Women-led philanthropy will improve the act of giving

Data says that women-led philanthropy is gaining prominence because women show a clearer focus on complex societal challenges.
Data says that women-led philanthropy is gaining prominence because women show a clearer focus on complex societal challenges.

Summary

  • Women leading big-budget philanthropic missions has enlivened this field with a wave of new ideas. Expect more innovation to come.

Philanthropy has been practised by Indian companies for more than a century. Over the last few decades, some of it came to be led by women spouses of business leaders through corporate foundations, often with corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities playing a supportive role. But today, women in India and overseas are playing independent and impactful roles of leadership in philanthropy, bringing to their work distinctive styles and refreshingly innovative approaches.

A few days back, Melinda French announced that she will be disengaging from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation following a lag of three years after her divorce with Bill Gates in 2021. She will now be the recipient of $12.5 billion, which she would like to deploy on causes like gender development that she has been passionate about. 

After divorcing Gates, she founded the non-profit Pivotal Philanthropies Foundation. Analysts have said it is possible that a part of Melinda’s future philanthropy will take on a political colour at some point.

Also read: Philanthropy in Asia gets more professional

MacKenzie Scott, former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, received a 4% stake in the online retailer after her divorce with him in 2019. In the last five years, MacKenzie has distributed 49% of her shares in Amazon worth $16.6 billion to over 2,000 non-profit organizations (NGOs) worldwide through a ‘no strings attached’ giving policy. 

This is revolutionary because the NGOs that received this money had full control over how, when and to whom benefits would be given. This was radically different from the traditional practice of putting in place detailed systems and processes to track and review the impact of funds awarded. Today, she is the poster-child of a new era in global philanthropy.

Back home, Rohini Nilekani, wife of Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, has been a pioneer in the art and science of philanthropy. Although she has been involved in charitable giving for many years, she has also changed course along the journey. 

With wealth for this purpose largely generated from her and her family’s stake in Infosys, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and other institutions she founded have been so active under her charge that she has been honoured as the “most generous woman" for three consecutive years by the Hurun India Philanthropy Report. 

Her work has been trailblazing on many accounts: The wealth she gave was not from a family business, as has traditionally been the case in India; she has done this independently from what her husband Nandan has been doing; and finally, through foresight, some of what she focused on quite early are causes like the environment and climate change, acknowledged now as critical areas in need of attention. In a recent Economist article, echoing MacKenzie Scott, Rohini Nilekani said that the recipient and not the donor is best suited to decide how to use the money.

Also read: More philanthropists around, but donations tell a different story

Another well-known woman who played a pioneering role in Indian philanthropy has been Rajashree Birla, who led the group’s CSR initiatives after her husband Aditya Birla passed away in 1995.

What is driving this new landscape of high-impact women-led philanthropy in the country?

First, with a proliferation of professional-led companies and startups, as opposed to traditional family businesses, substantive chunks of equity shares in many new-age firms are held by couples rather than just males. 

Even though Infosys started this trend more than 30 years ago, it is only in recent times that this model has gained traction. This has meant that women now have money of their own and are free to redistribute it the way they would like. It also helps for these young high net-worth individuals to have role models in Rohini Nilekani, Rajashree Birla and Anu Agha.

Data from GivingPi, a family philanthropy network in India, says that women-led philanthropy is gaining prominence because women show greater accountability and a clearer focus on complex societal challenges. 

A Bain and Company-Dasra study of 2024 found that women have high involvement in giving aimed at directly obtaining better outcomes (65% versus 43% for men). Early insights from this study also suggest that women tend to give away a greater proportion of their net worth than men do.

Also read: India Inc sees increase in overall percentage of women in senior roles, but gaps remain: Study

Second, the government is doing its bit by nudging companies subtly and not-so-subtly, directly and indirectly. In a related role, industry associations like the Confederation of Indian Industry and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry have special units or foundations that help channel their members’ CSR funds. These special units are also often led by women who have specialized knowledge and understanding of philanthropy.

Finally, with greater prosperity on the whole, many women now have the financial means and freedom to give up their corporate jobs and focus on their passion of giving. This is what Vidya Shah of EdelGive did. At the same time, the emergence of women billionaires like Savitri Jindal, Rohiqa Cyrus Mistry and Rekha Jhunjhunwala has given another step-up to women’s philanthropy. 

What they have in common is that all three lost their husbands in an untimely manner and inherited large sums of wealth, including equity stakes in their business groups, parts of which are going into philanthropy. Women-led altruism is steadily on its way to changing this field for the better.

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