Home / Politics / News /  Bold and ambitious: the new Indian philanthropist

New Delhi: Hemendra Kothari, a fourth-generation stock-broker listed among Forbes India’s top 100 richest men, comes from a family that has been involved in philanthropy for generations. But when he decided to start a new foundation focused on wildlife protection in 2008, his approach diverged markedly from that of his father or grandfather.


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“I worked as an investment banker for 40 years, and my strength has been in management and administration. So I thought it would be a good idea to create people who are passionate about wanting to protect what I would like," Kothari says. “I believe that just giving money is not sufficient; we have to find out how to execute effectively on the grassroots level."

Such strategic giving is the signature of a new kind of philanthropy that has begun to emerge in India over the past decade, noticeably accelerating in the last five years. Largely from the private sector, with substantial experience either working or studying abroad, India’s new philanthropists are characterized by their hands-on, data-driven, result-oriented approach to giving.

Saurabh Srivastava, co-founder and former chairman of information technology (IT) industry lobby Nasscom, says such an approach is natural given that many of India’s new rich are self-made businessmen and entrepreneurs.

More with less

“The very essence of being a successful entrepreneur is being able to manage resources and do a lot more with a lot less," he says. “So we want to be engaged in the organizations we give to and help them, just like we would with angel investment in a company that would give a financial return, except we don’t want a financial return—we want a huge impact."

Romesh Wadhwani is one example of this new kind of philanthropist. An entrepreneur from Mumbai, Wadhwani earned his wealth by growing and selling companies in the US Silicon Valley at the height of the technology boom in the 1990s.

His entrepreneurial spirit is equally evident in his foundation, established in 2000, which aims to accelerate economic growth in developing countries by funding projects that emphasize job and wealth creation for the lowest strata of society—such as job training and placement for people with disabilities, and partnerships with universities to teach classes on entrepreneurship.

The Azim Premji Foundation, which has partnered with the government to focus on “creating effective and scalable models that significantly improve the quality of learning in the school and ensure satisfactory ownership by the community in the management of the school", is another example of a relatively new philanthropic foundation with a focus on systematic, model-based change.

New philanthropists

At a recent conference in New Delhi, Jane Wales, founder of the San Francisco-based Global Philanthropy Forum, suggested many of India’s so-called “new philanthropists" are actually members of a rapidly growing group of global elite givers who share certain key characteristics: primarily self-made, they earned their wealth in the 1990s in IT and related sectors, and bring their business backgrounds and entrepreneurial spirit to giving.

She describes them as “intrepid", willing to dedicate time and resources to take on large-scale problems that interest them—such as poverty, malnutrition and climate change.

Finally, and because the problems are so large, she says, they are interested and willing to collaborate, and enter public-private partnerships with great ease. “This is an international movement," she says. “It’s coming from new wealth that was created in the 1990s in the private sector. An American would have more in common with an Indian philanthropist with that background than another American philanthropist without it."

Venture philanthropy

This shift towards “venture philanthropy" among India’s uber rich has really become noticeable within the past five years, says Dhaval Udani, chief information officer of GiveIndia, which links philanthropists with non-governmental organizations.

“I think that people are beginning to realize that they have enough money, and they are looking at giving differently," says Udani.

Such professionals, he adds, often approach giving as an investment with a social, rather than monetary, return. “They have undergone typical corporate structure, and are a very outcome-focused and oriented group, and they feel the same way about philanthropy. They don’t mind giving money, but want to make sure that it’s effectively utilized."

But while demanding data and results can build more transparency and efficiency in India’s social sector, Udani says many of India’s philanthropists might be a little hesitant to take risks.

“People who are giving large amounts of money are not often willing to take the same risks they would in businesses," he says. “They expect that every single penny will be used productively. But tell me, what business works that way? I am sure each has suffered losses at some point."

Such mistrust of the social sector may partially explain why Indian philanthropy lags behind developed nations in per capita giving among high networth individuals despite a recent surge in wealth.

Wales of Global Philanthropy Forum says she expects philanthropy to increase among India’s elite as they become more secure with their wealth.

“I think it’s easy to become impatient with the process, but the reality is that when people around the world have newly made wealth, it takes them a while to realize they have a disposable income," she says. “They are just beginning to realize they have the capacity to make a difference in the world."

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