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Women in Philanthropy: A conversation with IMC Ladies Wing

Strategic Philanthropy | Jan 20, 2021

A conversation between IMC Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Rohini Nilekani on the subject of Women in philanthropy- a personal journey, a public conversation.

This is an edited version of a conversation between Rohini Nilekani and Shloka Nath, hosted by the IMC Chamber of Commerce and Industry. They discuss the role of women in philanthropy – a personal journey, a public conversation.

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I grew up in Mumbai, in a middle class family and the value of education and believing in yourself was instilled in us, as well as the responsibility of designing the kind of society that we want to live in. As citizens, each one of us is responsible for this, and we must use our talents to give forward, to achieve that vision of a good society. By their words and actions my family conveyed this and I was able to internalise it.

In my professional life, I have always been a writer. However, I made an accidentally smart decision to invest in my husband’s startup in 1981. I put the princely sum of Rs. 10,000 into a small organisation called Infosys and it became unbelievably successful. So we became very wealthy, much more so than I expected to become in my lifetime. Infosys was at the right time and in the right place, during India’s economic liberalisation and the growth of the IT sector and so we were able to come into wealth. But this is not something that came easy to me. I used to be an activist and journalist and in those days in India, we viewed extreme amounts of wealth as something negative. When I came into that wealth, I suddenly had to rethink my priorities. I began watching other people and was inspired by the history of what wealthy people have done to create good in society. This is how I came to terms with the fact that I could do good and continue to create a better Samaaj or society by using my wealth in a way that moves this mission forward. Instead of a burden, I began viewing my wealth as a liberating opportunity to do good work.


My Personal Journey

Coming into sudden wealth may not necessarily be the easiest thing to deal with. People often think if they win the lottery their life will be made, however sometimes it’s not as simple as that. But once I understood the responsibility of having this wealth, I was able to begin working on issues close to my heart. While my children were very young, I set up a trust called Nagrik to work on safer roads. However, we weren’t able to achieve our goals because India is a capital of bad roads and we have the world’s worst statistics on road accidents and deaths. I learnt a lot through that first experiment in the sector, back in 1992. We didn’t have the right strategy, we didn’t put in enough capital, and we didn’t have the human resources necessary to tackle it. But we learnt from that failure and the next thing that I started getting involved with was Akshara Foundation, which was part of the Pratham Network.

I took an interest in early education and served as Chairman of Akshara Foundation. In Karnataka, we managed to work with thousands of schools and hundreds of slum areas in Bangalore. I also set up Pratham Books in 2004 with the goal of seeing a book in every child’s hand. For 10 years we worked very hard at it, and we managed to create an open platform to allow authors, illustrators, editors, and translators to share their work and collaborate, allowing the creation of more books in just five years than India had been able to create in 50 years. This meant that we could reach millions of children with rich, local Indian content. When people ask me, “What gives you the most joy in all the work you have done in the last 30 years? ” I always say it’s Pratham Books. Seeing the joy on a child’s face when they read a book is one of the most satisfying experiences for me. After Pratham Books, I began Arghyam, a foundation working on water in India. Water is such a key resource and we are able to work with some of the most amazing civil society organisations in the country, helping communities to solve their own problems of water.

In my personal journey, I continue to be inspired by my grandfather, Babasaheb Soman, who joined Gandhiji in 1917, when Gandhiji first made a clarion call for volunteers in Champaran. My grandfather was among the first group of people to go to Champaran because he understood that in times of crisis, our own lives are less important than what we can contribute to make society stronger. He stayed with Kasturbaji in Bhitiharwa Ashram, which was the first ashram Gandhiji built, and his actions taught me the importance of putting society first, before our personal self-interest. 

This is what runs central to my own work in the philanthropy sector. Although I work in many different areas, there is one core philosophy that connects my work – my belief that in the continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar and Sarkaar, i.e. society, markets, and the state, the Samaaj comes first. After all, humans came first and built the markets and state to serve us and help us thrive. But the Samaaj is the first sector, so it’s critical for us to build our Samaaj, it’s moral institutions, leadership, and ethical grounding. If we have strong institutions and a strong Samaaj, then we can hold the Sarkaar and Bazaar accountable. So amongst all the sectors that I’m doing philanthropy in, I look at how I can fund good ideas, good individuals, and good institutions. This is how to build the strength of the Samaaj, so we can all strive for a better society that we are proud to leave for the next generation. This is the central idea connecting all my portfolios, across sectors. 

