Indian Philanthropy Series | Rohini Nilekani

Nov 28, 2016


This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s interview with Dasra, for the Indian Philanthropy Series.

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s interview with Dasra, for the Indian Philanthropy Series.

In a country like India, philanthropy means something quite different than it does in Western countries where the basic standard of living is higher. So my giving comes from my political self as well as my philosophical self. I began my giving a long time ago when I didn’t have much to give in terms of money. I started small, by supporting young girls through scholarships. It was really when we came into serious wealth that we began to do what might be called philanthropy, as opposed to traditional charity or simply giving because somebody else is in need. In the last 20 years I have been interested in this space.

Although I came into serious wealth only around 2004, I had already set up a foundation, Arghyam, in 2001 to practice giving away a little. When I came into that big chunk of money for the first time, I decided to put it all into Arghyam. I now had to find a way to give strategically. Until then, I was giving in a way that felt heart-warming. I helped children and allowed young people to study, but this was not going to make a significant social impact. So in 2005, I decided that Arghyam will focus entirely on the water sector in India. This is when my personal strategic philanthropy journey started.

In 2004, I set up Pratham Books, a nonprofit children’s publisher, along with two other trustees, under the general collaboration of Pratham. We were trying to have a genuine impact at scale, by making sure that we published enough good books that were local, indigenous, and relevant to children. We also had to figure out different distribution mechanisms to get the books into children’s hands. This experience gave me the opportunity to learn the ropes of doing things at scale and focusing on making a real impact in children’s education and the joy of reading. Arghyam involved a steep learning curve as well. As with many other philanthropists who are not necessarily familiar with the sectors that they decide to invest, we had to spend time getting familiar with the sector and figuring out the best way to leverage resources in order to have a beneficial social impact.

When I began working with the Akshara Foundation, they had already been set up by the state government of Karnataka and the Pratham network. That helped me understand that public-private partnerships can work very effectively when the government is willing to play a certain role. Pratham Books was also a platform for creative collaboration, where people were willing to give up their personal time for a societal mission that they believed in. Drawing from this, EkStep was a natural extension of this model, and I was able to get Nandan and his team onboard as well. EkStep came about because we realised that in spite of so many philanthropic, government, and civil society investments working on education, India is still struggling with the issue of children not learning. We were at MIT and looking at the MOOCs there, and asked ourselves, why not create a platform for young children to learn, which we help create but which also allows for the interplay of many other people’s talents? In this way, the platform would not just depend and be limited by our knowledge and resources, but would include what other people have to offer, whether that’s money, talent, or time.

The team has done a lot of technological innovation on that front, which is really exciting because EkStep, at its core, is a technology platform. That’s another learning curve for me, to see how the team is building technological products that are very complex at the backend but are simple for the user. There’s joy in this kind of learning. As a philanthropist, you must keep taking bigger risks because that’s what philanthropic capital should be doing. Who else would be able to put in the significant resources required for EkStep, with no expectation of financial return? Hopefully this risk will result in beneficial social impact, and at a rapid pace.

The Need For Strategic Philanthropy
The philanthropy sector in India is still comparatively new. Only a few decades old, it’s beginning to mature now. In the West, the rich talk a lot about their philanthropy, both within their own circles as well as publicly. We need Indians to start using their networks and circles of influence to talk about how wealth in India should be used. We live in a country where 600 million people are waiting to be in the same room as us, so the responsibility of wealth in India is very different than it is in other countries. People need to talk about how they’re using their wealth for the public good.

There are certain things that can be done in the ecosystem and through policy, to open up the philanthropy sector a bit more. If you look at policy, other countries have an inheritance tax, which certainly opens up the purse strings quite rapidly. This has been successful in driving the philanthropy sector in other countries. We also need to make it easier to set up nonprofit institutions and reduce the regulatory cholesterol around them. Today, we’re seeing how the debate about cracking down on nonprofits is making it difficult to do political work in the nonprofit space. After all, if we want to change things in India, a lot of that work is going to be political. I mean ‘political’ in the sense of grassroots work rather than referring to a particular political party. The government needs to be secure enough to allow nonprofits to do human rights-based work.

