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]


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: knowledge@sattva.co.in

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

Rohini Nilekani’s keynote talk on Embracing Risk: Solving our Societal Challenges at Dasra Philanthropy Week 2019 in Mumbai. India cannot solve its societal challenges, at a scale of one billion people, incrementally. The time to take big risks is now. Rohini speaks 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



So Namaskar to everybody. It gives me great pleasure to come to Dasra functions. I’ve been there watching them, and very happy to see that it is one of the intermediary ecosystem institutions in philanthropy that has been able to perform at some scale, and from the get-go, their theme has been collaboration, everything has been designed around that. So I think for that, let’s just take a second to give Dasra a big hand.

So we’ve all come a long way in the philanthropy sector in India. Apart from the older, very well-known philanthropist, we are seeing the arrival of so many new and very serious and committed philanthropist to the sector getting engaged, and yet as we look around, we see that no matter which sector we are engaged in civil society institutions, as corporate CSR agencies or as philanthropist, that whichever area we tend to engage in, the problem seems to rush ahead faster than our approach, our solution, and we don’t seem to quite get there. You saw the presentation just before, and even today 70 years later, after so many people working in the area of education, so many civil society organizations, most of the philanthropy has gone to the education sector. But if you look at this year’s ASER report, it feels like we might have failed our children, even now so many of them cannot do division, multiplication in class five. Where are they going to land later, we know that.

So it’s very important for us to understand why perhaps that we have not achieved as much as we would like to, though we have done so much. And I really 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 even as sectors like philanthropist, civil society, markets, state, we cannot achieve those things on our own. We know that. Not even if just two of those collaborate. It really requires the whole continuum of samaaj, bazaar, and sarkar, civil society, states, and markets to work together with reduced friction to actually solve very complex societal issues, which is why we come to collaborative action, which is why we come to collaboration. It is absolutely essential, because different actors in these sectors offer, excuse me, offer different skill sets, and have different context from which to come at a problem from multi-sides on.

Luckily, there is a lot more opportunity today to be on collaborative platforms, such as Dasra itself or Co-Impact, which is going to be talked about here I’m sure. We have several others. There’s the India Philanthropy initiative. Some of us got together to look at an area like independent media, and have set up a collaborative giving platform called IPSMF, a very new and exciting area that we’re looking at in collaboration is climate change with some of us led by the Tata trust have set up, The India Climate Collaborative, and it has fairly ambitious goals to spur the ecosystem around working on climate change. So there’s tremendous opportunity right now to think of collaboration, and I think I’m sure today and tomorrow there’s gonna be a lot of talk on it. I’m just highlighting that, this is essential. In our work, my husband Nandan and I over the last four, five years have begun to see how we can create a framework around collaboration. We are calling it Societal Platform Thinking, and my colleagues Sanjay Purohit and others are going to be speaking to this tomorrow.

But collaboration is easier to talk about than to actually do, because it is not at all easy. There’s a lot of friction to collaborate, and maybe two reasons that we cannot achieve the outcomes that would come only through collaborating is that we are not able to take enough risk, that we are not able to really embrace risk. We don’t know perhaps how to trust, how to let go, how to get out of our comfort zones and do things that we now might fail. So embracing risk is a lot about failure and the ability to trust. When I say trust, it means 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, the ability to not ask them to give ridiculous amounts of reporting, so that you feel are doing all right as a philanthropist.

You have to be able to lead with trust, and I’ve found at least in my 30 years old journey in this space that the more I’m able to trust, 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 the relationship of trust, magic happens. I’m sure you all know that, but I just wanted to highlight that is a very key thing if you want to achieve social outcomes. The embracing risk and allowing ourselves to trust, it really opens up our minds and opens up spaces for us to act in. We have to be prepared when we embrace risk, of course, to embrace failure. And once you say, “I’m willing to fail.” It allows you to go where you have not gone before with much more confidence.

So today, for example, I think the need of the hour, 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, and certainly CSR has become even better doing that over the last few years. There are many civil society organizations that helped government achieve its own mandate better at the implementation level. But there are so many areas of society that don’t get looked at enough, where government is not necessarily doing enough, and where we as philanthropist and civil society organizations need to do much more. Look at issues like mental health. Look at the disability panel that was speaking today calling us to do more action, look at issues like justice, access to justice. So many other issues, new issues on environment, livelihoods, that perhaps if we were to embrace the risk and not fear to fail, we would go into those areas as a philanthropist, as new CSO organizations and innovate stuff that could get us out of the usual rot of our societal problems.

