Challenges in Scaling-up Actions of an NGO: Lessons from Kheti Virasat Mission

The organisation receives funding from individual donors from India and abroad (non-resident Indians). Though giving’ for charity, altruistic or social purposes is catching up among Indians, this is not enough for an adequate amount of resources flowing towards social purposes. Though many middle-class Indians afford to provide some money towards this, they are yet to see the importance of doing so. There is a lot more money flowing towards religious purposes and festivals than for social purposes.

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India has numerous small-size non-governmental organizations (NGOs) carrying out interesting work. However, most of these do not scale-up their operations, which results in two inter-related implications: first, the impact of their efforts remains limited, which is inadequate even with respect to their own vision of social change. Secondly, their scale may not be optimal, that is, it may not generate enough resources for the smooth functioning of the organization. Hence, an understanding of the challenges involved in the scaling-up of the actions of NGOs is necessary.

These challenges could be internal as well as external. There could be incentives for the members (including the founders) of NGOs to keep the organization small. There can also be challenges arising out of external factors that constrain the operations of these organizations. Though there could be specificities in the challenges faced by each organization, there are certain generalizable insights. Highlighting some of these insights is the purpose of this article.

This article is based on a preliminary assessment of the functioning of Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM) in Punjab. The organization is the initiative of an activist and freelance journalist, Umendra Datt, which arose from his concern about the environment, health, economy and livelihood in his native state. He could sense a disconnect between environment and the people and between people themselves during the period of the Green Revolution and his apprehension about the dying civilization around agriculture in Punjab motivated him to understand the issues better. Interaction with various people from different parts of the country and vast reading educated him on the ill-effects of chemical farming. He has started promoting organic farming in the state. He has never been a farmer, and that is the most common criticism he encounters while trying to educate farmers on the ill-effects of chemical farming and advocating organic agriculture. When he could convince some farmers through training sessions, they came together to register their group as an NGO, calling it Kethi Virasat Mission.

A number of farmers in Punjab have successfully migrated to organic cultivation through the facilitation and support of KVM. The organization also encourages organic kitchen gardens, and through this, many more households nurture such gardens. In addition, it is involved in the revival of traditional skills (like weaving) and knowledge. To encourage rural women to continue to practice traditional weaving, KVM provides them with raw materials, organizes fairs, and markets these products. Some of these activities are discussed in more detail (Box below). It receives funding from its well-wishers from India and abroad. The current annual expenditure (around 50 lakhs INR) of the organization is modest and reflects in the size of the organization too.

Network of organic farmers
The organization through its capacity building programs – workshops, seminars, training camps and experience-sharing sessions among the farmers – is reaching out to the farmer community of Punjab and is successful in convincing many farmers and the community, in general, of the merits and importance of organic farming. In addition to providing a space for sharing local knowledge, efforts are taken to educate farmers on the initiatives and experiments in other parts of the country by organizing talks by experts and through farm visits. The farmers are encouraged to preserve and use traditional seeds and to rear traditional cows and buffalos. The waste of these animals is used as the main fertilizer and ingredient of pesticides along with locally available natural pest repellents.Though many have been inspired by this involvement, a rough estimate of farmers practising organic farming could be around 5000 in Punjab. There may be around 400 – 500 farmers who are particularly interested and involved in taking up this program further by influencing other farmers or actively participating in the programs initiated by the organization. Initiatives taken by these farmers are documented by the organization.Kudarthi Kissan Haats
These weekly markets provide marketing avenues to the organic farmers associated with the organization. Though self-consumption is their priority, farmers are taking the initiative to market the surplus produce and are reasonably successful at their individual levels. The organization considers this program successful as it has helped increase the demand by the consumers. The plan to set up a few permanent shops is in progress.

This activity, which is mainly focussed on women, has the dual objective of reviving the tradition and culture of Punjab – women in small groups engaging in spinning and embroidery – and in providing livelihood support to the women from marginalized communities. Women who are skilled in spinning and in various crafts are identified and provided with the raw materials for spinning, weaving and making traditionally designed daries (rugs). Organic cotton is used in these products. These women are paid according to their work and the marketing is done by the organization, thus, giving a livelihood opportunity to the women without making them encounter the challenges of marketing.

