Giving Done Right Podcast: The Heart and the Head

Oct 28, 2021


This is an edited version of an episode of Giving Done Right, The Centre for Effective Philanthropy’s (CEP) podcast on making an impact with charitable giving. CEP’s President, Phil Buchanan and Vice President of Programming and External Relations, Grace Nicolette talk to Rohini Nilekani about trust-based philanthropy and what it means to create a philanthropic family legacy.

My desire to give back comes from my family and the way I was raised, which is true for most people I think. While we were very much middle class and nothing more, our values were very clearly about society before self. My grandparents’ lives were always held up to us as exemplars, especially my paternal grandfather who was a lawyer but refused to make money off of his clients, much to my grandmother’s disgust. He was also among the first batch of volunteers that responded to Mahatma Gandhi’s clarion call for volunteers in 1917 when he started the Champaran agitation. So my grandfather left everything and rushed there. He stayed there with Kasturba Gandhi, helping the local communities, building toilets, building schools, and teaching. And he continued that sort of selfless giving till the end of his life. For me, he is a great model and an exemplar that I try to live up to. My maternal grandfather, who was a bit wealthier than him, also gave away his wealth by setting up colleges and schools. So giving forward was not something special because you are supposed to do it, you are supposed to be a part of a larger society.

Since the age of four, I have been a reader. And when you read a lot and read very diversely, you try to live up to all those marvelous authors that you read and also think a little more than you normally would. So if I am thinking at all, it is because of all the marvelous books that I have read ever since I was four years old. But on a serious note, it is very important to give from the heart. You have to give from your heart as a human being, and the distance from the heart to the head is not more than one foot, but it is a very long journey indeed and it takes a while to reach there. Some people start from the head, but most people start from the heart. And I think the two have to be combined if you want to make your giving leave a lasting impact. Since the pandemic, we have seen a lot more people begging for money on the streets. Until then, their numbers were decreasing as lots of people had been lifted out of poverty. Unfortunately in the last few months, we have seen an increase in begging, but if I give to a beggar, I do not know whether I am helping that person or just helping myself. Instead, when I think and give, and give over time, to lots of different organizations that are working for the same cause, I hope that it will have a more lasting impact. So I think it is important to be strategic.
During the pandemic, Indian civil society and all our frontline workers were pretty gobsmacked by what was happening around us, but they responded very rapidly. I think it is because, if you have a very active civil society – and we are used to responding to calamities like floods, etc. – there is a sort of human infrastructure in place. Even new groups of volunteers banded together from the middle classes to respond quickly, and they got in touch with other civil society organizations in their locality, not only to give money and resources, but to give their time. And I thought the most heartening thing of the last 18 months has been that civil society response, together with ordinary citizens. In terms of our response, like all foundations and philanthropies, we teamed up to do whatever we could for emergency relief. We waited a few months and just gave what was needed – oxygen, masks, and the usual stuff. But we very quickly pivoted to saying, “What can we do to look at the sustenance of the civil society institution itself?” So, like many philanthropists, we said, “Don’t worry about what the pipeline funding was supposed to be. Come back to us, tell us what you need. Don’t worry about impact metrics.” And we were able to pivot to give very, very open grants to keep those organizations themselves going. We are looking ahead already to think about what we all need to do to band together and create relationships of trust now, when the emergency seems less panicky, so that next time around, we will have learned from this time and be even more effective. What can we do now to prepare for the next thing that is coming?

Giving From the Heart and the Head

I think in terms of trust-based giving, the journey begins with the heart. What do we do when our hearts are involved? We see the best in the other side. And I think it is the same thing with giving. I am not saying do zero due diligence, but with very minimal due diligence – they have to be registered or whatever it is that is your absolute basic threshold – you need to trust them. After that I think you will find it easy to trust, the more you actually trust. So, if you begin with trust, as I keep saying, you end up with trust. To begin with trust, you have to just open your heart for the first time, and the second and third time you have to do nothing at all because it happens automatically. What is the biggest risk? Okay, you might lose a bit of money. But you are a philanthropist because you seem to have a little extra anyway. So it might teach you something if your trust is betrayed. I have been lucky perhaps, but it is still worth taking that risk to trust upfront. The rewards are so enormous.

In business environments, in the market space, everyone is very clear about what has to be achieved. Even if it is as simple as just making more shoes, making more good shoes and making sure you have more customers who love your shoes, everybody knows that is your business model. In the social sector, it is not so easy to say that, right? I have met extraordinarily successful business people who say it has been much easier to run their businesses than their philanthropy because societal change is complex. It is not simple. It is a mindset shift to let go of control for the outcome. In a business, if I was a CEO and I said, “Who cares about the outcome?”, you will sack me tomorrow morning. But that is exactly what you have to allow yourself to do in philanthropy. You have to say, “I hope this will be the outcome,” but you have to let go of the certainty.