I began my portfolio called Young Men and Boys because I realised that while we have been working towards women’s empowerment, we have not been concentrating on young males who are also trapped in certain identities and stereotypes, which harms women as well as themselves. We need to create spaces for them so they feel safe to talk and consider new ideas of masculinity. By giving young males the space to work on themselves and to work with women, we could encourage a more equal way of looking at gender. When we began, there were only two organisations working in this space. Now we have 12, hopefully growing to 20. And I think it’s something that we must all consider – how should mothers, sisters, aunts, or grandmothers work with the young males in their homes so that they are not afraid to experiment with different parts of themselves. How can they be more sensitive? How can they understand women better? How can we help to create more confident and therefore more gentle males in the world? I learn a lot from this portfolio, every day.

I’ve also started supporting a lot of work in the environment sector. I’m very passionate about wildlife and preserving our ecology, because sometimes we forget that the economy is a subsidiary of the ecology. Ecology comes first, it’s the foundation that everything, including the economy, rests on. If we keep destroying our ecology, our natural resources and biodiversity, we will never be able to do well economically. I have been thinking about this, especially during my trips to Kabini. For five years, I have been looking for a particular black panther in the forest of Kabini. It was a meditative personal journey for me because as I waited to find this black cat, I began to understand more about how human wellbeing and natural ecosystems are intricately connected. We will never be able to create prosperity and peace without understanding the connection between ourselves and nature. Five days after I publicly declared my romance for the black panther, I saw him for the first time. Tears came to my eyes and I felt great gratitude. He had absolutely no clue, he was busy sleeping on a tree, but it was a simply marvelous moment.

There are several institutions in India that have been working passionately for the environment. From pastoralist institutions in Kutch and people looking out for snow leopards, to those in the northeast who are looking after a very fragile biodiversity and down to the Nilgiri’s Biosphere as well as along our coastline. We have one of the longest and most fragile coastlines in the world. Climate change, coastline erosion, and the loss of biodiversity is going to severely affect the people whose livelihoods depend on it so there are many organisations working to preserve it. So I have a wide portfolio in the environment sector because there are good organisations working in that space. If we are concerned about our grandchildren and their children, we have no choice but to start paying attention to this issue, whether we live in Bombay or deep in the forest.

We’re very lucky because India is one of the few countries in the world where we have been able to conserve our biodiversity despite our high population. This is because our culture allows us to respect what is in nature. This is critical because what we do during the decade we’re living through right now will determine the future for all of us. We must all feel a great sense of urgency to solve problems and get engaged because this is the decade when we have to use our maximum innovation, our minds, our hearts, and our pockets to help stabilise humanity and our planet. We got a rude shock last year, with the pandemic upending all the sustainable development goals that we had for 2020. So there is an urgency now to catch up to where we need to be, and I feel that women especially have a role to play in this decade. What the earth needs right now is to be nurtured and healed, so we must lead with a feminine energy more than a masculine energy. In my philanthropy, no matter what I’m working on, I try to restore a bit of what Osho calls the lunar energy or feminine energy into the work that I do, which brings more healing, dialogue, and nurturing. 


Solving Complex Societal Problems

Globally, our problems seem to be running ahead and becoming more complex, at a much faster rate than we’re able to solve for them. Our responses don’t match them, and in the meantime new problems such as climate change and pandemics are emerging all the time. So after 30 years in the field, my husband Nandan and I started to think about what we have learnt and how to achieve more impact at scale. We realised over this journey that you can either take one solution and push it down a pipeline or you can distribute the ability to solve. Depending on how you structure your work, you can allow people to participate in solving their own problems, rather than remaining a part of the problem itself. This is important in a country like ours because we have so much diversity. Bihar’s water problems are very different from Gujarat’s water problems or Rajasthan’s water problems, so allowing people to solve problems in their own context and enabling them to do so is a more effective method than trying to impose one solution for all contexts. People are very innovative and they understand grassroot situations very well, so we need to allow everyone to solve problems in their own context, whether in terms of water, education, health, etc. This is what I’ve learnt through my philanthropy journey, and now we are designing for this, in order to help people become problem-solvers themselves. 

