India, as a developing country, faces several social challenges in the areas of literacy, healthcare, poverty, environment and many more. The need of the hour is a strategic and professional “outcomes driven” approach to address these challenges.

Our next pathbreaker, Tara Chand, spearheads Oak North’s CSR initiatives, bringing the much needed rigor, dedication and professionalism to a sector that has always been relegated to the sidelines.

Tara talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about his early life experiences that inspire him to make a difference everyday by ensuring transparency, accountability and efficiency of social initiatives.

With several corporates and private players allocating funds for CSR initiatives this sector requires several young people who are very passionate about making a difference to the world we live in. Read on to know more …

Tara, tell us about your initial years?

I was born and grew-up in a small village of Aligarh in a family of marginal farmers and agricultural labourers. I migrated to Delhi at the age of 5 with my father who was working in Delhi as a carpenter while my mother stayed back in the village to take care of my aged grandparents and other siblings. 

I spent my early childhood in a slum in Delhi and completed my primary and secondary education from government schools run by Municipal Corporation and Delhi Government. I initially opted for commerce stream after matriculation but decided to change to humanities. I was an average student but was good in extracurricular activities including National Social Service Scheme (NSS), dramatics and poetry. The National State Resource Centre for National Adult Literacy Mission at Jamia Milia Islamia trained me in street theatre and script writing through Govind Pandey, a well-known Bollywood actor. This was the time when I was introduced to a nonprofit organization running early childhood education classes and engaged in other development work in my neighborhood. I started volunteering with the nonprofit at the age of 14 years and also joined NSS in school. As an NSS volunteer, I conducted classes for many illiterate senior citizens under National Adult Literacy Mission. This developed my interest towards working for the development of people coming from underprivileged communities. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

Coming from a socio-economically disadvantaged family, I faced numerous challenges. My parents were also not in position to provide me any career guidance due to lack of education, awareness and exposure to the outside world. I was the first person in my family to take-up graduation despite all the odds of poverty and discrimination. The head of the nonprofit where I was volunteering advised me to study social work as this was aligned to my interest of helping people in need. He accompanied me to a Delhi University college offering B. A. (H) in Social work and enrolled me for the entrance exam which I qualified with rank and was granted a seat to study B. A. (H) Social Work. Social work was not only a way to help people like me, but this was also considered to be one of the best professional courses offered by the University of Delhi and could provide ample job opportunities with nonprofits, government and corporate houses. 

I completed my graduation despite all the socio-economic hardships. However, after completing the course I realized that no good jobs were available for social work graduates. One must have a master’s degree to get a good job in social work field. Again, my next challenge was to qualify entrance exam for post-graduation in social work. I wanted to study at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, but my economic condition didn’t allow me to appear for the selection process. I decided to focus on Delhi School of Social Work, one of India’s premier schools of social work. I cleared the written test and interview and seeing my name in the first list of selected students was like a dream come true. I completed my M. A. in Social Work as an average student but working as Student In-charge Placement Cell, Convener – Social Action Forum, General Secretary – DSSW Student Union and Team Leader for various student camps provided me opportunities to transform my overall personality and learn from my other classmates. I believe studying at DSSW was the best personality development course I could have ever done.             

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

I believe the nonprofit where I was volunteering played a major role in developing my interest in social work. The head of the nonprofit Mr. Arun Tandon who was also a professional social worker, influenced me to take-up social work as a career. He was the one who helped me recognize my skills and convinced my parents to give me freedom to do what I wanted to do in life. Since then, my parents have supported me in whatever I wanted to do in life. Qualifying the entrance test for B. A. (H) Social Work was a turning point of my life where I met some of the best hearts and minds such as Baba Amte and read about the work of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and many other reformers. As I lacked confidence due to my socio-economic background, a visit to Ashram of Baba Amte inspired me to do something to end inequalities and work towards helping the underprivileged. 

My personal experiences of growing up in a village where discrimination based on caste and gender were rampant also encouraged me to do something to make this world a better place. This also inspired me to decide to start a nonprofit organization which is why I opted for “Management of Nonprofits” as an elective subject in my final year of post-graduation.  

