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Shiv Kumar of The Catalysts Group: “Money is not short; mindset and skills are”

Money is not short; mindset and skills are. We have found money when we wanted to, but finding talent that is passionate and skilled has been a severe challenge. At times, we have looked for over three years to find the right person. The social sector poses certain challenges when it comes to recruitment, as […]

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Money is not short; mindset and skills are. We have found money when we wanted to, but finding talent that is passionate and skilled has been a severe challenge. At times, we have looked for over three years to find the right person. The social sector poses certain challenges when it comes to recruitment, as professionals usually find more lucrative opportunities in other sectors.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shiv Kumar.

He is the co-founder of The Catalyst group and Chief Integrator of the COVIDActionCollab, is a social investor who is passionate about solving complex social problems and improving the health & wealth of vulnerable communities. Shiv has dedicated 30 years working on social development, in India and internationally. His experience spans consulting, strategy, advisory, technical support provider, institution builder, mentor, team leader, facilitator, and coach across a spectrum of focus areas- health, livelihoods, education, sustainability, gender and equity, among others.

Starting his career in a leading farmer owned co-operative, he has founded several organisations within the Catalyst Group — Catalyst Management Services, a development consulting firm; Swasti — a health catalyst and Vrutti –livelihood impact partners and Fuzhio, an impact product company. He has also incubated and supported over 200 community organisations and special enterprises.

He is passionate about communities, collaborative, institutions, human behavior, partnerships, technology, governance; in addition to being a foodie, techie, and cyclist.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a software coder, I was super happy creating software. However, I felt a management degree would give me a long term career and joined the Institute of Rural Management, as it was different and spoke about Social Business which appealed to me. Once there, I understood how little of it I knew (or the world) that focusing on the results of others rather than results for yourself is a beautiful thing for many reasons. Dr Kurien, who was the founder of my institute, the Father of India’s milk and social enterprise revolution, inspired me to go down this path. My first job in a Farmer cooperative was challenging and rewarding; turning around the enterprise to make it more profitable was a phenomenal experience. However, in the process, we lost the plot that we were working for the Farmer! The good and not so good experiences and the need for intellectual freedom to do this differently and do it with good people spurred me to start my social enterprise — Catalysts.

Can you share the most exciting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organisation?

Working with some of the most marginalised communities can be a lifetime gift. When we started our work with female sex workers, we asked a small group of them what will success look like. Their answer was being able to afford to hire us at market value someday! It took me back by surprise as a donor had already paid/underwrote my costs. When they eventually grew from 13 to 13,000 as an organisation and eventually to 130,000 women as a network across India, they set up their Bank, an award-winning one. They offered to ‘hire me’ with their ‘own’ funds. While my heart warms to see the leaders and the institutions built, I could also understand their inherent need for no hand out; but wanting to be on their feet. These are not what you would term ‘call girls’; these are women from families affected by abject poverty, with little or no education and eke living with the only hope to survive and educate their children. For me, there could have been no better feeling of success than them ‘hiring me’ for the next phase of their work, at market value. Felt genuinely valued and valuable.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In the beginning (1994), we were not clear how we can be useful to the Social Sector; we had many ideas across the board. So in our initial meetings, we would present ourselves as this broad spectrum of things we want to work on, between the three co-founders. This confounded many people and many would smile. And jokes like -looks like you are like a budding actor, you will do anything, including acting as a dead body. One potential client, who we probably caught on a wrong day, aggressively pursued a conversation on ‘what is the one thing you are good at’ Honestly, we were good at a few things, but his singular focus on the one thing was not addressed effectively and we wanted to end the meeting. He was relentless and kept us there till we tied ourselves in knots of words and phrases and sounded increasingly unconvincing! When he did ‘release’ us, we literally ran out of the door and hoped he was not in pursuing us….and sat down and said Gosh — we don’t know what we are doing!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Through our direct work, we made lives better for 3 million people in terms of health and wealth. We have raised 1.4 billion USD for causes, put into the hands of vulnerable communities over 200 million dollars, We have developed ecosystem models, tools and set standards in the sector. We have incubated out 204 organisations in the social sector through our unique blend of capital — Time, skills, knowledge, mentoring, coaching and sometimes money. We have helped 100s of social development organisations reach Scale, Impact and Sustainability in different sectors and contexts, in over 30 countries. We are a proud global south organisation.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

