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The Art Of Giving : Nandan Nilekani & Rohini Nilekani

Strategic Philanthropy | Nov 23, 2017

“Wealth doesn’t fully belong to us, we are only trustees. Our children knew that. Power to give away is the most important value of money,” inspiring words from Nandan and Rohini Nilekani, days after signing the Giving Pledge. As part of the pledge, they have committed to donate half of their wealth to charity. In their first TV interview together, the billionaire couple talks about why India’s super wealthy need to show they are giving and what money means to them.


This is an edited version of Nandan Nilekani and Rohini Nilekani’s first TV interview together, days after signing the Giving Pledge. As part of the pledge, they have committed to donate half of their wealth to charity. The couple talks about why India’s super wealthy need to show they are giving and what money means to them.

Why the Giving Pledge?

Nandan and I have always planned on giving away a portion of our wealth, and now we’ve publicly committed to it. But I think we did need the time to mature and learn, and now there’s a pipeline into which we can add our wealth. It’s no use having donors who are willing to give, if they don’t know how to actually go about doing it. Now, I think, we know how to give better. We can do bigger and more strategic work. So this was the right time to do it, and we can learn a lot from the other people who have signed the Giving Pledge as well.

As Nandan points out, the Giving Pledge has brought together a set of philanthropists and has created a forum in which we can share best practices and collaborate on tackling large social issues. For us, that’s as valuable as saying that we have signed the pledge. Giving away was already part of our DNA, but this was a way to become part of a group that was looking at the same kind of problems worldwide.

We say that in our culture, Indians don’t often show that they give, but I feel like that boat has left the dock. This kind of signalling has actually become very important now, because if you’re going to be super wealthy, you have to show that you’re super generous as well. The way we see it, this wealth doesn’t belongs to us as such. However many billions Nandan and Infosys may be worth, there is a lot of luck is involved in creating so much wealth. Instead, I see myself as a trustee, and I’ve brought my children up to know this as well. They’re interested in big ideas, and in philanthropy, so it was easy for them to understand our motivation to sign the pledge. There was never any question of them feeling entitled to our wealth.

The Power and Potential of Societal Platforms

With my experience working in education, through my time at Akshara and Pratham Books, Nandan and I started looking at the EkStep Project and how to utilize technology to offer resources to children at scale. We were brainstorming whether there’s a way to think about solving societal problems in a collaborative way. We realised that we needed Societal Platforms, which would involve a massive amount collaboration, as well as philanthropic money to pull off a projects that involved this kind of risk. The Giving Pledge seemed to be that kind of a space, where the people involved are having discussions and collaborating on projects. Both Nandan and I believe in co-impact, i.e. that philanthropists have a bigger impact if they work as a collective, than they have individually. Being a part of the Giving Pledge gives us access to that collective impact.

I learned the importance of this while I was with Pratham Books. There was no way that the publishing house could affect large scale change on its own. It had to be collaborative and open, it had to bring in markets, and change the publishing paradigm. We had to work with the state as well – it couldn’t just be about one sector, but rather the whole society. This is what Societal Platform thinking is about. As Nandan rightly says, it’s not just about NGOs. We think Societal Platforms involve articulating a goal and then saying, “What is the best combination of market forces, government and civil society, to help us achieve this goal?”

One of the problems in the philanthropy sector is that it’s very hard to build partnerships. Globally, we’ve seen philanthropists face the same problem, where they try to launch projects to address certain issues, but don’t necessarily get the outcome they envisioned. The impact is either not visible or not effective. But you have to allow various actors and entities do what they do best, and get involved in the process as well. We’re trying to find a way in which people can seamlessly partner with each other, with less friction. It’s not an answer or solution, but more of an approach that we’re testing out, and hoping other people will try it.

During the last decade, both Nandan and I have really thought about the issue of seeing projects to completion, both in terms of scale as well as sustainability. I agree with Nandan that if we’re talking about creating a collaborative platform for different actors to play together, you need the digital infrastructure to do this. You have to create a platform where they can all contribute. This kind of collaboration is especially important in a country like India, where we cannot produce one solution for a societal problem and deploy it everywhere. We need the ability to have every situation be contextualized by someone who understands local conditions. That’s why a big part of what we do is ‘co-creation,’ where different parts of the solutions are co-created locally, by somebody who understands the ground reality. So the idea is that we build this framework, the tech team creates the infrastructure which is context independent, but then everything that happens after that involves working with local people who have the best knowledge and tools to deploy solutions within their context. That’s why we think this is such a powerful idea.

So far, the feedback from implementing this idea with EkStep has been great. Once people realise we want to solve the problem with their help, they all come around, and that’s what we’ve seen happening now. The way we see our role is that we need to be the facilitators, and we need to build out and deploy the risk capital. There are enough people who know what to do with that. We don’t need to tell them how to educate children, but we do need to be able to innovate on a tech platform, and then allow people on it to deploy the tools they think will serve their needs the best. So societal platforms need someone called a system leader who curates and catalyses this, by creating a way for everyone to come together to work on a solution. This has been our call to other philanthropists as well – what’s really needed is for someone to deploy real money, and invest in building that architecture that other people can then build on.

Working Together For the Future

Our aim with EkStep was to provide better learning outcomes for 200 million children by 2020, and when we decided this, we knew we were setting ourselves an extremely ambitious goal. Nandan has mentioned the necessity of setting a very definitive goal when tackling societal problems. Most civil society players don’t have the resources to be able to scale like this. With public money or shareholder money, you’re accountable to others, but with philanthropy, the money is yours and you are only accountable to yourself. So there’s certainly a risk to it, but it’s important to set an ambitious and audacious goal, which really forces you to think about scalable solutions.
Even when Nandan joined the government with the goal of providing 600 million people with Aadhaar in five years’ time, it was a massive, audacious project. But like he says, when you set these big goals, it motivates everyone to work towards that. His experience with Aadhaar has definitely taught us a lot about platform thinking, and from this we’ve learned the value of co-creation solutions, amplification of resources, and including this into a basic methodology that people can follow. It’s a ‘think-do-think’ model, where we come up with solutions, apply them, and then learn and adapt. These feedback loops are an integral part of the design principle, along with a strong philosophical core of collaboration. The design and architecture of the platform must support this.

EkStep is the first time Nandan and I have worked together on a project, and so far it has been surprisingly smooth. I was anxious since our approaches are a bit different, but I think what we each bring to the table compliments the other. The technology team and Nandan’s approach is very systematic, and there’s a lot of brainpower there, but like Nandan says, I bring with me my own experience working in education, as well as a sense of empathy. For me, the children and how we might be able to reach them, must be at the centre of our strategy.

Although only five signatories of the Giving Pledge are Indian, including Nandan and I, I think that’s not necessarily indicative of the kind of work going on in this sector. Philanthropy in India is on the rise, and many people like the Tata Trust and Azim Premji have been spending a few hundred million dollars every year on philanthropy. Many businesses are doing a lot of work on the ground, though they may not have signed the Giving Pledge themselves. Over the years, we’ve seen an increasing number of people keen on giving, and learning how to donate their wealth in a better way.

Of course, in Indian business families, there’s the idea that they must save for future generations, but I think the tide is changing now. Families with inherited wealth are parting with it easier than before, and with first generation wealth creators, giving comes very naturally. A lot of young people are coming into money, and even if they’re not billionaires, we’re seeing that they’re beginning to give very early on. The culture of wealth is shifting, and that really matters here. If the norm is to give when you come into wealth, you focus as much on giving as you would on using it on yourself. And that’s really exciting for us to see in the philanthropy sector.

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