Meet the SHEROES - Arpita Sinha
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” says Arpita Sinha of Arion Ratings.
ARION was started with the objective of improving the funding access for grassroot NGOs. Arpita talks to us about her social venture today and what the main challenge areas in this sector are for her.
Can you tell us about yourself
My journey so far has taken a meandering course through diverse interest areas. I studied science and computers at the Shri Ram school and obtained an undergraduate degree in English literature from Lady Shri Ram College. Following my instinct and declining an offer to join a leading consultancy firm, inspired to effect change I worked briefly in the social development sector. Recognising the need for professional skill-sets in the social sector, keen to gain international exposure and broaden my horizon, I took on an educational loan to undertake a Masters’ degree in Management from Warwick Business School. 2007-08 was a difficult year to begin a career in financial services but I persevered and ended up working as a banker in London in the leveraged finance team at Barclays Bank for almost 7 years.
Armed with a solid finance background but still harbouring the deep desire for my work to facilitate meaningful impact back in India, I decided to pursue an MBA in Social Impact from Said Business School, Oxford University and simultaneously launch my social venture, ARION.
How did the idea of Arion Ratings come about and what are the core services offered?
Working in Latehar, one of the most backward areas in Jharkhand to conduct the very first social and implementation audit for the NREGA in 2006 was a reality check. As part of the field survey team visiting countless worksites and interacting with both workers and officials, a gaping discrepancy between policy guidelines, its intended beneficiaries and the actual implementation realities emerged.
I began to appreciate the dichotomous realities of the NGO sector in India. Whilst there was lack of accountability and transparency amongst exploitative NGOs, it was the lack of continuous and reliable access to financing and dependence on donor funding that often led good NGOs away from their core area of focus. The latter was often compounded by the lack of basic operational, business and reporting expertise, which often results in NGOs lacking a coherent long-term strategy and a clear impact driven focus to their interventions.
The idea for ARION emerged predominantly out of the recognition that the NGO sector required stronger accountability and performance benchmarks that would allow for fairer assessments, accurate showcasing and democratisation of funding, using appropriate and relevant tools. ARION aims to improve funding access for grassroots NGOs predominantly leveraging the impetus provided to corporate funders by the new CSR law in India.
ARION provides an end-to-end tailored solution for corporates by helping them direct funds towards appropriate recipients. This includes training, legal support, advisory and strategic alignment, pre and post funding impact audit, monitoring and reporting etc.
Capacity building, positioning and fundraising advisory and support for NGOs.
A comprehensive platform that will allow NGOs to appropriately track and showcase their work and simultaneously allow donors and funders to easily access, review and potentially monitor through an interactive online platform.
How long has it been since you started your venture and how has the journey been so far?
The Said Business School and the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship provided a fantastic platform over the past year during my MBA to begin concerted work on my venture. Whilst I have only just moved to India to officially launch the venture, I have been working on formulating ARION’s offering for almost a year now. The academic, practitioner and institutional support at Oxford has been remarkable.
As with all new ventures, especially one at the helm of the corporate-social space in a market that is still taking shape, building meaningful engagements and relationships is crucial. However, this requires significant time commitment, patience and a big push on business development.
ARION has been fortunate to receive initial funding from Skoll, and subsequently match funding from Inclusive Ventures Group. There are also on-going discussions for follow-on funding in 12 months’ time. It has been a positive start with a lot of international support but what remains to be seen is how responsive the Indian market is.
What are the key challenges you face in this line of work?
The transition from the structured world of banking to social impact and entrepreneurship is exciting and challenging in equal measures.
With the social sector still relatively in its nascent stage, traction for structured solutions aimed at the NGO space is gradual. When catering to an evolving marketplace, flexibility is of utmost importance. With the uncertainty surrounding the direction of travel of the CSR law and consequently the social sector in India, we have already pivoted the business model several times. With over 3.3 million NGOs in India, scalability of the solution had to be given preference over rigour without compromising credibility. Moreover, when myriad solutions exist to an entrenched problem, it is always challenging to focus efforts on and select one to put one’s organisational efforts and resources behind.
What future plans do you have for yourself, professionally and for Arion Ratings?
I am passionate about ARION because I see the long-term real impact of establishing a meaningful level of standardisation of performance in the Indian NGO sector. Given the level of funding that this sector attracts, a robust ecosystem is fast becoming a prerequisite not just for corporates but all kinds of donor classes and impact investors. ARION’s long term vision is to progressively build out a bottom-up, data-driven, and beneficiary analysis based meaningful benchmark of assessments that can be utilised in the future to formulate a coherent ‘rating’ system for NGOs, akin to financial sector ratings.
I am a strong proponent of introducing credible business disciplines to the social sector and see myself playing a part in developing the underlying governance and transparency ecosystem that will hopefully become the bedrock of social sector funding requirements and parameters in the future.
Can you leave our readers with a few thoughts?
A reshaping of the Indian development ecosystem is underway and accountability, transparency and governance are going to be fundamental to real social value creation. India’s new CSR law is actively reframing and repositioning traditional market and economic disciplines at the confluence of the community – public sector – private sector triad. This presents a significant opportunity to bring about a systemic change in the way socio-developmental challenges are dealt with, funded and managed for long term impact generation.
Ecosystem enablers like ARION will therefore have an increasingly crucial part to play in facilitating this directional flow of capital and improve impact delivery and assessments at the grassroot level.