This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with The Centre For Effective Philanthropy. She talks about the importance of feedback, speaking truth to power and trust-based philanthropy.
We set up Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies only recently because earlier much of my philanthropy work was done through Arghyam, my foundation for water, or by directly giving cheques to various organisations. It seems to work because I don’t think we need to set up a very large foundation for the kind of work we do, which is trust-based philanthropy. Once we have identified partners, we have a very simple system of working with them and that’s what Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies is. Trust is very important to me and my team because your actions have to speak louder than your words when it comes to building trust. You have to give organisations and people time and space, because we know how complex things are on the ground and how quickly things can change. If you lock your partners into doing something in a particular way, when things change they can’t respond quickly. So, as a granter, you really have to give them that freedom, and I think that’s one of the things that helps to build trust.
In the social sector, if you want to end with trust, you have to begin with trust. I have always believed that the people I work with know much more than me about ground realities, so I genuinely try to see them as partners and not grantees. I think there is a kind of reciprocity of trust that happens immediately when they see that, and trust takes time to build. One of our experiments in India in my portfolio, where multiple philanthropic entities have come together in a relationship of trust, is the India Climate Collaborative. Climate change is such a huge issue that’s obviously affecting all of us individually and globally as well, that it was easy to find that as a common ground to bring together international foundations, who had already been doing a lot of work on this, and build a partnership with Indian philanthropists who came together for the first time in this collaborative. This is what we need to do more of, so that we can trust each other and learn from each other to be much more effective and impactful than we are individually.
CEP’s Grantee Perception Report showed that Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies is not very communicative over exactly what its intent is, which was an eye-opener and we’ll have to work on that. It was also useful to know that partners hoped for more long-term funding. That’s something we try to do, but because we have opened up new sectors we’re all still learning along the way. I’m glad that we worked with CEP on this report, and we will take the feedback seriously and hope to improve year on year. I hope more organisations find a way to really listen anonymously to their partners, so that they can get the truth. The truth is hard to tell to power – it’s very hard for grantees and partners to tell donors really what they think. So I really hope that culture gets established.