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The time for philanthropy to take centre stage and create change is now

More wealth will be created over the next few years, but equally more social problems will surface, both as a by-product of the wealth creation and by itself. Photo: Priyanka Parshar/MintPremium
More wealth will be created over the next few years, but equally more social problems will surface, both as a by-product of the wealth creation and by itself. Photo: Priyanka Parshar/Mint

It is both a huge opportunity and a huge responsibility for those of us engaged in promoting and encouraging philanthropy in Indiawe have to make the most of it this decade

The recent revival in the stock market has for the first time conferred billionaire status upon all the 100 richest people in India, Forbes said.

The Kotak 2014 Wealth Report pegs the number of Indian super rich at 117,000. India seems to be ready to take its place on the global stage, as much of the craze around Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recently concluded visit to the US indicates. The 3Ds as he calls them—democracy, demographic dividend and demand—put India in a unique place, poised for rapid economic growth.

And yet, we continue to top the charts on all parameters of human deprivation, and remain dogged by extreme poverty as a nation. One in three children is malnourished, 750,000 people die every year because of the lack of clean drinking water, our declining sex ratio has reached alarming levels. The list is endless.

More wealth will be created over the next few years, but equally more social problems will surface, both as a by-product of the wealth creation and by itself. How does one handle this paradox? We have to ensure that we use a large part of the wealth for social good. Philanthropy will have a key role to play in this. And the time for that is now.

The government seems to have got its priorities on philanthropy wrong with the 2% corporate social responsibility (CSR) rule. Optimistically, the ministry of corporate affairs hopes to generate 5,000 crore a year. This is dwarfed if we compare it with the potential in individual philanthropy. If we take the $346 billion networth of India’s top 100 individuals, assume their networth appreciates 10% annually, and they give just 10% of this increase, that’s $3.46 billion, or around 20,000 crore, per annum. If we take the 117,000 people with networth exceeding 25 crore and they give an average of 25 lakh a year, that is 28,000 crore. And then there is the huge middle class. If India can rev up its levels of giving to the US benchmark of 2% of gross domestic product (GDP), we can see over 2 trillion in philanthropy.

How much is 2 trillion, given every year, worth—at least in theory? It’s enough to provide toilets to every Indian home in a year; enough to set up a corpus to provide 100% immunization in perpetuity and if simply distributed to the poor, we could pull the entire nation out of extreme poverty.

But, more importantly, if a billion Indians start giving time and money, they will start engaging actively with the social issues that we face. They will understand the causes of poverty and neglect, and this will shape their views on growth and development. Eventually, this can result in building a caring nation, where people give, spend and vote based on what they see as good for society as a whole and not just for themselves. As Peter Drucker said about philanthropy, its role is “above all, to make each one of us a citizen who takes responsibility, and a neighbour who cares". Philanthropy remains the vehicle through which we act out the values that we hold dearest to us in life.

The environment for philanthropy to take centre stage in India is already right. Indians are ready to give and ready to engage with social issues like never before. There is a wave of hope. Citizen initiatives are taking India by storm—the rapid success of the #RiceBucketChallenge and “The Ugly Indians" show us this. A five-year-old “festival of giving", DaanUtsav, has galvanized more than 3 million Indians to do their bit. Our Prime Minister believes in empowering citizens to create change—the MyGov initiative, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the Independence Day call to all citizens to spend 30 minutes every week teaching are examples of this.

So what’s needed to make the BIG giving happen?

India needs to engage its billionaires in a dialogue on the role of wealth. Azim Premji and a few others have started working on this in right earnest. The Tatas and the Birlas have been joined by the Premjis, the Nilekanis and the Nadars in making significant philanthropic commitments. What we need is a unique Indian model that encourages giving from either income or wealth. But this needs a slightly more impatient and aggressive push.

GiveIndia’s First Givers’ Club and Dasra’s Giving Circles experiences show that UHNIs (ultra high networth individuals) are ready to commit more than 10 lakh a year. Organizations like these need to scale themselves up quite rapidly and self-sustainably.

The government will need to create an enabling environment for philanthropy to thrive: providing better tax breaks, and encouraging the civil society instead of muffling it. We already have a Prime Minister thinking in the right direction through initiatives such as MyGov, a platform that allows citizens to participate in improving governance. All we need is to bring the “ease of doing business" principles to development—an “ease of doing good" policy, perhaps.

We have to convince Indian donors to contribute substantially towards policy advocacy—funding think tanks, working towards reforms in governance, criminal justice systems and a host of other areas, where the payoff on every rupee spent can be incredibly high.

India’s youth is excited to be a part of the change, as evidenced in the massive success of hundreds of fellowship programmes across the countryTeach for India (TFI), The Piramal Gandhi Fellowship and the Young India Fellowship are three examples. The youth are turning to social entrepreneurship by the thousands. All we have to do is engage them, support them and make them believe there is more to life than becoming the richest in your batch of peers.

The great Indian middle class is ready to do its bit. GiveIndia’s Payroll Giving programme, for example, sees a 50% conversion in face-to-face meetings with potential donors as compared with a 2% conversion rate for most insurance companies. People are 25 times more willing to donate than they are willing to buy insurance! iVolunteer’s WhiteBoard initiative attracts top corporate talent that goes beyond office hours to provide hands-on strategic inputs to non-profits. We need to create models that allow companies to engage employees in giving back to society.

Technology can be a game changer in empowering people to give, especially in a country where trust deficit cannot be overstated. If Google Adwords and Facebook Ads can sell luxury goods and all kinds of stuff to you just by looking at what you browse, why can’t they let you donate to a cause that you feel strongly about right when you read about it? Can we harness the mobile revolution to ensure that a donor can see their money being spent in front of their own eyes? “Donate to empower women, and get a link to watch live, an SHG (self-help group) training session in progress, maybe in the villages of Nawada district in Bihar!"

Technology is also providing us tools to engage citizens in ways that we never had before. Online fund-raising tools like iGive, Milaap and Ketto and social media campaigns like the “Bucket Challenges" are among a few examples.

In doing all this, we need to balance superficiality and depth, emotion and intellect. We need to stimulate our hearts to make us want to give, we need to feel the satisfaction and the joy in giving.

At the same time, we must graduate our philanthropists to move up from instant gratification to understanding that the greatest impact is had by spending often in the most indirect ways—funding overheads, building capacities and in advocacy. We have never before had an opportunity like this to lift ourselves out of the mess we are in as a nation. We have to convince our people that it is ok to travel to Kerala, instead of Greece, on a family vacation and use the money saved to maybe restore water harvesting structures and livelihoods to an entire village. It is both a huge opportunity and a huge responsibility for those of us engaged in promoting and encouraging philanthropy in India. We have to make the most of it this decade. If we fail now, history will not forgive us and our MBA degrees will not be worth the paper they are printed on.

India is ready for philanthropy to take centre stage and create change. The time is NOW!

The writer is a volunteer at Daan Utsav, the Joy of Giving Week, the founder of GiveIndia and a co-founder of Educational Initiatives Pvt Ltd.

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