Our team of extremely innovative, committed, and bright people came together and created what we call Societal Platform Thinking. We realised that in order to solve complex societal problems, we need to find a way to reduce the friction between the Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar, so that they can collaborate easily. Otherwise all the efforts get very scattered. To do this, we had to create a technology backbone and be technology-enabled so that we could help people solve problems in their own context. This is especially important because every 100 meters, the context changes. So how do you create a common public digital infrastructure that helps people solve problems in their own way? We saw through EkStep and Arghyam how people can use a digital infrastructure to talk to each other, discover new ideas, solve problems in their own context and then share their solutions back on that platform so that others can learn from it as well. Our goal is to enable more people to join us in solving larger problems with speed, scale, and sustainability.


None of us in the social sector have all the solutions or know how to solve the complex problems that we’re facing. So we have to come with a deep sense of humility. We have to keep learning by doing, failing, and learning again. In India especially, we have a vast civil society with thousands of good organisations, so when we want to do philanthropy, we should begin by accepting the rich diversity of our civil society institutions and work with them in a partnership firmly based in trust. If we begin with trust, it is always reciprocated. Since these civil society organisations are the ones who understand the problems on the ground, I believe that funders must let them co-create the program that they want funded and allow them the flexibility and freedom to change based on the circumstances around them. 

If we want to see transparency and good outcomes coming out of philanthropy, we have to invest in more flexible funding so that organisations are less afraid of failing and are able to be more transparent to their donors. Sometimes in India, philanthropists don’t give enough support. They hold back support or they think 90% of what they give should go to a certain project rather than the organisation running it. But NGOs need flexible funding to pay their staff well and to invest in infrastructure and technology. If we are able to understand that, we’ll be able to get better transparency, accountability, and impact.

In order to scale effectively, we also need to start working with the government more. Even if you’re a small organisation, try to work with the government because they are very often open to partnerships. Even if you only want to work with one school, hospital, slum, or village, governmental organisations near it will be open to your intervention. If they are not, be patient and you will find a champion in the government who will help work on improving government service delivery. We have to enable our elected government to become more efficient and deliver on the promise they made to the people. It takes a lot of patience and it’s sometimes frustrating, but we must work with them. No matter what size your organisation is, even if it’s just a two-person team, you must share core values that will drive you. These values need to be articulated and shared because if there’s a conflict of values, sometimes it can break down an organisation. And be prepared for failures. Many of the richest people and most successful entrepreneurs admit that it’s easier to build a successful company than it is to make a single change in society.

Building a Better Reality 

What we’re seeing today is that there is far too much concentrated wealth, in far too few hands. There’s only one part of the spectrum that is sucking up too much of the value and people like myself and many others have really disproportionate wealth, which we could not possibly use in 10 generations of our own families. In the face of this, we must consider what responsibility do the super wealthy have to society? Societies will not allow such runaway wealth creation unless some good was coming from it back to society itself. This is the idea behind the Giving Pledge, which was set up by Warren Buffet, Bill and Melinda Gates. How can we get more rich people to commit to giving away at least half of their wealth, hopefully within their lifetimes? 

It took Nandan and I some time to join the Giving Pledge because culturally we were a little hesitant to be so public about it. I’m very glad we did it though, and we need more people to come out and acknowledge that the wealth in their hands has a societal responsibility. When we were asked to write a letter before signing the pledge, I quoted the Bhagavad Gita and Karmanye Vadhikaraste, which says, “Focus on the action, the fruit of the action will come, but you must not be afraid to act because you’re worried about the result.” You should not be worried about failure because it will trap you into inaction. And so we acted and we’re trying to give away half of our wealth in our lifetime. This is not an easy task at all because there’s not enough absorptive capacity to take money, especially in India, since we don’t have very large institutions. We still need to build out our public institutions and there’s a lot of work to do ahead.