Kitchen gardens
Women are involved in kitchen gardens in a space near their homes with support from the organization. Poison free food to your children’ is the slogan of this program, which has motivated women in many villages to practice it. Other than producing the essential vegetables for their own consumption, many are earning a reasonable income by selling these vegetables, which are in high demand in their own neighbourhood.

Village festivals
Festivals are celebrated to propagate the ideology of the organization and to display the produce and products from various activities. This serves as an opportunity for reviving traditional food items which are prepared and served during these festivals.

In our understanding, the organization faces two dilemmas. Though it has made an impact, the impact is far less compared to the changes that it wants to bring about in society. For example, its interest in organic farming arises from its concern about the declining soil fertility, pollution of water bodies and the degeneration of the natural environment. Though KVM has been successful in creating several successful organic farmers in Punjab, and they and their consumers get chemical-free farm products, the share of these farmers is very small within the state. There may not be any visible improvement in the health of the soil and quality of water (and other natural) resources, since the majority of farmers continue to use excessive amounts of chemical inputs. This situation poses one dilemma: Whether to continue the actions in the domain of organic farming at this level and be happy with the success of creating a set of organic farmers or to scale up operations drastically to connect with a larger number of farmers and consumers. To some extent, this is true with the actions to revive the traditional skills too. It is true that the organization has been able to connect with a number of women and has supported them in practising their traditional skills. They are also getting returns for their work without the extraction by middlemen. However, our impression is that the scale of this operation is too small. The possible impact of this action, say in terms of the number of women benefitting, or the additional income that they receive or the additional interest created through these actions to preserve the traditional skills, may be notable but small if the scale of operations remains at this level.

The size of the organization continues to be small and financially precarious without enough people and funding for ongoing/​proposed activities. If our understanding is correct, it also faces difficulties occasionally to meet the day-to-day expenditures. These constraints need not be absolute but can be a reflection of the organization’s willingness to pursue certain strategies (including the willingness to enhance operations). This is so since an enhanced scale of operation (with appropriate strategies) may bring in more resources for the functioning of the organization. We have seen such a situation not only at KVM but also at several other such small organizations. Therefore, it is important to discuss the challenges faced by organizations, such as these. (We do not presume that large-scale organizations do not face any challenges, but those are different from these.)

Our inferences are drawn from the discussion with the founder and other office bearers of KVM. Our experience in interacting with a number of other such organizations also informs this note. We categorize these challenges into external and internal.

Challenges: External

Organizations such as KVM work towards social purposes, an idea that is not shared by a majority of people, or even when the majority agrees, they are not willing to take adequate steps in that direction. For example, there are not many farmers who are concerned about or are willing to take actions against agricultural practices that involve excessive chemical inputs leading to the degeneration of soil, water and other natural resources. This is so even when farmers are individually concerned about the safety of the farm products which they consume.

Evidently, there is a need for activism in this area and this may imply a higher level of sacrifice on the part of such activists. Their success depends on the creation of awareness among the people at large, and this process itself is not so smooth. People with any level of education have a set of ideas, and many of them may not be willing to change these easily (based on the advocacy of any one organization), and this may require other personal reasons.

Organisations such as these may not get enough funding. The funding for NGOs is also undergoing a notable change in India. Earlier, there was a dependence on international NGOs and bilateral and multilateral development organizations. This source of funding has gradually become less important in India (since others see India as an emerging economy with resources). The Government of India has started funding social sector activities, but NGOs have to participate in government-designed projects to receive such funding. The mechanisms of participation are also increasingly becoming competitive and cumbersome, and many well-meaning NGOs and individuals may be disenchanted with this process. Private-sector funding is also catching up either with funds under Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or from philanthropic foundations (with or without direct connections with the corporates). There is a growing tendency among organisations to fund projects based on a specific agenda, which they consider important. Funding may be available for certain accepted large-scale causes, like abolishing child labour or infant mortality or HIV infections and so on.

