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Comments at SVP, Kolkata 3rd Anniversary Meet

Strategic Philanthropy | Civil Society | Apr 5, 2021

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s comments at SVP’s 3rd Anniversary Meet in Kolkata.

My Journey to Structured Philanthropy

I have been on my philanthropic journey for about three decades now. When I look back at it now, I think the real journey started much before, with my ancestors, because it is what you learn that you take forward. In my family, there was always great respect paid to my grandfathers, who were very philanthropic individuals especially my father’s father. He gave up a lot of the income-generating part of his livelihood to join Gandhiji and the freedom movement. He was among the first few people to go to Champaran in 1917, and spearheaded the development work that was done in the first Ashram started by Gandhiji in Bhitiharwa. So, our family credo was to live simply and that life is about sharing and giving forward. It doesn’t mean that you have to wear loincloths, you can certainly enjoy your life but there was an emphasis on a larger responsibility towards society.

So we inherited this idea that our lives are not surrounded just by the walls of our home, or even our community. We need to look much further than that. I was a bit of an activist right through my college days, and as a journalist I got to see the way different people live and how most of us take for granted what is valuable to others. Especially because I grew up in Mumbai, I took for granted our relatively good public infrastructure, and only later did I learn the importance of how simple public infrastructure can help people rise up to their own potential, even if they are not economically well off. But when they’re stuck with bad public services, every day is a battle. When I was growing up, we had water, electricity, roads, which sounds very basic but many people don’t have assured access to these things. We had public safety, parks, and the beach to walk on – all the things that make urban city life much more meaningful for individuals to prosper. We can’t say this is true of present day India, we have not kept pace with public service delivery.

We grew up in that kind of middle-class atmosphere in a cosmopolitan city like Bombay. Later, when I went to America I was once again a beneficiary of amazing public infrastructure. We had no money in the early days of Infosys, we only had an allowance of $500 for the month. Luckily, in America, food and public transport was cheap, and best of all, public libraries were free. For me, it was like discovering a treasure trove of knowledge at my fingertips. I mention these details because I feel that we always rest on the shoulders of our forefathers and foremothers, and that the level of public infrastructure that we are exposed to really helps us move forward.

At the time, I had decided to invest all of my money, Rs.10,000, in a small company called Infosys, mostly because I trusted in its founders. We got lucky, and that Rs.10,000 multiplied. The idea of Infosys was bigger than all our personal ideas of ourselves and our families, and it succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. But when I came into my own 100 crores, it took me a long while to become comfortable with that kind of wealth. I decided to put all of it into a foundation and thus Arghyam was born in 2001. I saw it as public wealth, not private wealth and so I put it into a trust even though I wasn’t sure what to do with it. And so my structured journey of philanthropy truly started, although I was involved earlier with setting up institutions and joining Akshara Foundation and the Pratham Network. I started to learn the ropes of giving in a more structured manner through Arghyam. For the first few years, I would randomly try things out with learning grants, and from 2005 onwards I focused on water because it was clearly a sector that impacted everyone at all levels and that we were not managing sustainably. So there was a system play and also a human play where it impacts everybody’s quality of life if you don’t have access to water.

Arghyam has been around for 16 years now and I’m pleased to say that we have been able to impact the water sector in a positive way. Alongside this, I co-founded Pratham Books, which was one of the most joyous phases of my life because we decided to put a book in every child’s hand. We started with this very big mission and over the years, we were really able to democratise the joy of reading for children. Today, Pratham Books is 17 years old and we have reached hundreds of millions of children, with good stories from around India and the world. Nandan’s philanthropy also scaled up his own institutional philanthropy, making very large grants to organisations such as IIHS, NCAER, ICRIER, and eGov, where he focuses on impact at scale using technology as a means to achieve this.

Creating Resilient Societies

Over the years, I learned that what I really believed in is the power of people, of citizens to do things for themselves. I built this construct, that in the continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar and Sarkar, the Samaaj or society is the first sector. It is the basic sector for which the markets and the state are developed, because society needs institutional authority so that we don’t collapse into disorder. We need markets to create prosperity and innovation, but they have to work for the larger public interest; and we need order and rule of law, but the state exists to support societies, so that citizens could be their best selves. All of us are citizens first, not subjects of the state or consumers of the market. Even if we work in government or are heads of large corporations, we are citizens of our communities and our nations first.