Because otherwise, we keep saying that social sector doesn’t scale, social sector, even if the organizations don’t scale, it is the issue that has to be played out at scale. And here as well, philanthropist, if corporate philanthropy and personal philanthropy are able to say, “Alright, 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.” I really believe that 10 years later when we come back to look at what’s happened in this new age of Indian philanthropy, we will be able to show something new that perhaps has not 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 and maybe now when we talk about one district or even 10 districts at a time, maybe, that is not enough. At least some of us should be able to say that we will go beyond just doing incremental things, and that means…

That means, talk at a much larger scale, at an population 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 you need for that need to be designed for scale that is always very important. My colleagues will talk much more about this tomorrow. Failure. Again, I want to touch for a bit on failure, because I don’t think we talk enough about failure in the sector. Failure can lead to a lot of stuff, very interesting stuff. Certainly in 30 years, we have failed repeatedly in the work that I do. And in an article I recently wrote, I was thinking of 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 and look what one failure led to the transformation of humanity in some sense. So we should not be afraid to fail, but then immediately thereafter, to embrace risk and set out to sail to shores yet unseen.

I felt three lessons from all the failures that I was able to, I hope, embrace in 30 years of working in the social sector. Some of the three quick lessons that I just want to talk is, sometimes when we started Nagrik for safer roads for example, way back in 1992. I think we didn’t understand the root cause why our roads are not safer, and when you don’t go deep enough to analyze an abstract whatever problem you’re working on, you tend to work on just bandaged solutions and the whole thing collapses under its own weight. The second thing I understood when I worked in Akshara foundation Pratham Books Arghyam and now EkStep is that you need to clearly de-market, the role of Samaaj, Bazaar and Sarkar and not confuse it. Allow Samaaj to do what it does best, allow Sarkar to do what it does best, and encourage Bazaar to do what it knows how to do best. But if you force Bazaar to go below the line of profitability, if you expect Sarkar to do what citizens should be doing, if you expect citizens to take on the owners of what Sarkar should be doing, it tends to create confusion and not achieve the societal outcome you need.

And the last thing I learned was, and this is very important for philanthropist to really understand, is that, if you really want societal level transformation, none of us have the answers, right? But there are people who have answers in their own context. How do we 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 up, to create platforms and to allow public goods to be created from the work that we do. So for example, in Pratham Books, once we realize that were to open up the creation, the distribution, the sale of books, the translation, once we a 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, right? So, we owe it to the work that we do, to the ambitions that we have that we deliberately work now, especially now in the digital age to create open digital public goods, so that other people can build and innovate on a platform that we help to support as philanthropist in areas that perhaps people have not been bold enough to go before.

So I would like to close because I see the two minutes sign, that maybe today, at the end of two decades of work of Dasra, the beginning of a third decade in some sense, Dasra’s journey is synonymous with new age of Indian philanthropy. As we begin this third decade and re-dedicate ourselves, let us all say today, no matter who we are, no matter what work we are doing, that we commit to saying that, at least in one area, we will not just do incremental but transformational and we will do that through collaboration, we will do that through embracing risk, and we will do that without fear of failure. So on this International Women’s Day, let me again say, thank you so much for the opportunity. I’m sorry, but like a bad penny, I’m gonna turn up at the stage again tomorrow, but I’ll say, something different. I hope not to bore you again. I very much look forward to the rest of the day. Thank you Dasra. Thank you for the opportunity, thank you for this great audience and this actually beautiful stage where I used to come 50 years ago to watch Manoj Kumar teaching us lessons in patriotism. Thank you very much.

Samaaj and Bazaar: Congruence over Divergence

Samaaj and Bazaar: Congruence over Divergence

March 8, 2019 | Justice

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. What’s good for justice is good for everyone.

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I’m so sorry I’ve come back again to this stage, but some of you were not here yesterday. And to those who were here yesterday, I promise I’m going to say something new. First, again, to say thank you to the staff. You’re all here because of them. And as I said yesterday, it’s the one institution that has lasted and has created some kind of ecosystem improvement at scale. Neera, that was such a touching speech. I think we should give Neera, Deval, and Dasra a hand.

