The manner of giving is worth more than the gift,” said the French poet Pierre Corneille. I couldn’t agree more. Which is why I have a slightly contrarian view on the latest trend of billionaires promoting philanthropy by circling the globe to “persuade” other billionaires to part with some of their billions—the unintended implication being that there is less value in focusing on other segments of society.
I am not the only one uneasy with such an approach. I just saw on the Internet that a Beijing Web designer got into a flap over the fact that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett had organized a dinner at a Beijing seven-star hotel exclusively for philanthropic billionaires. So he organized a competing parallel dinner: a “common people’s philanthropic banquet” at the Holiday Inn Express, to show that “you don’t need a gazillion dollars to be a philanthropist”.
I fully endorse the idea that philanthropy is everyone’s privilege and that it is the intention rather than the quantum that counts. Philanthropy is an intensely personal decision, driven by passion rather than push.
It did not need Carnegie or Rockefeller to catalyse Jamsetji Tata and his clan into giving away millions to various causes. It was their own belief that that was the best way to use the money that God had given them. And it’s the same culture that drives the Tata group DNA today.
For many Indian corporate firms, the vast disparities in the environment in which they operate and the Gandhian concept of trusteeship of wealth make us perhaps more sensitive to need than Western corporations, and are potent triggers to open up the purse strings.
That being said, the culture of individual giving does seem to have become somewhat diluted in India in this era of “I, me, myself”. In the World Giving Index created by the Charities Aid Foundation, India ranks a lowly 134th out of 153 nations in terms of the percentage of population that gave to charity. (China comes off even worse at 147th place.) So, although we come from a culture where wandering sadhus and bhikshus could once live entirely on the charity of the people to meet their needs, the rise in incomes could well be leading to a drop in generosity towards others.
The issue is, which is the best way to rekindle these values we seem to be losing?
While it is nice get large sums from billionaires, perhaps the real challenge lies not in getting five people to donate $5 million once but in getting five million people to donate Rs5 every year. To me, philanthropy is not a matter of a one-off donation. It’s a matter of an inner urge and a culture. And to be sustainable, philanthropy needs to become a part of everyone’s value system and of everyone’s culture.
Five million people donating a hundred rupees each every year of their earning lives may be a slower path, but it is a steady and sustainable way of creating a true culture of giving. Consistency is the key to sustainability. It’s not how much is given, but how it is given, how often it is given, and how soon it is given. The challenge, therefore, is to create a culture of giving in India. And while pursuing this aim top down, we should not forget the enormous potential and value of enabling this to happen bottom-up.
So if I were trying to promote philanthropy in India, I would seek answers to the questions of “how, how often and how soon”. I would try to create values and vehicles by which people are motivated to give perhaps smaller sums, consistently, over their economically productive lives.
That was the philosophy with which I started the Nanhi Kali foundation in the 1980s, where an affordable sum (Rs1,800 at that time) sponsors the education, books and clothing of a girl child for one entire year. Nanhi Kali showed me that it’s not the philanthropic desire that is missing. What are missing are governance and organizations that people can trust to use their money effectively and honestly.
That answers the “how”.
And once donors experience the heady glow of realizing that their small gift is making a big difference to someone else’s life, the “how often” takes care of itself. Donors rarely abandon a child they have helped set on the road to a brighter future.
And the final question is “how soon”? In my view, it’s never too soon. We need to have avenues through which middle-class schoolchildren can give a part of their pocket money to help a less-fortunate child. We need to encourage young employees to start contributing a percentage of their salaries as soon as they start earning, and then continue to do so throughout their economically productive lives. And we need to have enabling mechanisms by which people can give not just of their money, but also of their time and of themselves.
In sum, generous acts of philanthropy from billionaires are welcome. But why wait for people to become billionaires before they become philanthropists? It’s the steady tide of smaller contributions, wave upon wave, day in and day out, that will create a sustainable culture of philanthropy.
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