The conversations among philanthropists today now involve talking about modesty. We are talking about being humble – not modest in our ambition, but humble in our approach. So many people are sharing how they were forced into humility. If you do philanthropy, you better carry a mirror with you. It is a good thing our mobile phones have mirrors nowadays, you can actually see yourself and take a step back to remember to be humble. Because success and failure have very strange time frames in this sector. What looks like success today could be failure tomorrow. Similarly, we do not want to be falsely modest because what looks like failure today might easily be success tomorrow. So success and failure, in that very ordinary sense, become useless to guide you. And that is why you have to be humble and yet not modest.

It is true that donors often think they know what the solutions to societal issues are, and it is quite natural because when they get involved, they say, “Oh, I know. This sounds so easy, we can do it this way.” But it has not worked so many times. Even if their answers are right, if they are not able to carry the people who are going to do the actual work with them and make them feel that it is also their co-created answer, their co-created solution, donors will not get far. That is why I think the most important thing is to listen first. It does not mean you cannot jump in. You are smart, you want to give, you want to find the answers – of course you should jump in too, but more as equals sitting at a round table than a typical boardroom where you sit at the head. So, if you are able to do that, then it is more of a conversation and not just a dialogue of the deaf.

I think the first thing entrepreneurs, especially in the business community, do is find a different approach to an old problem. They like to innovate and change the way something is done. And I think social entrepreneurs are the same, right? You want something to change for the better and you want to innovate your way out of it. If you are lucky, you also get to be a pioneer, which makes you feel really good to be the first person to ever step foot on this territory, whatever it might be. So I think that drives people a lot – it certainly drives me – to try to connect the dots and find the next space where innovation seems to be needed. But, as I have said before and perhaps too many times in public, there is still an underlying theory that is consistent with all my social entrepreneurship, which is – how can we find more creative ways to engage the sum of society, its leadership and its institutions, to ethically engage in solving one problem or the other? That is my underlying core philosophy. So even with Nagrik, which we set up for safer roads since India has the highest number of road accidents and deaths in the world, and which failed miserably because we did not know how to tackle it and be strategic, it was okay because I learned from that failure.

Of course, as Phil Buchanan points out, sometimes donors want to find the breakthrough when, in fact, something works but it just is not being funded enough. So sometimes we do not necessarily need to reinvent the wheel. Just trying to be innovative for the sake of innovation makes no sense at all. When we are seeing something working, then you have to just double down on it and support what is already going on, right? In many spaces in my work, my teams come back to say “These people are doing a really great job, can we support them?” So what happens is we really double down on those institutions and give them very, very large grants to continue what they are doing so well. I do not need to go in there and try to create some competitive idea. Why should I if it is working well?

I think one of the issues we have as a philanthropy community, especially big givers, is we think everything should be inside our fence, inside our gate. And it goes back to the questions of trust. Can we learn to give more generously outside our fence? Can we give very large grants – ‘large’ of course depends on the person’s net worth and philanthropy budget – and multi-year grants to institutions that we know are doing well and to leadership that we know is committed. They will learn, they will make mistakes, and they will grow – can you be the wind in their sails so that you do not have to design a whole new boat?

A Philanthropic Legacy

The philanthropy conversation is always alive in my home, as well as conversations about wealth – how to deal with wealth, what is the responsibility of wealth, and what is good public policy that does not allow runaway wealth creation and yet does not stifle entrepreneurship and innovation. Both my children, by God’s grace, are very politically aware about what it means to create a good society. And both of them are very interested in, not just philanthropy, but strategic philanthropy. I hope that the next generation, including my little grandson who is very tiny and does not know how to spell philanthropy yet, will give the same way. Just as it came to me from my grandfathers, I hope it is going to get passed down in that same way. You have to keep those conversations alive, you have to speak honestly, and you have to speak often.

Philanthropists have to have a mirror in their pocket all the time. They are now going to need a much larger mirror so that they can see not only their own faces but, like people do with those selfie sticks, the background as well. You must understand what that background looks like today. When you have such runaway wealth creation, what you do with it and how you deal with it is going to matter a lot, not only for society, which should be the first consideration, but even for you. And so it is a very important conversation in our house and it should be in all houses. I mean, we have seen capitalism reform itself, precisely because sometimes the pendulum swings too far on one side, right? It happened a century ago, and it is more than time to do it now. But if we all do not do it ourselves, with our government and colleagues and society, I am not saying that pitchforks are coming, I hate to say stuff like that, but we have seen what the potential outcomes are. Look at what is happening in China – state power will be used to change the status quo where only a handful of people are getting so wealthy that they even cannot give it away, even when they want to, because they are making more money while they are sleeping than they used to when they were awake. So I think these are important things for philanthropists to discuss today, and without self-blame.
To me, giving done right is beginning from the heart and making the journey to the head very carefully, so that both are in play. And always, always keeping a sense of joy in whatever you do. The minute you let the joy slip, you take yourself too seriously. Also to know that, if you do not attach yourself to the outcome but attach yourself to the action, I think the whole world travels with you.



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