And I am very proud to be associated with them. Many of you have heard me talk a lot about the continuum of samaj, bazaar, sarkar, which is state, civil society, and markets, and how for a successful society, all these three have to work in fine balance, and that actually the base of it all is the samaj. If you don’t have good… So civil society institutions, moral Leadership, collective action by citizens, you simply cannot hold the bazaar, the markets, and sarkar, the state to account for the larger interest, public interest, and we have seen in history repeatedly that the bazaar can become too powerful and oppressive or the sarkar can become too powerful and oppressive. And my philosophy and my philanthropy… In life itself is how do we all together create a successful society by being the best citizens we can be? Because we are citizens first, we are not subjects of the state first, we are not consumers for the market first, we are citizens, and we are duty bound for our own sake to help build out that good society. I’m sure you heard all this before.

But today I’m gonna talk about the congruence of interest between the samaj that is society, and bazaar that is the market. So, it all starts with the rule of law, right? We all want the rule of law to be upheld, and in fact the bazaar, the modern corporation as we know it would not even exist if rule of law had not created the limited liability company from 300 years ago, and whoever wrote that is going to go down as a hero in history, we don’t quite know the origins of that. But because of that it has allowed tremendous innovation to flourish in 300 years, 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.

So for their own sake the bazaar sector, corporations have a great self-interest in upholding rule of law. They need the enforceability of contracts, otherwise they simply cannot function. So for their own sake, the bazaar very much needs rule of law to be upheld. But even outside its gates, the bazaar needs to up… The rule of law to be upheld in society at large, because no business can thrive without social stability outside its gates. We all know the cost. I won’t go into it. We know the cost in India of riots. We know the cost in India of bandhs. We know the cost in India of lynchings. We know the cost in India of several deeply dark social unrest that has taken place in this country from time to time.

We know what happens when the ultra-left Maoist actually stop businesses from going into areas, which could do so much better with economic development. So it is very clear that outside their gates too bazaar has a deep interest in a socially just environment. And samaj spends a lot of its time, institutions of the samaj, many of which are in this room today, civil society organizations driven by passion, driven by commitment, driven by a clear political understanding of what we just said that as Martin Luther King puts it always so eloquently that “injustice anywhere is prevent… Let me just quote him absolutely “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is a very powerful quote. And many civil society organizations, human rights organizations, those who look at issues of access to justice truly believe this, and a great personal risk sometimes coming up against the State, coming up against the power of corporations, they go out and create institutions, Moral Leadership, and access to people who would otherwise be left out.

Now corporations can’t do that. So the point is, this is a point which I think most of us understood, but it’s not articulated 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 therefore making that there is much more congruence between civil society organizations and corporations than is understood or articulated.

Let’s take some examples. Nike for example had terrible labor practices as we almost have read, and many, many civil society organizations put a lot of pressure on Nike to improve its labor practices. It actually took that on as a challenge. And you can please go ahead and read about it. But it did serious efforts along the whole supply chain to make sure that nowhere, not just in its own gates, but in the gates of its contractors or anyone else, that labor practices were steadily improved. There’s no such thing as perfection, but they kept on evolving. And today, Nike is known for having done that. Similarly with other companies in the world. The beverage companies had to go through a lot of internal processes. Coca-Cola, Nestle, and they’ve reached a point where they’ve 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.

The Greenpeace for example, to take. Greenpeace has always been fighting, and known as an activist organization. But many corporations which has worked with them understood that that activism is actually good for them inside their… Even for their profitability. And many of them have aligned actually with Greenpeace’s goals. A small example Ananth in the room was just telling me is that when he was in Greenpeace, and they started a campaign in Bangalore for e-waste, against e-waste being just dumped here and there. And they tried to help it get streamlined. Companies like Wipro enforces all the techy companies in India actually. First thought these people were… What are they saying? “We do such a good job.” But then they began to align behind it. And in fact, became the leaders of sustainability, not just in Bangalore, but in the country. So the point I’m making is if you open our eyes to it, there’s a very clear alignment between these two sectors.

I would say, yesterday the Bain philanthropy report said it’s time to up the game. I’m here to say it really is time to up the game. Indian philanthropy is still not taking enough risk and what’s the use of philanthropy without risk? It’s very good to keep honoring 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 and ideal areas such as access to justice. And I just outlined why.

Not only does samaj and bazaar have a serious alignment on this issue, it also helps them to make sure that the State does not abuse its own power. Many corporations… I bet people in this room have been subject to the abuse of State power in running their own businesses. And as citizens, sometimes I feel when we wake up in the mornings, we have already broken three Indian laws because we have so many laws and they’re written so poorly. So, if this alignment is understood and worked on, it also helps curb the excessive power of the State. I’m not talking about any particular government though some governments can be worse than others, but it is the truth that all power will be abused when it can be. It is up to the balance that we drive that can prevent that.

