She believes wealth comes with great responsibility and is best deployed for the greater good. Rohini Nilekani practices what she preaches and is the most generous woman on the EdelGive Hurun India Philanthropy List 2022. She has been the most generous woman in India for the past three years and has doubled her donations yearly. Writer, author, and philanthropist, Rohini strongly believes that transparency in philanthropy and wealth generation is critical to democracies.
We understand that you invest in people as much in institution building and the projects they
run. Could you tell us how you arrived at this and why funders must look beyond projects?
It is mainly because of the way my journey began. I began as a social entrepreneur rather than
a philanthropist. Of course, the energy and intent among both are the same – both want to
participate in creating a better society. But when you have jumped into the fray and taken on a
social mission and a programmatic approach, you realise how difficult it is. And that changes how
you view the impact, and the question of measuring social change becomes more complex. This
has helped me to see that human beings are critical elements in social change.
Many of my learnings from the Akshara Foundation, co-founding Pratham books, and now EkStep
has helped me keep people at the centre.
Their passion, commitment, integrity and intent were the most important things to nurture.
Without that, even if you have the most sophisticated technology, the best process, and efficient
management, you would still not get that social change to happen. Because it is the people that
drive the change. We, as philanthropists, need to be sensitive to the needs of the leaders
we support and be nurturing by supporting them in different ways – many times, beyond
How difficult was it from a thought process to donate big sums of money when you
The first significant sum of money I came into was when I sold shares of Infosys. Till then, it
was a few lakhs, and I was happy to do small philanthropy. Suddenly, I got INR 100 crore from
the sale of shares. It was a mountain of money, and I was already living a comfortable life. I
could like to reiterate that it wasn’t a huge sacrifice. It was more of a strategy. So, I was very
clear that all of it would go into my foundation. So, I started Arghyam (a foundation set up in
2001 for sustainable water and sanitation, which funds initiatives across India) to learn how
to do philanthropy, and every bit of it went into Arghyam. And from there on, I was inspired
to give more and better.
Another reason to give the entire sum was that I wanted my intent to be clear to myself first. It worked very well, and I had fun learning from this experience. Very empowering! I think we should not hesitate to give big from the beginning.
Having said that, Arghyam was easy as I gave it as a corpus, and it was a foundation that I set up. But when you start to give outside your gate, it gets more challenging. We see institutions are getting ready to absorb more capital, and my support for institutions is also stepping up.
Has anyone influenced you in the decision?
My family, especially my grandfather – Babasaheb Soman, has greatly influenced me. He gave his whole life to the freedom movement, to Gandhiji’s Satyagraha. He even gave up his earnings, much to my grandmother’s disappointment. Now, that’s a real sacrifice. Always his legacy was shining for me in my life. And then, in a society where the wealthy have to demonstrate the responsibility of wealth, we were and remain sensitized and sensitive to that.
You have been quoted saying that Indians have to be bold about philanthropy. India is at a very exciting stage, and you’re seeing people willing to give more. Can we open our minds a bit more? Can we be ready to take more risks?
As we look at the problems heading our way – the pandemic, climate change, and economic distress – if we keep being safe, we will only make incremental changes.
No business entrepreneur is ever content with marginal profits but strives to be a unicorn. Similarly, can we do everything it takes to become philanthropy unicorns? Can we look at ourselves and ask what kind of society or nation we want? We are wealthy, and we have everything we want. But is our wealth and material, wonderful life built on a flimsy foundation? If I have a wonderful car, but the public roads are horrible outside my gate, what is the point?
Can our philanthropy be bold enough to say that the foundation should become strong? What can I invest as a philanthropist to make that public infrastructure, the common public good, much more robust and the foundation much sturdy so that society benefits? And it’s also enlightened self-interest. It is seen that some issues like mental health and geriatric care do not find much acceptance. Do you think that giving back has to evolve and mature in India? Media and people like us have a role to play and perhaps need to tell our stories better. Most wealthy people are busy running their businesses and may not have time to think through all these problems. And not enough of them have foundation offices and the right talent who inform and nudge them with updates and ideas.
There is so much important, exciting and joyful work to be done in India beyond the obvious – that makes things better for everybody. The wealthy need to get a little more interested to look beyond the usual. Whether it’s our natural heritage, building up our ecology, the climate resilience in our cities, public housing, and our prison system. And we still need a thousand more institutions for the educational needs of 300 million youngsters.
India is the innovation hub of the world for social change. However, we need new thinking to handle the challenges of future livelihoods, the job market, and the knowledge economy. There is a lot of committed capital – all dressed up and waiting to find a home. This decade, 2030, is one of the most critical decades I can think of in human history. We must think much bigger, much bolder, and do much more. That space is just waiting to be taken up by bold philanthropy. But first, you have to open the doors of your heart and then open the doors of your pockets.