The funding agencies may look for easily achievable, substantial and tangible impacts. An organization driven by its own vision and goal may find it difficult to tap the resources available with different funding agencies. Moreover, certain funding agencies (especially those related to corporates or big philanthropic foundations) seem to prefer large-scale projects and organizations which can execute such projects. Monitoring each recipient of the funds is costly for the funder, and there is a scale economy here – only a small share of funds is needed to monitor a project which requires a large amount of funding – and this may discourage funders with substantial amounts of resources to provide a large number of small grants. The NGOs get money only if they meet all these requirements.

The organization receives funding from individual donors from India and abroad (non-resident Indians). Though giving’ for charity, altruistic or social purposes is catching up among Indians, this is not enough for an adequate amount of resources flowing towards social purposes. Though many middle-class Indians can afford to provide some money towards this, they are yet to see the importance of doing so. There is a lot more money flowing towards religious purposes and festivals than for social purposes. Even those who provide resources face difficulties in identifying appropriate activities and reliable recipients, and the transactions are mediated primarily through personal contacts.

Organizations, such as KVM, are involved in the creation of awareness and provision of information. These are public goods1 and hence, it is difficult to mobilize resources through the provision of such goods. There can also be coordination problems and all those who benefit from these goods may not contribute back to the organization, even if they can afford to do so. This is another challenge faced by these organizations in terms of mobilizing enough financial resources for the scaling up of operations.

Given the limited amount of financial resources that these organisations can mobilise, they may not be able to employ an adequate number of appropriately educated people. Getting enough motivated people to work, who would continue to work for at least a certain number of years is also not easy. Even when there are youngsters who are intrinsically motivated and happy to work in such organisations, they too may need a basic financial compensation, and this may limit the number of people that these organisations can hire. There are also not enough people in India who are professionally trained to work in altruistic organisations, and this too may limit the human resource capacity of small-size NGOs. There could be one or two highly motivated people in such organisations and they may have to spend a significant time managing day-to-day administrative tasks (staring from fundraising and accounting to documenting), and on multiple tasks and projects, which too can reduce the effectiveness of these organisations.

The scaling up of the work of an organization like the KVM also depends on public policies. It is noted here that the promotion of organic farming – an important activity of KVM – depends on government policies in agriculture. Farming in the state of Punjab is heavily subsidized with support for the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, minimum support price for paddy and wheat, and governmental investments and support for irrigation (which indirectly promotes water-intensive crops, such as paddy). These can work against the effectiveness and scaling up of the operations of KVM. Or this may force the organization to work with a small set of farmers who are concerned and willing to take alternative steps even by foregoing the subsidies provided by the government. On the other hand, working on issues which are in line with government policies (like control of HIV, reduction of infant mortality or improvement of sex ratio) can be relatively easier for an NGO and may facilitate its scaling up.

These are some of the external challenges faced by organisations, such as the KVM. However, there can be innovative or proactive approaches to take on these challenges and build up the scale of these organisations. (Most firms or organisations which are successful have attempted this without waiting for an enabling external environment). However, such attempts require internal preparedness and relate to challenges faced within the organization. We discuss some of these in the following section.

Challenges: Internal

There are a few people who are highly motivated by an idea, and they may derive joy and hence, may sacrifice material comforts in its pursuit. Founders of several NGOs belong to this category. Their interest in the idea could be due to a number of reasons and not be only due to its potential social impact. For example, one can develop a strong interest in organic farming due to an innate interest in revitalizing the traditional forms of cultivation, preserving nature in its pure form, and so on. In which case, its possible social impact is only one of the reasons for the pursuit of an idea. This tendency is visible in other domains too, for example, many people are driven by specific ideas on education and they may elaborate the possible positive impact of these ideas on society, but they may focus on the idea itself and not necessarily the impact. Hence, there could be a greater focus on the pursuit of the idea itself rather than organizing actions in ways to maximize the impact on society.

People who wish to revitalize traditional forms of cultivation, artisanal skills and lifestyle, in general, may do so out of their concern about or dissatisfaction with the modern ways of life. For this reason, they may not like certain attributes or characteristics of modern businesses, such as its markets, globalization, exports, and so on. They would be happier with local production, consumption and exchange within close networks. These too may prevent them from working towards the scaling up of their activity.

