Innovation for Impact

In our everyday lives, we often come across products that seem to “get” our needs and work perfectly. While many such innovations are built by for-profit companies, that certainly does not need to be the norm. For example, in technology, while Google is the clear innovator in the internet search domain, Wikipedia, a non-profit, has created an entire ecosystem of community curated content on nearly every topic under the sun.

The social sector, which is looking to solve the gnarliest problems at a global scale, from clean water to education to financial inclusion, deserves our most transformative ideas and innovations. Our problems require a fresh approach from an innovation lens, rather than a scarcity mindset. As social sector innovators, we should thus feel enabled, even obligated, to create joyful, transformative products, interactions and experiences that build the same the feeling of “where have you been all my life” in our beneficiaries, partners, customers, clients. With our unbridled access to information, tools and resources today, this is very possible.

How do we go about creating these innovative solutions? How do we move diverse organisations and teams towards this common vision? How do we motivate our own selves to not settle for good enough? There are many, potentially interrelated frameworks (human centric design, lean startup approach and so on) which help us address these questions around excellence in innovation. One of the prominent ones is called the Design Thinking philosophy.

What is Design thinking, how does it look in action?:
The idea and adoption of Design Thinking initially came from the software industry, but over the last decade, has gained traction across other domains. Among other organisations, the Stanford University’s is a very prominent thought leader in this space.

There are multiple approaches to describe the Design Thinking process. Stanford’s framework has 5 stages – Empathy, Definition, Ideation, Prototype and Testing. At a cursory level, these phases sound fairly intuitive. What’s critical to understand in Design Thinking, however, is the non-sequential nature of these five stages – they are dynamic, potentially overlapping phases, NOT a linear process.


Let us now dive into a detailed exploration of the Design Thinking phases:

1. Empathy – This phase, when introduced, proved to be a key differentiator between the traditional, bounded design processes and the Design Thinking approach. In the past, Designers / creators would observe their end users to evaluate their needs around a problem area – despite best intentions, this could be reduced to a clinical, detached exercise that created functional products without transformative, joyful customer experiences. But empathising with their circumstances, ecosystems and workflows takes the caliber of designing and solutioning to a whole new level. There are beautiful examples of empathy dynamically impacting innovation in the social sector. Consider the Gandhi Fellowship program run by Kaivalya Education Foundation. Gandhi Fellows begin their journey with a community immersion phase – this is not about observation, it’s about walking in the shoes of children, whose school experiences the Fellows are looking to transform over the next 2 years. Starting with this level of empathy gives us an unparalleled lens into the domain. We grasp all aspects of the problem with clarity, from a space of positivity, rather than judgement, drastically elevating the quality of our solutions.

2. Definition is where we internalise everything we’ve learnt in Empathy about the problem space and probe and poke at the underlying questions to shine a light on the ones that truly matter. For example – how do we introduce online courses in a community without reliable electricity? This could be the core question in a traditional design approach and the resultant ideation phase may come up with ideas such as solar powered batteries for laptops. But with Design Thinking, we start to explore the dynamics of learning and teaching in such schools. How do they function? How do the students learn? What would online courses do for these learners? Thus, rather than purely looking at the problem from a technical standpoint, we’d be able to understand the entire ecosystem in such communities and explore deeper issues around learning, not just the surface question of technology delivery constraints.

3. Ideation – This phase is far more than someone “creative” putting down ideas on the back of a cafe napkin. Instead, it requires unbridled creativity and in order to be effective, should truly be about co-creation in a safe space, without judgement. Once the critical questions have been prioritised in Definition, what are ALL the ideas on the table from participants to solve them? Multiple approaches (such as worst solution, quick draw etc.) could be used to frame the process of collecting ideas from the entire team. The broader the viewpoints, the more innovative the ideas that come to the table. In the prior example, thinking through adaptations the community has made to compensate for lack of electricity would be a critical perspective to bring into ideation process.

4 & 5. Experimentation – Prototyping and Testing: In these two phases, all the creative ideas are converted to prototypes and tested with real users to capture feedback. Most of the ideas will fail – being aware of that, while keeping the momentum for the next round of prototyping requires intense grit and resilience. One also needs to develop the intuition to be able to see what aspect of the prototypes failed and what requires additional testing in future iterations. An example of a fearless experimenter is Arunachalam Muruganantham, who took on the challenge of inventing a low cost sanitary napkin for women in his family and community. Going out of his way to live in the shoes of menstruating family members for several years of his life and his intense experimentation with source materials took his product design to levels that a dispassionate team at a pharmaceutical company never could.