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 need, all of us as citizens, as samaj sector people, as civil society organization, all of us need well-written laws. All of us need equal access to caution to the justice system. All of us need an independent, impartial, and efficient judiciary. All of us need effective public institutions that help uphold this rule of law and empower the bazaar and the citizens of this country to live as they want to live.

BCG has been doing this work on total societal impact. And you can look up their report, but it has become very clear. And there’s been a lot of research on this, that the non-financial side of business is very linked to the financial side of business. And they’ve repeatedly shown through exhaustive research that those companies that also do good when it comes to ESG, which is the environmental and social issues of this world, consistently are also showing that they do better in the long run on their bottom line. So, there’s a real convergence of interest in this.

And this is my plea to all of us, to commit ourselves that we will, like I said yesterday, it’s time to take big bets to pledge that we will no longer do just incremental work, but that we will try to do something disruptive and transformational. Today, I am saying we should move forward and take the risk of working in this whole area of rule of law and constitutional values, because the time has come.

I’m gonna leave you with a quote from Frederick Douglass, “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 at all, 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 say again, let’s take a pledge to ourselves that we will work. Here we are with Dasra in the philanthropy sector. Dasra is going to open up a whole portfolio on these issues of justice, of system reform in the justice sector, upholding the rule of law, allowing access to all people to the same things that you and I take for granted every day. I think it is an important time for this country to do this. And I hope we can all do it together. I think we can. I know I will. Thank you very much.

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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Impact and Failures | Opening Keynote at Impact Failure Conclave, 2018

Impact and Failures | Opening Keynote at Impact Failure Conclave, 2018

April 13, 2018 | Others

Rohini’s opening keynote delivered at the Impact Failure Conclave 2018

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Thank you, Selco Foundation, Harish for inviting me here to speak to you all.

It is a very important subject that we will all be tackling together – the role of failure in delivering impact.

For the samaaj sector, which is what many of us are involved in, recognizing failure early, acknowledging one’s personal and institutional role in it, and then embarking on course correction is very critical. We are not all geared towards accepting failure, or thinking of failure. Especially in the past few decades, when civil society institutions are more dependent on donor communities, in an increasingly competitive space, the need to talk about successes, however small, has overtaken the need to reflect on failures. Or at least this time has got pushed inside the walls of the organization.

In the bazaar sector, especially in the world of start-ups, we have seen, mostly in the west – a sort of glorification of failure. Do fail do again, seems to be the mantra. There is a lot of money floating around chasing people who do that. And while that is great, it perhaps does not allow for enough time to discover what exactly failed – the idea, the people, the institutional arrangement, or something else. The next cycle starts before the introspection is complete. And of course, for the bazaar, there is too much emphasis on only one measure of success – monetary. That allows many other failures to be hidden, and the cost externalized to society. As Sir Nicholas Stern said, “Climate change is a result of the greatest market failure that the world has seen.”

In the sarkaar sector, there is almost no room for open debate on failure. Failures are to be hidden, or glossed over. Failed schemes and projects are replaced by shinier new schemes and projects and when those too fail, the blame games can begin. It is rare to find bureaucrats and politicians sit together to hammer out what failed and why and what can be really changed, inside and out. Often, positive action is also personally risky, so people actually prefer to fail in something small or routine and keep it quiet than take a risk with a bold initiative and be seen to fail. And often, in the government, failure is recognized too late, by other agencies of government such as auditors or vigilance commissions, by which time the damage is done.

So failure has very different aspects when it comes to samaaj, bazaar and sarkaar.

Here, as mostly members of the social sector, it is a very precious opportunity we have here over the next two days. A safe space. A shared space. A space to reflect, to confess, to learn.

Speaking about failure gives people courage. The fact that you can express it, the fact that you can deal with it, might show that you have gone beyond the fear of the unknown. Going beyond this fear then opens you up to many possibilities.

In my life and career, failure has been my constant shadow, my guide, my shame, my friend and much more, depending on what stage of denial or acceptance I am at!
In my personal life, which I won’t bore you with, there have been rich opportunities to learn from my own failures at various levels. I have learnt to be grateful, to value family and friends, I have learnt that tilting at windmills may not be the best way to bring about the change in my life that I seek. One grows, one tries not to repeat old mistakes, though one is bound to fail in new ways at every stage of life. One learns to get up and walk again, like my little 1 year old grandson who runs too fast for his centre of gravity to stabilize in time.