There are people who think that they may be able to make a real difference at a small scale and wish to attempt only that rather than trying out large scale actions since the effectiveness of the latter is, to a great extent, uncertain. Small-scale actions and small organizations are controllable and the possible deviations from the core values can be detected and corrected which not be the case of large-scale actions and bigger organizations. Small-scale actions can take place in controlled environments. Several other factors which may have an impact on the effectiveness of actions can be controlled or manipulated in such a controlled environment. It is also difficult to scale up on the basis of the lessons of actions in a controlled environment since the ability to control/​manipulate other factors would decline as the scale expands.

Human beings derive joy through personal relationships. Such personal relationships may become less important in bigger organizations and large-scale actions where interactions would be based on codified rules and procedures. This may dampen the spirit of people who pursue joy in personal relationships. Since intangible ends (and not material incentives) are the driving forces of actions of many activists, they may not be willing to sacrifice such joy. In small-scale actions, a personal imprint is also perceptible.

Activists are likely to be driven by intrinsic motivation. The possible disconnection between intrinsic motivation and material incentives is noted in the literature. This disconnection is somewhat known to the people who are motivated intrinsically. They would take the extra effort to convince themselves and others that they indeed are not driven by material incentives. Expanding the scale of operations may be seen as part of a pursuit for more money and power. This may discourage some activists from scaling up their actions.

A number of activists who are driven by an idea or social purpose may not have the appropriate skill to manage the scaling up of an organization. Such expertise may include writing and communicating (branding and marketing) with a large number of people. Information technology (including social media) plays an important role in such communication these days. Currently, technology plays an expanded role in connecting a large number of service providers and consumers. Though some of these are used for commercial purposes (like Uber or Airbnb), the same technology can be used for social purposes or for the expansion of alternative production processes (like organic farming). All these may necessitate people with a higher level of proficiency in such activities. However, the small-scale NGOs may not have the resources to hire people with such expertise, and then this can become a chicken or egg’ problem.

As noted earlier, there is a connection between these internal and external challenges; the internal ones may influence the readiness of an organization to overcome the external challenges. To some extent, many organizations are constrained by the limited availability of financial resources, and it is through ingenuity and by following innovative approaches that some of these overcome such constraints. The internal challenges may impact this ingenuity and innovativeness. Or the aspirations of internal members may determine what is (and not) reckoned as an external challenge to be overcome.

Both these challenges and the attempts to overcome these would determine the development path of an organization. The possible paths for KVM are discussed briefly in the following section.

Way forward: Possible scenarios

Given the external and internal challenges that KVM faces, we foresee two scenarios.

Scenario 1
The first one is the continuation and gradual development based on the current situation. The impact of this path itself could be notable as we have noted earlier (while discussing the achievement of the organization). A number of people, under the influence of KVM, would start organic farming as their main occupation. They would use their own networks and those created/​facilitated by KVM to market their organic products. We do not foresee a major problem in them getting a relatively higher price for organic products compensating for the possible loss in yield (due to non-use of chemical inputs) as long as these farmers constitute only a small share of the population. A larger number of households would have kitchen gardens where organic methods are practised. The products from these gardens would be used for self-consumption. The number of full-time organic farmers and those who nurture organic kitchen gardens may increase gradually. A number of women may practice their traditional skills (weaving etc) and KVM may facilitate the marketing of products. There could be more women who would be interested in doing this work as long as they cannot take up more remunerative work outside the home (due to gender norms and household responsibilities).

However, the organization may continue to be very small with two-three full time-workers, and four-five project-based fellows. Though they would have village-level volunteers, they may not be able to attract well-educated ones due to the limited compensation that KVM can give. It may get donations from individuals or certain institutional projects just to meet its limited expenditure. There can be some informal contributions from organic farmers that it has sensitized and supported.

Such a scenario may give some amount of joy and satisfaction to the key activists (including the founder) though they may face some precariousness in financial matters. In this scenario, there would be greater control over the processes and activities of the organization. Personal relationships would be intact and closer. However, KVM would not be able to make a significant dent on the use of excessive chemical inputs in agriculture, and hence, the consequent degradation of soil, water, and other natural resources may continue without a significant decline.

