Building the Indian philanthropic sector – what can we learn? | India Conference at Harvard 2021

Feb 21, 2021


This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Mona Sinha, co-founder of Raising Change, at the Harvard India Conference 2021.

In my work over the last three decades, I’ve tried to put together a theory of change and what I have realised and tried to communicate is that in the continuum of society, state and markets, my work is primarily focused on how to build good societies or what we call in India a good Samaj. In this continuum of Samaj, Bazaar, and Sarkar, much of my philanthropic work is focused on enabling good institutions of civil society, good ethical and moral leadership, and innovation of the grassroots, because a strong society can hold both Bazaar and Sarkar to the larger public interest and also innovate constantly. As Mona Sinha mentions, the US philanthropy sector seems to be moving in this direction as well, with trust-based philanthropy where the goal is to undo systemic inequalities and help build a stronger civil society, but also allow the government to participate in a way that’s much more effective. As philanthropists, we have great responsibility in reshaping systems. With trust-based philanthropy, we lead with trust, we center relationships, we communicate with humility and curiosity, and most importantly, we redistribute power as we work towards systemic equity.

One of these areas that I began working on was with young men and boys. For 25 years, my work was focused on women, whether it was within the field of microfinance, education, or water. But as I travelled around India and started meeting young people, I found that while we had a very justified emphasis on empowering women, perhaps we also needed to understand what was happening to young men. We were not seeing them and in doing so, we were somehow forgetting to include them in our public policy and programmes to also allow them to flourish as human beings in their own right. So I started a portfolio called Young Men and Boys, but there were hardly any people working specifically with them. We started with only one organisation. I’m happy to say that in our second convening, there were 30 organisations represented including funders who are beginning to turn their attention to the question of how we can ensure a better future for everybody. We are trying to innovate with our partners and find new ways to create safe spaces for young men to talk to each other and respectfully interact with young women as well. It’s been a very sharp learning curve and I hope more people will join us because ensuring young men feel supported and safe also ensures the safety and progress for the young women we have been helping so far.

Restoring Our Connection With Nature

In terms of my philanthropy, I have a fairly wide portfolio in conservation and I’m also very invested in the preservation of the marvellous biodiversity in our country. Although India has one-third the land than the US and four times its population, we are also one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. But this biodiversity that gives us our water, cleans our air, and that will be the future medicine for the next generations, is under threat due to climate change and the need for economic development in our country. Luckily, there are hundreds of environmental NGOs in our country that are working with local people to restore our ecology. I try to support as many of them as I can, in addition to supporting academic and research institutions that are doing long-term monitoring of our biodiversity in deserts, grasslands, mountains, oceans, and coastlines. I firmly believe that the marvellous work being done all around the country to regenerate the ecological base is at the heart of the economy as well. If we do not safeguard it, I don’t see how we can sustain a healthy economy.

We have many forest and tribal communities in India with generations of experience and knowledge, and I believe that we need to carry these people along with us while we also ensure the conservation of our forests and natural resources. The Forest Rights Act allows forest dwelling people and tribal communities of India to get pattas in forests, in order to sustainably live there as they have for many centuries. Some of these are very fraught political issues, however India has kept our biodiversity, our forests and our water sources in the face of tremendous population and land pressure. I think there is a reason for that. There is a culture of understanding the kind of sacred connection between humans and nature. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of pristine conservation where half of the country flourishes without any people. To me, the most sensible and strategic decision is to carry people with us, especially those who live in our forests. Many of those communities do want to find opportunities beyond living in forests, so we have to find a way to let their knowledge and their wisdom also light the path for ecological restoration.

During this past year, I have been spending a lot of time in the Kabini forest in search of a black panther whom locals call Kariya or ‘the black one.’ For five years, I have not been able to spot him, but through my frequent visits to Kabini, I’ve begun to learn more about the forest itself. I learned about the people who dwell in and around the forest, about the Forest Department and what they have to do to keep the forests protected, and more broadly about the connection between people and the forest. Especially since the pandemic, when we have learned so much about zoonotic diseases, I think more people must understand the connections between the wild and the rest. Urban people can get pretty deracinated from the wild, and I personally enjoyed the journey of getting back in touch with nature. So many people have come to the forest searching for this black panther, but I think what we are really searching for is a way to restore the connection between nature and ourselves, so that we can restore our own well-being.