Apart from my personal experiences, Rishi Khosla, CEO and Co-founder, OakNorth, has been a great inspiration for me professionally and personally. He not only inspires individuals to become entrepreneurs like him but also encourages the CSR team members to take-up charitable initiatives with full professionalism and use the same business principles, strategies and practices to manage charity projects to make a wider and in-depth impact. He not only “invests” in charitable causes and social enterprises but gives equal emphasis on outcomes and results. He has always encouraged me to look for innovative projects that could deliver great impact and result in positive changes on the ground. His guidance has played a significant role not only in the success of our CSR programmes, which helped us achieve accolades at various forums, but also helped me look at social action not just as charity but a strategic change-making instrument.       

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

In 2003, I began my career with Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology (CAPART), an autonomous organization of the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, to support nonprofits in implementing government run schemes for the development of rural areas. CAPART provided me opportunities to work with various organizations including government and non-government agencies in Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.    

As per the contract, I was eligible to apply for seed funding to start a nonprofit at the end of my contract period. I completed my tenure of three years but then Deputy Director General, CAPART asked me to continue working until the launch of a nationwide scheme and appointed me as a Consultant. However, I was eager to start a nonprofit and quit the job in couple of months and applied for seed funding to start a nonprofit. 

I used the seed funding provided by CAPART to establish Association for Welfare, Social Action and Research India (AWSAR), a nonprofit that provided technical support to other nonprofits and conducted research in the social sector. After working for nearly two years as a social entrepreneur, I was employed by project management consultancy firm Tokyo Engineering Consultant Consortium to advise the National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) and Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) on how to effectively implement Yamuna Action Plan – II (YAP-2) by encouraging active public participation.   

Subsequently in 2008, I joined Copal Partners as part of a joint venture with UK-based advisory and consultancy firm New Philanthropy Capital as they provided me an exciting and unique opportunity to conduct social research and advise business leaders and donors on how to optimize donations to India’s social sector.   

Working from India as a CSR leader for India, China, Sri Lanka, and Costa Rica through Moody’s under the guidance of Arlene Isaacs-Lowe, Global Head – CSR, Moody’s Corporation, and Avadhesh Dixit, then HR – Head, Moody’s Analytics Knowledge Services, enabled me to internationalize my expertise, bringing global perspectives to cases, particularly those requiring concerted efforts to achieve definite strategic CSR objectives. Processes and procedures were established to ensure results of company CSR initiatives and CSR transactions. – whether long-term or matching grants, volunteer projects, or pro-bono initiatives – were quantified and evaluated to the same high standards and specifications as other business deals. The support and guidance received from the senior leaders was instrumental in the success of CSR projects.

How did you get your first break?

I was the students in-charge for Placement at Delhi school of social work. I decided to appear for a job interview when all the students landed a job. Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology (CAPART), an autonomous organization of the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, was the last organization to conduct interviews in the placement season where I decided to appear. The most exciting part of this job was to learn the functioning of the government and process of designing and executing policies and programmes on the ground. CAPART was also providing seed funding to establish Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology nonprofits to work in rural areas which excited me the most. The process of selection included a written test, group discussion and a panel interview headed by a senior IAS officer of Joint secretary rank. I was selected as a Young Professional based on my performance in entrance, group discussion and personal interview. 

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

  • Challenge 1:

I completed my senior secondary education from Hindi medium government schools while the course I opted for was in English medium. My initial years were highly challenging as I was not able to understand many subjects due to poor understanding of English. It was a huge challenge for me to complete B. A. (H) Social Work as the medium of course was English. I used to read same chapters multiple times to understand them. Many times, I used to refer to Hindi version of books for better understanding of lessons.  

  • Challenge 2: 

Next challenge was paying the college fee in one installment after saving for almost a year when this was more than one month’s salary of my father, but I was determined to provide a better life to my family and get out of poverty. I challenged my circumstances, worked as a wedding photographer/videographer, tutor and took-up other odd jobs including selling products in trade fairs or taking-up part time jobs like surveyor for a research firm. 

  • Challenge 3: 

No conducive environment at home. I spent most of the time with my college friends in the hostel as I didn’t have any likeminded friends in my locality and faced a hostile environment. I decided to stay in the company of good friends who wanted to achieve something in life. 

Where do you work now? 