I can share a few instances in my career too, where I had to deal with failure.

When I joined Akshara Foundation in 2000, for example, and then went on to Chair it until 2007. We were part of the Pratham network and our bold mission for “Every child in Bangalore in school and learning well by 2003!” Well, we did not help to achieve that audacious goal, because it is very hard and very complex to make such societal goals happen on time. Ashok Kamath who replaced me as Chairman and took Akshara very far, is here too and will speak tomorrow, so I don’t want to steal his thunder. But some of this was before his time. I think went too fast, too soon. We opened up activities in 300 slums. We set up close to a thousand small balwadis. We just could not manage the quality issues that cropped up. We had to pull back and re-strategise. We had to learn to take things slower, to understand that while the bold, audacious goal we had set for the organization was to be our lodestar, we had to break it up into small achievable milestones.

Then came another organization I chaired for 10 years.

We co-founded Pratham Books in 2004. Over the ten years that I was there, we learnt many things about failure. We were innovating a hybrid model, we were punching way above our weight, a small children’s publisher with a big vision “A book in every child’s hand”. We were a start up. We were a platform. We were in a hurry. We had figured out that distribution was the BIG hurdle to access to books for children, even if we could produce them and make them affordable. So we tried all manner of innovation in distribution channels, including sending our books with Selco’s agents! But it was under-capitalised, it was opportunistic, not strategic – we were out of our depth. It was only when we let go of control, when we set up an open platform for our books – allowing anyone to read anywhere, print anywhere, and even sell anywhere, and we must thank Gautam John for helping us set up our Creative Commons Platform, that we were able to reach millions of children with books in their own languages. So Pratham Books taught me a very big lesson –to achieve large societal goals, to have to spend a lot of time and thought on designing for open collaboration.

We started Arghyam’s work in water in 2005, and in the past 13 years, again, we have often experienced failure in our desire to achieve safe, sustainable water for all. I will give only one example. We partnered with government on a scheme called Suvarnajala, to build rainwater harvesting structures in schools across the state. Our data showed that it was simply not working. We learnt that to showcase this failure to the government worked to stop the second phase of the scheme, thus saving the exchequer many crores. But it still did not get rainwater to schoolchildren. We learnt that partnering with government at the design stage itself would have led to a much better outcome for water security.

We did too little too late.

I’ll stop with my examples there.

It is important to own up to failures. The super star surgeon, Dr Atul Gawande, whose book Being Mortal is perpetually on the New York Times bestseller lists and who brought conversations about dignified dying to the dinner table in America, recently did just that. Through his Ariadne Labs, they tested the deployment of his famous checklist manifesto for safe childbirth in a pilot study here in Karnataka where teams using the checklist adhered to key lifesaving practices (such as washing hands, warming a newborn properly, or giving appropriate medication to stop bleeding) far more consistently. In spite of all the behaviour change they achieved in a remarkably short time, Dr Gawande was disappointed to realise that infant and mother mortality showed no significant improvement.

Now he is planning to delve deeper to understand what makes this so difficult to achieve in the Indian context when even neighboring countries have had better success.
This “back to the drawing board approach “of famous successful people is very important to learn from. Certainly, I felt very humbled and inspired listening to him talk so openly about the failure of his experiment, and his courage to go on and beyond that failure.

Gandhiji , who remains a beacon for many of us, also failed often. And he always shared everything that he discovered about himself. He also showed great resilience for most of his life. Rajni Bakshi, Gandhi scholar and my friend, reminded me that he went to South Africa because he failed to set up a successful career as a lawyer in Mumbai, where his brother had sent him to practice. In his first case, he had an attack of the nerves and could barely speak up. He had failed. He was very mindful that his family had taken considerable financial risk in sending him to England to become a lawyer. Debts had to be repaid. And when the opportunity came, he set sail for South Africa, hoping to find a way to repay his debts. One failure launched an adventure that encompassed all of humanity.

Yet, he also felt, towards the end of his life that he had failed to convince people about non-violence. While he strongly believe in the philosophy of non-violence as the most important tool for impact, he felt personally defeated, and of course was killed by an act of cowardly violence himself. Yet he left behind a rich legacy of movements of non-violent action. Sometimes, we can misread the signs of failure. What appears like personal failure in this life can evolve into success over time and generations

The stage of failure matters a lot.