Collaborating and Co-Creating Solutions

We have seen a rise in philanthropy over the last few years in India because there have been more wealthy people in the country since the liberalisation in the early ’90s. And I think people have come to the conclusion that you can enjoy your wealth, but you really owe it to yourself and to society to give forward. After all, why do societies allow so much accumulation of private wealth? It’s because societies believe that wealth in the hands of private individuals will do at least as much good as it would have done in the hands of the government as taxation. I believe that the wealthy have a special responsibility to use their wealth for the good of society. Many of the Infosys founders have tried to give this unexpected and unprecedented wealth that we came into forward, based on our passions and interests. Having said that, everyone comes to the point in their philanthropic journey where they realise they simply cannot do it alone if they want to have maximum impact. So in India, many philanthropists are now creating collaborative platforms to work together. For example, the independent and public spirited Media Foundation was started a few years ago with about 12 donors. The idea was to support good journals and magazines, especially in the digital medium because we thought that was the next phase of journalism. Another important collaborative, called the India Climate Collaborative, has several dozen individuals and organisations who hope to work on mitigation and adaptation for climate change.

Doing serious philanthropy helps you acquire a lot of humility very fast. You realise that no matter how many great ideas you thought you had, those simply don’t work unless you co-create solutions on the ground. In India, we philanthropists stand on the shoulders of giants. The Tatas have been doing this for more than 100 years, and created a culture of listening and not just doing top-down philanthropy. Now newer philanthropists are also learning this lesson. We have so much diversity in India, where every 100 kilometers, the dialect changes along with the crops that are grown, the livelihoods practiced, the water resources, etc. So no cookie-cutter solutions will work here. We must create unified solutions, but they cannot be uniform solutions because problems have to be solved in context. I can’t sit in Bangalore and problem-solve for people in Bihar. We must listen and trust our partners, civil society or implementation partners, in order to co-create solutions.

Although I am not a techie, I have learned a lot from my husband, Nandan Nilekani, who believes that technology has to be used to solve a lot of societal, business, and government issues. I have learnt a lot from him and his team, especially over the last few years. We have built what we call Societal Platform Thinking – the idea is that in order to solve complex societal problems with impact, at scale, and with speed, we are going to have to deploy technology to create more impact and discoverability, to get people to share and learn together globally. We need technology because it amplifies the power of intent. So, if you are very careful to not be technology-led but technology-enabled, you can use technology to further societal goals. This is what we are trying to get societal and government organisations to do. Of course, there are many risks with technology and society is just beginning to grapple with how to look at issues like artificial intelligence and the algorithms that drive some of our platforms. But we must ask ourselves how we will, together as a global society, create new norms and shift some norms, and create new regulations and laws so that we have AI tools and algorithms that work for the broader public interest and not just very narrowly for a few? These are some of the things and questions and challenges that we are asking ourselves, while developing technology backbones that help create open public digital goods.

Moving to Broad-Based Philanthropy

India is an exciting place right now for intermediary organisations and retail fundraising. Small donors are increasing and I think that’s very important, rather than relying on a few big, super-rich individuals to do philanthropy. We could have a more broad-based philanthropy where active citizens are participating by giving as little as 100 Rupees to causes they care about, doing kindness to strangers, and putting passion into things they care about. The platforms that have emerged as intermediary platforms that aggregate this small funding are really exciting to see. They’ve been raising hundreds of crores, some of that from rich individuals, but a lot of that from ordinary citizens who care. For me, that is the best thing I’ve been hearing about the Indian philanthropy sector. We must thank all the aggregators who have made this much easier than it used to be. Many philanthropists have also come to the understanding that some of our philanthropy must be directed towards increasing philanthropy and to the ecosystems around philanthropy. Some of us are committing capital to that, to capacity building, training, discovering talent, and creating more platforms for giving.

We cannot expect the super-rich to solve all of society’s problems. But, like everybody else, they can participate in this quest. With wealth and with philanthropy comes a lot of power. I think philanthropists need to look in the mirror every day and be clear about what we are doing philanthropy for – is it to keep the status quos of power, or are we trying to do something more exciting than just keeping wealth for a few? Mona points out that without the opportunity to be economically successful, we would also never have innovation. Innovation comes with the opportunity to create something new, to break systems that don’t work, to find solutions that are different. When those succeed, people do become wealthy because that’s how markets work best.

While we should all challenge why so few people have so much wealth, we should not demonize individuals in that process. We must separate the person from the societal distribution of wealth. Instead of saying all billionaires are bad, we can talk about things like more taxation, increased transparency and accountability in philanthropy, and ask whether power structures are being kept the same or changing because of philanthropy. We must be careful not to sit in judgment about individual billionaires, but rather talk about changing the system. How do we change the system together? We can’t depend just on the super-wealthy. How do we change the skewed economic system in the world, fueled by the over-financialisation of the economy and winner-takes-all business models? Together, we can change things for the better.



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