What are key success criteria for enabling Design Thinking in an organisation:
In order for the theory of Design Thinking to work, some very specific organizational routines need to be in place:

1. Enable the entire organisation to think as designers in the creative process: You, yes YOU are a designer. How often have you said – “this is so great, I wish I was creative enough to come up with this visual or story or work product” Or – “I’m not creative at all, my inputs to this discussion won’t add value”? In order for an organisation to produce game changing products, everyone involved in the problem ecosystem must be encouraged and enabled to think of themselves as an equal and valued designer and creator. This could be an organisational or personal barrier that team members may need to overcome, but it is a critical first step to enable an organization towards transformative innovation.

2. Leverage the power of the tribe: Design Thinking only works when diverse voices and perspectives are brought into core phases such as Ideation and (co) Creation. It is critical that each of these voices is brought in and truly heard. The more perspectives we bring in to examine the problem statement in the beginning, the deeper we are able to understand and co create solutions with high chance of adoption. For example, if we are looking at the problem of affordable urban play spaces in India – voices as varied as care givers, children, architects, urban planners, sports practitioners, teachers, school administrators, even waste recyclers all could have huge value and perspective in understanding the core questions and then, what potential solutions will actually gain traction with children while keeping costs, accessibility, maintenance and other diverse issues in mind.

3. Don’t settle for mediocrity, don’t wait for “perfection”: Design Thinking is a living, evolving philosophy that helps us gain a deep perspective into a complex problem space. With a more static, linear approach, we would try and understand all aspects and underlying questions before attempting to ideate and create comprehensive solutions. However, there is a high chance that the foundational circumstances could have shifted by the time we have a fully baked and functional solution. Design Thinking instead promotes deep exploration of the circumstances of our end users, with sincere empathy. This then lets us rapidly ideate, create, prototype and test different solutions – solutions that don’t resonate with users get discarded and we re-examine their problem statements again, having learnt from both the successes and failures of the previous iteration.

The road ahead:
Make no mistake – constantly staying focused on innovation is hard, changing organizational mindset and routines to drive innovation is even harder. And frameworks, including Design Thinking, can help pave our way of working towards this ambitious goal. There will be moments where we feel like our disruptive ideas are getting no traction in the ecosystem. But these are minor setbacks compared to our end game of solving the world’s most pressing problems. We must refuse to settle for anything less than transformative, joyful product / solution experiences for our end beneficiaries – only then can we co-create big, impactful social innovations.

Additional sources for reference re Design Thinking: Please explore the resources on Stanford’s websites (including their YouTube channels) for richer content including case studies related to Design Thinking.

Originally published here:

Read about Sattva’s work in partnering with Design:Impact Awards to promote visionary and transformative product design for social impact:

Parvathy Ramanathan is a Principal in the Transformative Advisory team, working in our Bangalore office. She has a background is in launching technology products, with a focus on data and analytics. She has worked in several sectors in startups (Poplicus, Appature) and larger companies (Amazon, IMS Health, McGraw Hill etc). She is an Engineer from RAIT, Mumbai University and has an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management.

Making a case for Sector Disruptors

At Sattva, we have always believed that in order to end poverty, it is important to strengthen the ability of social organisations to create impact. And as part of our work today, we engage deeply with a wide range of organisations – from some of the largest non-profits in the country to portfolios of young and nascent organisations. To ensure that we double up on this commitment in the future, we have set up a separate team within Sattva this year that will exclusively work large scale non-profits to enable them to create transformational impact over a million people.


I say this to highlight my bias for scale and our commitment towards enabling non-profits towards achieving scale. All along I recognised that scale was an inadequate measure of success since it might not capture the overall impact an organisation has created. I always add depth of impact, institutional sustainability and impact on the ecosystem as being equally important as well. However, the north star to frame the conversation has always been scale. Over the past one year, having worked with some of the largest non-profits in the country and inspiring leaders, I seek to frame the north star differently. The north star metric is the number of sector disruptors that we have been able to enable.

I want to use this post to structure my thoughts on –

-Why sector disruptors are critical over scaled organisations, for the social impact ecosystem

-Why there is a strong case for working with large non-profits of today to transform them into sector disruptors and not only invest in the new pipeline.

