India’s connection with philanthropy didn’t begin with western influences. The connection with philanthropy is age old and ingrained in our value systems.
Major forces that have contributed to the evolution of philanthropy in India in the pre-modern era have mainly been driven by religion, family and society. The Hindu teaching of “daan” or “giving” is present in different ways in almost every celebration or ritual. Philanthropy is deep-rooted in the families of India who have grown up giving away a part of their earnings to the needy; a concept I have raised with.
Though easy to define, it is important to understand the significance of philanthropy. I believe it is really a state of mind: where one feels empowered and equipped to fill the huge gaps in the existing system. Though the government has the primary responsibility for looking after its citizens, several areas such as healthcare and education require private intervention. Corporate organizations are recognizing the larger and more important role they need to play in transforming India, an emerging economic powerhouse, than just running a business.
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The US, the UK or Germany, for example, are not only extremely professional in the way philanthropic initiatives are run and delivered, but also deeply oriented to individual giving. The trouble with our best institutions is that they are based in urban areas and focused on the elite. The Indian education system historically is built to reject. But a mother does not choose among her children. In fact she spends more time, effort and affection on the children who need her attention most. A social entrepreneur therefore must sensibly pick and choose an area he or she can most powerfully impact.
I admire companies that give back to communities. It is an absolute essential for organizations to watch, mitigate and improve their impact on the environment, people, communities, their health and overall well-being. But this is a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition.
I therefore consider what companies do as part of their “Corporate Social Responsibility” more as a matter of “enlightened self-interest”, because you are answering your own need to be responsible for your ecosystem. This is not a criticism, because CSR is essential, but it is not the whole. CSR gives to get, in some form or the other. Giving for philanthropy is different: It is when you do not serve an end goal unto yourself.
The Shiv Nadar Foundation set up the SSN institutions in Chennai. Its focus on education evolved from my personal belief that it was the single most powerful tool for individual and social change.
A little known fact about the foundation’s SSN institutions therefore, is the significant scholarship support that they provide to around 400 students totalling Rs 4 crore every year, to encourage merit and make education accessible to students from all economic strata. Since its inception, Rs 36 crore, worth of scholarships have been disbursed to 5,000 deserving students, many from extremely challenged backgrounds. One of the largest such scholarship among all Indian colleges, it targets deserving students, taking the positive impact of education to where it can truly transform and uplift lives. For many students these scholarships are life-altering.
The foundation’s VidyaGyan schools too (three schools to cover all 71 districts of Uttar Pradesh, the first operational since 2009) are a radical concept, which in partnership with the government of UP aim to select, induct and transform meritorious rural children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, providing them free, world class education. The initiative enables them to transcend the disadvantages they face with their urban counterparts.
I would say that something like this is a creative thought. This is a first of sorts and a social experiment. I am excited because it has the ability to bring powerful change and create a strong pool of leaders. It doesn’t solve problems of an immediate nature but I would like to believe this will have a larger impact in the future.
Acts of philanthropy therefore can be corrective or creative. The former follow a very solid, yet conventional sort of wisdom. They target the basic and the most immediate issues such as hunger and malnutrition. They target the mass, the millions at the bottom of the pyramid and take corrective measures—improve existing facilities, say, for example, in rural government schools. And they do it very effectively. The Gates Foundation does and so does the Clinton Foundation. Similarly in the case of the Bharti Foundation, Pratham, the Public Health Foundation of India and so on.
But what the Shiv Nadar Foundation has built, and I speak of it only as an example, is in education. In education you have to build lasting institutions. So creative philanthropy on the other hand doesn’t target what I call survival issues but is likely to have equal if not more significant impact going forward. Our VidyaGyan programme literally picks what is a notional “top of the bottom of the pyramid”, targeting the brightest and the most meritorious though underprivileged; enabling exponential change, not for the millions, but for a targeted few.
Like a mother who does not discriminate, the SSN Institutions and VidyaGyan are taking the finest in education, mentoring and nurturing those who need it most, where it will make maximum impact. It needs more than money. It needs a dream, a cause, great teachers, great infrastructure. Creative philanthropy is therefore also less scalable, but it creates individuals who could potentially be world changers and further transform the bottom of the pyramid.
Let me liken creative philanthropy to a lotus. It is a very popular metaphor in Hindu mythology and literature. It grows in the murkiest of waters and serves as a powerful metaphor for what creative philanthropy can achieve for the have-nots. Also a metaphor of purity having risen out of adversity that finds its way to the feet of the gods—the ‘seat’ of wisdom on which the mythological Hindu goddess of knowledge, Saraswati ,and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, dwell.