This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Neera Nundy during the Dasra Philanthropy Forum, held at the Ford Foundation in New York.
15 years ago, when we came into some wealth, I was lucky enough to have invested in a small company which my husband had started. Over the years, it made us wealthy enough that I had to start thinking about the responsibilities that wealth brought with it. It took me some time to figure it out, but now I firmly believe that all wealth needs to be used for the public good, because that is what it’s meant for. Through my own journey in India, I have seen a rise in new wealth creation over the past two decades and many more people are looking to philanthropy now. There is also a concerted effort, from myself as well as others, to encourage people to speak out publicly about who they give to, and the reasons that they support certain causes. In addition to this, there’s a lot more public attention and pressure on the wealthy.
My journey in philanthropy began with working in the education sector, which I did for many years. I co-founded and supported an organisation that became India’s largest nonprofit children’s publishing house, Pratham Books. Through this, we were able to reach millions of children for the first time with indigenous, age appropriate books. Our goal was to put a book in every child’s hand and make it a joyful experience. For the last 10 years, I have also been deeply involved in the water and sanitation sector through my foundation, Arghyam. Recently, I have expanded my philanthropy portfolio to issues of transparent and accountable governance, and supporting independent media. I have found that no matter what silo you work in, whether it’s health, adolescent girls, water, etc. in a country like India, you are going to hit the governance deficit. If we can work to create better governance, I think our philanthropy goals can also be met more efficiently.
The Challenges of Philanthropy in India
While it’s true that Indian philanthropists need to give more, other countries also have a stake in our future. India is a hugely strategic country in the world today. If India succeeds and its 400 million strong population does well, the world does well alongside it. India is also a place where philanthropists can gain a very enriching learning experience, through doing pilots or scaling up on the ground, and those lessons can then be applied to any other country. We have been seeing this happen over the last few years. Another reason why I would strongly recommend that people in America and the diaspora support innovative efforts in India is because a lot of traditional philanthropic capital is fleeing India for a variety of reasons, and that vacuum needs to be filled. A lot of potential exists for good philanthropy, and philanthropy rewards the giver as much as the receiver.
In India, finding the right organisations to work with is certainly difficult. One wants good leadership, integrity, and partners on the same wavelength as you. It’s also a challenge to know exactly which area to work in and what kind of impact you want to have. Over the years, I have not been very fanatical about metrics and outcomes, but that does not mean that you don’t want your philanthropic rupee or dollar to have some impact on the lives of the people or the issue you are trying to support. So getting the metrics right, making sure you have the right partner, and that you’re strategically working towards a goal are some of the challenges to overcome. It is also partly the receivers’ responsibility to make their case. Those who need to raise philanthropic capital must explain why philanthropists’ money being put in these directions is going to serve the cause. Traditionally in India, many organisations have not been up to that level of communication or branding because going out and selling yourself is seen as the wrong thing to do. But I think the time has come to challenge that, and organisations like Dasra make a very strategic case for investment in areas such as the adolescent girl child, urban sanitation, and malnourishment.
In terms of how I choose who to give to, in India there is a wide range of people who have real experience or have really thought about something and therefore have a certain approach. Sometimes, I may not even fully agree with the approach, but if I believe in that leadership or the commitment and passion, I’m willing to go with that organisation. However, I also have some ideas on what areas I’d like to focus on, such as water, sanitation, governance, and the environment, etc. So I come from the cost perspective and look for good people and good institutions to support. It’s true that sometimes you have to support the cause and hope to gather the right people, and sometimes you’ll have to go with the good people and trust that they will be supporting and leading the right cause. I think trust becomes essential there.
Impact Investing and the State of the Samaaj
Nandan and I are independent thinkers so although we have a common social vision, sometimes our approaches are quite different. So I do philanthropy my way, he does philanthropy his way, and then in between there’s a bridge where we do stuff together. For example, we have both supported several institutions, because we believe that we need to build out all kinds of institutions in India. Whether it’s NCAR or IIHS, we have both given to the same organisation, sometimes separately. Currently, we have embarked on a new game-based learning project together. But otherwise, we talk to each other a lot about what we are going to do independently as well.
Together, we have been learning more about the Giving Pledge, a fantastic thing that the Gates and the Buffets are doing. Perhaps culturally in India, we would need a different approach. Over the last three years, we have been through the India Philanthropy Initiative, and we often brainstorm with Bill Gates as well. We are trying a different track in India and I think it’s working. On the impact investing side, over the last 20 years we have seen a lot of work happening where philanthropic capital is going towards filling the governance gap through market opportunities for the lower end of the economic pyramid, and in many cases it has been an astounding success. But I have kept my own portfolio to nonprofit activity and have so far stayed away from too many direct for-profit investments, even if they are at a very small and local level.
This is because I don’t come from a corporate background so that’s not my skill set.
Many people are doing impact investing, investing in social enterprises that are for-profit. But I do think that there is still a lot more work that needs to be done on the for-profit side, because we need to invest in the samaaj first, or at least concurrently, so that markets can be more accountable to people and governments can be more accountable to citizens. That work is essential and most of my philanthropic capital will be going into that space.