Effective philanthropy: The driving beliefs

The reality is that all philanthropy is personal. If you are committed to making a real change in the world, you will want to start by clarifying your aspirations


Ronnie Screwvala along with his wife Zarina travelled the length and breadth of the country to understand the needs of the communities they wanted to help and to determine what values would define their philanthropy. Photo: S. Kumar/Mint
Ronnie Screwvala along with his wife Zarina travelled the length and breadth of the country to understand the needs of the communities they wanted to help and to determine what values would define their philanthropy. Photo: S. Kumar/Mint

When Desh Deshpande graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras in 1973, he had no family fortune to fall back on, no mentor to guide his entrepreneurial ambitions, no kind donor to help him convert his dreams into reality.

Soon after becoming a successful entrepreneur in Boston, and a major funder of technology innovation in the US, Deshpande clarified his philanthropic aspirations by reflecting on his beginnings. Deshpande and his wife Jaishree, also an IIT Madras alumnus, believed in the high potential impact of innovation and entrepreneurship. The couple decided to focus on what they could do to help foster innovation in India, to support young and upcoming innovators. 

 In 2012, Zarina Screwvala was similarly thinking about her own philanthropic journey. After she and her husband Ronnie Screwvala sold their stake in UTV Motion Pictures, Zarina began to feel restless calling the shots as a media and entertainment executive and decided to devote herself full-time to philanthropy. 

 At the start of this journey, the Screwvalas were fearless, eager to learn, and ambitious to excel in the art of giving. But first they had to decide what would drive their newly re-christened philanthropy, Swades Foundation. The Screwvalas travelled the length and breadth of the country to understand the needs of the communities they wanted to help and to determine what values would define their philanthropy.  The Screwvalas’ and the Deshpandes’ experiences demonstrate a question that can animate any philanthropist’s journey: What are my values and beliefs about the change I want to see in the world? 

The reality is that all philanthropy is personal. If you are committed to making a real change in the world, you will want to start by clarifying your aspirations: 

* First, think about your motives for giving. Understanding why you want to give will help define how you want to give, including how personally engaged you want to be in your philanthropy. 

 The Deshpandes wanted to create for others the support that they lacked when starting out. They wanted to empower bright entrepreneurial minds in India. Along with this clear motive, they were passionate about promoting work that is relevant to the local community and supporting community members in becoming social innovators. These motives translated into funding their Sandbox initiative in Karnataka, which creates a supportive ecosystem to nurture social entrepreneurship and innovation. 

 * A second step is to decide which values and beliefs will anchor your philanthropy. Consider the people, places, problems, pathways, or philosophies that you care about most. 

The Screwvalas believe there is no silver bullet for eliminating poverty in India. Poverty is often both cause and effect of numerous societal ills such as poor sanitation, unsustainable livelihoods, and lack of access to education and clean water. Some of these insights were informed by their organization, then called SHARE, which had been working in a small way in rural India for a decade. 

“The only way to lift people out of poverty, according to us, is to take a 360 degree approach that tackles all the problems related to poverty,” Zarina Screwvala said. 

To implement such an approach, they believe they need to focus on a specific geography at a time, and settled on experimenting with a rural development model via Swades Foundation in certain districts in Maharashtra. 

Their work reflects another of their values—the community being at the centre of the solution. Communities must play an active role in the work that Swades coordinates. “If for any reason [the community members] are not willing to participate in their empowerment process, we do NOT work there,” said Screwvala. “We are very tough on being accountable.” 

 * Finally, determine who else will be involved in your philanthropy, and in what ways. Family members, advisers, staff, and everyone else with whom you’ll work will bring their own aspirations to the table. Getting clarity about your own aspirations and communicating them with others will make it easier to work together. 

The Deshpandes’ philanthropic journey was one of husband and wife. They also saw that merging their investments in social innovators with government resources could expand impact. 

Similarly, the Screwvalas were deeply involved in their philanthropy, but knew from the beginning that they would not be successful without a team of experts. Swades Foundation has built a team of qualified individuals with relevant degrees and experience in social services, teaching, agriculture, and medicine. 

The clarity in the work of the Swades Foundation and the Deshpandes’ Sandbox demonstrates the importance of starting philanthropy by articulating your values and beliefs. 

Rohit Menezes and Soumitra Pandey are partners in The Bridgespan Group’s Mumbai office. Effective Philanthropy is a six-part series by The Bridgespan Group that examines philanthropy in India and the “give smart” approach. Bridgespan is an adviser and resource for mission-driven leaders and organizations. This is the second in the series.

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