Philanthropy, literally translated, means love of mankind. Today it describes donations of material goods and work to the needy. Fundamentally, philanthropy’s objective is to improve people’s lives. Because of its vast reach, it is a difficult topic to write about, but I have developed a view on certain principles that are essential to successful philanthropy.
First, I believe philanthropy is successful when you have a personal passion and contribute not only your resources, but your own time and capabilities. You must have aspirations for significant impact—an in-depth understanding of the field; what you want to specifically achieve; and what is the theory of change in that arena.
It is important from the very outset to focus not only on making a difference through philanthropic donations in the near term, but also to focus on how the model will be sustainable.
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Very often, people ask me how I am able to raise such significant philanthropic donations for a variety of initiatives (such as Indian School of Business, or ISB, American India Foundation, Public Health Foundation of India, or PHFI, Urban Development Institute, and so on) when these projects are not single-donor led and governed with their name on the initiative. I firmly believe in the Gandhian philosophy that says “if the cause is just, means will come”. The India diaspora wants to contribute to the development of India but doesn’t quite know how. And so I believe credible initiatives with high integrity and leadership will attract significant philanthropic funding.
This leads me to another attribute I have seen for successful ventures, which is the idea of leveraging public resources. Very often, the government has the finances available but very little execution capability to cost-effectively deliver social programmes that improve people’s lives. Philanthropy can be leveraged through public finances to achieve impact multiple times over. This kind of collaboration implies another characteristic of successful philanthropy— partnerships—partnerships between government, civil society, and business.
It is important not only to work on specific issues and opportunities, but also to build institutions which carry that mission forward long after you are gone. An institutional framework ensures the work will be carried out into the future as many of the most impactful societal issues cannot be solved in a year or two or even a decade or two, but require long-term commitment.
I would like to illustrate these principles by describing philanthropic ventures that I have been involved with in India:
The PHFI was created by a small group of passionate individuals who felt that it was critical to improve the state of the health in India. Today, after only a few years of operations, PHFI is operating five institutions with several hundred graduating public health professionals a year and thousands being trained in shorter-term programmes.
Emergency Management Research Institute (EMRI): A quite different example. India does not have a very good system of emergency care nor a nationwide 911 system. Today, after a few years, EMRI runs 3000+ ambulances in 12 states and thousands of lives have been saved. It is a true example of philanthropy leveraging public funds.
A third example is the ISB. The aspiration was to set up a research-oriented world class business school of scale in India. Ten years later, ISB is among the top 20 rated schools in the world with 600 graduates going on to 1,200 in the next five years.
Philanthropy is a wonderful thing but one can, through lessons learnt, do it in a very impactful way. In this world of scarce resources, even in philanthropy, we must put them to best use.
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