When people understand that we, as citizens, can come together to solve our problems and co-create the structures to hold markets and state accountable for collective public interest, then you get a thriving society where all of us can hope to flourish. There’s no such thing as a perfect society, but there is such a thing as the imagination of a society that is constantly striving to be better. So my philanthropy is based on this simple premise – if we can support moral and ethical leadership of the Samaaj and the building of better institutions that serve the Samaaj and contextualize local problem solving, then we create resilience. If we want good societies, we need resilient societies so we have to look out for the opportunities in the Samaaj, to support good people, good ideas, and good institutions, so that we can continuously innovate our way to a better future. With this in mind, I support people in many areas such as access to justice, education, independent media, young men and boys, and the environment. I believe that we are all philanthropists because all of us feel that something needs to change, something is not right, something can be better. And we all want to be a part of that positive change.

Many younger philanthropists ask how we should prioritise our focus, especially in India where there’s so much poverty and inequity. To me, philanthropy is love for humanity, and it can be expressed in a myriad of ways. People must go where their passion is, whether it’s to alleviate poverty or whether it’s in relation to art, music, culture, or sports. There are many pathways to the same goal, and arts and culture is one way that we create the energies and creativity that allows people to understand poverty and justice. It allows us to make meaning of our journey on this little planet, and so I don’t think art, culture, or sports is in any way less important than feeding the hungry. After all, there are many institutions for feeding the hungry. But when we talk about philanthropy, we are allowing ourselves a creative expression of our humanity, so I would urge young philanthropists to do what comes from their hearts first. For those who are just starting out, I would encourage them to experiment with different organisations to figure out which of them will be able to scale. When you make learning grants, you’ll quickly be able to tell which organisations show potential. Once you identify them, then double down. The other thing I would suggest is to lead with trust. My whole philanthropy is trust-based philanthropy.

Trust-based philanthropy also involves open communication with your partners. One of the issues in the development sector is that founders may sometimes get too attached to their creations or sometimes organisations lose their way if their founders have to leave. We’ve seen that happening to many NGOs. So when we talk to our partners, this should be a question on the table. What is their succession plan and who are their next level of leaders? This is crucial for institutional sustainability. One charismatic founder is good for some time, to draw in other people but it’s not enough for the institution to last. We need to talk more openly without partners, without sounding prescriptive, and ask these questions. For people who are actively engaged in philanthropy, it’s crucial to be empathetic. However, feeling other people’s pain more sharply also takes its toll on us mentally and emotionally. Personally, I had to train myself over the years to be detached, so now my credo is maximum concern but minimum attachment. We need to keep doing the work that we can, but we should detach ourselves from the result so that we can continue. Otherwise, if we allow empathy to override our abilities, we won’t be able to do this work in the long-term.

Reimagining the Culture of Giving

My parents grew up in an India where people had to work very hard to make a living and usually people were only born into wealth. So there was a sense of potential, but not enough security to say that we need to start giving. In India, people give anyway to their family, their community, and their temple. But in order to do what we call ‘structured philanthropy’, society also needs to reach a level of confidence in its economy and its future. Today we are seeing this, with many young people becoming independently wealthy. Even if they are not super wealthy, they have some surplus money. They’re also very aware of what’s happening around them, through social media and communication channels, and realise how intricately their lives and futures are connected to others. So they are getting interested and stimulated by the question of how they can be part of creating a better system.

I have met many young people who want to give back early, rather than waiting until they retire. My young friend from Healthify was also saying, “We came into money, but we just took out a little for ourselves and we are going to immediately set aside 20% of that. Please tell us how we should invest.” So I think the culture is shifting and changing. The pandemic has also taught us that the elite can’t just secede to its own private world. The virus doesn’t recognise gated communities. So we have no choice but to swim in the same water, and make that water healthy for all. Finally, the ecosystem around giving is also improving in India. It’s much easier to give transparently and organisations range from working in the arts to media to sports and healthcare. They are more discoverable, and bridging organisations have grown so it’s also easier to give back. Retail giving in India is increasing with civil society organisations and not just temples. Especially during the pandemic, giving by citizens who are not so wealthy shot up and we raised hundreds of crores. This is the spirit of India that we have to tap into. Kindness to strangers is a value that is an integral part of our culture, we just need to revive that idea.

We need to reimagine the culture of giving. It has to become the norm and we need good storytelling around it and institutions that show that the people can come together for a much larger purpose – to solve large societal issues. Even if we are small, we can become part of a very large stream of giving forward. Our brains are wired for joy by giving, and there are multiple rewards for society and for individuals in this giving journey. So we must re-imagining a culture of giving small and big, and carry that story forward.

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