Rohini Nilekani: On my journey as a philanthropist

Nov 22, 2019


This is an edited version of a speech delivered by Rohini Nilekani to a closed door gathering of Asian philanthropists.

Most of us in this room are on a journey of discovery as philanthropists. We recognize that we have been lucky, we are fortunate to have wealth way beyond our needs. We want to use that wealth not just to satisfy our own whims but also to act as trustees of that wealth for the public good.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, as Lao Tse Tung famously said. For me, that step can be described as a restlessness. Since I was very young, I wanted to help create positive change. I was unhappy with the state of society in my country, India, where there was so much injustice and inequity, where there was so much poverty and lack of opportunity. I did not want to live in a society like that. I wanted to live in a better society, where there was more hope and more justice. I did not know then that I would find my way to extreme wealth and unprecedented opportunity to be part of the change I was seeking. But I did know that I would have to do something with my life that reflected my desire for the good society, or samaaj, as we call it.

All of us have influencers that shape our thinking and our action. In my case, one of the earliest influences that was the oft repeated story of my paternal grandfather, Babasaheb Soman, who showed exemplary commitment to the larger public interest all his life, first as a lawyer who encouraged out of court settlements without a fee, then as a follower of Gandhiji during the freedom movement.

Later as a journalist, I was able to meet thinkers, policy makers and report on various issues of society for the media organizations I worked at. That too helped me understand how ordinary people deal with all the challenges they face. I call the FIRST MILE, and I try even today to keep my ear to the ground.

My husband co-founded a software company in 1981, and I was lucky enough to be able to invest in it, as my husband did not have much money then! This small amount of Rs 10,000 or 1000 yuan that i put into Infosys from my savings later turned me into a wealthy woman. I must admit that it took me years to adjust to my wealth. In India, middle class people, like I was, look at wealth with great suspicion! It took me a while to figure out that in fact, I could use this wealth for precisely the kind of activism I wanted to engage in, to be part of the better society I yearned for. So my husband became an accidental entrepreneur and I became an accidental philanthropist.

Once I had internalized that, I moved quickly. I co-founded two organizations in the early 2000’s. The first was Arghyam, to help me learn to do philanthropy better. By 2005, after many experiments, we decided to focus on water, and for the past 14 years, we have been supporting good organizations all over India to improve people’s access to sustainable water. Our work has had significant policy impact, and we have worked closely with state governments and the Union government as well. In our latest avatar, we are attempting a shift from incremental to exponential by helping design a shared infrastructure for the water sector in india, especially for capacity building and data management. It is scary, it is risky, it is outside our comfort zone as an organization, but it fulfills the true role of philanthropic capital – which is to underwrite risk and innovation. So even if we fail, it is still the right thing to have tried.

The second organization I co-founded and funded in 2004 was Pratham Books. I gave it the grand vision statement of “A book in every child’s hand”, so that we were born as a scale organization, determined to be not just a not for profit publisher, but to disrupt the whole ecosystem of children’s publishing in India, which was hardly serving the needs of 250 million children. For us, it was a societal mission to democratize the joy of reading, which was the main anchor of my childhood.We started publishing in multiple Indian languages, created new, local, appropriate content, found new ways of distribution, and encouraged many new writers, editors and translators. The real breakthrough we had was to open source our content under the Creative Commons license. Since we wanted more children to access good books, and we did not have to worry about profitability, this was a perfect way to really open up the space. Our books were online, they were free to download, to read, to print, even to sell. By the time I left Pratham Books in 2014, we had already reached millions of children.

But a good founder must know when to step down. My succession plan at Pratham Books has worked better than I dreamed of. The new team has take the open platform idea even further as Story Weaver. Now it is a global platform with content in up to 200 languages, reaching millions of children around the world . There are even 250 stories in Mandarin if you want to look them up.

Even while I was putting my time into my own institutions, I was very aware that I do not have all the ideas and all the solutions. That philanthropists must not fall into the trap of doing things inside their own fence.

So, From the beginning, I also have supported ideas, individuals and institutions that display integrity and commitment to some sectors in which I have a long term interest – education, the environment, the arts, justice, good governance, active citizenship, media and gender equity- especially working with young men and boys.

This has allowed me to build a portfolio in these sectors, supporting dozens of entities around the country. I have always tried to begin from a position of trust with these organizations. It is very import that donors do not become dictators, and that they do not burden organizations with undue requests on outcome reporting that take away too much time and resources from the primary agenda of the team. This attitude has really helped me find the most interesting and innovative people to work with. I am proud of the flourishing civil society sector in India, where a breed of young and new organizations is innovating rapidly to solve emerging societal problems.