I work with OakNorth as Head, Corporate Social Responsibility, where we have a dedicated team of CSR professionals proactively involved with partnering nonprofits to plan, monitor and measure the impact and sustainable results of our CSR initiatives. 

OakNorth’s CSR initiatives are derived from our core values. Globally, OakNorth has committed to donating one percent of its group profit to supporting charitable causes and social enterprises. We strive to create and support opportunities for the conservation of natural resources, empowerment and inclusive development of underprivileged communities across all OakNorth locations. In this pursuit, we support various non-profit organisations which focus on women empowerment, child education and development, and the environment. 

My job involves designing programs that provide technical assistance to community-based and non-governmental organizations in the areas of program planning and management, resource mobilization, budgeting, financial planning and management, impact assessment, and process/outcome evaluation. I also represent my company and speak on CSR initiatives and their impact at various internal and external forums. 

My day starts with replying to emails received from various internal and external sources and then attending meetings with nonprofits in person or over video call, writing charity assessments and review reports, recording minutes of the meeting and other communication and documentation related to CSR. I also coordinate with employees and nonprofits to plan and execute employee volunteering initiatives. 

The most amazing part of this job is that we strive to address the socio-economic and environmental issues faced by communities across our office locations.  I believe that the support and guidance from the senior leaders play an instrumental role in successful execution of all the assignments.

How does your work benefit the society? 

We support many nonprofits working on the ground to address numerous social and environmental issues faced by India today including malnutrition, early childhood education and women empowerment. My work directly impacts the society to make it a better place. I have been able to impact over a million lives during my last 16 years career through various developmental initiatives on environment, livelihood, education, child protection and nutrition.  

We use data to track the costs and benefits. Project proposals are requested from nonprofits in a format prescribed by us. The nonprofits have to explain the expected outputs, outcomes and results in qualitative and quantitative terms against all the project activities and indicators. The project proposal is only approved when the CSR Team is satisfied with the targets detailed in the project proposal. We use LFA (Logical Framework Analysis) as project management tool to track the outputs, outcomes, results and also verify the documents (means of verification) given in the LFA.  All the nonprofits are required to conduct baseline and end-line to see the actual progress made on the project.

We rigorously monitor the progress of the project on monthly basis where the nonprofits provide data on monthly basis on all the projects indicators which are consolidated by the CSR Team. Monthly phone/Video calls are conducted with the project implementation team to track the progress of the project and CSR team advises the implementation team if any course correction needed. Site visits to project location are conducted by the CSR team on six monthly and annual basis to review the project and final installment is released when the project’s progress including accounting is found to be satisfactory.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Creation of a Model Village in Chakrata, Dehradun, during my tenure with Moody’s where a number of innovative initiatives including the creation of a village development fund to provide interest free financial assistance to women for setting of micro-enterprises and OakNorth’s CSR initiatives with Seva Mandir in Udaipur and Prajwala in Hyderabad are among the most satisfying experiences.

Providing guidance to AWSAR’s initiative on encouraging people in urban areas to experience the rural life is very close to my heart apart from my job at OakNorth. IndiaVillageTours is an initiative to provide an additional source of income to farmers when they provide opportunities for travelers to experience rural life through homestays, engaging them in rural activities such as milking, agriculture, and cultural exposure. The initiative has been helpful in improving the standard of living and economic status of farmers in difficult areas.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Nothing is impossible in this world. If I can do it anyone can do it, provided they receive timely guidance and opportunities for education. All the students should follow their passion and pursue it with full commitment and perseverance. They should opt for a career wherever their heart and mind are. Right guidance at right time, hard work and a focused approach could do wonders and help you achieve everything you desire for. We need to recognize the opportunities and grab them whenever they come your way. Destiny does matter but I strongly believe that there is no substitute for hard work.   

Future Plans?

My future plans are to become a global CSR leader and a successful social entrepreneur where I can contribute for the betterment of underprivileged communities through innovation, information guidance and creation of opportunities for development. I would be happy to encourage youth and mentor them to take-up entrepreneurship as a career to provide solutions to various social and economic challenges to change this world for the better. I strongly believe that providing opportunities for education and mentoring for entrepreneurship could only change the fortunes of the underprivileged and marginalized.