Purpose over profit: A shift in priorities in times of pandemic

What was once a niche and the under-resourced sector is attracting interest from high achievers for whom a purpose larger than self is a path to personal growth and actualisation.

The pandemic has amplified several trends and triggered a few new ones. Large scale global events have a way of bringing out our natural instincts in undiluted form. Across the world, people have responded to the calamity in diverse ways. For example, some have sprung into action to provide relief or raise awareness, some have locked down and protected themselves and communities, some have raised their voice in anger. In contrast, others have reflected on life’s priorities and made changes to their goals and plans. Underlying these responses is an awakening of social consciousness that is beginning to show in the career choices professionals are starting to make in large numbers.

In the last decade, as a generation of professionals achieved their career and personal goals in an accelerated manner, the Indian development sector witnessed an inflow of top talent which showed in the occasional headline, such as “Investment banker leaves a cushy job to serve destitute women”. Such shifts in aspirations and pursuits made headlines because they were intriguing and out of the ordinary. However, what started as a trickle is now becoming a flow - and one sees a paradigm shift in aspirations of India’s top talent. What was once a niche and under-resourced sector is now attracting interest from a growing community of high achievers for whom a purpose larger than self is a path to personal growth and actualisation. Moreover, the pandemic has triggered professionals who were contemplating a more active role in the social sector - to leap sooner. Last year, we witnessed several corporate honchos make this switch, and the sentiment continues.

Innovation in development sector

The development sector too has innovated in making the transition easier for lateral entrants. Instead of demanding a permanent career move into the development sector, Fellowships allow individuals to test the waters and experience the realities of an otherwise opaque sector. Fellowships have proved to be a powerful means to make a time-bound commitment for deeply immersive learning. Starting with Fellowships for more junior talent like Kaivalya’s Gandhi Fellowship and then increasingly experienced talent like the IDEX Fellowship, today we see even interest from senior executives. The Indian Administrative Fellowship from The/Nudge got over 750 applications from CXOs / VPs of MNCs and large institutions willing to forgo up to 90 per cent of their income to work with senior bureaucrats for 18 months to improve public systems. This interest is not limited to senior professionals. When Dalberg announced a mid-career fellowship for 20 professionals to work on social impact, they received 600 applications in a short span of 1.5 months, which is overwhelming given they were asking people to step away mid-career to work in the social sector for six months. International networks like AVPN and LGT Venture Philanthropy have also seen a huge uptake for their fellowship programs in the pandemic aftermath. Mid-career professionals go through a rigorous selection process that tests their commitment and resilience, in addition to their ability to learn and contribute meaningfully. This vitality and interest will go a long way in unlocking talent, funding and political will to solve some of India’s most critical developmental challenges.

Youth’s paradigm shift

The most promising of these trends is the paradigm shift in aspirations for India’s youth. Young Indians are achieving financial success far sooner than any previous generation and will benefit from one of the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth through inheritance. However, they are also a generation that realizes that the planet is finite, and hence material pursuits must remain finite too. This results in the popularity of academic programs in social sciences, environmental studies, social entrepreneurship and leadership for the non-profit sector. While technology and medicine continue to be highly coveted fields, we are also witnessing an unprecedented interest in programs that are stepping stones to a career of social purpose.

India and the world’s challenge of sustainable development cannot be solved by any single institution or model of change. It will require top talent in large numbers to solve developmental challenges as their life’s work. Even before the pandemic, a lot of these problems were growing faster than solutions. The shock of the pandemic has set us back by a few decades and dialled back the progress we had made in bringing 270 Mn Indians out of poverty through economic liberalisation. This convergence of demand and supply for the brightest, most committed problem-solvers for India’s developmental problems is a ray of hope in these grim times. It is our ardent belief that a societal shift towards purpose and a redefinition of what constitutes as success will usher in better times for all.

Sudha Srinivasan is CEO, The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation and Ashish Karamchandani, President, The/Nudge Foundation

Published on May 06, 2021

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