A decade ago, a Muslim religious scholar named Hussain Khan was a vocal critic of the Mahila Mandal Federation (MMF), a Mumbai-based grassroots women's group, which has been nurtured by an NGO called CORO for the past 20 years. He questioned MMF's efforts to help women take on leadership roles in their communities in urban informal settlements. But instead of viewing Khan as an adversary, MMF believed he might one day become an ally.
Today, Khan hosts MMF meetings at his madrassa (school), which traditionally excludes women. And he has developed a course, "Quran and the Constitution," which builds community members' awareness of their constitutional rights and their moral responsibility to help neighbours in need.
What prompted Khan's change of heart?
Along with MMF, CORO spent three years conversing with Khan about the challenges women living in urban informal settlements encounter, including domestic violence and low access to education. CORO was well-positioned to engage in those meetings, since it is largely led by Dalit and Muslim people who live in the communities in which they work. Khan was later selected into CORO's Samta Fellowship, where he spent a full year reflecting on the values enshrined in the Indian constitution and acquiring leadership and movement-building skills that he took back to his community.
It is not an accident that Khan now champions the work of a grassroots group that he formerly opposed. It is an outgrowth of CORO's core approach to supporting community-driven change: to meet people where they are and earn their trust. The idea is to unlock their "power within" to advocate for the rights of Dalits, Muslims, and other historically marginalised communities to have an equal opportunity to advance their lives.
To learn more about how this kind of ground up, community-driven change comes to life, a Bridgespan Group team spent several months researching and interviewing CORO as well as three other NGOs in the Global South: Mumbai-based Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA); Kenya's Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO); and Ubuntu Pathways (UP), which works in South Africa's Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) townships.
Our research reaffirmed that community-driven change is challenging to execute. Multifaceted power dynamics related to gender, caste, class, and religion often pose significant barriers to change. However, we also learned that, despite all of this, the four NGOs pushed past those challenges to build long track records of success by playing a supporting role as community groups built their own solutions.
Tightly focusing on a few NGOs, rather than on many, gave us a close-up look at on-the-ground approaches to working with community members as they take steps towards leading their own change. One of our main insights was the similarities in how community-driven organisations think. Specifically, we identified five mutually reinforcing mindsets that help orient these NGOs around community members' priorities and lived experience.