Why Sector disruptors over Scale

I have been fortunate to work with large organisations of various “archetypes” (topic for another post) over the last few years. While it has been immensely inspiring and a great learning, following are painful trends that are all too common today –

-Most large non-profits have scaled in the country today by codifying their interventions into a “Least Common Denominator” (LCD) model which can be scaled everywhere but loses all its original nuance to create meaningful impact on the ground. Hence, scale is actually achieved at the cost of impact.

-Much like IBM, no one has ever been fired in a CSR team for having funded a large non-profit. Hence the LCD model gets easily replicated across the country creating a closed loop of promoting scalable, low impact models on the ground. This usually means that the entire organisation is structured for effective operations at scale than innovation.

-Large organisations suffer from lack of “oxygen” (quality leadership talent, funding for organisational growth, proven systems). While that is true, one realises that the larger problem are not the externalities but the diffusion of vision internally. Most large organisations are not inspiring places for people to create change and hence are unable to attract talent or bend the market. This usually results in the CEO of the organisation spending 80% of their time on internal issues (at the cost of their health and wellbeing, most times) and 20% on the next frontier of impact and innovation for the organisation.

-As this happens, most avant-garde funders looking for innovation lose faith in large organisations and look for young and upcoming organisations to break this mould. Once funded, the young game changers continue to look for scale (since that is the norm) and end up in the same place as the guard of the past. In other words, we are pouring more water in the same leaking bucket.

-Another side effect of the scale focus is that nascent sectors like Property Rights where there is lack of breakthroughs, not many organisations have achieved meaningful scale. Therefore, most organisations working in these sectors don’t find funding or the attention of the funders.

Which is not to say, scale and impact are mutually exclusive. I am working with a few of them on a daily basis and two defining traits of such leaders who are able to marry impact and scale stand out – The unrelenting commitment to disrupt the sector and the market acumen to making it happen. In other words, it is not their appetite for scale – but their commitment to disruption – that helps create impact.

Large organisations and leaders creating deep impact are defined by two leading traits – The unrelenting commitment to disrupt the sector and the market acumen to making it happen.

Hence, setting scale as the north star metric of success for non-profit organisations in the long term is not only inadequate, it is dangerous because it results in squandering social investments in large scale programs that are designed to create incremental impact, at best. While scale is an absolutely necessary pre-condition, we need to frame success as sector disruption than scale.

So, what are sector disruptors

Sector disruptors change the course of how problems are solved within a sector by fundamentally changing the goal post or the lens with which problems are being looked at. That shift reframes the problem and hence the entire solution space. For instance (and this is not an exhaustive list):

-ASER, Pratham’s Initiative, reframed the focus of Education towards learning outcomes in a manner that was more real than any other initiative.

-Enable India moved the conversation of livelihoods for People with Disability, from being charity to actual business value by mapping the investment in PWD to the GDP of the country.

-SEWA’s livelihood triad (MFS, IDS, LPS) defined the livelihood approach of countless organisations since then.

-Akshayapatra’s approach to Mid-day meals through large scale infrastructure solutions with strong focus on technology and logistics redefined how such a problem can be addressed at scale while ensuring quality.

-DRF set up LABS as a business school model for school dropouts. That template has since created a model for skill development for the entire ecosystem.

-Childline setup 1098 as a national level helpline making phone-based access available to every child in distress across the country.

-CRY pioneered domestic giving among NGOs both through sales of greeting cards and through its retail giving at a scale not seen before in India by an Indian NGO (so much so that many thought they were an international NGO)

There are others including Aravind Eye Care for low cost healthcare solutions, Kaivalya Education Foundation on Middle Management leadership, Goonj on Cloth. These organisations, while not perfect, have had a huge impact on the solution space in their respective sectors.

Another interesting observation is that sector disruption, unlike scale, is not a permanent status. Most organisations in the list above were disruptors in a certain frame in time but today are questioning their relevance within the current social landscape. It truly takes a great organisation to not only stay relevant but continue to disrupt the ecosystem. Also, sector disruption, as a metric, is constantly defined in conjunction with the external environment than in isolation as organisation metric (E.g. Budget of the NGO). Hence a sector disruptor in Property Rights would look very different given the nascency of the space to a sector disruptor in the Education today.

