ISBInsight: Attracting and retaining talent in not-for-profit organisations is the primary focus of your research. What operational challenges plague such organisations?
Milind Sohoni: Amongst others, most not-for-profit organisations working in the social development space face two major hurdles- first, raising funds and second, hiring a talented workforce. Being financially constrained, they find it hard to attract and retain talent at market value. So most not-for-profit organisations depend on a pool of voluntary workers for their daily operations. But, unfortunately, availability of voluntary workforce is intermittent. Such an intermittent resource availability may hamper the continuity and quality of work done or service rendered by such organisations. So an important question then is how should not-for-profits overcome this challenge and attract the right kind of volunteers? What kind of incentives should an organisation offer to sustain volunteers who provide them services?
What is unique in Teach for India’s operational model that makes it an interesting case to study?
Teach for India (TFI) happens to be one of the growing not-for-profit organisations that works in the primary and secondary education space. Since 2007 TFI has dedicated itself to solving the education problem in India. Essentially, TFI has developed a programme with the short term goal of ensuring that all children receive quality education and a long term goal of creating a movement of leaders that will work towards removing the education inequity in India. Essentially, the volunteers, once exposed to the challenges in the education system of the country, may become agents of change in course of this Fellowship programme. In the long run, the hope is that they would be committed to influencing and improving education policies in the country.
As a part of this programme, TFI recruits and trains volunteers (known as Fellows) and employs them as full-time teachers in under-resourced primary and secondary schools to achieve both its short term and long term goals. Since education of primary and secondary school children requires an uninterrupted supply of teachers, TFI requires a two-year full-time commitment from its Fellows that allows it to ensure continuous production of its primary service of educating primary and secondary school children. TFI has grown rapidly in the last decade from 87 Fellows in 2009 to 1200 Fellows in 2017. It has also scaled its operations to 7 Indian cities and provides education to 40,000 students currently.
The context and challenges TFI faced were in alignment with the issues we wanted to study. Additionally, TFI was very willing to work with us to understand some the challenges they faced in recruiting the right volunteers (long-term volunteers) for its Fellowship programme and was open to sharing data (as long as confidentiality was strictly maintained) for the study.
What operational challenges does Teach for India face in selecting its volunteers?
Teach for India has a very elaborate procedure for selecting the volunteers. They call it the Recruitment, Selection and Matriculation or the RSM process which takes 5-6 months to be completed. They reach out to several undergraduate colleges or young professionals to apply for the Fellowship programme. The applicants are then subjected to a fairly rigorous interview process – which is actually not conducted in a competitive manner, but rather in a more collaborative fashion. The organisation looks for certain leadership traits in the applicants and selects a few candidates who exhibit such traits. Once the applicants accept the offer they are invited to an Institute in Pune where they undergo training for a month and a half prior to the commencement of the programme. The completion of this training is termed ‘matriculation.’ Once matriculated, the Fellows are assigned particular schools to teach in. While nearly 15,000-20,000 people apply for the Fellowship, the organisation extends offers to around 1100-1200 people to join the programme across seven cities in which they were operating at the time of this research. Unfortunately, out of the 1100 or 1200 offers that are made only 500 or 600 actually end up matriculating. The programme experiences a significant drop-out rate within those early few months. While some people do not show up for the training session in Pune despite accepting the offer, some discontinue during the training period.
We found that Teach for India was caught in a dilemma: were they making offers to the right kind of people? How do they get these volunteers to matriculate and eventually complete the programme? They wanted to figure out what are some of the “drivers” for applicants to matriculate, and then continue with the Fellowship programme for two years.
As I mentioned earlier, in its two-year Fellowship programme, Teach for India not only aims to attract dedicated teachers but also to nurture a leader who can usher in positive changes in the education system. By employing different questioning techniques at the interviews, they try to understand how motivated an individual is, what kind of experience the person has, if they possess the significant leadership skills or the ambition to create an impact beyond the programme.
Targeting and selecting passionate individuals with such skill sets is challenging because there are plenty of opportunities open for them and they might not want to spend two years of their life teaching at minimal compensation. While one can spend a lot of effort in identification of the right type of person through behavioural assessments in the interviews, getting them to matriculate (commit) and continue throughout the programme can be very tough. Our research aims to address some of the factors that affect this obstacle.
What according to your research could ensure a higher matriculation yield (the number of people actually matriculating) based on the offers made?
Let me get to the critical finding from our research directly. During this RSM process, Teach for India conducts several events which we classified into experiential events and informational events. In the experiential events, applicants who have been offered the Fellowship are invited to visit the schools or observe the dynamics in a classroom and interact with the community where the kids come from. In the informational events, they interact with Teach for India Fellows and alumni who have now successfully established themselves in diverse professions. While some have become entrepreneurs, others are pursuing careers in diverse fields including management, child psychology, public policy. Such events facilitate a lot of information exchange where fresh applicants learn about the experiences of the previous cohorts.
We found that the experiential and informational events were significantly correlated with the outcome of matriculation. Essentially, using econometric models and drawing from techniques used in causal analysis, we were able to clearly establish the impact of these events on increasing the likelihood of matriculation — which in our opinion is a significant finding. Essentially, the implication of our finding is that by inviting the “right” candidate (identified through our model) to the “right” event it may be possible to increase the chances of matriculation, i.e. enhance the applicant’s commitment to the programme. Such “targeting” has other benefits too, particularly for a financially constrained not-for-profit organisation like Teach for India which has to spend significant resources to conduct these events.
Through our statistical and optimisation models we were able to show that the yield goes up by close to 10% if Teach for India targets the right kind of people to be invited to the right kind of events.
Can such econometric and optimisation models be applied to other organisations?
Different not-for-profit organisations work in different sectors and there may be sector specific drivers that can increase volunteering. Our findings are generalisable to the extent that when organisations want to increase volunteering, they should identify the organisational levers that can help increase the commitment of their workforce. In this case, the generalisable learning for us was that the type of events an organisation conducts, the way they design those events and the applicants they invite to the appropriate events can affect yield by increasing the likelihood of attracting the right kind of applicants.
Once Teach for India extends the Fellowship opportunities to a selected pool of individuals, they invite them to experiential and informational events where they get a sense of how the actual volunteering experience is going to be like. They observe the classroom dynamics, interact with the students and local communities, understand some of their challenges, learn about the experience of the previous batches. Acquainting them with the actual experience can help mitigate the fear or apprehensions they might have regarding the programme which could be preventing them from committing to it. It also makes them aware of the impact they can create. Designing these events to match the aspirations of the candidates and to address the specific fears or apprehensions they might have can potentially increase the yield.
Organisations should first target the right kind of people who are genuinely interested in their cause and who believe that they will add value by doing this kind of voluntary work. But ensuring their retainment requires operational interventions.
What managerial takeaways emerge from this study that can also apply to for-profit organisations?
How can an organisation motivate people to work and earn their commitment? What operational levers can it tweak to enlist this kind of commitment? These are certain questions which concern For-Profit organisations as well. Certainly, the challenge is greater for not-for-profit organisations. Given the voluntary nature of work, it is difficult to get volunteers to commit their time and do a good job for the organisation. The long-term volunteering model of Teach for India can be applied to sectors facing similar challenges in ensuring continuity in operations, consistency in output and workforce retention.
About the Researchers:
Milind Sohoni is an Area Leader and Professor of Operations Management at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, India. He also serves as the Deputy Dean – Hyderabad Campus and Deputy Dean – Academic Affairs.
About the Interviewer:
Debdatta Chakraborty is Research Editor for ISBInsight at the Centre for Learning and Management Practice, Indian School of Business.