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The virus has reinvented philanthropy in India

The next generation of older philanthropists and the new wealthy are experimenting with newer models of giving back

In a welcome development, these givers are focusing on important areas that have been under-funded—from brain research, geriatric research and cancer to genomics, sports and climate change (iStock)

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The recent announcement of Susmita and Subroto Bagchi, together with Radha and N.S. Parthasarathy, donating 425 crore to set up a postgraduate medical school, along with a multi-speciality 800-bed hospital, at Indian Institute of Science’s (IISC’s) Bengaluru campus is terrific news. Much like the vaccine, this singular shot in the arm for Indian philanthropy will dramatically increase the scale of healthcare, research and training in the country.

Is this one act an indicator of things to come? The phenomenon of individual philanthropy in India is certainly not new, and many families have made their mark on society through decades of giving and institution building, especially in health care and education. This has been the staple of Indian philanthropy, and is expanding.

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In April last year, the Bagchis had already committed 340 crore for a palliative care unit at a cancer hospital in Odisha, in partnership with Karunashraya, a Bengaluru-based hospice, and Shankara Cancer Foundation. Similarly, Ashok Soota had announced a donation of 200 crore to set up SKAN, a not-for-profit entity in the private sector exclusively for medical research, with partners such as St John’s, Centre for Brain Research in IISc, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Roorkee, and National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in Bengaluru.

A few years before, Kris and Sudha Gopalakrishnan had announced their commitment of 225 crore to set up a Centre for Brain Research at IISc. It will focus on ageing and age-related disorders like Parkinson’s, dementia and Alzheimer’s.

An emerging trend

This sort of large, academic partnership-based institutional philanthropy is necessary, especially to fill certain critical gaps. And much of it, importantly, is from direct capital infusion, not from the interest on endowments.

But another exciting wave has been building over the past few years. A new circle of philanthropists with different approaches has been slowly forming outside of the usual donors and their continued giving. It includes the next generation of older philanthropists and also the newly wealthy. They are inherently more comfortable with technology, data, innovation, and risk. They will dare to be different.

In 2021, Nithin and Nikhil Kamath, the young co-founders of Zerodha, committed $100 million over the next decade to fund climate entrepreneurs and to support grassroots individuals and organisations working on solutions for climate change via the newly formed Rainmatter Foundation. They have been moving quickly and smartly on this pledge.

In a welcome development, these givers are focussing on important areas that have been under-funded—from brain research, geriatric research and cancer to genomics, sports and climate change. It is a great irony that big philanthropy is made possible only by an economic system that has allowed the unprecedented accumulation of wealth in the hands of very few. Many new entrepreneurs have benefitted hugely from recent economic and technological advances. Luckily, some of them have realised both the urgency and the responsibility to give forward as quickly and effectively as possible. I believe we are witnessing an emerging trend that was too long in coming.

Another movement is around pledges and promises. Azim Premji, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Nandan and myself are the three India-based signatories to The Giving Pledge, founded by Warren Buffett, Melinda French Gates and Bill Gates. We are committed to giving away at least half of our wealth. Many other pledges have now been set up alongside. LivingMyPromise brings a similar opportunity to upper-middle-class Indians with a net worth of more than 10 million to promise to donate a minimum of 50% of their wealth to charitable causes of their choice. Amit and Archana Chandra, Fiona and Luis Miranda and Venkat Krishnan, the pioneer of retail giving in India, are among a community of 95 and growing that have signed this pledge.

The Founder’s Pledge is another innovation, signed by people such as Tushar Vashisht, founder of HealthifyMe, and Bhavesh Manglani, co-founder Delhivery. Inspired by the effective altruism movement, the Founder’s Pledge asks entrepreneurs to commit to donating a portion of their personal proceeds to charity whenever they sell their business and come into money. The Young India Philanthropic Pledge is built on a morally binding obligation for Indians below the age of 45, with a minimum net worth of 1,000 crore, to pledge 25% or more of their wealth publicly and make a minimum donation of 1 crore a year.

The two-year-long pandemic has really shaken the conscience of many and propelled them to act fast. The India Philanthropy Report 2021 says that contributions made by wealthy families in the social sector grew to 12,000 crore in the fiscal year 2020. It’s not just UHNI (ultra-high net worth individual) giving. A report released late last year by Charities Aid Foundation, a global non-profit, based on online surveys of 2,000 Indians across cities showed a significant revival of small giving, nothing that “... average amount of individual donations to philanthropy in India went up by 43% during the pandemic”. An example of this kind of philanthropy would be Give India’s Covid Response Fund, launched during the first wave, which quickly attracted over 220 crore and was rapidly disbursed to 250 NGOs, impacting more than 56 lakh people in more than 115 cities at a very critical juncture.

There seems to be a sudden uptake in the idea of collaboration too. While there are older collaboratives, such as Social Venture Partners, with about 200 members giving steady amounts to curated NGOS, there are newer versions popping up. One example is ACT Grants, a 100-crore relief fund set up in 2020 as an emergency response to the pandemic. It brought together, perhaps for the first time, venture capitalists like Prashanth Prakash, private equity investors and start-up executives to give both time and money to philanthropy. The first fund was successful enough to have spawned more ACT funds with pooled capital for emergent challenges such as education, climate and sustainability, and gender issues.

The GROW fund was recently launched to help 100 civil society organisations scale their operations, with a total budget of 100 crore. Anchored by Vidya Shah of Edelgive Foundation, it has been co-created by several foundations and philanthropists working together to support civil society.

This collaborative philanthropy, anchored in the lessons of the pandemic and focused on flexible and quick funding, trust-based approaches, and innovation, may signal a reinvention of Indian philanthropy.

We must celebrate this new giving by new players. But can we do better? With so much wealth being created so rapidly among so few, the need is to respond at the scale of the problem, at the pace at which societal challenges are growing. This requires more generosity by more of the wealthy. It means more collaboration, and more strategic, systemic approaches to giving and institution building. But most of all, it needs societal thinking to design a philanthropic model that restores real agency to all those who sit at the vulnerable heart of social problems. That will be the driver of exponential change—change that generates ever better change.

Rohini Nilekani is the chairperson of Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies.

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