We support and work with PLHIV community. Saroja, a HIV+ve housewife who came to us looking for a job in accounting, joined us and eventually bettered her health, went on to head the local HIV community collective as a woman leader and later on grew to become a national level spokesperson for HIV+ve People. Our investments and support to leaders like her is one type of investment. There are 300 such Sarojas in different communities — sex workers, gay men, transgender, small farmers, artisanal fisherfolk, etc. We invest in people (like Saroja), ideas/models and institutions and help them grow.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Stop treating complex problems as simple or complicated problem that money will solve.

Secondly, commit to long term change; not quick wins.

Thirdly listen and empower communities for change; don’t push your agenda and strategies from fancy slide decks or simplistic Theories of Change (ToC), made miles away from real people who are affected.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is about purposeful results and unlocking potential. In the social sector, results that are defined for self (or your organization) is selfish and self-defeating. The results should be for those whose lives we want to change; rather than how big you are. Social value exists everywhere; it is your strategy, skills and resources to find it and unlock it towards success.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1 — Money is not short; mindset and skills are. We have found money when we wanted to, but finding talent that is passionate and skilled has been a severe challenge. At times, we have looked for over three years to find the right person. The social sector poses certain challenges when it comes to recruitment, as professionals usually find more lucrative opportunities in other sectors.

2 — Social development also has its fashion — Geography focused interventions, Water and Sanitation, etc are the ‘new and improved’ focus areas and approaches donors bring in many times. This is great; but many are reinvented, repackaged and repositioned old stuff where learning has not occurred or passed on.

3 — Ultimately, Governments fund little of social sector innovations — While Governments do spend money on social issues, in poorer economies these are the bare minimum, stretched and usually ineffective. However, Govt mandate and reach are huge and it is important to work with them. But to do that, you will need to find a donor/funder to support you, without which it is not possible. Where we have tried to work directly with the Government, we have huge bad debts piled up, some of them are almost 20% of our revenues.

4 — Competition is intense — One would assume organisations working in larger public goodwill not compete. The opposite is true due to two key reasons a. Money is short — demand far outstrips supply b. Donors use classical private-sector bidding approaches in the social sector, thereby making potential partners compete; they throw in ‘alliances’ as a solution, but this rarely works.

5 — Patience is less and getting worse — Donors/funders, 30 years ago, used ot invest in programmes for sometimes a decade. Today’s programmes are coming down 1 year or less, and expect ambitious ‘impacts’. These are unrealistic expectations and are placing a significant burden on organisations and honesty is a victim.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to reset what success is (indicator). It is unfortunate that it is mostly defined in economic terms. We need a new framework of success for individuals, companies, governments which is inclusive, sustainable and growth-oriented in all fields. When we get this right, we will start accumulating wealth as it would not be a norm. We will be careful how we treat earth as it matters (being measured). We would consume carefully as it matters. I would love to start a movement around this!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Do good, with good people and have a good time doing it” — We are all hard-wired to do good. It feels good to tap into this energy and make your life purposeful and useful for others. Working with similar minded people in an environment which is challenging but at the same time caring and empowering with true equity being practised with colleagues. Having a good time is about speaking your mind respectfully, enjoying what you do and ensuring your work is eudaimonic and not hedonistic.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Bill and Melinda Gates. I respect what they are doing through their active philanthropy. Once when they were interviewed in India, they said the most liked project funded by them; it was ‘Avahan’ — a programme in its end phase was entrusted to us. With Gates investment, we have taken it to a different stratosphere of results and in it lies successful pathways for their work on Primary Health Care, Gender equity and many other areas. I wish I can share these exciting things with them for them to take it to the World.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter (:@Shiv_catalysts)

Linkedin (https://www.linkedin.com/in/shiv-kumar-a288141/)

Website https://catalysts.org

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