This is an edited version of a panel discussion titled ‘Philanthropy Push: The Joy of Giving’ held as part of India@75. The panellists included Neera Nundy of Dasra, Amit Chandra of ATE Chandra Foundation and Rohini Nilekani.
It’s great to be talking about the relevance of philanthropy and the issues facing the sector at the 75th anniversary of our beloved country. I think philanthropy is going to have a meaningful role to play going forward. It should never have too large a role to play because then, as Martin Luther King says, “You’ll have to start wondering what are the social needs that cause so much philanthropy to be needed.” Having said that, there’s so much wealth creation in this country. We’ve been seeing for the last two decades that the media has put a spotlight on the responsibility of the wealthy towards society. So I think it’s a very exciting time for philanthropy in India, but we need to keep the public pressure on this topic and encourage new forms, new associations, and new institutions to come in. Which is why we are going to talk about an exciting new idea that has come up called GivingPi. But I think overall, there’s much more interest in giving much faster. And truly, I believe after the pandemic, we have seen the retail funding pi growing. Obviously corporate giving has had to grow, but we are also seeing families and wealthy individuals of a younger age wanting to experiment, innovate and give fast.
Agreeing, Amit says that we have made a lot of progress, if you simply look at the data on education and health parameters over the last few decades. But at the same time, he thinks there’s a huge task ahead of us, and a long road to travel, on any of these parameters. Therefore, the role of philanthropy is to actually partner with the government and to make sure the quality of spend improves enormously. This can happen through innovation, risk taking, doing things that the government necessarily cannot be good at, coming up with better mousetraps, and finding ways in which government spending can become far more effective. At the end of the day, while philanthropy itself needs to scale up dramatically, it cannot make a huge impact at national scale the way government spending can, says Amit. And so philanthropy has to work collaboratively, often, not just between philanthropists, but with the government itself, to materially improve the quality of social spending. That’s the opportunity in the road ahead, and he thinks we are beginning to see some evidence of that happening across sectors in the last few years.
Neera believes that the biggest piece here is that we need more leadership and momentum – individuals who can keep pushing the agenda on giving. But we also need more platforms and vehicles, as well as pathways that make giving easier. She says that the idea in creating something like GivingPi is to really to open up space for families to engage in philanthropy. Families have played an incredible role in our own freedom movement. We’re all very values-based, with a lot of religion underscoring our cultural context. She points out that as a unit, families can be quite powerful in how they can be an equalizer – they can take more risks and be more patient. So if hundreds of families are able to give, we might be able to address government gaps as well. Neera agrees that we need to partner with the government, but we can also use families to take more risks and innovate. The challenge is that we don’t have a lot of data, since families give in ways that don’t get documented. She is therefore excited about this network to see if we can measure this pi and encourage it to grow. So we are really looking at this kind of family giving to grow by 25% in the next five years, which would outgrow CSR and other forms of giving, if it can start being better organized.
We need vehicles to make it easier for people to give. Now, the super wealthy seem to have committed to giving. For example, some of us have declared publicly that we are going to give away at least 50% of our wealth. And some of the other super wealthy have made announcements – we’ve seen some by Gautam Adani, Mukesh Ambani has always had his foundation going, we know about Azim Premji. These are some of the richest people in the country. So many of them have publicly committed to their philanthropy. The question of more taxation also needs to be on the table, so that we don’t only depend on individuals’ generosity. But I’m very excited about the next layer, about this GivingPi and its focus on family giving.
For hundreds of years in this country, we have a history of generous families. We often talk about the wonderful Birlas, Bajajs, Tatas, etc. But I want to also talk about others like Mr. Pachaiyappa Mudaliar, who set up the first private college in Chennai 300 years ago. Similarly, there are people like Jagannath Shankarseth and so many others, the Jejeebhoy families, the Bilimorias, and so many Parsi families. We forget just how much families have done. I recently heard something I didn’t know about – many, many families in the 40s and 50s gave significant amounts of land holding to their alma maters like Delhi University etc. That is a really generous thing to do. So I think there is a kind of family tradition of giving and leaving a sort of cultural legacy for the next generation in the family. I believe in India, if we tap strategically into that, and if we also support organizations that can absorb the generosity of family giving, I think we can meet the numbers that Neera was talking about. So I am excited about this because I have seen families get animated and bind together better when everybody has a voice in family giving.
Amit recalls other examples of India’s rich philanthropic history. During the Bhoodan Movement of Acharya Vinoba Bhave, there were tens of thousands of agricultural families who gave up large tracts of land, so that the small farmers who didn’t have holdings could get access to them. And that just happened because one man went walking across the country and asked people to make sure that those who didn’t have something at least had land to farm. He reminds us that we literally have tens of thousands of stories, but over the last few decades we’ve forgotten about these stories. Now is the opportunity to bring that back, and part of the opportunity lies in creating platforms like GivingPi. We have Living My Promise, another platform, which has over a hundred signatories now, many of whom are middle class who have pledged to give away 50% of their wealth during or at the end of their lifetime. So Amit points out that platform creation is very important.