There needs to be more transparency, but there should also be more flexibility for nonprofits to be able to work effectively. It’s no use opening up a channel of money without opening up the pipe that receives it. We also need ecosystem players who will build the capacity of the nonprofit sector and draw in more professionals, so that we have more institutions doing work effectively. While policy and ecosystem changes have to be made, there’s also a third issue of changing personal mindsets. The wealthy have begun to feel more confident that we are not going back to slow growth. People can see that they’re going to become wealthier or remain wealthy, and so they feel more confident and secure in their wealth. This was not true 10 years ago when I spoke to wealthy people, because they didn’t know whether the government’s liberal policies would last. I think that fear has subsided now, and new wealth is increasing in India. Now people need to learn how to give and how to trust the entities that exist to use their money effectively. We need to persuade people to move beyond charity and instead begin doing more strategic and collaborative philanthropy.

We need to see people give more and give transparently. When people give, it should be with the aim of building institutional capacity in whichever sector they want to be working in. That needs to happen rapidly, otherwise we’ll have a bottleneck situation very soon. Over the next decade, the philanthropy sector will also grow and become more relevant than it is now, and for that we need people to start thinking outside the normal areas of giving. For example, people give freely to education, as they should. However, the health sector in India is extremely under-funded. What happened with nonprofits, donors, and the government in the education sector has not happened enough in the health sector, even though health is a basic human right. Philanthropy needs to come into sectors like health in these next 10 years. There are so many avenues for giving, especially in India where sometimes one feels like they want to give to several causes. Since we all can’t personally go out and do things, we have to rely on enlightened leadership, good institutions and processes, and supportive communities. I believe in supporting people with high commitment, good ideas, and integrity, where I can see a possibility of real change happening even if it’s at a smaller level.

Whether we look at the water sector, education, or media, what the work is essentially doing is reflecting back to society its own capacity to do good. Apart from education and water, the areas I have funded such as independent media, culture and the arts, policy advocacy, and think tanks, are hugely under-funded in India. We need to build out the country’s intellectual infrastructure more than ever before, and we have to recognise that governments cannot act alone. They need new ideas and pilots to be executed outside the government, and evidence-based data that can be used to make better policies and laws. India’s intellectual infrastructure needs to be developed with think tanks and evidence-making institutions, and philanthropic capital is best suited to help build out a range of institutions doing research and advocacy that feeds into effective policy.

Models For Collaborative Philanthropy
Everyone has resources of some kind to give. Those who want to give money should begin with their passion. Philanthropy is always going to be a combination of heart and head, not either alone, so it’s best to go with your area of interest. What bothers you? What do you think is not working in society? What do you feel bad about? What keeps you awake at night? That is where one should begin. One of the things that is beginning to happen more often is that the wealthy in India are coming together to discuss how and why they give. I think that’s very important and necessary.

About four years ago, Azim Premji got many of us together, and we decided to set up the India Philanthropy Initiative. Our goal is to see what we can all together do to make rich people give more. We hold an annual event where we get a few big donors to come and talk about their approaches. All of us mingle, talk to each other, and try to learn from each other. We also have several thematic sessions every year, whether it’s on sanitation or education. Those who are actively doing philanthropy and the organisations they work with come together. Others come to learn, and after that we try to follow-up to make sure more money goes into that particular sector. So far it has been quite successful. I hope we can pick up the pace, but it’s a solid beginning and we have gotten very good responses. The younger generation of the wealthy are also creating their own talking and giving clubs and I think they’ll do more innovative and generous giving in the future.

The time has come in India for philanthropists to collaborate more closely. We have to find innovative ways to do it, where the philanthropist’s own ways of doing things can continue, and yet the collaboration leads to benefits that are more than the sum of its parts. There are many models of collaborating. One way of doing so can be seen with Pratham — it set up its own way of delivering education services, with many people as co-funders. The funders did not necessarily need to talk to each other, but they all knew that they were supporting a good cause. That’s one simple way of collaborating.

Perhaps a more interesting model is when philanthropists come together to conceive of a whole new idea and area to fund, and guide a new sector to open up. For example, I was doing a lot of small grants in the independent media space, and Azim Premji’s new initiative is also planning to do that. When we got talking, we realised that this is one area where collaborative philanthropy would be almost necessary for the right impact. So we came together to set up the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF). We now have 12 donors who have made commitments, and an independent trust. It’s very interesting as an institutional model because the donors have promised to be hands-off and not make decisions about who the money will be given to, because the media is such a sensitive place and many of the donors are business people, so we don’t want any conflict of interest. Some of the first grants have been made by the trustees, and we really hope that in five years we can have some impact on enabling the news that needs to be heard. It’s a great model for people to think about replicating in other areas, where perhaps a single philanthropist might be out of their depth. When a single person is the first mover, most of the political risk is attached to them. However, if we do things together as a credible group, we can achieve much more. There are many sectors that would benefit from this approach.

