Building a 360-degree view of philanthropy

Building a 360-degree view of philanthropy

A few months ago, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett visited China on a mission to collect signatories for their Giving Pledge campaign. Later this year, they will fly to India with the same ambition. When I read about their efforts, I began to wonder: Is such high profile philanthropy culturally compatible with the wealthy Asian? Is there an Indian way of giving, different from the American path? Except for a few high-profile examples, little is known about the Indian philanthropic mindset. If philanthropists and opinion-makers would share their views, I thought, we could have an insider’s view of the future of Indian philanthropy—perhaps for the first time.

India has a long tradition of giving that cuts across all sections of society. It is a living legacy that we can all be proud of. In today’s context of a global super-rich elite, however, most attention is focused on big-bucks philanthropy.

The new philanthropists have a non-traditional approach to giving. They are comfortable with market culture and modern technology and come with a pragmatic problem-solving approach and an ability to imagine a global scale of delivery. The colossal amounts of money they command has piqued the public imagination. With good reason. People are eager to know how the tremendous wealth in the hands of so few is being put to use.

This puts the onus squarely on the wealthy to prove that their riches serve everyone well and not just themselves. Their work and philanthropy becomes a subject of national importance, especially in a country where such glaring inequity still prevails.

In India, it is only recently that such questions are being asked of our newly wealthy citizens. This is a very good thing. It will make the rich among us think harder, plan better and give more.

There is some confusion about the difference between corporate philanthropy and personal philanthropy. When companies set up charitable foundations or when they undertake some CSR (corporate social responsibility) activities, it is an extension of their own business interests. It gives companies the licence to operate, builds their brand, and makes them a more welcome part of the community in which they conduct their business. That money does not belong to the founders or the chief executives. Such charity is done with shareholders’ money and presumably with their consent.

Personal philanthropy must be separated from corporate philanthropy. Personal philanthropy is more about giving back to society, or giving forward, as it is now referred to. For the purpose of this series, we are largely going to focus on what individuals have been doing and can do with their personal assets.

What role can such philanthropy play in a society like ours? For one, philanthropic capital can go where markets will not go and where states often cannot go. These are the spaces where there is a high risk of failure, where social innovation has to be supported over a long period of time with no assured outcome. All the freedom movements of the past century—the feminist movement, the struggle for more open and democratic societies or our own independence movement—were supported by numerous and often unknown donors. Certainly there are numerous opportunities for such risk-bearing philanthropy in India today, as many freedoms are waiting to be won.

Yet philanthropy by definition is a highly voluntary activity and no one can dictate exactly what people must do with their legitimate surplus wealth. Since there are diverse personal interests, a thousand philanthropic flowers can bloom, which is all to the good, since there is so much that remains to be done.

But philanthropy also depends on an ecosystem around it in order to thrive. In the series, we will be looking at how public policy can better serve the sector. We will also take a look at issues that can constrain philanthropists, such as the lack of absorptive capacity on the ground. 

As we celebrate a culture of giving, however, we must also sharpen the question of how extreme wealth generation happens in the first place. And we must recognize that just societies cannot be realized merely by the willful distribution of surplus wealth. Genuine philanthropy demands less hubris and more patience. Giving by some requires taking by some others. Being at the receiving end of philanthropy is hardly what people’s dreams are made of.  Our culture has a well-nuanced understanding of this problem. “The left hand should not know what the right hand is giving," says one proverb, while another asks “What have I ever given you that you should be upset with me?" Maybe that is why we have so many silent givers in the country, who do not wish to be named and acclaimed.

Maybe the ultimate goal of philanthropy is to make itself redundant. To enable a gentler, broader and deeper form of sustainable prosperity. Is that going to be the strain of philanthropy that develops in India? Or is it going to be something quite different? Our columnists will shed some light on this topic in the coming weeks.

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