Scenario 2
The second scenario unfolds when the organization decides to scale up its actions. This would imply a desire to encourage a substantially large number of farmers to follow organic farming, and facilitating the marketing of their products locally, nationally and internationally. This would mean creation and/​or collaboration with national/​global chains of supermarkets, and the use of technology apps to connect with a large number of consumers and producers. If the organization views that supermarkets or chains extract a greater part of the surplus from the producers (like farmers), it can facilitate newer outlets which share a greater part of the surplus with the producers. Or it can make these marketing channels owned and controlled by the producers through the formation of producer cooperatives or companies. All these would also increase the burden of ensuring the quality of products (guarantee that only organic methods are employed). This may require local producer guilds or cooperatives to cross-check and ensure the production processes.

Facilitating such a scaling-up would require an increase in the qualified personnel and financial resources available with the organization. This is possible if it can get a small part of the revenue of each transaction of organic products facilitated by it. Farmers would be willing to part with such a share when they see participation in the marketing process facilitated by KVM as profitable. App-based retailing has become common in the urban areas and these aggregators do recover a substantial amount of resources, and these are found to be in the interest of consumers and suppliers too. Using aggregator service, the volume of transaction increases for each supplier. Hence, they may be interested in sharing a small part of the surplus with the marketing aggregator. This can be an assured source of revenue for organizations such as KVM. These resources (or the expectation of such resources) may enable the organization to hire people with appropriate qualifications in not only management, marketing, and technology but also for the mobilization of farmers and small producers at the village-level or at the level of federations.

If the organization is not interested in involving itself in these commercial activities, it can facilitate the creation of a cooperative or producer company while maintaining a relationship with it. We have seen one such case in another NGO called CHIRAG in Uttarakhand. The producer company created by CHIRAG is involved in the marketing of products. However, a small part of the profit of the company is coming back to CHIRAG to finance its altruistic activities in education and healthcare. This model of creating financially sustainable organizations, and then, supporting the altruistic activities of the mother NGO could be an interesting model that organizations such as KVM can emulate.

However, the pursuit of this path might create certain costs and challenges. The organization could become bigger and the relationship within it could become more professional rather than personal, which may lead to a certain shrinking of the comfort zones of individuals. In addition to these internal issues, there could be newer external challenges. As the production of organic products becomes common, there is a possibility that the premium price that these get may decline, and it may reduce the incomes of these farmers, considering the reduced yield (compared to that of chemical agriculture). Then, there would be certain pressure to reduce the cost of production (or increase productivity). There may be possibilities of mass production of certain inputs used in organic agriculture or the use of machines, but these may create discomfort among certain organic farmers or ideologues and lead to discussions on alternative forms of cultivation which do not harm soil, water and other natural resources on the one hand, but keep the productivity in agriculture high on the other.

Response of the Organisation

The KVM is born out of compassion and it still works in a movement mode more than an organization. The trust is registered, and legal operations are carried out to meet the formal requirements. The organization believes in connecting more and more people to the movement on a voluntary basis which has both its advantages and disadvantages. Scaling up of organic farming is one of these. Nevertheless, more than just organic farming and scaling up, KVM is interested in Punjabi civilization, its culture, health and society.

Punjab has remained the main centre of the Green Revolution. People are still operating in that model of economic prosperity and it was extremely difficult in this land to talk about organic farming, but gradually farmers have understood it and started converting to organic farming. Now the elder generation is not physically capable of doing the hard work that organic farming needs and the younger generation does not show any interest in farming. So, continuing this movement and getting new people to engage in organic farming is a real challenge.

At the organizational level too, as mentioned, KVM is a small organization and there is always a lack of human, infrastructural and financial resources that is a challenge in expanding horizontally. In terms of vertical expansion and going deeper, KVM has been very impactful in transforming people’s lives as people just did not change their farming practices but also their entire lifestyles.

The organisation works on the principles of dedication and conviction which makes long-term commitment a challenge in contemporary times as it is very rare that people have the willingness to learn and contribute. The driving factor is mostly money.

In all these years, KVM has maintained its authenticity and credibility. People have contributed and have been contributing in whatever capacity possible. Making people understand the value of organic lifestyle would require a behavioural shift. It is a slow process and change will happen organically. 


V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University, Bangalore

Rema Devi, Field Practice team, Azim Premji University, Bangalore

Featured photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash