Bangalore’s Shapeshifts: A Personal Journey

Bangalore’s Shapeshifts: A Personal Journey

June 14, 2019 | Philanthropy

This is an edited version of a talk Rohini Nilekani gave as part of a curated series called ‘Speaking of the City,’ curated by Bangalore’s World-Famous Semi-Deluxe Writing Program at Shoonya. Rohini talks about the city’s role in her work as a philanthropist and social innovator.



An Accidental Bangalorean

It’s been 35 years since our arrival in Bangalore in 1984. That’s three and a half decades, most of my life, and certainly more than I spent in Mumbai, the town I was born and grew up in. So clearly, I am a Bangalorean now, there’s no two ways about it. But we weren’t the first to arrive in Bangalore. Infosys and Wipro were the third wave, but it was the public sector institutions that came in the ‘50s and ‘60s that brought in new kinds of migrants to the city. After the public institutions like BEL, HMT, ITI, etc. entered the picture, they brought with them a lot of new people and a new culture to Bangalore. Then in the ‘70s there was a phase of government factories as well as the hardware industries that were being set up in the city. It was only in the ‘80s that the IT revolution truly began here. The government itself decided to set up Electronic City, and brought in a lot of companies, Infosys, very clearly a major one among them.

That’s what really began our journey to Bangalore. For Nandan, who was born there, it was like a homecoming, but it was new to me – and the Infosys story was new to everyone. The story of Infosys captured media attention in the early ‘90s, as India’s first software company to set up its own five-acre premises in Electronic City. In 1993, the IPO meant it would be a public company that was an emblem for this new narrative: middle class professionals who wanted to beat the dynastic capitalists at their own game. It reflected the idea that you could remain true to your values and could still ethically create real wealth and an institution to be proud of. For us, the story of Infosys has been running like a thread through our own lives.

When we first moved to Bangalore, we lived in a house in 4th T Block, Jayanagar, with D. Linge Gowda as our landlord. He had just run an unsuccessful election campaign as a Congress candidate against Ramakrishna Hegde of the Janata Party in a Kanakapura by-election, and had lost. It was great to be living close to the Gowdas. Every day, in the evenings, I would sit with his wife for half an hour on the steps going up to our little flat and she would help me learn Kannada. Thanks to her, I was able to get a bit of a grounding in Kannada and also learn about the local food, since she used to call me down to her kitchen to have “akki” roti and other snacks. With that foundation, I was confident enough to make full public speeches in Kannada, and I always hoped that my enthusiasm would make up for my poor grammar. I made many mistakes along the way, but I found the Kannada people were always supportive to somebody who was trying to learn the language.

We brought up our children here, in this beautiful city, and I outsourced a lot of parenting to Valley School. With its 100 acres for the children to play in and Krishnamurti’s philosophy of “no reward, no punishment,” the children were as happy going to school as they were to come home. We also did a lot of ‘bussing’ in those days, taking two, three buses to go to Malleshwaram, work, etc. My father-in-law, particularly, was a great supporter of anything to do with the public sector, and he taught me how to get around the city using public transport.

As a journalist I used to write for local papers, and one of the earliest things I remember was marching with an organisation called Vimochana, which worked with women’s rights. We used to have placards outside people’s houses where there had been dowry deaths. I went there partly as a participant activist and partly as a reporter and sometimes the police would come and crack down on the protests. I used to go to report stories at the BBMP office, and one of my biggest goof-ups was when the officer I had gone to meet was not in his seat, and I asked his colleagues, “Lanchake hogidaara?” I learnt much later that that was not the smartest thing to say. Then, of course, there were the same old haunts that everyone used to go to, like Koshy’s, Vidyarthi Bhavan, MTR, Lalbagh, Cubbon Park – we did all the things that most Bangloreans used to do then. I even went through a phase of wanting to do Urdu shayari, and I took lessons from a gentleman called Khalil Ur Rehman, who was a DIG Intelligence officer who gave up his evenings to teach me Urdu. These are the kinds of people you meet in this city, who are willing to give so much of themselves to help someone else.

Writing In The City

Since I moved to Bangalore in ‘84, I was writing for several papers, including India Today and local papers as well. In ‘87, Vir Sanghvi had taken over as Editor of the Sunday Magazine, so it was an easy decision to join the magazine. With Gauri Lankesh as my predecessor, I was in excellent company though I couldn’t stay there for too long. I was also writing scripts for documentaries, and doing a lot of children’s writing at the time, to keep myself busy. Then I wrote my first novel, ‘Still Born,’ which was definitely inspired by the city.

The story follows Poorva Pandit, a journalist who lived in Basavanagudi, but it was also about a Bangalore that was growing into new media, that was growing into buildings of glass and concrete; where Basavanagudi itself was changing. I’ve just recently learned that Basavanagudi is one of the oldest settlements of this new city we call Bangalore. It was set up in 1895 as a refuge for people who were escaping the plague. So the city was very much at the background of my novel, and in the story, Poorva actually uses technology to solve her problems.

One of the inspirations for that was Atul Chitnis, who was really the pioneer of the open source movement in Bangalore. So the characters of the city also found their way into the novel, including Dr. Sudarshan, who has been working for decades in the BR hills with the Soliga tribals there, where the story is also partly based. My second book, ‘Uncommon Ground’ was based on a television series I did, where I interviewed corporate and social leaders together. I got Anand Mahindra to speak to Medha Patkar; I got Aruna Roy to speak to Sunil Mittal and so on, as a series. I thought it needed to be documented into a book which was called by the same name, ‘Uncommon Ground.’

When I think about the possibility of a third book, my inspiration would have to come from the many city writers that I have been meeting over the last so many decades, including Vivek Shanbagh, Anita Nair, and so many others. Shashi Deshpande, with whom I have had the honour to interact and learn from, on how to have a deep commitment to writing. And I’m always grateful to have been able to get Girish Karnad’s blessings on things like Ratnam Books. It’s a great time to remember, that even if Girish is no more, his work will always continue to live with us and be in our hearts.

A Space For Philanthropy

My philanthropy would have been very different if I had lived anywhere else, because this is a city of reformers. I keep joking that there are more reformers per square inch in Bangalore than in any other place in the country. It’s like a landmine of reformers – you have to be very careful, you can trip over them anytime. The kind of passion, open-mindedness, and commitment that I see here has convinced me that there’s no city in India quite like Bangalore. So living here is a dream for someone who has suddenly accumulated far too much wealth and wants to give it away. There is a cornucopia of choices for Nandan and I in Bangalore, which I’m very grateful for, because over the years I’ve learnt a lot, there’s been time and space to experiment, and passionate individuals to work alongside.

Early on, I set up an organisation called Nagrik, after one of my very dear friends had been killed in a horrible accident. Kiran Mazumdar, Jagdish Raja, Muralidhar Rao, and many others came together with me, to start Nagrik for safer roads. But it was a bit of a disaster, with a steep learning curve for us. We didn’t have any clue how to do proper institution-building. But we spent a lot of time at the city’s 32,000 junctions, trying to streamline the movement around that. That experience taught me a lot about how to actually engage in public life, and helped me with the other institutions that I supported or started.

In 1999, I was lucky enough to be invited to join Akshara Foundation. Its goal was to get every single child in Bangalore in school and learning by 2003. Well, it’s 2019, and I think we did a pretty good job of mobilising the government and the citizens to make sure that all the public schools were doing better than they were before. We were also able to set up more than 1,000 preschool centres that we call “Balwadis” as part of the Pratham network. The Akshara Foundation really taught me about the city, in a way that all the buses and walks around Lalbagh could not. We set up preschool centres wherever there was a community need for one, including a lot of slum areas across the city, and worked with government schools to set up remedial education centres. These initiatives, however, needed citizen volunteers to run. We needed people who believed in the idea and were willing to volunteer their time, because they weren’t going to earn a fortune by joining us. We used to give a very minimal stipend. So for the princely sum of Rs. 500 or Rs. 750, and we tried to get volunteers.

Hundreds of people came forward to set up Balwadis in their own homes, bringing in 20-30 children from the neighbourhood and spending three to four hours trying to teach them. It soon became a movement, and I’m proud to say that for several years, we were able to sustain it. That’s when I got to see how the people at the margins of the city live, and how their courage, risk-taking ability, and absolute can-do attitude meant that they would do anything for their children’s future, and that education was going to be a very important part of it.
The kind of support that we got was astounding. I remember young Muslim women who came forward, in the hundreds, to become teachers and volunteers, setting up classes in their own home. Some of them would not have had been allowed to work outside of their homes, but this was seen as a safe space for them to go and engage in teaching young children. I’m so grateful the Akshara Foundation is still thriving and continuing their work across many states. Ashok Kamath who just became the Namma Bangalore Achiever was the Chairman and continues to do splendid work.

I also got the chance to set up Pratham Books as well because I was part of Pratham’s network all over India. We were creating many eager new learners. But they had nothing to read, except the textbooks that were sent home to them from school. It’s a tragedy that there were very few children’s books that were attractive, engaging and written in different languages for children to read. So we set up Pratham Books. I took on the responsibility to set it up in Bangalore, together with Ashok Kamath, who did most of the running of the institution. The goal was a book in every child’s hand, and in its 15-year journey, I’m proud to say, I was there for 10 years. Now Suzanne Singh continues to take it to newer heights, and we have reached tens of millions of children – not just in this city, but throughout the country. I think a mark of a good institution is when the founder can move on, and the institution can do better. And I must say, all the institutions I have left have done far better after my leaving them than when I was still there, so I must be a very good founder.

Arghyam came up first as my idea of experimenting with philanthropy, because we came into money suddenly when we participated in the American Depositary motif that we did at Infosys. I personally came into 100 crores. I didn’t need 100 crores for my own life, and we were doing reasonably well. So I decided to put it all into the foundation. But I didn’t know what to do with it, so I first decided to learn some philanthropy heavy-lifting. We saved many children’s lives by helping them get to a respirator in time, we set up yoga centres, and we did some air pollution monitoring.

But in April 2005 I realised that if one wants to be strategic and long term and solve a real problem in society, it would have to be water. So from then on, Arghyam focused on the issue of water in India. For the last 14 years we’ve been working all around the country with various organizations, and hopefully, I’ve made some impact in the water sector. Most of Arghyam’s work is in fact outside Bangalore, except for some peripheral work I’ve been able to do with our lake-saving communities. The last thing we set up ourselves was EkStep. Nandan and I began to work together for the first time in 2014, however we had very different approaches and I didn’t know if this partnership would last, but it’s been almost five years now, and we’ve been able to change the game, bringing learning opportunities to 200 million children, which is our goal for 2020.

But apart from these institutions that we were able to fund ourselves, we were also able to support marvellous people setting up their own institutions. Whether it was BIC, ATREE, or Takshashila; new think tanks and ideas like IIHS (Indian Institute for Human Settlements), each of these institutions was set up by fiery, committed, intelligent people who were able to build both teams and institutions, and Nandan and I have been really lucky to be able to support some of them.

On the arts and culture side, it was also exciting to find entrepreneurs like Arundhati Nag at Ranga Shankara. Bangalore needed to revive its cultural spaces, and she worked so hard at it, but one day she felt that she just couldn’t go on. So she called us we realised that she was almost there, she just needed this one infusion. The next morning, I went with a check of 50 lakhs, and within a few weeks Ranga Shankara was up and running. Today she has so much support, and they do 300+ plays every year. They have completely revived the cultural space of the city. So I feel very proud to be a small part of that. Similarly many other opportunities to enrich the community came to us like the Devnandan Ubhayaker Yuva Sangeet Utsav, a small festival that has provided a big space for young Hindustani musical talent to showcase itself. All these ventures need some philanthropic capital, and it’s good to see that Bangaloreans do come forward.

In fact, India is learning how to crowdfund, and Bangalore is a huge part of this movement. It’s not just the billionaires who can save this country. In fact, billionaire funding for social movements should be a very small part of anything that happens in the country. We just did a report on everyday giving, and Bangaloreans actually account for a huge chunk of India’s growing small-giving. That’s why I love being a part of the city, because the people here are highly engaged as citizens.

When we moved to Koramangala, I got to be part of the RWA, and that’s something that most people are frightened of because they have strict rules. If you park on the wrong side of the road, woe befall you. Somebody will come and move your car. But I’m very proud to see how democracy functions at this basic level. We call civil society the third sector, but I think that’s ludicrous. It is the first sector and it begins where we live, and how we engage with public issues there. So I consider myself very lucky to live in the third block, Koramangala, with all its feisty civic activism. It’s also taught me to question how we protect our commons. How do we prioritize whose needs to be prioritized? Our road is called “billionaires road” because Rajeev Chandrasekhar is on one side, and Pradeep Khar is on another side. But two lanes beyond me, there are people who don’t get as much water as we do, which leads me straight into 2014.

The 2014 election is very sharp in my mind, though the 2019 one is already blurred away. In the heat of that awful April, March, we were all campaigning. Nandan was on the Congress party ticket against the most invincible Ananth Kumar, and we already know how that movie ended. But it was really the most gruelling time I’ve had in the city, with a very rapid learning curve, because politics is the most difficult profession of them all. I don’t think any other profession in this world comes close. It is 24/7 and the kind of demands to come at you all the time are impossible to manage. My respect for politicians went up by 500% in those few months, even though I wouldn’t exactly want to emulate most of their practices.

We listened to people all day long, what they hoped for, what they wanted, what they expected. And we learned exactly what keeps this dysfunctional law, equilibrium politics in place – it is nothing but a system of patronage and brokerage, because nobody wants to solve it. It suits everybody at some level. But it has been allowed to continue like this for so long, which is partly why we have the city that we do.

Looking Forward

Sometimes I feel that this city used to be one city, but now it is many cities. In these 35 years, it has become many cities. From eight million people, it has become 13.5 million people. It’s a city I no longer know, because in some ways, our lives have also expanded with it. Though my political ideology was groomed in Mumbai, my political sensibilities were very much developed here – in this city of ideas and reformers, this city of curiosity, the diverse cosmopolitan city of many, many cultures.

But I also never expected, no matter how it grew and how dysfunctional it became, that it would ever be a city where Gauri Lankesh could be shot outside her own home, and where trolls could actually say good things about a man like Girish Karnad dying. No matter how much the city becomes unfamiliar, all of us have a lot of work to do to keep that original idea of the city alive. This is one of the oldest human settlements in India, constructed on the basis of diversity, of mutual respect, of a cultural exploration, of looking forward, not back. There’s miles to do, lots of work to continue doing as citizens of this utterly marvellous city to which I now belong.

