition in their 30s and early 40s, in the prime of their working life. Many of them seem to find their corporate roles limiting and look at a career in the social sector as one with larger meaning. One can sense how keenly they want to contribute to a better society, as they discuss knowledgeably and empathetically about the agrarian crisis, education, livelihoods and issues of equity and justice. Consciously giving up notions of designations and salaries, they come with the humility and commitment to learn and the desire to participate; they seem confident that they will make a place for themselves.

Quite a few of my young colleagues are people who moved from careers in business operations, technology, finance, administration and human resources. These are people who are clear that they want to contribute to social development for the rest of their lives. Their transition to a new and different career is perhaps successful because they are connected completely with the work on the ground and have taken pains to understand the complexities of social change. They are respectful of the ground realities and working in the field is aspirational for them.

This extent of involvement of corporate professionals and volunteers in social work or disaster management was not prevalent 15 years ago. I may not be incorrect if I were to say that this was not the situation when the earthquake hit Gujarat in 2001 or when the tsunami devastated Tamil Nadu in 2004. But one could see winds of change when the floods ravaged Chennai in 2015 by the manner in which young executives — both as volunteers and as members of civil society organisations — jumped into the thick of the relief work. And now, in these unprecedented times of the Covid-19 in 2020, we see this more clearly than ever before.

It has been a relentless battle against the pandemic for many months now. And we are in for the long haul. Thousands of selfless people are out there in the trenches, organising and providing humanitarian aid, contributing to various aspects of healthcare and raising awareness in the community. Many among them are young people who have moved from corporate careers to civil society organisations. Working shoulder-to-shoulder with them are also many volunteers who, despite holding regular day jobs, find the time and energy because of their passion to contribute.

One ought to look with great satisfaction at this lateral movement of people from the corporate sector to the social sector. There are many organisations working in areas such as education, healthcare, livelihoods, climate change and sustainability that will welcome talent. While these domains will benefit with professionals coming from the corporate sector, for the people who join non-profit organisations, it will very often become an immensely fulfilling life experience. These are important times in the history of our country’s social sector.

S Giridhar is the chief operating officer of Azim Premji University