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Constrained as they are by inheritance laws, limited educational opportunities, and a patriarchal culture, Indian women have been under-represented as givers of wealth for the benefit of society, i.e. in philanthropy. Fortunately, this is changing: women are playing an increasing role in the use of wealth, owned or otherwise, for social impact. In line with global trends, many leading business foundations in India are led by women. Either they have created the wealth for endowing the foundations themselves, or are playing critical roles in deploying the philanthropic capital of their families or companies.

By the Kotak Wealth Hurun Leading Wealthy Women List of 2020, Roshni Nadar Malhotra of HCL Technologies is the richest Indian woman with a wealth of 54,850 crore. Others on the list are Leena Gandhi Tewari of USV, and Anu Aga and Meher Padamjee of Thermax. Of the 31 women on Hurun’s list, six are professional managers and 25 are entrepreneurs.

What’s even more noteworthy is that most of these women also figure on Hurun India’s Philanthropy List, both in their individual capacity and through joint donations from their family concerns. Topping the list is Roshni Nadar, who helped grow the family business, HCL Technologies, but is also passionate about the family’s two educational foundations, the Shiv Nadar Foundation and Vidyagyan. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw of Biocon has set up and manages her own Biocon Foundation for cancer prevention and treatment. Rajashree Birla, mother of Kumarmangalam Birla, chairman of the Aditya Birla Group, set up and is the driving force behind the Aditya Birla Centre for Community Initiatives & Rural Development; she also oversees two family foundations. Then, Sudha Murthy runs the Infosys Foundation, while Rohini Nilekani, wife of another founder of Infosys, has used her personal wealth to set up and manage the Arghyam Foundation for water conservation and management, and the Akshara Foundation. Nandini Piramal, Tanya Dubash and Nisaba Godrej are deeply involved in their family businesses, but are equally involved in philanthropy. Nita Ambani is the founder and chairperson of Reliance Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm, while the Edelgive Foundation of the Edelgive group is run by Vidya Shah.

While larger numbers at the head of foundations is a new phenomena, women’s philanthropy has deep roots in India. Women have made significant contributions to social progress, even as they remained outside the formal power and profit structure. Motlibai Wadia of the Wadia family was a philanthropist in her own right. Lady Ratan Tata assumed leadership and administration of the Sir Dorab Tata and Sir Ratan Tata Trusts in the 1920s. Women of the Sarabhai family of Ahmedabad all set up philanthropic organizations and managed them. These examples can be multiplied.

What accounts for this growing participation of women in philanthropy? The answer is education and greater business opportunities on account of faster economic growth from the 1990s onwards. Also, while sons were earlier seen as heirs, many business magnates are now open to having daughters succeed them.

Ironically, social and cultural practices that militate against women in the workforce also tend to make them natural philanthropists. Ideals of social welfare and charity often rest on religious practices and joint-family values, especially in business families, and it is the family women who are responsible for inculcating these. Two of India’s foremost philanthropists, Azim Premji and Shiv Nadar, are on record as having been inspired to give by their mothers.

Second, women seem to be very good at managing finances for the larger good of all. Traditionally, women had to manage household budgets, stretching them so that all members were satisfied and family objectives met. Moreover, tradition has socialized women to be carers, and the empathy involved is invaluable in philanthropic work, the basis of which is compassion and a desire to bring about change for the greater good.

In the world of business today, women are most successful in the fields of banking, finance, human resources, and hospitality, retail and technological services. These are areas where persuasion, empathy, intuition and other ‘soft’ skills are equally valuable in determining performance. Here, women excel themselves. Philanthropy requires such soft power.

Another explanation that has been offered for so many women of business families managing these families’ philanthropic concerns is that this is a way of compensating them for being denied a direct role in the family business, both financially and in terms of decision-making.

According to Rajiv Aggarwal (bit.ly/3uYFdjU ), with greater education and percolation of progressive ideas, women began to be given more opportunities and roles in Indian family businesses, but usually in subsidiary business units or in ‘softer’ functions such as marketing. Managing the family philanthropy was seen as another such soft option.

The trend of an increasing number of women heading formal philanthropic concerns is not just clear, it raises an important question. Is the practice of philanthropy—in terms of the issues chosen for its focus, the instruments or methods deployed to address them, and the outcomes—different because women are at the helm? This is difficult to answer. But it is an area which certainly needs more systematic study.

Pushpa Sundar is the author of ‘The Changing Face of Indian Philanthropy’.

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