अरबपतियों से भी ज्यादा दान देते हैं आम लोग

अरबपतियों से भी ज्यादा दान देते हैं आम लोग

May 25, 2019 | Philanthropy

हमारे जीवन के कई सपने होते हैं जो हमारे परिवार, बच्चों और उनके भविष्य से जुड़े होते हैं। जीवन की हर प्राप्ति हमें कहीं न कहीं संतुष्टि और खुशी अवश्य देती है। लेकिन आज के समाज में मैं देखती हूॅं कि जीवन में उन सभी आशाओं को पुरा-पुरा करते कहीं न कहीं हमारी खुशी गुम होती जा रही है। आखिर वो कौन से कारण है जो हमारी खुशी को हमसे दूर कर देते हैं और पारिवारिक सम्बन्धों में दूरियां ला देती है। अगर हम सारे दिन की दिनचर्या पर ध्यान दे तो हमें यही लगता है कि यह परिस्थितियों की एक श्रृंखला है जो लगातार फिल्म की तरह चलता ही रहता है। कोई पल हमें खुशी देता है तो कोई पल हमें उदास भी कर देता है। अर्थात हमारे मन मुताबिक कोई कार्य करता है तो इससे मुझे खुशी मिलती है। इसका मुख्य कारण यही है कि हमारा वर्तमान जीवन व्यक्ति और लोगों के ऊपर निर्भर कर रही है। सुबह का एक सीन आया कि बच्चे स्कूल जाने के लिए समय पर तैयार तो हो गए लेकिन उनको लेने के लिए बस नहीं आयी तो मुझे गाड़ी निकालने के लिए जल्दी-जल्दी जाना पड़ा। पहले वाले सीन में खुशी थी लेकिन दूसरे सीन खुशी गुम हो गई। फिर अगला सीन आता है स्कूल समय पर तो पहुंच गए, फिर याद आया कि बच्चे ने जो होमवर्क किया था वो नोट बुक तो घर पर ही रह गई। ये सारे ऐसे सीन हैं जो हमारे मानसिक संतुलन पर प्रभाव डालते हैं। क्योंकि मैंने अपने मन का कंट्रोल पूरी तरह से परिस्थितियों के ऊपर दे दिया और मैंने सोचा कि ये तो नॉर्मल है ऐसा चलता ही है। फिर धीरे-धीरे दिन प्रतिदिन जीवन की चुनौतियां बढ़ती गई जिसके कारण हमारे जीवन में परेशानी बढऩे लगी। फिर हमने अपने जीवन को देखना शुरू किया हमारा जीवन कहां है। तब मैं अपने आपसे प्रश्न पूछती हूॅं कि सब कुछ तो है, एक अच्छा पति, एक अच्छी पत्नी, दोनों जॉब में हैं, अच्छा खासा मासिक वेतन घर आ रहा है, दो स्टोरी मकान बन चुकी है, बाहर दोनों के लिए अलग-अलग गाडिय़ां हैं, बच्चों के लिए भी सबकुछ है, फिर हम खुश क्यों नहीं है सब कुछ होते हुए भी अंदर खालीपन क्यों महसूस हो रहा है।

हम सभी को यह मालूम है कि हमारा जीवन चार दिनों का नहीं है। यह तो एक लम्बी यात्रा है जिसमें स्वाथ्य रहना बहुत ही आवश्यक है। इस यात्रा में जीवित रहने और शरीर को स्वस्थ्य रखने के लिए भोजन बहुत ही जरूरी है। यदि हमारा स्वास्थ्य अच्छा होगा तभी हम ठीक तरह से काम कर पायेंगे। लेकिन कहीं न कहीं हमने इमोशनल हेल्थ और शारीरिक हेल्थ को अलग-अलग कर दिया है। अगर उसको भी हम जीवन में उतनी ही प्राथमिकता दे जितना शरीर के स्वास्थ्य को देते हैं तब हम जीवन की यात्रा में ठीक तरह से चल पायेंगे। अब पांच मिनट पहले हमें पता चला कि बच्चे को स्कूल छोडऩे जाना है। अगर उस समय मैं शांत रहूं, स्थिर रहूं, छोडऩे तो फिर भी आपको जाना ही है, गाड़ी तो आपको फिर भी चलानी ही है, लेकिन गाड़ी हम दुखी होकर चलायेंगे, मन में बहुत सारे विचार आयेंगे। अगर हम इमोशनल हेल्थ को भी उतना ही महत्व दें कि ये सब परिस्थितियां और हमारी भावनायें अलग-अलग नहीं है, यह तो एक पैकेज है। जो हमें परिस्थितियों के साथ मिलता है। यदि मैं इमोशनल रूप से स्वस्थ हूॅं तो मैं परिस्थितियों को बहुत ही सरलता से पार कर सकती हूॅं। लेकिन हम क्या करते हैं पहले परिस्थितियों का सामना करने लग जाते हैं फिर बाद में इमोशनल हेल्थ के बारे में सोचते हैं।

आज स्वास्थ के प्रति इतनी जागरूकता क्यों आयी है। इसके लिए हमें ज्यादा पीछे जाने की जरूरत नहीं है। हम सिर्फ एक पीढ़ी पीछे जाते हैं और सिर्फ अपने माता-पिता को देखते हैं। वे कभी भी पैदल करने नहीं गए, उन्होंने कभी मिनरल वाटर नहीं पिया, उस समय भोजन का इतना ध्यान नहीं रखा जाता था। हमलोगों के यहां साधारण भोजन बनता था और उसे ही हम सभी लोग आपस मिलकर खुशी-खुशी से खाते थे। लेकिन आज हमारी भावनाओं का दवाब शरीर के ऊपर इतना ज्यादा है कि कोई न कोई समस्या शरीर के साथ चलती ही रहती है। क्योंकि हमने आत्मा के स्वास्थ्य का ध्यान नहीं रखा जिसके कारण सारी समस्यायें आनी शुरू हो जाती है। अगर हम आत्मा के हेल्थ का ध्यान रखें तो मन पर जो इतना दबाव है उसके लिए आपको ज्यादा मेहनत नहीं करनी पड़ेगी। अगर आप दो-तीन लोग इक्_े जॉगिंग कर रहे हैं तो आप उस समय स्वयं के मन की स्थिति को चेक कीजिए कि मन में किस प्रकार के विचार आ रहे हैं। हम स्वस्थ रहने के लिए जॉगिंग कर रहे हैं लेकिन मन में नकारात्मक विचार आ रहे हैं। तो हमारे इन विचारों का प्रभाव मन के साथ-साथ पूरे शरीर पर पड़ता है। जब तक आप यह स्वयं अनुभव नहीं करेंगे कि हमारी भावनाओं का शारीरिक स्वास्थ पर कितना गहरा प्रभाव पड़ता है तब तक आप स्थिर नहीं रह सकते हैं।



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Everyday Giving in India: Harnessing the potential of a billion givers for social impact

Everyday Giving in India: Harnessing the potential of a billion givers for social impact

May 2, 2019 | Philanthropy

From September 2018 to April 2019, Sattva undertook a first-of-its-kind study on the everyday giving ecosystem in India, with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies. The study does a comprehensive mapping of the giving ecosystem, including the givers, the NGOs that engage with retail givers, online and offline giving channels, and the enabling ecosystem, their practices, successes and barriers, and provides actionable recommendations into unlocking more potential from India’s everyday giver.

In Rohini’s words, “Kindness to strangers is an idea that has deep philosophical roots. It is a vision of humanity that transcends all religions and also tribalism. It is a cosmopolitan, universalist idea that allows ordinary people to stretch themselves. While it is natural and desirable that we give of our resources to those we know and trust, or to those who are like us, there is also something deeply ingrained in us that allows us to feel empathy to the stranger in distress. We can, if we are mindful, see ourselves in that stranger. And we respond with the same kindness that we would hope to receive ourselves. This report on Everyday Giving is about all kindness, but perhaps especially about kindness to strangers.”


Key findings of the report [PDF]


Key findings of the report in Hindi [PDF]


Full report [PDF]


Technical appendix [PDF]

Sketches from the three sessions are below.
A Billion Givers – a participatory dialogue on ‘Everyday Giving in India’ with the giving ecosystem


Strengthening our citizenship muscle: Everyday giving in a participatory democracy


Innovation and growth potential of the formal everyday giving market in India

Link to Sattva Site

This is a first attempt at uncovering the everyday giving market in India. We deeply appreciate your feedback, comments, and suggestions. Please write to:

Rohini Nilekani’s Comments on Philanthropy: It’s time to up the game

Rohini Nilekani’s Comments on Philanthropy: It’s time to up the game

March 14, 2019 | Philanthropy

Rohini Nilekani’s comments on a panel discussing Mr Azim Premji’s new commitment to philanthropy totalling $21 billion. The panel discusses whether there are lessons in compassionate capitalism here for India Inc? What is the future of philanthropy in India? What are the challenges? How can India increase the effectiveness of charity?

Watch Panel Discussion



00:11 Supriya Shrinate: Thank you very much for joining us on this very special addition of the India Development Debate. So this is a personal favorite. Wipro promoter Azim Premji is famously frugal in his personal life but when it comes to philanthropy he perhaps shows India Inc the way. His total commitment to philanthropy now amounts about $21 billion making him one of the biggest philanthropists globally. While more entrepreneurs have been joined by giving pledge in recent years most of them are first generation entrepreneurs and almost all of them are from Bengaluru, the gap between the super-rich and the poor continues to widen in India. Are there lessons in compassionate capitalism here for Indian industry? What is the future of philanthropy? What are the big challenges for those who want to do it and how can India increase the effectiveness of charity? That’s exactly what we are discussing right here in the India Development Debate and I couldn’t have asked for a better panel. I’m Supriya Shrinate and joining us right here on this show this evening are Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson-MD BIOCON, Rohini Nilekani, author and social activist and of course Anant Bhagwati, director Dasra and thank you very much all of you for being with us.

01:14 SS: Kiran if I may start with you. Like I said Azim Premji lives a frugal life but as far as philanthropy is concerned he cuts no corners. His generosity has won him much praise. The question that I think a lot of people would want to know and perhaps be inspired from is, what makes someone give away so much of his wealth and does this set an example for Indian industry to follow?

01:43 Kiran Mazumdar Shah: Azim Premji is an exemplary philanthropist. He truly believes in giving back because he believes that wealth creators are very fortunate and they must give back so that society benefits in terms of the wealth that has been created. And I would like to say that these sentiments are something that we all echo because as first-generation entrepreneurs, we certainly shared these sentiments and of course, each one of us. I speak for Rohini and myself, for sure. Believe in giving back and we believe that philanthropy is a very, very essential part of wealth creation. So I just believe that whatever you refer to it, whether it’s called Compassionate Capitalism or whether it is about philanthropy, I think this is something which we owe to ourselves as wealth creators.

02:44 SS: Fair point. Of course we owe that to ourselves and I think I have a shining example of people on the show who’ve done that and Rohini Nilekani, you have all donated a large part of your wealth for philanthropy. Almost, in some instances this is almost half of it. What has really been your motivation and what are some of the challenges in philanthropy as far as India is concerned? And I think one of the questions that a lot of people who want to do it dissuade themselves is, have you ever felt demotivated in your journey because of the challenges that come up.

03:17 Rohini Nilekani: First of all thank you, namaste. Thank you Supriya. It’s a pleasure to be on the show. I’m so proud that Azim and the family who stands so strongly behind him have been so warm and generous and they’ve really set targets for us and goals for us to aspire to. I’ve always believed, even long before we became wealthy, that wealth has a great responsibility toward society. It’s no use some people being wealthy if all of society is not benefiting. So, as Kiran said, wealth creation and philanthropy, how you use it for the better of society to me it just goes together. You cannot separate those two things. So obviously for us it is quite easy to embark on the philanthropy journey. We have publicly committed to give away at least 50% of our wealth and since you asked about challenges, the real fact is that while all of us; Azim, Kiran, Azim’s family, Kiran’s family and us, we’re so committed to doing this, there are many challenges to giving it away well. One is, as we keep saying the absorptive capacity in the field also we need to encourage new civil society actors. So, along with our desire to give away wealth, we have to face these challenges and we have to also invest in the philanthropy ecosystem, so that more people can join and give away better and better. That’s what I feel about where we are at this stage of Indian philanthropy.

04:45 SS: Oh yes, absolutely. There is a report that I’m going to generously quote from and that report is the Bain report of 2019, and Anant Bhagwati to you then. Individual philanthropist account for about 60% of total private funding in fiscal year ’18 in India. You see the break down and it reveals that about 80% of this figure comes from Azim Premji. Take out that contribution across the year and the segment has actually seen a decrease. Is it worrying that we are seeing a lot more addition of rich people to the country? The ultra HNIs have grown at a rate of 12%, expected to double in terms of volume and wealth by 2022. And you know, many people wonder is philanthropy really growing in India or is it dependent on the same few individuals and foundations who give generously? Some of those people are right here on my show this evening.

05:40 Anant Bhagwati: Yeah, and thank you so much for having me and hi to Kiran and Rohini. It’s an inspiration to hear from you. So, I guess here’s the little bit of nuance here, which is as is all situations, India is a story of many realities. So I think the first reality is it’s a young country, wealth creation in India is actually decades old. It’s not very, very old, and the realities, there are sub-segments which are giving more, especially first generation entrepreneurs, the IT sector. So I think that’s very, very positive, and I think the second positive is the conversation level has been extremely high. So, the intent and the conversations is high, it’s never been higher. Now, if I swing to the other side of looking at…

06:34 AB: Why the reality is not as strong as the intent? I think there are two parts. I think Rohini mentioned this. There is both a supply-side issue and there’s a demand-side issue. So on the supply-side issue, I think the reality is a lot of wealth in India still is what I’d call legacy wealth. So this is wealth coming from the great grandfather to the grandfather and down, so the question is, is it incumbent on the people having the wealth today to actually pass it on or is it the incumbent for them to actually share? And I think that’s, that if you start building into the why, I think that’s one big thing. And it’s quite a big difference between, if you look at how the US gives, where it’s almost 2% of the net worth, whereas in India it’s 0.2%. So there’s a stark 10X difference. But at the same side, there’s a demand-side problem which is who do you give to? The largest nonprofit in India is small so that’s also has to be solved.

07:34 SS: So Anant, yeah okay. So Anant give me a minute because that’s exactly the question that I have for both Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Rohini Nilekani. And Kiran there’s a gap in terms of… If you actually just go by what the law says, CSR and I’m not just talking about individual philanthropist, I’ll come to that in just a bit. If you actually just look at the law, the new Companies Act and all of this and people are supposed to give 2% of their annual three-year net profit, but unspent budgets remain a big, big, big bother of concern. Yes, utilization rates have gone up, but 15% of those budgets are left unutilized. Is it a challenge for someone like you that you want to do so much for charity, but are the avenues of where you do very restricted?

08:28 KS: Yeah, I think we need to broaden the scope of CSR at least at the corporate level because I think we are getting too fixated on very small areas and like Rohini very correctly said that the absorptive power of all that we can do to make an impact on society are small and not scalable. In many cases we find that we want to do a lot more, but scaling is a big challenge for all of us. So I think what you tend to see is that even Azim, myself, Rohini, all of us are trying to build and invest in creating large institutions. For instance, all of us have contributed in some way to building educational institutes, the Azim Premji University. I have basically contributed to creating the Krea University and of course I’ve also actually invested a part of my philanthropy for creating a cancer hospital. So I think this is for us an easy opportunity to invest in something that is real and of scale. But when you try to really make the real impact on society in other ways, I think we really need to find models and we need to find NGOs or institutions that can actually utilize these philanthropic contributions in a much more meaningful and impactful way. So I think that really is the challenge, but a country like India has so much to do for society that I think we need to broaden the scope of what is permissible even under the CSR norms that the government has laid out for corporate India. Public infrastructure for instance is something that we should also allow.

10:31 SS: Oh, yeah absolutely. You make a very important point about having the institutions of the network. And Rohini Nilekani if I may ask you, you’ve got foundations like Omidyar or Bill and Melinda Gates or USAID, they have invested in intermediary organizations to build what is really called the strategic philanthropic market. Do you believe that is where the focus needs to be? I mean other than pledging and of course the money comes from generous souls like some of yourselves, but the building up of institutions and foundations, we don’t have a very strength in domestic philanthropy markets, so to say because we don’t have these intermediaries. People are inspired, yes, but where are the avenues to do so has not been done. How can that be done?

11:20 RN: Yeah. So I’ve three quick points to make Supriya. One is, yes you’re right, as I said earlier we must invest in the philanthropy ecosystem, in the intermediaries. I think that’s part of my portfolio, what must I do to encourage the philanthropy ecosystem itself, that’s why Azim, Kiran, myself, we are part of the India Philanthropy Initiative. I support organizations like Dasra and many others that are intermediaries. I think that’s very important. But I did want to bring up something that for years we have all been saying whenever there are shows on philanthropy, we have been saying what Anand pointed out, that a lot of the money is hereditary and so it’s very hard for the ultra wealthy to give forward, but now I want to challenge that because a lot of the old wealthy have also become the new wealthy. Especially those of them who understood that protectionism didn’t serve them, that opening up to global competition in fact made them stronger. And so they themselves in this generation have added a lot to the family wealth.

12:17 RN: So I think they can afford to be bold and not say we have to keep it all for our children and really come out and very transparently give more. And to the question of where will you give and how will you make impact, I think it’s time for Indian philanthropist to strike out boldly. If some of them can build such huge successful corporate empires, why can’t they also build huge successful scaled up societal mission kind of thinking and actually create that scale? Some of us have been doing that work, we call it societal platform thinking and we’ve developed a kind of framework for scale which I’m happy to share with anyone who wants to listen. But I think the time has come to challenge the old wealthy because they are also the new wealthy now, to give more and also to challenge them to be creative about generating scale themselves and not necessarily wait for Indian NGOs to step up because they are doing as much as they can, but they need much more from our side as smart givers.

13:18 SS: No, absolutely, but before I go across to Anant, I will take a quick round two of questions with both you and Kiran and then go to him. Kiran for a country that is estimated to produce 70 new dollar millionaires, which is people with a net worth of seven crore every single day between 2018 and 2022, according to some reports. The question to ask is, what can we do to encourage them to become philanthropists? And, one of the suggestions that has been put on the table is that there is just too much emphasis on UHNIs, the HNIs, the traditionally rich. Why are we not looking to scratch the surface of mass market of everyday givers? And, do you believe tracking the small ticket individual, the retail giving is going to expand the pie, so to say?

14:10 KS: I think unless you make philanthropy as something to be really proud of, something that inspires people to do, you are not going to be able to really create that philanthropic ecosystem. So, I really believe that people should want to give, people should really believe that the giving culture is a very important culture. And I don’t see why this can’t be a very strong culture in a country like India with its plethora of challenges because I think that’s what it’s about. We’ve got so many things to solve and so many such… So many societal challenges to overcome that it must be a natural kind of giving culture that we have. And, let’s face it, India has had a very philanthropic DNA about it because if you look at modern India, I think a lot of modern India was very impactfully built by, through philanthropy. The Tatas, the Birlas, they have actually invested in a very philanthropic way to create the educational ecosystem, the healthcare ecosystem and many other aspects of societal needs. And I think today’s generation has to basically take that forward in a much bigger way.

15:40 SS: No, absolutely. And, I agree with you that let’s not wait for that to happen, let’s build the ecosystem. But to build that ecosystem, and let’s get drawn really to the brass tacks and Rohini Nilekani, the current funding growth rate will lead to an annual shortfall of about 4.2 lac crore rupees, according to some reports, the social development goals have to be met by 2030. All of that said and done, but none of this will happen till more and more people come forward and give more. How should India ensure that the culture of giving gets appreciated, gains momentum? How do we promote that culture? Does it need to be done at a societal level, the interventions at school? What must be done?

16:26 RN: Thank you. I think a lot needs to be done and you are playing one important part of it. I think the media spotlight on this question and the public pressure especially on the wealthy has to be kept up. What is your money doing for all of society? I think that’s very important and you all are doing it. So, thank you for that. The second thing is to your earlier question, I think there are a lot of givers in this country, we don’t really have enough data, and some of us are coming together to put out that data. I hope in a few… It will take some time, but that’s being done. A report on everyday giving that we have done with the Gates Foundation is coming out very shorty about how many people are willing to give, how much? So, I think the culture exists, we have to understand it better and then increase it even more. Recently, I heard something very heartening. I won’t give away the source because they are going to create their own announcements around it, but even middle income people are willing to step forward publicly and say that they are going to give some more of their money steadily and visibly.

17:33 RN: So, I think many things are converging. We put up, keep on the public pressure, we keep the spotlight, we have some transparent data, real data emerging. And I think, we’ll feel much better about the giving culture in this country. I feel quite hopeful. So, public participation in creating public goods, never has there been a better time for someone to do so much with so little. If we all can contribute to creating digital public goods for instance, the knock-on effects of doing that are so large that I think even if you forget the ultra-high net worth individuals, even those with a much better developed giving muscle who may be less wealthy can have really serious knock-on effects and impacts when when so many things are converging. At least, that’s what I believe.

18:24 SS: Absolutely. I think Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw wants to come in to make a point there. Go ahead, Kiran.

18:32 KS: No, I just wanted to say that corporate social responsibility is also playing a very important role in basically creating a value for organizations. We know that many of these areas where we are being evaluated in terms of best employers, the judgment call when it comes to the quality of companies, I think CSR is also being one of the factors that has been considered when they evaluate companies in these kind of ways. So I think it’s about… It’s almost becoming a part of good governance, to see companies really investing in society and impacting society in a positive way. So, I think you’re gonna see that it will have a cascading effect on companies to do good for society. Because today you can see that the world over, I think companies, people and societies are extremely angry about companies who don’t care about society. I know that in my own pharmaceutical sector, you can see that the corporate greed that the pharmaceutical industry has shown worldwide is not going down well with patients and societies and people at large and governments for that matter.

19:57 SS: Oh, yes.

19:58 KS: And so, I think as a humanitarian industry, I really believe patients should be at the center of what you’re achieving, trying to do.

20:07 SS: Absolutely. No, you’re right. I think there is a demand for this to be done at a company level as well, but Anant I’m sorry, I kept you holding. But let me come to you, you know India is committed to 17 of those sustainable development goals, the national institute of transforming India created an SDG India index, and of course, there are nodal ministries that are attached. A, is that the best going forward? And B, are we going to see philanthropy follow where the government’s focus is going to be? So for instance, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan saw a lot of philanthropy follow there. Previously education saw some more follow there. Is it a given that philanthropy will follow where the focus of policy making is going to be. That’s where private philanthropy is going to follow, and that’s how the ecosystem will build?

20:57 AB: Right. And I think if I just build on that point, I think three points there. So I think the reality is you look at the size of the addressable problem, coming from a background of the for-profit sector. The for-profit sector always talks of the addressable market. If you apply the same language here, it’s the addressable problem. That means there are 200 million adolescents who potentially let’s say have a problem. So, moment you start saying, “What percentage of my addressable problem, India’s problem am I addressing?” It becomes quite clear that you have to work with the government, and philanthropic capital is a catalytic capital. The reality is if you just do the numbers, you’ll see that if this capital works in unison with the government to either solve certain missing pieces, or make it more effective, that’s where it actually moves the needle.

21:48 AB: And I think that brings me to the second point, saying what I think Rohini mentioned, the societal challenges, and the societal solutions, eco-system solutions. They will need money, they will need big giving, they will need duration. You cannot say, “I will only give you x for one year, and then I’ll monitor 100 inputs, and then next year I’ll not support you. It has to become much more strategic, longer-duration, and laser focused on swinging the needle on certain addressable problems of India. And the reality is unless we start thinking at minimum the size of a district, if not many districts, if not a state, look, it will not move the needle. And I think that’s the real worry. Lot of action, lot of talk, but unless this approach changes, and we up the game, we will not move the needle over the next 10 years. So I think lot of optimism, but also the need for actually doubling down, and going all in now.

22:42 SS: No, absolutely, one last question. And I can’t borrow enough time from the next show, but Rohini Nilekani quickly a last word to you. Is it time like Anant is saying to shift the focus? Is it time to move the needle, and focus on outcome-based philanthropy? Yes, the intention has been very good that you’ve intended to give 50% of your wealth away. But the focus, perhaps the life cycle of philanthropy now needs to focus on output base. What sort of effect and impact is it going to create? And that should be measurable.

23:18 RN: Well, my philanthropy is not about that, but I want to say something to Anant’s report they are absolutely right. It’s time to up the game. So I would say to you, “Of course, we care about impact, but it’s very hard for us to give attribution and causational. It’s mostly co-relation. So it’s very hard to say “I did this and therefore impact happened”. But what I think we should not forget is that we have been saying this that philanthropic capital is risk capital, it’s innovation capital. Let’s up the game on the Indian wealthy and Indian giving hard to think about going to new areas, difficult areas. We used to call it human rights. If you want, we can call it justice. There are many, many things we need to do so that the remaining 300, 400 million people who need urgent help can be brought to the level of the others, and we have to look at issues of justice, of mental health, of gender, of so many other things that we have under-invested in through philanthropy.

24:15 RN: So I think one thing is working with government, and that’s marvelous. But I think opening up new areas, slightly riskier areas, and putting risk capital, and innovative capital where it is needed, we need to up the game on that so much. Outcomes will come if you do it right, but focus on risk, focus on accepting failure just like the corporate sector just accepts failure there, learn to accept failure, build relationships of trust, and that’s when you’ll find the impact down the road. The process has to be right. It’s time to up the game.

24:51 SS: Right. I usually do a sign out of a show all of you leave me very humbled. And I will only say may your tribe increase. Thank you very, very much. It’s an honor to do the show with all of you. Thank you very much Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Rohini Nilekani, and of course Anant. Thanks very much for being with us in this edition of the India Development.

Embracing Risk: Solving our Societal Challenges

Embracing Risk: Solving our Societal Challenges

March 9, 2019 | Philanthropy

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s keynote talk on Embracing Risk: Solving our Societal Challenges at Dasra Philanthropy Week 2019 in Mumbai. Rohini talks about how we can take greater risks, both individually and collectively, how we can embrace failure as an opportunity, and how we can mitigate the downsides.

Watch Keynote


We’ve come a long way in the philanthropy sector in India. Apart from the older, well-known philanthropists, we are seeing the arrival of so many new and seriously committed philanthropists to the sector. But no matter which sector we are engaged in, as civil society institutions, corporate CSR agencies, or philanthropists, the problems seem to rush ahead faster than our approach. Despite our solutions, we don’t quite seem to get there in time. Even after decades of work in the education sector by so many civil society organisations, this year’s ASER report makes one feel as if we’ve failed our children who, even now, cannot do simple math in class five.

Collaboration Is Essential

It’s important for us to understand why we haven’t achieved as much as we would like to, though we have put in the work. I believe in the power of intent, so I think we are going to do better, but societal problems are very complex, and none of us — individually or as sectors like philanthropy, civil society, markets, or state — can achieve those things on our own. We know that. Real, far-reaching change requires the whole continuum of samaaj, bazaar, and sarkaar, i.e. civil society, markets, and the state, to work together to actually solve these complex societal issues. This is why collaborative action is absolutely essential, because different actors in these sectors offer different skill sets, and have different contexts from which to come at a problem.

Luckily, there is a lot more opportunity today to create these collaborative platforms, like Dasra, Co-Impact, and India Philanthropy Initiative, etc. To target an area like independent media, some of us have set up a collaborative giving platform called IPSMF. Another area for collaboration is climate change, for which The India Climate Collaborative has been set up with the help of the Tata trust, with the goal of driving climate change action among philanthropy and CSR communities. In other words, there’s tremendous opportunity right now to create models based on collaboration, which is essential. In our work, my husband Nandan and I, have begun to see how we can create a framework around collaboration, that we’re calling Societal Platform Thinking.

The Importance of Trust

But collaboration is easier to talk about than to actually carry out. There’s a lot of friction to collaborate, and maybe two reasons why we cannot achieve our intended outcomes is that we are not able to take enough risk, and that we are not able to really embrace risk. We don’t know how to trust, how to let go, how to get out of our comfort zones and do things that we know might fail. So embracing risk is a lot about failure and the ability to trust. When I say trust, I mean that if you are a philanthropist, you have to be able to trust your grantee partners, give them enough flexibility to change what they’re doing based on context, and not expect them to give you ridiculous amounts of reporting, just so you can feel like you’re doing all right as a philanthropist.

You have to be able to lead with trust, and in my 30 year journey in this space, I’ve found that the more I’m able to trust, the better I can lead. Of course, there are some caveats to whom you work with. You should be able to work with trustworthy partners, but once you start off with a relationship based on trust, magic happens. It’s the key thing if you want to achieve social outcomes. Embracing risk and allowing ourselves to trust really opens up our minds and creates space for us to act. We have to be prepared when we embrace risk, to embrace failure as well. Once you say, “I’m willing to fail,” it allows you to go where you have not gone before, with much more confidence.

For example, as our economy is growing, and as our government is able to do much more social spending, there’s a lot of attention being paid to how we can implement government programs better. Certainly, CSR has become even better at doing that over the last few years. There are many civil society organizations that have helped the government achieve its own mandate better at the implementation level. But there are so many areas of society that don’t get enough attention, where the government isn’t necessarily doing enough, and where we, as philanthropists and civil society organizations, need to do much more. Issues like mental health, disability work, access to justice, environmental concerns, are all areas that need our attention. If philanthropists and CSO organisations were to embrace risk and not fear failure, we could innovate solutions that could get us out of the usual rut of our societal problems.

We keep saying that the social sector doesn’t scale. However, if personal and corporate philanthropists were to say, “I’m going to go into slightly risky areas such as justice, and allow people to innovate, to fail a little perhaps, but then to understand why they fail in trying new things,” that might change the game entirely. I really believe that 10 years later, when we look at what’s happened during this new age of Indian philanthropy, we will be able to show something new, that perhaps had never been tried before. Sometimes I wonder if we are suffering from a lack of imagination. When Vinoba Bhave started Bhoodan and Mahatma Gandhi started the Salt Satyagraha, they were thinking at a universal human level of change. But now, when we talk about one district or even 10 districts at a time, perhaps it’s not enough. We need to go beyond just measuring things incrementally, and that means looking at a much larger scale.

How can we bring change at the population scale? There is a method to achieving that. Intent is not enough and the collaborative frameworks that we need to design for that scale is a crucial factor.

Lessons Learned

I don’t think we talk enough about failure in the sector. Failure can lead to a lot of interesting outcomes. Certainly, in 30 years, I have failed repeatedly in the work that I do. In an article I recently wrote, I was thinking about how Gandhi actually failed as a lawyer here. He just couldn’t get his practice together, and then he embraced risk and set off in a boat to South Africa. Look at what one failure led to — the transformation of humanity in some sense. So we should not be afraid to fail, but be immediately ready thereafter, to embrace risk and set out to sail to shores yet unseen.

In the last 30 years of working in the social sector, I feel like I’ve learned three concrete lessons. In 1992, when we started Nagrik for safer roads, for example, I think we didn’t understand the root cause of why our roads are unsafe. When you don’t go deep enough to analyze the problem you’re working on, you tend to come up with band-aid solutions, and the whole thing collapses under its own weight. The second lesson I understood when I worked with the Akshara Foundation, Pratham Books, Arghyam, and now EkStep, is that you need to clearly demarcate the role of samaaj, bazaar, and sarkaar and not confuse them. Allow the three sectors to do what they do best. But if you force bazaar to go below the line of profitability, if you expect sarkaar to do what citizens should be doing, or if you expect citizens to take on the ownership of what sarkaar should be doing, it tends to create confusion and not achieve the societal outcome you need.

The last thing I learned was that if you really want societal level transformation, you need to recognise that none of us have all the answers. But there are people who have answers in their own context. So the question becomes how we should distribute the ability to solve? A very key way to distribute the ability to solve, instead of pushing one solution down the pipe, is to open things up. We need to create platforms and allow public goods to be created from the work that we do. So for example, with Pratham Books, once we realized that we were to open up the creation, distribution, sales, translation work, i.e. once we created a Creative Commons platform where everybody could do what they do best, we were able to scale to tens of millions of children. So this is a very important lesson. When philanthropic capital is being used, that capital in the hands of government would otherwise be taxed. We owe it to the work that we do and to the ambitions that we have, to deliberately work to create open, digital public goods, so that other people can build and innovate on a platform that we help to support as philanthropists.

As we begin this new age of Indian philanthropy and re-dedicate ourselves, let us decide that we will commit to not just working incrementally, but in terms of societal transformation, and we will do that through collaboration, by embracing risk, and without the fear of failure.

Samaaj and Bazaar: Congruence over Divergence

Samaaj and Bazaar: Congruence over Divergence

March 8, 2019 | Justice

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s keynote talk on Samaaj and Bazaar: Congruence over Divergence at Dasra Philanthropy Week 2019 in Mumbai. We often set up Civil Society (Samaaj) and Markets (Bazaar) as opposing binaries. In this talk, Rohini proposes that they have more in common and more to gain, collectively, in collaborating to uphold the Rule of Law.