Collaboration between philanthropists is not always easy because people have different ideas about what they think will work. We first need to build consensus and have a common theory of change — a lot of work has to be done before the collaboration begins, to make sure we’re all on the same page and believe in a common goal. I’ve realised that simple collaboration is easy, but to conceptualise something new is much harder and must be done carefully. You have to build it out slowly. So the partnerships we are doing are small in nature. We want to see how well we can work together before we build out larger partnerships. It’s okay to fail, but we need to try and collaborate. It doesn’t make sense not to anymore.

Many societal problems that philanthropic capital aims to play a role in solving usually have to do with public services, whether it’s water, health, sanitation, education, or energy. These are either provided or regulated by the state. When philanthropists begin working in any of these areas, at some point they will inevitably encounter the state in some form. People who are trying to make a difference should proactively engage with the state and understand its role. I mean the state at any level, be it the local Panchayat, the district Zila Parishad, or the central government. For example, in Arghyam we realised we couldn’t work in water, a public service that we depend on the state to provide, without negotiating with the state. The government needs philanthropists to collaborate with, in terms of public service delivery of essential services. Suppose the nonprofit that we support in Arghyam had come up with a really innovative way of managing groundwater that the government has not implemented. We need to be able to convince the government that public money, if spent in that way, may achieve more equity and sustainability in water. So we have to work with the government. While it may sound hard, if we want to be effective, we can’t avoid it.

We also inevitably encounter policy issues that we want to have an influence on, where we see a gap or opportunity for change. It’s important for philanthropists to start thinking about that from get-go. When we design our philanthropy, we need to think about the role of the state in that particular sector, where we might encounter it, and how to proactively engage with it. If we want to do anything at scale and have a real impact beyond our own resources and philanthropy, we need to creatively and patiently engage with the state.

Giving From the Head and the Heart
Nandan and I are both quite active in our philanthropy. We have slightly different ideas, which is good because we need diversity about what to support, based on our own interests. We did some combined work, supporting institutions like IIHS and Yale. Nandan gives a lot of money to institutions, as well as mentorship. I do very different things, often running institutions myself. I also do cheque writing and institution building. We certainly inform each other before writing big cheques, and sometimes family discussions at the dinner table are often about giving, whom to give, what to give, and what can be effective. It’s important to keep those discussions alive in the family. But for the first time, Nandan and I are collaborating on implementing the work of EkStep. I tend to look at what’s actually happening in the field, at a grassroots level, while he’s better at technology and understanding how to build that in. So the yin and yang works nicely when it comes to giving, and it’s good for families to talk and bounce ideas off each other. Philanthropy is both about the head and the heart, and if families work together, you can bring both those elements into your giving.

One of the questions that some women struggle with is whether they can do philanthropy with family wealth, especially women who have not been working because they’ve been homemakers and doing the other foundational things for the family. I feel that women should not hesitate. In the same way that they would buy something for the family, when they’re doing philanthropy and there is consensus, they should be bold and use their passion, heart, time, and imagination, because giving forward sets the tone for the family and for the children. Everybody contributes to the accumulation of wealth in a family, and women should not hesitate to give forward.

Sometimes I worry that Indian philanthropy is not edgy enough, not taking enough risks or grappling with the bigger problems. For example, in 10 years if some of these climate change predictions are true and monsoon patterns change, that would be devastating for millions of people in India. Shouldn’t Indian philanthropy make the big leaps to look at things 10 years away and say, “What are the things that we can start tackling now?” Instead I feel like Indian philanthropy may get stuck tinkering on the sidelines.

We may see a little bit of incremental work in education or health, but we will not tackle the really big problems that are facing us because we don’t know how to.
But if all the people who have produced their own wealth can be so creative as to build huge business empires, focus their attention on the problems we’re facing, we would have more innovative philanthropy. We don’t have to copy the West. Today, we have problems in India that the West never faced. We have to build an indigenous model of innovative philanthropy, taking bigger risks, collaborating, being more audacious, and giving more. That’s what will make this country go forward in a way that’s different from some of the bad predictions and projections of it. I think we have a huge responsibility on our shoulders, and we should enjoy taking it on.



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