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Ronnie and Zarina Screwvala. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Ronnie and Zarina Screwvala. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Problem in India is we’re always looking for a big bang solution: Swades Foundation

For Zarina and Ronnie Screwvala, founders of Swades Foundation, philanthropy means engaging one's skills, time, energy, and mind space in solving a problem

When Zarina and Ronnie Screwvala, two pioneers in the Indian television industry with nearly 25 years of media, entertainment and entrepreneurship experience behind them, decided to step into philanthropy with their Swades Foundation, they didn’t have an inkling that they would go from knowing next to nothing about rural empowerment to touching the lives of a million people every 5-6 years. Today, Swades’s backers include companies such as the Tata group, and HSBC, the government, and of course, people from show business. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What does philanthropy mean to you? 

Zarina: I have two interests in life—one is philanthropy, the other philosophy. Both have the word ‘philos’ – the Latin word for love. In philosophy, we learn that love is a uniting force. Philanthropy is the love of humankind. I don’t separate my life from my work—I am my work. And I haven’t worked harder and struggled more, but I am still happier in the last three years than I have ever been. 

Ronnie: I think philanthropy is a 20th century word, and maybe we need a replacement. Because the world has changed incredibly and now it’s not just about writing a cheque—it’s a lot more than that. It means giving your skills, your time and energy, your mind space.

Did your backgrounds as serial entrepreneurs and investors shape your role as philanthropists? 

Ronnie: While I don’t think our business background has shaped any of our broad philanthropic choices, I’ll say our entrepreneurial experience has definitely helped a lot in building momentum for our philanthropy, and in our basic attitude of rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty, doing whatever it takes to solve a problem.

How do your views on philanthropy compare? 

Ronnie: I’m sure as a couple, we’ll always have differences in our thinking, but the core of what we want to do—be fully involved, create impact, do it at scale, do the 360-degree model—on that, we function as one voice. But obviously below that broad consensus, there’s plenty of healthy friction in the thought process.

For example, if I think that getting 10,000 farmers out of poverty means taking them from an income of Rs25,000 to Rs200,000 over three years, Zarina’s thought tends to be a lot more reflective—she’ll probably say, “Let’s not push farming if it’s not organic farming, let’s avoid something that doesn’t have that sensitivity that we’re looking for". So I’m probably more result-oriented and I think she brings in the human element. We’re different in some senses, but in the course of those differences we also complement each other very well.  

What were your big learnings with Swades? 

Zarina: The need for an exit strategy; agreeing on what we can and cannot do. Among the many things that our villages need, we decided electricity and roads we just cannot do—it’s too expensive. So we focused on water and sanitation, health, education, agriculture and livelihood.

And this 360-degree approach was important because we decided to take one geography and pour all our inputs simultaneously into this geography—to ultimately build a model of development.

How much of the business approach do you apply to the running of Swades? 

Zarina: We may be a philanthropic organization, but we don’t think of ourselves as a charity—we aspire to be a world-class corporate that happens to be in the business of philanthropy. Of course, it’s very difficult to have accountability in philanthropy.

Today we have 350 full-time employees, 1,200 part-timers and 35 partners, all of them have people on the ground, and all of them have to be held accountable. This is a huge challenge. The other thing central to our model is collaboration. We don’t believe in reinventing the wheel. We do that only when we struggle to find a vendor or partner.  

Name one big challenge with partnerships?

Zarina: Scaling up, for each and every one of our partners. They’ve never done it at the scale at which we operate. We have 1,300 schools that have 90,000 students. In one sweep, they have to be able to service that; train thousands of teachers.

Also, we insist that our partners’ staff live in the villages—90% of our staff lives and works in their villages. Finding quality people there is a huge challenge. 

At what stage of evolution is philanthropy in India? 

Ronnie: I think philanthropy in India will evolve a fair bit over the next few years for a couple of reasons. First, there’s a high expectation from the government to play an active, participatory role. Two, for anyone wanting to give either time or money, credibility and trust have been the biggest challenge.

Of course, the corporate social responsibility rules have made people a lot more aware. So the evolution is definitely underway, but as with any issue in India, it’s not about to be solved in 4-5 years. The problem in India is that we’re always looking for a big bang solution, when that’s not how things work, especially in the development sector. The other aspect is that today, the younger generation is much more aware. They’re a lot more sensitized to the situation in India, and I think social media has played a fair role in narrowing the gap a bit. 

What would you like to see philanthropists in India do differently? 

Ronnie: I think philanthropists don’t focus enough on accountability from the people they support. As a donor, if you're working with an NGO, treat it as if you have made an angel investment in a company and nurture its leadership to create your next level of wealth. 

Zarina: I’d like to see philanthropists give more of their time. I’d also like to see corporates contribute their skill sets—when an IBM directs its business expertise, its expertise in computer networks into the development sector—to me, that’s also CSR. But as of today, that’s not counted as CSR—it should be, but it’s not.

This interview is a part of the India Philanthropy Series, a joint initiative between Dasra, a strategic philanthropy organization, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This series showcases through videos the journeys of some of the most strategic and innovative philanthropists in India.

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