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For some Indian nonprofits, one of the biggest impediments to reaching many more constituents in need is the scarcity of people who have the right skills for the job. For example, in a country where one out of five primary school teachers is unqualified, it can be challenging for education nonprofits to recruit master educators who can effectively instruct disadvantaged children and their teachers.

Some nonprofits have responded by embracing an innovative hiring mind-set, where they search for potential staffers in hidden-but-promising corners of the talent pool. To make this approach work, these organizations create win-win value propositions: They attract and train staff who come from the same communities they serve.

Turning Clients into Staffers

Recruiting staff from constituent communities has a number of advantages. Consider Aravind Eye Care System, whose 5,000 staff complete more than 400,000 surgeries and laser procedures a year, half of which are free or greatly subsidized. Aravind recruits most of its female nurses, also known as mid-level ophthalmic personnel (MLOP), from rural communities, where many would otherwise work as day laborers, and trains them. Thus, Aravind brings the women into the formal economy with all of its benefits, not least of which is a stable salary. The MLOP, who do everything in the hospitals except diagnose and operate, are a key reason why Aravind has become an unparalleled eye-care provider.

Another organization that has embraced the innovative hiring mindset is Magic Bus, which gathered enough skilled volunteers and workers over nearly two decades to reach more than 400,000 children living in poverty. With a motto of “childhood to livelihood,” Magic Bus’s mission is to educate children from India’s poorest neighborhoods, train them for employment, and help them find jobs.

The organization came to life when an Englishman named Matthew Spacie started playing rugby with street kids. One Saturday, he boarded a bus and drove into one of Mumbai’s harshest slums. Approximately 50 marginalized children got on and joined him for a weekend of playing and picnicking. According to the nonprofit’s history, “These children experienced freedom and creativity, and returned home raving about the Magic Bus.”

Their euphoria, however, was short-lived. "After this incredible holiday, these kids would go back to their slums and feel terrible about their lives," Spacie says. He got the boys hospitality and low-level administrative jobs. "But it didn't work. Within a month, they all resigned for different reasons,” he adds, blaming a lack of work ethic, discipline, and deportment skills.

Today, Magic Bus prepares children for work by helping them learn through play. Employing an innovative hiring mind-set, it also recruits many of its volunteers and staff from off the streets via mentoring and sports-based programs designed to impart life lessons about education, health and hygiene, gender equality, and nondiscrimination.

The process typically spans several years. Together with parents, local organizations, schools, and government officials, Magic Bus’s senior staff identify young adults in their late teens or early 20s who possess leadership traits, including qualities such as empathy for struggling children and a joy in serving others. Intensive training and feedback follows, and when ready, the young people volunteer to lead children through the Magic Bus curriculum several times a week—often in pairs of young men and women, so as to portray equal gender roles.

After six months, Magic Bus certifies these newly minted “community youth leaders.” This qualifies them to enter the organization’s Livelihood program, where they receive training in English, computer skills, financial literacy, and effective workplace communication and behavior. There is also specific training for external jobs, such as beautician, nursing assistant, or call center employee. Magic Bus then recommends participants to employers or takes on those over age 18 as Magic Bus staffers.

Shazia Malik’s journey illustrates how this approach can play out. In 2004, at age 13, she lived in Delhi's low-income Trilokpuri township. Growing up in poverty among eight siblings, she describes her life then as "hopeless." Though she enjoyed sports, society discouraged Indian girls from participating, and she had minimal interest in school. She recalls, "I was just passing time. I did not know what I wanted to do in life." But then, Magic Bus arrived at her government school.

Shazia quickly joined the program’s sports-based activities, and not long after, became a volunteer, leading weekly training sessions in handball and football for community children. "It made me feel like I was capable of doing something," she says of that three-year period. In 2011, Magic Bus hired her as a youth mentor, giving her a monthly salary of 5,300 rupees (about $80), along with other benefits.

One of the advantages of recruiting talent from among constituents is that it breeds trust. Children from India’s poorest urban neighborhoods are far more likely to emotionally connect, and share their struggles and dreams, with young staffers who come from their communities. Trust is the glue that binds volunteers, staffers, and children, and helps the organization and its stakeholders collectively achieve some near-magical results. For example, 95 percent of the organization’s enrolled children regularly attend school, and 98 percent of its adolescent girls are enrolled in secondary school—nearly double the national average. In addition, 70 percent of Magic Bus’s youth leaders go on to college, compared to 9 percent of the general population.

“Hiring” Community Stakeholders

One twist on the innovative hiring mindset is to launch and establish a project, and then recruit other actors, such as community groups or other NGOs, to take over. The advantage: The organization has a bigger opportunity to seed more projects. Plus, other stakeholders, because they have “pride of ownership,” are more invested in the effort. One organization that takes this approach is Child in Need Institute (CINI), which focuses on the health, nutrition, education, and protection of children and mothers. Headquartered in Kolkata, CINI’s programs have reached around five million people living in the states of West Bengal and Jharkhand.

Founded in 1974 by pediatrician Samir Chaudhuri, the organization facilitates partnerships between government agencies, NGOs, self-help groups, and community members to create and strengthen programs devoted to protecting and educating children. Using existing resources and locally derived solutions, CINI acts as an advisor to help get projects off the ground. Once a project has pushed beyond the startup phase, it passes ownership to community representatives, such as Panchayats. CINI steers funding streams to these locally elected bodies, which invest the funds in programs benefiting women and children. Among the recent projects: improving roads leading to schools, establishing village health centers, and improving meals (distributed through preschool education centers) to young children and their mothers. In this way, CINI recruits other development actors to further its work, which vastly expands its impact.

Building partnerships is the core of CINI’s work. For example, to help schools retain female students who are risk of dropping out, CINI collaborates with another NGO, IIMPACT—which focuses on the primary education of girls who have never gone to school—to provide on-premises, supplementary classes before and after school hours. By working with schools to engage students for the entire day and by positioning girls to succeed academically, CINI increases the odds that girls will stay in school. (Girls who lack an education are vulnerable to early marriage, trafficking, and child labor.) Through its partnership with IIMPACT, CINI has made school-retention supports available to nearly 10,000 girls.

Like Magic Bus, CINI also seeks out staffers from among its constituents. “We choose our workers from the same localities we serve,” says Chaudhuri. “These workers have similar socio-economic status as others in the community, and act as a bridge between us and the rest of the community. [These] well-trained workers continue the work as a government service provider [after] CINI’s exit.”

In this way, CINI builds deep ties between its staff and the communities they serve. And because its staff, stakeholders, and constituents share the same experiences, mission, and even fate, the organization enlists not only people’s diligence, but also such higher human capabilities as initiative and passion.

Executives at Aravind, Magic Bus, CINI, and other like-minded organizations know that when they recruit from their own client pool, they won’t often find people with the right credentials. So they look for other, more durable attributes, such as the right attitude and personal values that connect with the organization’s mission. Essentially, they adopt an approach that has proven fruitful in the for-profit world as well as the social sector: They hire for attitude and train for skill.

Aravind hires MLOP largely on their character and demeanor—that is, their ability to empathize with patients and their joy in serving others. Similarly, Magic Bus’ and CINI’s recruits sometimes lack formal training in their future fields. But these leaders believe that with good coaching, people who possess the values and mind-sets that best fit their organizations’ cultures can excel. Their logic just might amount to an effective prescription for scaling impact through innovative hiring.

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