Watch Keynote


I have often talked about the continuum of sarkaar, samaaj, and bazaar, which is state, civil society, and markets, and how for a successful society, these three aspects must work together in a fine balance. At the base is the samaaj, the people. You simply cannot hold the bazaar (the markets) and the sarkaar (the state) accountable for the larger public interest. Over the course of history, we have seen how that power, in the hands of the bazaar or the sarkaar, can result in oppression. So how do we create a successful society as citizens? We are citizens first, before being subjects of the state or consumers for the market, and therefore we are duty bound for our own sake to help build our society.

The Bazaar’s Interest in Justice

However, we also need to be aware of the congruence of interest between the samaaj and bazaar. It starts with the rule of law. We all want the rule of law to be upheld, and in fact the bazaar, the modern corporation as we know it would not exist if the rule of law had not created the limited liability company 300 years ago. This has allowed tremendous innovation to flourish over the centuries, and also allowed for the absorption of failure, because wherever there is innovation, there is failure. So companies can fail without going under themselves, because of the rule of law.

For their own sake, then, the bazaar sector i.e. corporations have a great self-interest in upholding the rule of law. They need the enforceability of contracts, otherwise they simply cannot function. But even beyond this, the bazaar needs the rule of law to be upheld by society at large, because no business can thrive without social stability outside its gates. We all know the costs here, of riots, bandhs, and lynching. We know the cost of social unrest that has taken place in this country from time to time. We know what happens when the ultra-left Maoist groups actually stop businesses from going into areas, which could benefit with economic development. So it is very clear that outside their gates too, the bazaar has a deep interest in a socially just environment.

The samaaj has an interest in this as well. Civil society organizations are driven by passion, commitment, and the understanding of what Martin Luther King so eloquently states, that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Many civil society organizations and human rights organizations working on issues of access to justice truly believe this. Often at great personal risk, they go up against the power of the state and corporations, to create institutions, and provide moral leadership, and access to people who would otherwise be left out.

Corporations, on the other hand, cannot do this. It’s a point most of us understand but perhaps we don’t articulate it enough. Corporations cannot go out and uphold the rule of law and take that kind of risk themselves. Civil society can and does, but the case I’m making is that there is much more congruence between civil society organizations and corporations than is understood or articulated.

Nike, for example, had terrible labour practices and many civil society organizations put a lot of pressure on Nike to improve this. The corporation actually took that on as a challenge. They made a serious effort to improve labour practices along their entire supply chain, not just within its own gates, but amongst its contractors and suppliers. There’s no such thing as perfection, but they kept on evolving. Today, Nike is known for having achieved that. Similarly other global competitors like beverage companies, had to go through a lot of internal processes. Coca-Cola and Nestle have actually promised the world, that in eight more years they will reduce 90% of their single-use plastic, and we have to hold them to it.

Another example is Greenpeace, which has always been fighting corporations, and is known as an activist organization. But many corporations that have worked with them understood that activism is actually good for them, even from a profitability angle. So many of them have actually aligned with Greenpeace’s goals. In Bangalore, Greenpeace has started a campaign to help streamline the e-waste that was being dumped in places. At first companies like Wipro and other tech corporations pushed back, but then they aligned with these goals, and actually became the leaders of sustainability, not just in Bangalore, but in the country. So there is a very clear alignment between these two sectors.

Keeping the State in Check

Indian philanthropy is still not taking enough risk and what’s the use of philanthropy without risk? It’s very good to keep honouring service delivery improvement, but it’s time to look at our society as a whole, and for the philanthropy sector to step up and get into more slightly risky areas such as access to justice. And the congruence of samaaj and bazaar is exactly why.

Not only are the samaaj and bazaar aligned on these issues, it’s also both their advantage, to make sure that the state does not abuse its own power. I’m sure many corporations have been subject to the abuse of state power while running their businesses. Meanwhile, as citizens, sometimes I feel when we wake up in the mornings, we have already broken three Indian laws because we have so many and they’re written so poorly. If this alignment of samaaj and bazaar is understood and worked on, it also helps curb the excessive power of the state.

There is a lot of opportunity for philanthropy and existing civil society organizations to move further into the space of upholding the rule of law, upholding constitutional values, because all of us, as citizens, as samaaj sector people, and as civil society organizations, need well-written laws. We all need equal access to the justice system; an independent, impartial, and efficient judiciary; and effective public institutions that help uphold this rule of law. It’s the only way to both empower the bazaar, and uphold the rights of the country’s citizens.

The Bottom Line

From the recent BCG report, it’s clear that corporations who align with samaaj ideals will be better off in the long run. There’s been a lot of research on the fact that the non-financial side of business is linked to the financial side of business. It’s been repeatedly shown through exhaustive research, that the companies that do good when it comes to ESG, i.e. the environmental and social issues, also consistently show better results for their bottom line. So, there’s a real convergence of interest in this.

It’s time to take big bets, and pledge that we will no longer do just incremental work, but that we will try to do something disruptive and transformational. The time has come for us to move forward and take the risk of working in this whole area of rule of law and constitutional values. Frederick Douglass once said, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is organized to oppress and rob or degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” I’m not suggesting we’re at that stage, but I’m suggesting it is we who could make sure that this country’s promise of independence will be met, and met in abundance. I hope we can all do this together.

We need to talk about failure in the social sector: NGOs must fail to succeed

We need to talk about failure in the social sector: NGOs must fail to succeed

January 22, 2019 | Philanthropy

A lot of ink is spilled and awards are bestowed each year celebrating the success of the social sector—and there is much to celebrate. But the truth is, if innovation is essential to the ultimate achievements of the sector, we should spend less time on success, and more time on failure. We lament the inability of the social sector to scale, but we do not support organizations to innovate on a continuous basis. We know that acceptance of failure is an essential part of innovation, which in turn is required for successful outcomes. Yet, we do not bridge the gap. Progress on this issue will require candid communication between social entrepreneurs and the philanthropic community. Unfortunately, such candour is rare. This article presents the perspectives of two sector leaders: Rohini Nilekani, philanthropist, social entrepreneur, and writer; and Kyle Zimmer, award-winning social entrepreneur and Schwab Foundation Fellow. Hopefully, it will spark further conversations within the sector.





Are we suffering from a lack of imagination?

Are we suffering from a lack of imagination?

December 18, 2018 | Philanthropy

The pace at which social problems are outpacing our solutions underscores the need for bold philanthropy, audacious goals and capable, committed leadership in social sector organisations, says Rohini Nilekani, founder-chairperson of Arghyam and co-founder of EkStep.


How do you think Indian philanthropy has evolved over the years?  How have the approaches and discussions around giving developed?

I think Indian philanthropy is at an exciting stage; it is continually evolving. One of the most interesting things is that the ecosystem of philanthropy is evolving too, along with philanthropy itself and the idea of giving. Like yourself [India Leaders for Social Sector], there are many ecosystem players that are coming up, looking at leadership in the sector, matchmaking between donors and recipients, building the capacities of the sector, looking at bringing new issues to the  fore,  and so many other things [such as] auditing the sector. And, of course, with so much more wealth creation happening in the country, the spotlight is on what that wealth is doing for the country – I think we are seeing many interesting developments in Indian philanthropy

Is that increased philanthropic wealth doing enough?

No, I think we need the philanthropic muscle in India to be exercised much more. There are some constraints, though, as to why that’s not happening as much as we would like to see.

One factor is the trust deficit. Although the wealthy want to give, there is a lot of philanthropic capital all dressed up and with nowhere to go, largely because of this trust deficit.  How do you give, who do you give to, how do you get impact? You still don’t feel very sure, because of which many of us just land up creating our own organisations, trying to create the change ourselves.

I believe that a healthier thing is when the donors – I am speaking about the super wealthy—find enough channels to give through so that there is no burden of doing things themselves: because we do need a thriving civil society in a democracy. Civil society actors come from passion, from vision, from innovation, from being tied to their communities and from having deep and great context. Having a thriving civil society in a trustworthy, trusting relationship, with donors is something I consider ideal in a democracy. I think we are a little far away from that.

