Recently, I received many emails and phone calls urging me to contribute during the Joy of Giving week. By the end of the week, I came to the reluctant conclusion that the whole notion of the “joy of giving” was based on a false premise. It is a catchy line for sure, but it is based on what Freud called the “pleasure principle”, rather than its counterpart: the reality principle. If giving was indeed joyous, we’d be doing it to get our pleasure fix.
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From my own experience, I can attest that charitable giving isn’t easy or even joyous. Eating ice cream on a hot day is joyous. Giving, whether it is to an orphanage or a beggar involves analysis. How many times have you impulsively given money to a beggar from the back of an autorickshaw and then wondered if you’ve been taken for a ride—and not by the auto? When you start giving away serious amounts of money, as Anil Agarwal, Rohini Nilekani, Shiv Nadar, and Sunil Mittal—the four Indians who made it to Forbes’ 2009 Heroes of Philanthropy list—have, giving becomes about transparency, due diligence, percentages, overheads, and whether your money is producing desired results, whether it is safe drinking water or educating youth in Orissa.
Why don’t Indians give? I would suggest two reasons. As a nation, we have a resource-constrained mindset. This makes us excellent savers but poor donors. Second, most Indians want to leave their wealth to their children. This too, stems from a resource-constrained “What if?” mindset. What if I don’t have enough to pay my health bills after I retire? What if my children don’t have enough to support themselves? The strong family web that is India’s strength also makes us less empathetic to the plight of those outside it. Most middle-class Indians give in an ad hoc fashion. We give old clothes to our servants; donate to our church, temple or mosque; pay for poor-feeding on our father or mother’s death anniversary; and give to beggars on impulse. Giving isn’t institutionalized like in the West; and is still limited by family, caste and religious considerations.
There are exceptions to these generalizations of course. You only need to visit the Ashoka Foundation’s website (www.ashoka.org) to get acquainted with extraordinary Indians who are making tangible differences. Sugandha Sukrutaraj founded the Amba Trust to help bring youth with cognitive disabilities into the mainstream. Amba operates out of Sir C.V. Raman’s beautiful old bungalow in Malleswaram, Bangalore and is full of cheery but disabled young people manning computers and entering data.
Catalyst organizations such as the Mumbai Group of Friends (MGoF) are great starting points for professionals who lack the time for anything save writing cheques. Headed by Rameshbhai Kacholia, this group of 125 “friends” supports 30 organizations in nine states irrespective of caste, religion, creed, region, language and other separators. Once an NGO comes to their attention, they do the due diligence, personally visit the organization to make sure that your money is getting (or in this case, giving) maximum benefit for the buck.
Part of giving, like much else, is serendipity. I want to give. But relative to my means, I give little. In that disconnect lies Indian philanthropy’s failure. What will get more of us to open up our wallets? And what percentage of our assets or income should we give? 10%? 20%? Elton John reportedly gives 30% of his income to charity. How about giving away more money than you make? Chris Hohn does.
Hohn is a UK-based hedge fund manager, who along with his wife, Jamie, runs The Children’s Investment (TCI) fund and its interlinked foundation. He makes money; she gives it away, mostly to AIDS-related charities globally, including India. The hedge fund gives 0.5% of its assets (not profits) to the foundation every year and an additional 0.5% every time it makes more than an 11% return. According to a story last year in the UK’s Telegraph, “Before his (Hohn’s) latest £466m donation, he had already given away more than £230 million, dwarfing his estimated fortune of £110m.” How could the guy give away more than he had? I don’t know. What interests me is that a 44-year-old man with four children including triplets can give away at such a furious pace. What about leaving money for the children?
Some Indians do this. One Mumbai millionaire told me that his children will inherit his thriving business. All his wealth will go to charity.
Giving can take two forms. The really rich can write a single large cheque after choosing an organization worthy of it. The middle class can make giving a habit—and really, I think that’s the only way to get us to open our wallets. Each of us has to make giving a habit. If I pay Rs3,000 a month for a facial, why not donate the same amount to DHAN Foundation each time? It isn’t much but it is better than nothing.
So this festive season, I am going to figure out a way to make giving, even in small amounts, a habit. A donation every time I have a facial might be a start.
Shoba Narayan’s problem is that even her facials are ad hoc. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org