Hero Enterprises chairman Sunil Munjal’s philanthropic work is focused on promoting Indian arts through his non-profit, the Serendipity Arts Foundation, and supporting theatre and music in his capacity as president of the Ludhiana Sanskritik Samagam. Munjal has also made significant contributions to the Aavishkaar Bharat Fund, an impact investment fund of the Aavishkaar-Intellecap Group. Edited excerpts from an interview:
The motivation to start: As a family, we are Arya Samajis, which is unlike a religion and more of a lifestyle. This was a movement against blind faith, against disparity between men and women. It is most logical that we do what is considered right, to reach out to those less fortunate than us, and try to create an environment where more people are able to stand on their own feet.
Talking about giving: I am not doing this to build a brand, or a personal profile, so it makes sense not to shout about this. Until recently, we’ve never even talked about this in public—about the number of initiatives that have been run now for 50-60-plus years.
The only request I have for all friends who ask for advice is, whatever you do, do it efficiently, effectively—the easiest thing to do is write a cheque, the much more difficult thing is to give yourself, your time, your expertise and knowledge. I believe that since we have run large-scale global-sized businesses quite efficiently, the least we can do is apply some of that knowledge to social initiatives and enterprises.
Focus areas: I don’t think there was any grand plan when we started. Education, frankly, has always been a crying need in India. So we started setting up schools wherever we would set up a factory. Later, we took up things like clean drinking water. There are many places which just don’t have access to clean drinking water.
Arts and philanthropy: It is a bit of a shame that India’s arts, crafts and culture have got very little attention in the last 200 years—actually, almost 300 years now, and, more specifically, in independent India since 1947. In the old days, royalty used to be patrons of the arts. After the British came in, they broke up the arts into silos because they looked at it from the Western sensibility. When India became independent, the government took on that role, but could not do a complete job of providing the patronage and support needed.
Impact investing: The idea of investing in Aavishkaar, was not mine. They approached us, the founder came and met me, and explained what he was doing. We always try to ensure that a not-for-profit becomes self-sustaining. This can only happen if it’s well run, well managed, and efficient. Aavishkaar presented a pretty compelling case and covered a pretty wide spectrum, from financial services and dairy to other initiatives, even garbage management. I thought this was a good way for us to multiply the effectiveness of what we do.
Lessons from giving: We have learnt, one, never to go with the attitude that I already know the answer. The answer has to evolve from experience, from those who are involved. Second, that modern business management principles can be applied anywhere.
India’s giving ecosystem: Large giving is relatively new to India. The regulatory and taxation system does not provide tax breaks for philanthropy. This is not smart; worldwide, the more philanthropy comes in, the bigger the tax breaks, so they are actually encouraging people to give. In the last 30 years, India’s transformation as an emerging economic superpower has also empowered individuals, made them wealthier, made corporations much more liquid and able to make large donations, so we have to recognize that this facilitation has only happened now and is not complete. We sometimes forget that money is like manure; if you spread it around, it’s useful, everything around you starts greening; if you leave it lying in a pile, it starts stinking quite quickly.
This interview is part of the India Remarkable Givers video series conducted by The Bridgespan Group, a philanthropy and NGO advisory.