Sector disruption, as a metric, is constantly defined in conjunction with the external environment than in isolation in relation to the organisation. There are no eternal disruptors. Organisations have to earn that right every time with changing times

Making a case for working with existing organisations

There is, rightfully, a strong focus on building the next cadre of entrepreneurs in the social impact ecosystem who have the mindset and DNA for creating large scale, meaningful impact. And my conversations with organisations such as N Core convince me of their commitment to doing it. While we invest in it, there’s an equally strong case to be made to work with existing large non-profits that have the ability and the agency to disrupt the sector more predictably than a bunch of young entrepreneurs. And here’s why –

-Sector disruption requires an organisation to have a certain critical mass for the disruption to be felt by the ecosystem (and not be a tree falling in the forest). Large organisations bring the gravitas and scale to be able to demonstrate disruption with credibility.

-Disruption requires scale. We have a graveyard of disruptive pilots and few at scale because what worked in pilots often are not designed for scale. Large organisations enable the scale at which ideas can be tested and demonstrated.

-While Institutional learning is a double edged sword (and often laces all ideas with cynicism), they are immensely helpful in knowing what are essential success factors and what are sure shot blind alleys. An able leader and the right team will gain immensely from listening to this learning with discretion.

-Finally, disruption requires funding and large non-profits bring the network and the credibility to raise the initial funding. At a time when the idea is audacious, the organisation’s track record strengthens the ability of the funder to put some money.

Let me be clear – Not every large organisation can be a sector disruptor (well, most large organisations cannot). But scale, experience and size are strong enablers for sector disruptors to redefine the landscape – And hence there is a strong case for working with these organisations, with the right leader at the helm, to create sector disruption.

Sattva’s own experience of working with a large organisation in the skill development space demonstrated how, when the right leader and organisation are provided the right strategy, large organisations can demonstrate disruption at a scale where the ecosystem has to notice and acknowledge.

In my follow up post to this, I want to detail the traits that enable large organisations to be sector disruptors and share Sattva’s experiences in being part of this journey. As I mentioned earlier, this is just a conversation starter.

Note: All original insights are thanks to meaningful conversations with Aditya Natraj, Dipesh Sutariya, Shanti Raghavan, Puja Marwaha, Hari T.N, Gayathri Vasudevan, Warren Ang, Rajat Gupta and leadership team at Child Rights and You, Kaivalya Education Foundation, CHILDLINE India Foundation and N/Core. All flaws in translating it to a post are entirely mine.

(Originally published on LinkedIn)


Abhishek Modi

Abhishek works with the Products team and Corporate Planning team at Sattva.

Before Sattva he worked as a freelancer for web content, search engine optimisation and social media marketing, gaining valuable business experience. He then joined Piramal Foundation’s Gandhi Fellowship Program where he worked on government school principals on their leadership capabilities. He also worked closely with teachers of 21st century teaching pedagogy practices and taught classes in government schools. He was actively involved in evolving examination practices in 200 primary government schools, working actively with the block panchayats and headmaster councils. At Sattva he has worked in the Consulting Services team on designing and managing CSR programmes.

Abhishek has a Bachelors’ in Commerce (Hons) – Accounts and Finance.

Lakshmi Sethuraman

Lakshmi currently leads the sales function at Sattva. She has been with Sattva since 2010 and has led a diverse set of projects during this time working extensively with leaders of social organisations in building and scaling their operations sustainably. She has also worked with key CSR clients of Sattva in designing, implementing impactful programmes.

Prior to Sattva, Lakshmi has worked with the Manipal Group, Jubilant Retail and ITC Hotels across sales, business development and strategy functions. She holds a PGDM from T.A.Pai Management Institute.

Samant SP

Samant leads Sattva’s leadership hiring vertical, Careers In Impact. He has been focusing strongly on helping social organisations (Non – Profits and Corporate Foundations) identify and on-board leadership talent across India. He comes with an entrepreneurial background and was running a boutique search firm known as Angel Consulting, focused on hedge funds hiring across Asian and European countries.

He was one of the initial members of Longhouse Consulting – a leading retained search firm focused on technology startup ecosystem across Asia and has also worked with organisations like Oracle and Aditi Technologies leading the recruitment efforts for the India Office in the past.

Samant holds a Bachelors degree in Science (Major – Chemistry) from Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology and is a Cisco Certified (Licensed) Networking Engineer.