Celebrities are increasingly lending their names to philanthropic foundations

Salman Khan’s Being Human, and now Dia Mirza and Deepika Padukone’s campaigns on wildlife and mental health underscore this trend

Salman Khan’s Being Human is possibly the largest private philanthropic foundation run by an Indian celebrity. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Salman Khan’s Being Human is possibly the largest private philanthropic foundation run by an Indian celebrity. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Actor Salman Khan’s not-for-profit Being Human—The Salman Khan Foundation is possibly the largest private philanthropic foundation run by an Indian celebrity. And few not-for-profit organizations—anywhere in the world—have a merchandising business as successful.

Khan’s legendary legions of fans may be responsible for this. His image of an impulsive, erratic star with a golden heart full of compassion for the underprivileged makes for a compelling mix, though his critics say Being Human might possibly be the best-executed public relations spin: a carefully crafted marketing strategy aimed at making the star more endearing and his many run-ins with the law less damaging.

Both the cynicism and the exuberance surrounding his charitable work are indicative of our complicated relationship with the wealthy in general. And the magnanimity we expect from them.

When there is evidence of charity, for instance, are we right to judge those who send press releases and “brand” their philanthropy? Or, is philanthropy genuine only when it is done silently?

Over the last five years or so, the world of business certainly seems to have developed a vocabulary around philanthropy. In the case of celebrities, especially movie stars, the personal commitment demonstrated is more ambiguous. Can philanthropy only be judged by the amount of money you donate? Or, is lending your name—and time—to provide visibility to a cause enough?

Film actors like Dia Mirza, who is passionate about wildlife protection, or—more recently—Deepika Padukone, who has emerged as a strong voice on mental health, are using their popularity to spread awareness about these issues. But is their brand of philanthropy different from that of corporate leaders such as Biocon chairperson and managing director Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw or Wipro chairman Azim Premji—both signatories to the Giving Pledge, where billionaires take an informal vow to give away half of their wealth.

When people found out that I was writing a book on India’s new affluent, the one question posed to me constantly was about how much these people donated. People were more curious about this than how wealth was created. They seemed to expect the rich to donate generously—even when those asking were doing little themselves. It was almost as if philanthropy somehow justified the assets the wealthy had amassed.

Interestingly, philanthropy was a topic those I interviewed for the book were eager to talk about as well. Many would bring up the issue themselves. Several, in fact, seemed to anticipate the question. Though my intention was to talk about views and attitudes to philanthropy only at the end of a conversation, in seven out of roughly 10 discussions, it would be brought up much earlier. Several discussions—especially with those above 45 years of age—veered without any prodding towards their ideas of giving back.

Yet, apart from giving money on an ad-hoc, irregular basis to a few causes and charitable organizations, most still seemed to be exploring and mulling over a focused philanthropic initiative. The journey to active, cause-driven philanthropy was still a work-in-progress for most. At best, they were only investing tiny portions of their wealth. Only a handful were comfortable declaring the percentage of their wealth that was going towards philanthropy.

Interestingly, on the survey of high net-worth individuals that I conducted, after dozens of personal interviews with successful entrepreneurs, senior corporate professionals and leading private bankers and wealth managers, the assumption that people felt “pushed” to speak about philanthropy wasn’t validated. A decisive 92% said they felt no societal pressure to donate to philanthropic causes. Nearly 97% of the respondents said their motivation for giving came from the gratitude they felt at what they had managed to achieve or build in this lifetime, as well as from the sense of responsibility and power to change the lives they could.

Shreyasi Singh’s book The Wealth Wallahs, on India’s new wealthy and a new breed of wealth managers, was released in September by Bloomsbury India. She used to edit Inc. India, the Indian edition of the American magazine on entrepreneurship, Inc.

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