Rakesh Jhunjhunwala’s focus on philanthropy is as sharp as on markets

Rakesh Jhunjhunwala’s philanthropic portfolio includes nutrition and education, he also monitors govt spending on social welfare, water management


Billionaire investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Billionaire investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Billionaire investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala says his primary philanthropic focus areas have been nutrition and education.  Jhunjhunwala is also monitoring and influencing government spending on social welfare and water management. Edited excerpts from an interview:

When and why did you first start giving? 

My giving was driven by two things: the first was the fact that my father always said that more important than how much I earned was how much I gave away. Secondly, once I crossed age 50, I started wondering what all this wealth meant to me. Around this time, I was reading about John Rockefeller’s life and it was a combination of these things— my father’s influence, my own perception of the role of wealth, and my feeling that the giver of all this wealth is god, not me—that’s why I started giving. 

How has your journey as a philanthropist evolved from when you first started? 

Well, I honestly don’t think I can call myself a philanthropist yet. Now, I only give away a small part of my income and no part of my assets. But I think over the last few years, my ideas on giving have evolved on two levels: I realized I must give more, and I must give fast. Also, I’ve realized that my giving has to rise above the mere handing out of money. These days, I try to be much more engaged in the organizations that I support.

How do you go about choosing causes? 

Whatever my sector of interest, my primary yardstick is bang for the buck. Children malnourished at age 5 tend to suffer permanent physical and mental damage. So if I can save a child from malnutrition, I find it has an extremely favourable risk-reward ratio— the cost I incur versus the overall benefit that I can bring to society. I want to work in water resources, as I think creating a string of check dams and utilizing water better is far more cost-effective than large stand-alone dams. I am interested in government spend quality, as it accounts for the biggest chunk of the social spending pie. Hundreds of foundations put together cannot equal what the government can spend. 

How do you bring your own skills to your philanthropy? 

The ability to plan for the long term, to identify good people, and to judge financial efficiency and capital.  

How important is it for people to talk about philanthropy? 

I’ll tell you my big motivation for announcing my intention: it was so that if I don’t do what I promised to do on my 60th birthday, anyone should be able to walk up to me and call me a liar! Having put myself out there, I’m very conscious of it now, so I try that much harder. Apart from being motivation for themselves, I think big givers should also talk about their philanthropy so that their work and their success stories prove inspirational enough for many others to follow. 

This interview is a part of the India Philanthropy Series, a joint initiative between Dasra, a strategic philanthropy organization, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This series showcases through videos the journeys of some of the most strategic and innovative philanthropists in India.

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