For Sunil Wadhwani, the former CEO and co-founder of iGATE Corp., the primary philanthropic vehicle is the Wadhwani Initiative for Sustainable Healthcare, or WISH, Foundation, which focuses on accessible, quality healthcare and innovations in this field. Most recently, Sunil and his brother Romesh have partnered to donate $30 million (around ₹ 205 crore) over 10 years to create the Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI), which will focus on harnessing the power of AI for society. Edited excerpts from an interview:
The motivation to start: I started giving to NGOs in India about 20-25 years ago and focused on the healthcare sector. Once you have food security and physical security, then the next two building blocks are education and healthcare to achieve a livelihood. It seemed to me that in the area of education, there is a lot of good stuff happening in India. Healthcare is a more complex sector, and, over the years, I’ve seen less work, and especially less innovation, happening in the area of healthcare delivery, so that’s where I’ve decided to focus.
Philanthropy as risk capital: The very nature of philanthropy involves taking risks. You’re investing to help others. To me, there are two cornerstones. No.1 is scale—if you’re going to do something, do it on a large scale; that leads to the importance of partnering with government. At the end of the day, whether it’s education, healthcare, livelihoods, when you’re talking about trying to reach millions of people in rural areas or urban slums, government really is the only organization with last-mile delivery capacity.
The second part is innovation. In the four years that I’ve had my foundation running, my views on innovation have evolved. Over these years, I’ve learnt that what really has the biggest impact are changes in delivery systems and we are focusing on that heavily.
Working with the government: Philanthropy ultimately is driven by the values and thinking of the philanthropist. There are philanthropists who feel that to get scale, they need to partner with government. For me, this approach works beautifully and I think the best thing is that in India, over the last 10-15 years, there has been a greater focus on scale, and on collaboration. As we look to the future, I am very, very bullish, very optimistic about the kind of changes we can achieve to improve lives.
Business lessons in giving: No.1, one needs to be very mindful and intentional about the culture one wants to build, whether it’s an NGO, or a for-profit enterprise. The second key factor is to be clear on strategy. Most NGOs have a vision, an aspiration. I’m not sure how many of them really have a clear idea on their strategic focus. The third key thing is people practices. How do you motivate? How do you get the best people to join you?
Goal for giving: To me, it’s really about the families one can help. They don’t have to know you. They should just benefit from our work. Our goal is that by 2027, the 80th anniversary of India’s independence, we would like to provide free healthcare to over 100 million families.
NRI philanthropy: There are a range of charities in India, and if you travel here and meet two-three on each trip, you will find some you resonate with. The Indian government has a robust system whereby all charities have to report their financials to it. All these reports are publicly available, it doesn’t take too much time to really know which charity is being effective, how many people it’s helping, how much money is going into programmes versus getting utilized internally for overheads. With a little investment of time, one can find the right NGOs.
Advice for more evolved giving from NRIs: It has always struck me that there are over 3.5 million NGOs in India, a giant number, but there is no organized kind of body to represent that group. I think if the larger NGOs, or perhaps a group of philanthropists, were to come together and promote the sector as a whole, form a set of disclosure metrics beyond what the government requires, that could develop an ecosystem where people would feel more comfortable giving.
This interview is part of the India Remarkable Givers video series conducted by the Bridgespan Group, a philanthropy and NGO advisory.