Neera notes that both GivingPi, as well as the philanthropic sector in general, needs to define what constitutes Indian giving. Over the last decade or so, we’ve been looking to the West and to how these pledges with the Gates Foundation or others function. She argues that we need to redefine and think about what giving is going to look like and what it is like in India. At the core of that, she says, we see the family unit being really important. And so, building a platform like this, the first thing that this will offer is some visibility, so that we know families are giving. So maybe to become a member, you actually need to disclose whether it is trust-based and share where you’re giving. So we might find that out of the first hundred families, 20 are giving to this NGO, 50 are very focused on education, 10 are very keen to do a learning journey around climate. So we can really facilitate that by understanding their giving needs, but also fostering collaboration, she says. The point is to come jointly and fund things together, and ultimately to really learn where we can make a difference and track that.
I really think Indian philanthropy capital needs to look at the thriving and diverse civil society institutions and leadership in this country. There is just so much out there that needs support. Sometimes there’s stuff happening that the news may not cover enough, such as the floods in Assam where thousands and lakhs of people need immediate assistance. There are organizations out there who need that philanthropic support. The government can’t go everywhere. The Bazaar may not have such a great role to play in natural calamities yet, simply because it’s not structured to do that. So there’s tons of opportunities, nobody has any excuses. There are a million causes right under our nose, and 75 years of a country is a great time to recommit to the prosperity of all. There’s lots to be done and we need Samaaj working together and alongside those who are working on behalf of the poor, that’s a very simple collaboration. Philanthropists obviously will have to work with the Sarkaar to fulfill its mandate of equity and inclusion. They are often open to it. We have to find those opportunities and commit, without wanting to say, “Oh, we did so much.” Because the Sarkaar has ways to scale, we just have to do some gap filling.
Amit gives the example of the work being done with farmers in rural India, addressing the issue of water security for the past 10 years. It’s not an issue that has a market-based solution, unless you’re an armchair economist. He says that what we’ve been doing is figuring out how to build a participatory movement and ultimately partner with the government to have a solution that ushers in water security, through rejuvenation of water bodies across thousands of villages across the country. Now, the reason we do that is that we know at the end of the day, unless you address water security, civilization cannot flourish.
If we want to see change at scale, we need philanthropists to act as system builders and to be able to provide all the support needed in different sectors whether it is education, healthcare, water, etc., so that Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar can do what they do best. We have to learn how to design for what works at scale. Just scaling up things that work is not enough. And to do that, we need a kind of scaffolding around the project, which I think requires a lot of money. I hope philanthropists will become systems builders to distribute the ability to solve across Samaaj, Bazaar, Sarkaar. That’s essential today.
Neera suggests that we also need to invest horizontally, and invest in organizations themselves as well as different sectors. We need to fund people’s salaries. These organizations need talent, they need systems, they need technology. We need a lot more data to see whether we are moving the outcomes on whether it is health or education or livelihoods. We need to be innovative about where philanthropy strengthens institutions and where it allows for systems change, so there’s underlying data being looked at. She believes that starting to invest in entrepreneurs, leaders, and institutions that are bringing this aspect into the sector will really help us accelerate. Otherwise, just investing in organizations to organically grow their scale and impact is not going to solve our problems soon enough.
What is interesting is that transparency is growing, both from the giver’s side and the receiver’s side. Receiver’s side because a lot more policy has mandated a lot more transparency. Sometimes in a way that is too cumbersome, but overall it is a good move. Let the civil society institutions be transparent. Wonderfully, thanks to Dasra as well as the media, much more transparency is coming from the giving side too. Many of us have been saying, “Now, don’t hide behind your cultural roots, that time is over. The left hand should know what the right hand is doing.” So there is much more pressure on philanthropists to say exactly how much they are giving, and the Guru Index and all that. So, that transparency is growing, and it should come much more.
On trust, I still think we have a long way to go. People have started talking about trust-based giving, letting go of control and really trusting people. If trust is betrayed, you can always take many steps. But if you start with trust, you will end with trust. And this conversation is very much out there. Everyone has come to realize that if you don’t build on trust or if you don’t build bridges of trust, during so-called peace time when there is no conflict or crisis, you are not likely to be able to quickly deploy what is needed in times of crisis. I think the pandemic has brought that out. So there is a lot of trust bridging and building of trust capital going on right now, more than before, but we have a long way to go.
Years ago, the poet Thiruvalluvar said, “Knowledge and wealth that are not shared are useless.” So I would say share your knowledge and wealth, both are critical. To that I would add, share your best resource of time, share of yourself. This is our country. Each one is interdependent on the other. Nobody can succeed from the common good. This is the time to recommit your wealth, your knowledge, and your time.