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Collaborative Giving and the Path Ahead for Indian Philanthropy

Strategic Philanthropy | May 3, 2016

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s opening address on Collaborative Giving and the Path Ahead for Indian Philanthropy, on Philanthropy Day at DPW, 2016.

This is a really exciting point in the history of Indian philanthropy, where almost anything seems possible. It’s also a point where we need to be thinking about collaboration in philanthropy more deeply. Collaboration for collaboration’s sake does not mean much, and there are many philanthropists who operate very effectively on their own. Similarly, there are thousands of nonprofits in India who work in niche areas and work closely with communities in ways that you could not otherwise replicate at a different scale. That kind of individual passion and innovation has led India to have the most thriving and diverse social sector, perhaps anywhere in the world. However, I think we have reached a stage now where nonprofits and philanthropists are maturing and realising that no individual entity has all the answers. We need to be truly creative because we are living in complex times, where the problems seem to always run ahead of the solutions. If we put our heads together, perhaps we could innovate in a different way.

The Power of Collaboration
I was very lucky when I started out as a philanthropist in 1999. Before that, I used to dabble in philanthropy without calling it as such. We just gave forward because we had some surplus and we thought it was our moral obligation and strategic imperative as citizens to do so. So I was very lucky that my first activist-philanthropist role came in the form of Pratham network, which at the get-go was about collaboration and skill. There were already multiple nonprofit institutions within it and multiple donors, so I came into a platform where collaboration was built into the design. That was very useful to experience, including some of the chaos and mess, because sometimes everyone was pulling in different directions, and yet we had to combine to achieve our singular goal of “every child in school and learning well.”

It is incredibly helpful to have one big, banner vision that everyone can align with, because it means that even though people may have different pathways to that goal, they come together and work towards it. My multiple-year experience in the Pratham network started out as chair of the Akshara Foundation, and then as the founder of Pratham Books which I helped to steer for 10 years. I was also with the Pratham board itself. Through that time, I saw how strong leadership combined with genuine collaboration can build up one of the world’s largest and most effective nonprofits.

Of course, collaboration is not always easy. All of us have our egos and want to have our imprint on what we do, especially new philanthropists who think that the only way to solve a problem is on their own. After having been through the Pratham network, I also felt like I had to try something on my own. I set up Arghyam, a foundation that has been working on water and sanitation across India for the past 12 years. We have made many early mistakes, however now we have consolidated around two big programs on water quality, and three big programs on the water quality of groundwater — one of the biggest issues that we need to focus on in India. At first, I found it much easier to run my own foundation with my own money, since I didn’t have to worry about collaboration which involves institutional overheads, time, and compromises. It worked well for five years, but I found that as soon as you get deep into the heart of any problem, you realise that the problem cannot be solved by just one person. Collaboration becomes the essence of solution finding, regardless of the space you are working in.

Over the years, Arghyam has built many collaborations to come at the issue from different angles. We’ve created several networks, where multiple nonprofits have come together, like in our participatory groundwater management program and water quality networks. We have also started an India-wide springs initiative, where we are looking at India’s springs which are the source of water for millions of people. These water sources are disappearing by the day because we are not looking at the catchments and the quality of water. In order to take on a huge challenge like that, you essentially need to design collaborative frameworks, both of the people who are going to do the implementation and people who are going to bring in the resources.

So I was very quickly humbled at Arghyam, and we realised that we didn’t have all the answers nor the required skills in our own team to really solve this problem. Arghyam is now partnering with the Tata Trust as well as the Bill Gates Foundation and several other small donors to do this kind of work all around the country. Eventually you have to collaborate, but first you need to reach that point and maturity to be able to do so. The idea is not to collaborate because you are expected to, but because you are convinced that it is the way forward, to get results and outcomes that would be beneficial to all.

Five Models of Collaboration
There are five kinds of collaboration that I think are possible in the Indian social sector today. One is where you fund an existing organisation. That requires the least amount of collaboration because all you have to do is write cheques and be updated about their progress. There are many examples of this kind of collaboration, where an existing organisation has multiple donors that they stay in touch with, who help strengthen the organisation and make it better. Most of the large, traditional Indian nonprofits have followed this model. The second model is where one donor comes in and starts an institution, and invites other donors to join. There are many institutions like that in India, including the Azim Premji Foundation. They set up the organisation with their own goals and ideas on education, but USAID and other donors came in to support their work in the early days.

The third example is when donors come together to co-create a whole new model. Several knowledge institutions have come together in this way. Some of us have set up the India Philanthropy Initiative together under Azim Premji’s leadership, where we committed a lot of our own wealth to doing work together in certain areas. Ashoka University was similarly set up by a group of four donors who came together with the idea of building a world-class global university, and consequently managed to get 60 other donors to come in and sign on to their idea.

The fourth model is an interesting one to me, at this stage in my work. It is when one donor or a set of donors come together to create a platform in any one sector, which other donors can come in and utilise. The platform enables different actors to do whatever they want on that platform. Nandan and I have started something like this with EkStep, a technology-based platform. Through it, we hope to help 200 million children achieve their basic education outcomes. Our aim is to put this platform out in the public domain, so that others can build on it with whatever content or apps that they want to create. It’s a fascinating new idea in Indian philanthropy, and I hope in many sectors people will come forward to build out similar platforms. Going forward, I believe that technology-enabled platforms will allow other philanthropists and nonprofits to build and innovate on both sides of that hourglass structure.

The fifth and final model for collaboration is what the state does itself. The oldest idea that we have not forgotten, is the Green Revolution when the state invited Norman Borlaug and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations to support their initiative. Another example is NCAER, and more recently, the Bharat Rural Livelihoods Foundation (BRLF) where the government has put in some capital along with other donors like the Tata Trust. This foundation is an autonomous independent institution which is now going to work on rural livelihoods in the most backward states of India. So that’s a huge idea for collaboration as well.

We need to find the collaborative structure that works best for us, as we learn the ropes of giving forward. To me, what matters is that we are inspired and are doing this for the right reasons. We have a society where there’s so much inequity that we must feel the connections out there. So the most important thing is to follow your passion to make change happen, accept help from different avenues, and innovate as much as you can. Intent matters, and if you want something to change, it surely will.

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