In many of these institutions I have been the first funder, taking a bet on the social entrepreneur. Only rarely have they failed to deliver. Soon, they begin to attract other funding, and though it is so hard to stay on the path of social action, with so many challenges, most of these organizations are now dreaming of scaling up. I am willing to support them at this stage of scaling up as well, which requires investing in instruction building and core capacity, where it is unfortunately hard to find other funders.

Both Nandan and I invest heavily in supporting institutions committed to long term change at scale. Some are think tanks that will have policy impact, others are building professional capacity in critical areas such as urban design, climate action, higher education etc. Supporting societal institutions is critical in a country where both markets and the state cannot solve complex societal issues on their own or even together.

In fact, the underlying philosophy between all that I do in my work is that good civic institutions, moral leadership and social innovations are the foundation of a successful society. In the continuum of samaaj (society) bazaar (markets) and sarkaar (state ), my work is firmly in the samaaj (society) sector. I believe that active citizens of the samaaj can make sure that power is held to account, that the markets and the state can be held responsible for the larger public interest. Of course, samaaj needs good institutions of both state and market to work alongside with, and we have always tried to build partnerships across sectors.

This is what has led us to what we call Societal Platform Thinking, which we have deployed at an organization Nandan and I confounded four year ago, called Ekstep, to bring learning opportunities to 200 million children. It is the first time that I have worked directly with my husband, and I am happy to report that the marriage is still surviving despite us having very different approaches and experiences in philanthropy!

Through Ekstep we have built a technology infrastructure for learning, which has been adopted by the Indian government to create a National Teacher Platform called Diksha, on which tens of thousands of teachers and millions of children will be able to learn and share.

As I come to an end of my talk, let me share some principles of Societal Platform Thinking, which incorporate all the lessons Nandan and I and the teams have learnt over three decades of our work. It is a values framework that has evolved over time.

Societal Platform Thinking is a way of looking at complex societal challenges. Systems change can only be addressed if samaaj, bazaar and sarkaar, state society and markets are able to work together with reduced friction to collaborate and co-create

The team has developed some founding guidelines for such action.

1. For many participants to work together, we need a platform, connecting many nodes. This should be a UNIFIED BUT NOT UNIFORM structure, so that situational diversity can be harnessed for designing appropriate responses. Context matters , and local actors know best what solutions can be developed in their particular situation. The platform must allow for that local knowledge to be applied, to ENABLE DIVERSITY AT SCALE.
2. Every change begins with something who feels the need for the change. We call these leaders system builders. Those who can put our bold visions that excite everyone to participate. A system builder must invest to CO-CREATE A TECHNOLOGY BACKBONE FOR A SHARED INFRASTRUCTURE for all stakeholders. However, the mission should not be technology led. It must be technology enabled. The goal of the tech infrastructure is to engage people seamlessly as possible. This technology infrastructure must be developed as Open, accessible PUBLIC DIGITAL GOODS, so that samaaj bazaar and sarkaar can build on top of it.
3. In such a scenario, there is no point trying to create ONE solution, no matter how great or effective. It is better and more sustainable, to DISTRIBUTE THE ABILITY TO SOLVE.
4. If the ability to solve can be distributed, you can find ideas from anywhere, solution making becomes discoverable, and lessons can be quickly shared. IT ALSO HELPS RESTORE AGENCY TO PEOPLE TO INNOVATE. Then they become part of the solution instead of remaining part of the problem. And the whole system become flexible, and remains open to EVOLVABILITY, one step at a time.
5. Often, philanthropists and civic entrepreneurs try out small pilots and then try to replicate them. Often, pilots succeed and scale up fails. That’s why it is important to design for scale in the beginning, and realize that there is a difference between scaling up what works and figuring out WHAT WORKS AT SCALE. Some of the points above allow you to design for population level systems change.
Today, some of these frameworks are getting embedded in a few areas of global philanthropic collaborations, of which I mention just one- Co- Impact, in which about 10 international entities have invested, including Nandan and myself, to seriously scale up impact in various societal missions.

At the end of all that, and all those big words I used, however, I want to say just this.

We are all trying to make a better world. Nothing is more humbling in one’s life than when we come to the realization , which all of us come to very quickly in this journey, that social change is the hardest thing we have ever attempted. We have all been successful in our businesses or our professions – we can even pat ourselves on the backs for it.

But making lasting change for the good is incredibly difficult. It requires us to cultivate humility, patience, and hope every single day.

So more than ever, let us dedicate ourselves to connecting our pockets to our heads and especially our hearts. Let us deploy our philanthropy, to build on the human spirit while always seeking what magnifies and elevates our own spirit. Let us stay curious, connected and committed.

Whenever I feel a little low, I remember Lao Tzu, whom i quote again.

“What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.”

Namaste and Thank you. Xie-Xie.



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