In the early start up phase of an organization, failure can be almost a badge of honour, and high risk-taking is considered heroic. So failure is talked about without shame.
When organizations grow, they hesitate to share failures. By then, a culture has often developed where people are supposed to succeed in their tasks. So when things go wrong, each person or unit keeps it quiet thereby creating huge organizational risk. Organizations have to then learn to build the culture of admitting failure and acting upon it quickly. It is also important to reflect upon the failure to answer the questions – who failed, what failed and why. Otherwise, it can turn quickly into a blame game, which serves no one and no institution.

It’s also critical to learn from that failure as to whether it is best to abandon a particular course of action. Otherwise there is a danger of an escalation of commitment. People can double down on some action – thinking they will do it better next time. They can lose sight of the original objective and keep going on a pathway they are too scared to turn back from.

At that point, failure can go from being a failure to a moral question. We should remember that all failures are not equal. Some are clearly a breach of ethics. These cannot be absolved so easily, or glorified. Think of Satyam. Think of the Congressional hearings going on as we speak in the USA about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.

What comes after failure? Resilience is a key institutional metric. And that needs leadership too. Leadership to allow people to take calculated risk, and learn from what does not work. Leadership to make failure a springboard to set more audacious goals.

And I want to use this opportunity to talk about the social sector in particular. Looking back at the history of civil society institutions in the past 100 years in India, I would say the sector has shrunk in its ability to understand how to respond to problems at the scale of the problem. The independence movement spread across the nation, the green revolution covered swathes of the country, the bhoodan movement, the sampoorna kranti, one could go on. But in fact in the past 30 years, when we have seen a mushrooming of CSOs, we have seen a reduction in their ambition and their ability to think at population scale. We just fail to scale. Scale seems too frightening, too complex, and just too difficult. And so we sometimes rationalize it, we say ‘small is beautiful’ and so on. Yet we fail to tackle the scale issue by its horns.

One reason for this is because the social sector has stayed aloof from the technology revolution, sometimes even rejecting it totally.

Many of us fail to see that India’s young population will mature in a digital age. This has many implications for the idea of citizenship, for equity, for inclusion, that the social sector cares about. And therefore there are both opportunities and risks.

The role of civil society in this digital age therefore assumes great importance. When and how will India’s thriving civil society respond?

There are so many opportunities to achieve the societal missions that drive CSOs. The digital world allows civil society institutions to scale as never before. Discoverability of talent and best practices, finding physically distant affinity groups, building trust networks, expanding to new geographies, monitoring and evaluation through instant data loops – these are all potential value adds to any NGO that can build its own capacity to use digital tools.

Of course there are also threats. Because the digital world is largely mediated by large corporations and is increasingly under government surveillance, there are many dangers.

Which again reinforces the points that the checks and balances against the amplification of the bad need to come from civil society institutions. The state might not wish to yield power; the markets might not wish to yield profits to reduce the bad. It is the public and its leadership and its voluntary institutions that must hold the state and markets accountable to the larger good. Civil Society needs to understand how to thrive in the digital age and also respond to the digital age and its dangers.
This inability to see large trends and the desire to live in ideological comfort zones could actually be the biggest risk to civil society, if only we could face up to our failure to see it.

By and large, India’s society has been risk averse. That must change.

Recent research has shown that one of the most basic beliefs we carry about ourselves has to do with how we view and inhabit what we consider to be our personality. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s book: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, created a buzz about this a few years ago..
Ms Dweck talks of fixed mindsets and growth mindsets.

(From Wikipedia) According to Dweck, individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where ability comes from. Some believe their success is based on innate ability; these are said to have a “fixed” theory of intelligence (fixed mindset). Others, who believe their success is based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness are said to have a “growth” or an “incremental” theory of intelligence (growth mindset). Individuals may not necessarily be aware of their own mindset, but their mindset can still be discerned based on their behavior. It is especially evident in their reaction to failure. Fixed-mindset individuals dread failure because it is a negative statement on their basic abilities, while growth mindset individuals don’t mind or fear failure as much because they realize their performance can be improved and learning comes from failure. These two mindsets play an important role in all aspects of a person’s life. Dweck argues that the growth mindset will allow a person to live a less stressful and more successful life. At the heart of what makes the “growth mindset” is that it creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Its hallmark is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational capacities like love and friendship, can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice. Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, but also they don’t actually see themselves as failing in those situations — they see themselves as learning.

I hope all of us in the social sector can develop this growth mindset for us personally, and for our organizations as well.

Thank you once again for this chance to address you all. I am sure the conference will be a success, in that we will celebrate our ability to speak up about our failures!