What opportunities must Indian philanthropy invest in to make a larger, lasting impact?

Building the capacities of the system is important. Unless the pipeline opens up to receive funds, you will not see philanthropy grow.  I talked about trust before – that’s important too. But also models of how things are really working in, say, education, health, environment, climate change, livelihoods… there are a hundred things where philanthropy should invest in, including the arts and culture. We need museums, we need performance-based culture to be supported, we need new institutions that allow people to understand the world around them. Different people are working in these areas based on their passion.

But I also think that when we talk of the disparities in India and how far behind some people are left, we have no choice but to go back to talking about the human rights framework. Some donors feel uncomfortable about this because of various things they don’t quite understand: does that mean hyper activism, does that mean getting into trouble with the state?

No matter what you call it, it is about caring about the 300 million people in this country who are our fellow citizens, who need to be supported, who need help across the board. How can Indian philanthropists, those who want to change the world for the better, start thinking a little innovatively to work with this segment?

We need to look into the future, for what’s coming at us, whether it is livelihoods, the future of work  or climate change—that’s where philanthropic capital should want to step in because they can afford to take risks, they can afford to do the things that the government cannot afford to do, things that civil society doesn’t yet have the support to imagine doing. This is the kind of challenge and opportunity for the Indian philanthropic sector.

Do you believe talent can be a limiting factor as organisations in the social sector aim for scale and sustainability?

With 1.3 billion people, we shouldn’t have to talk about the lack of talent. I think the talent is there, the grooming of the talent needs to be taken very seriously. In this sector, we must not forget to ask if there is enough commitment: if we can draw people’s commitment, people’s passion, people’s real need for their lives to have meaning, then I don’t think talent or human resources is a problem.

Having said that, because of the way the sector is growing, we really need different kinds of skills for the specific things that we need to do. I think people are recognising it. People like ILSSare coming into the sector to create the necessary talent, but we have some years to go, no doubt about it.

What can civil society organisations do to develop their leadership pipeline? How can funders help this effort?

I think we have a succession crisis in the sector right now. Many of the organisations came out of some cataclysmic events in the sixties and the seventies that brought out this amazing moral leadership in this country, which has for the last 30-40 years built a very solid civil society foundation. We are seeing succession issues in many of these organisations: after that one dynamic founder is gone, then what? We do have a leadership crisis in the sector. What ILSS and some others are doing to create the next generation of leaders is very important.

Inside organisations people really grapple with creating leadership. So, if CSR could support short courses for organisations to build their leadership, it could be very useful. Funders need to support much more institutional capacity and much more sector capacity. Leadership doesn’t come out of a vacuum and if funders could begin to think like this, it would really help.

Given the current context, what skill sets would you like to see in the social sector?

Of late I’ve been thinking, is there a lack of imagination, are we suffering from a lack of imagination? I mean, look at how the problems are outpacing the solutions. I’m not criticising; I see myself as a part of the sector so, if anything, this is a reflection rather than a criticism.

When Gandhiji just picked up a fistful of salt, what was he launching? When Vinobaji was talking about bhoodan, what was hisimagination? It was not for one district, it was not even for one nation, it was for all of humanity. When Jayaparakashji started the Sampoorna Krantiand Sarvodaya, they were talking about transforming humanity itself. Have we lost some of this spirit? How do we spark our imagination to think much bigger?

The second thing is that, while we unleash our imagination, we should also be putting our noses to the grindstone to be much more rigorous in finding out what really works and how to build systematic structures around it. That is another skill we need to build.  One more thing I would like to add is about sharing and collaboration: so, for example, if you are working in education, being curious to know what someone is working on somewhere else and being able to reach out for that.

How can the talent in corporate India engage more deeply with the social sector?

It would be great if corporate professionals, who’ve made a success of their lives, could see the kind of problems that are emerging and how they can apply their skills to solve some of those. It would be great if they start to reflect on how they would like to see the world become better and then agree to spend some of their personal time understanding that issue — because they are not just professionals, consumers, or subjects of the state; they are citizens first.

And to be a citizen means to engage with other people and to take responsibility for creating a better society because today we are more interconnected than ever. So, when we get out of our offices and cabins, how can we reconnect with all the other things that really make our lives meaningful beyond our jobs? There are so many opportunities now; there are so many young people with amazing ideas, who want to engage corporate professionals. Go and find out who’s nearest to you and I promise it will make your life richer.

What is the one cause that is closest to your heart?

The common thread in all my work is around giving people a sense of their own involvement in resolving whatever the situation may be. Whether I work in water or environment or in issues of young males in this county or the climate collaborative, that’s at the core: how do we distribute the ability to solve, how do we help people collaborate with each other? No amount of pushing solutions down the pipeline can create anything sustainable. So how do we build the strength of the samajsector? That’s the underlying issue that I care about.

A new area I am working on are the 250 million young males in this country – from puberty to the age at which they are supposed to be settled with jobs and families, but are not–and the frustration, the restlessness, the helplessness, the fear, the insecurity associated with being forced into patriarchal identities without even having thought much about it, without having role models or family connections sometimes.

How little we have done for that cohort in this country! Can we devise programmes that allow for more positive modelling for these young men so that they can be the best they want to be? This is something I have been engaged with, primarily to empower the young males themselves, but also because if we don’t focus more on them, we are never going to achieve our women’s empowerment goal. Empowering women is absolutely necessary, but to send an empowered woman into a disempowered situation gives her very bad choices.

The most ambitious thing I’ve done so far is in the context of societal platforms thinking. Societal problems are so complex that they require samaj, sarkaarand bazaarto work together; but it’s very difficult for them to work together in a really effective way. So, what can we do to reduce the friction and enable these sectors to collaborate? Can we create a technology backbone? How can we keep unpacking the commonalities across these sectors so that contextual solutions can be built on top of them? How can we build something that is unifiedbut not uniform, so that we can allow diversity to scale? How can we allow real collaboration and co-creation, and at the same time create an engine that will offer all the data when it is needed and also allow people to learn? It’s a big play; it may work, or it may not work, but we’re very excited and enthused about it.

What role do you see for technology in the civil society space?

I’ve begun to realise that if you want to respond to problems at the scale and the urgency at which they are spreading, civil society really needs to rethink its relationship with technology. I risk saying that when we see emergent backlash against technology for various good reasons. When you’re going to be technology-led you’re going to have problems, if you’re technology-enabled, you’re going to have different opportunities.

A very crucial thing I’ve learned is that when the young people of this country are going to be digital citizens, civil society has no choice but to be digital. Even to be able to respond to the abuse of technology, it has to learn to act in technology domains. At Arghyam we are trying to see how we can be an infrastructure provider instead of just a donor.

A digital civil society, where you offer checks and balances on a digital age, is something we need to strengthen in India.







Asia’s 2018 Heroes Of Philanthropy: Putting Wealth To A Good Cause

Asia’s 2018 Heroes Of Philanthropy: Putting Wealth To A Good Cause

November 15, 2018 | Philanthropy

Nandan & Rohini Nilekani, 63, 59. Cofounder, Infosys; founder, Arghyam

Pledged to donate 50% of their wealth in November 2017 under the Giving Pledge and said, “Wealth comes with huge responsibility and is best deployed for the larger public interest.” Past contributions include $5 million to the premier Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in Mumbai, Nandan’s alma mater, and a $21.4 million endowment to Arghyam, a foundation set up by Rohini, which addresses water and sanitation issues. The two have also set up the EkStep Foundation, an open-learning platform that has pooled resources to advance literacy and numeracy.

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Asia’s 2018 Heroes Of Philanthropy: Charity Is New To India’s New-Economy Titans

Asia’s 2018 Heroes Of Philanthropy: Charity Is New To India’s New-Economy Titans

November 15, 2018 | Philanthropy

Among the newly rich, the idea of social philanthropy is just settling in, says Rohini Nilekani, wife of tech billionaire and Infosys chairman Nandan Nilekani and founder of Arghyam, a foundation focusing on water and sanitation. The Nilekanis are among India’s leading philanthropists and one of the seven Indian families to sign the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge.

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