Humanising work: the Impact Sector edition

‘Bring all of yourself to work.’

‘Don't bring all of yourself to work.’

‘Retain the ability to view your work from a distance.’

‘Work-life balance is super-crucial.’

I am sure you've read at least one of these sentences above sometime in the context of how you approach work. I've had pretty strong views on these aspects myself. When I was thinking about work and life and everything in between, a special group of people came to mind - people working in the impact sector.

A group of people who are so driven by a cause that sometimes it becomes their life's work. The cause pushes them to solve problems they deeply care about.

Work in the impact sector poses an interesting question: how do you humanise work when your work is all about human problems?

With this question in mind, I spoke to some people from the impact sector. I wanted to find out more about what the human aspect of their work meant for them.

Cause v/s self

"For me, making everyone understand the concept of dignity was an important part of the process. The dignity of the people you are working with and serving. At the end of the day, you are getting as much as you're giving. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking of yourself as a messiah", says Prachi Deo, the founder of Nayi Disha. Nayi Disha is a non-profit that aims to be a lifelong support system for families of people affected by Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities.

As is the nature of the work, community is a huge part of the work. "The aspect of connecting with a parent/caregiver 1:1 and being there for them is the human aspect of my work. As accessibility is central to our work, as an organisation we have imbibed it as a value. Working with community members also brings the human aspect and connect to the fore. In addition to that, you learn the value of listening to the community and recognise your role as a facilitator," Prachi explains.

At the same time, she cautions against people humanising their work excessively in the impact sector. Their commitment levels are high but Prachi cautions against self-sacrifice and over-identifying with emotional ground realities. Her advice would be to steer clear of the saviour complex that this field brings about in many and to remember you're not the only one trying to save the world.

Living your values 

Raju Kendre is a first-generation learner from a nomadic tribal farming community and is currently leading Eklavya - an organisation enabling first-generation learners from underprivileged communities. "While building my team, I never compromised on our values and parameters. Diversity and inclusion were and continue to be non-negotiable. This issue is often dealt with superficially in India but I knew I wanted to have the right representation in the team and its leadership."

In contrast to corporate culture where diversity hiring is often seen as a corrective measure, Raju's approach came across as refreshing. I wanted to know if his idea of humanising work came with a cost. "The line between professional and personal gets blurred", Raju admits and adds, "I was very emotional about decisions earlier because I believed in the cause so much. That can be a disadvantage. But with time, my emotional strength has improved because of human interactions and experiences."

Choosing your speed

I knew I could expect a different perspective from Smita Ram, the co-founder of Rang De - a peer to peer lending platform enabling farmers and rural entrepreneurs. One of the reasons is she's been in the impact space for the last 15 years.

"It's about telling stories the way they are. No sugar-coating and embellishments. Data and processes should not come at the cost of people's feelings and emotions", Smita says about her approach to humanising work. Another important aspect of this has been growing slowly. “We are a financial institution with a heart and have grown a lot slower because the belief is to be flexible and receptive to our community's needs. As opposed to a cookie-cutter approach."

This comment on speed made me think. Often the human aspect gets erased by scale and speed - the altar at which many conventional founders sacrifice so much. "You need to recognise that you're a human as well. We all think we have to solve it ourselves and end up adding a lot of pressure. Eventually you realise when to take a break and when your team needs a break too. There's no rulebook,” Smita emphasises.

Express your vulnerabilities

It’s ironic - their work is about being human but people in the impact sector seem like they are  really struggling to retain their humanity. The sector has become ruthless like any other industry", shares Tanmoy Goswami who runs Sanity - India's first independent mental health storytelling platform.

Tanmoy points out the struggles work in the impact sector brings about - compassion fatigue, vicarious or secondary trauma and moral injury. Moral injury is interesting - a rift caused in someone's psyche because they witness something wrong happening and find themselves unable to fix it.

"The biggest positive is the way people have started being vocal about what they need. They have started demanding that from their industry, speaking up. But at the same time, there is also a concerning trend where people sign up to work for social enterprises and end up being in depression because they are overworked and struggle with their organisation's unreasonable expectations,” Tanmoy warns.

This is a special sector and as I noted at the beginning of this piece, a special group of people. The impact sector demands much more than usual work. It demands your emotions, commitment and absolute involvement.

My own involvement with this sector has been very illuminating. Before joining my current full-time stint at Rang De, I have been consulting for NGOs in the impact sector over the last three years. For me, work in the impact sector has been all heart. You push through the challenges because you can see the direct impact of the work. There is rarely that cutthroat element we usually associate with corporate work. But at times, it has been very challenging to stop thinking about the work and the cause because there's always something more you can do. You have to consciously stop yourself from pushing yourself too much and conserve your empathy and energy.

Humanising one's work in this sector may be about looking out for yourself and your team, having clarity about your values and forging your own path. Or it may be about embracing the very human vulnerabilities that shape both the problems and solutions in this space. It may come down to choosing between people and processes. Or it might be a completely new approach we don't know yet.

A non-profit or social enterprise - work in the impact sector will always be full of its own challenges. Humanising the work done in this sector deserves its fair share of introspection, critique and celebration.


Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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