When people who are interested in philanthropy want to know where to start, I ask them a very simple question – What are you interested in? It could be as simple as, “Why don’t the buses run on time? Why is our traffic so chaotic? Why did the sparrows disappear? What is the farmers’ agitation all about?” I tell them to think about the things that they want to change in the world, and then to do a bit of reading and find one person or organisation that is working on that. Then your journey can begin, and one step will lead you to the next. The only fear is of inaction, so you must act. Act today, take that first step and find an NGO that you believe in and give Rs.100 or an hour of your time to that organisation and see what happens. That one step will lead to the next, and it really is as simple as that because there are so many opportunities out there.

I don’t think philanthropy can solve all our problems. We need dynamic entrepreneurs, state institutions, and we need each of us to keep our families together. But the reason we need philanthropy is because philanthropy is capital that can be used for innovation, it is heart capital that can help fellow human beings’ suffering to reduce. Governments and markets can’t always do that, societies have to do that. We have to engage with the problems of others and see what we can do because when we help somebody, we are helping ourselves. Of course, you may not always succeed. Even if I put 150 crores into Arghyam, we can’t snap our fingers and solve all the water problems in India. But every time we have enabled somebody to start thinking of their own solution, we have moved the needle on a complex problem. So don’t be afraid to experiment and never be cynical about philanthropy and sustainability. What can be more sustainable in this world than one human being reaching out to another human being’s suffering and trying to alleviate it? Nothing is more sustainable than that.

In the post-pandemic world, I think all of us can participate in building back a better reality. We don’t have to go back to dysfunctionality, we have to find a better way so that we are all more prepared when the next pandemic comes because it will come. This is not the last pandemic. So how can we learn to trust each other? How can we build better rapid responses? How can we build more resilience in our society? Resilience is not just something that the government has to build. All of us have to start thinking about responsibility and resilience. What do I have to do as a citizen to be ready to help neighbors in need? At a very deep philosophical level, if 2020 taught me anything, it is that there are no strangers – we need to recognise the humanity of everybody on this planet. Can we understand more about the deep interconnections between us, where the first grandmother in China who got the coronavirus or the forest fires in Brazil making carbon emissions worse is affecting each of us. We are all related to each other, so we need to think about how to make this web of interconnections stronger, and work together.

Women in Philanthropy

As women, we often occupy many spaces and identities at once. By doing that and not being locked into one dominant identity, I think we are able to see more shades of gray and are aware of more nuance. So when I talk about feminine energy, I mean bringing in a perspective that is different from men, because women are risk-takers. Perhaps not in terms of taking risks in a business setup, but everyday women learn about risks, rewards, and trade-offs. As homemakers, career women, mothers, and wives, they understand multiple spaces and how to juggle between them. It allows women to not be locked into one identity, for example economic power alone. Perhaps that’s why the kind of philanthropy that women do can be different, whether it’s Anu Aga or Melinda Gates, and we certainly need more of this kind of philanthropy.

Many women have approached me because they want to give forward but they don’t feel comfortable spending money if they are not earning it themselves. The first thing I tell them is that they do have freedom over some capital. We never count the amount women do in a family, in terms of unpaid work. I think taking one step to do some philanthropic work at any scale, volunteering your time or your money, is like building your family. I advise women to find one NGO or one cause that they feel strongly about, start with trust and see the magic that will come.

It’s also important to remember that we are not born knowing how to do strategic philanthropy. My first act of philanthropy was to give part of my first salary to a girl for a scholarship. It was not highly strategic, but it was a very important first step in my journey. We have to begin from the heart, and as we evolve we move from an intuitive approach to a more strategic one but we must keep on dipping back to the heart for inspiration. My various portfolios – independent media, access to justice, climate and biodiversity, and young men and boys – all stem from my various passions. They also come from meeting committed people and organisations who need the risk-capital which will allow them to experiment and create models, which the government can pick up for scale.

As women, we should think about how we can recommit ourselves, to bring out the nurturing, risk-taking, and creative energy into solving societal problems. And we must do this not just in our businesses, careers and our families, but out there, to ensure a better world for future generations to inherit.

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