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My Philanthropic Journey: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Embrace Failure

Strategic Philanthropy | Civil Society | Jul 5, 2022

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani in conversation with Vidya Shah, Chairperson & CEO, EdelGive Foundation at EDGE 2020. They discuss Rohini’s insights from her philanthropic journey over the years.

My work in philanthropy spans different spaces, from groundwater and sanitation, early learning, social justice and governance, to the arts. I have portfolios on active citizenship, young men and boys, environmental issues, and how to collaborate on better access to justice. It may seem like this approach makes me a jack of all trades and master of none. But I would like to put this in perspective, because while these are all different issues, to my mind they focus on the same thing, which is the strengthening of Samaaj.

I’ve said many times that making the Samaaj strong enough to solve its problems on its own, obviously with collaboration, remains the single driving spirit behind my philanthropy and my other work as well. Regardless of what field we are working in, what I look for is ideas, individuals, and institutions that have the integrity, commitment, and passion to solve something that they care about. These are all societal issues, and through my philanthropy, I hope to strengthen communities and Samaaj to respond to problems and see themselves as an active part of the solution. Thanks to India’s thriving civil sector, I am able to work across these areas and have the privilege of supporting some amazing organizations.

How to Strengthen and Support the Social Sector

There are so many things acting on civil society right now. Pressures of fundraising, pressures of all kinds of reforms that the government is undertaking that are worrying the sector a lot right now. And on top of that, because of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) law or because of various diversions in ideological beliefs, many rich philanthropists have undertaken initiatives to implement their aims on their own, hiring their own people and operating within their own gate. They may be collaborating with the government, but not necessarily with existing civil society institutions. This is a worrying trend because these civil society organizations have their feet very firmly on the ground. They’ve done the work for decades, they understand how problems evolve, and how sometimes a new solution may give rise to a new problem. Unless you have a deep, contextual understanding of the issue, you can’t really grapple with the inequities that common people have to face. So, I would say to philanthropists, even if you implement within your own organization, make sure to find those people who are already doing good work. And I think many of them do that. For example, at EkStep we are rolling out a huge platform along with the government, but we also made sure to include many civil society organizations in it. 

We need to collectively work on making our society strong, and that means strengthening its institutions, leadership, and a moral base so that we can confidently hold the markets and the state accountable to the common public interest. Society is not homogenous, especially in India, so it is a tricky task to ensure that societal tensions do not spill over. For that, I think the first thing is we need to go back to the basics. We must start having conversations about how do we see ourselves as citizens first? How do we see ourselves not just as consumers or subjects of the state, but as active participants in society?

Today it is so easy to wake up in the morning itself as a consumer, you know? The first cup of tea you have and until you go to bed, something is there which ties you to the market very closely, especially digitally. Today, states are so powerful. From morning to night, you’re also ruled by a million laws, some of which you don’t even know. So how do we grab back for ourselves? We need to understand that we are citizens first, and that we must work to make our society better for everyone, whether that means just doing something within your building, house, neighborhood, city, or for the whole country. So, just that flip from realizing you’re not a subject, you’re not a customer, you are a human being and a citizen first – once these layers are understood, it becomes easier to do the work which strengthens Samaaj.   

The task before civil society and the media now is to make people see that they need to be giving back to society, and the work that they do through their businesses is not enough. Because that old idea of the business of business is business, that’s over right? We have understood the interconnections so much better, especially in 2020, that I think for more business people and wealthy people to start giving forward into areas that they don’t directly benefit from. It’s a very critical way forward, even for themselves, because you and I know what kind of satisfaction and joy and discovery we get from doing this work. I think it is up to us also to tell these stories a little better than we are doing right now, to draw in more people into this adventure. So, there’s work ahead on all sides. 

This is more complex for women, since many women do not have control over their finances and being able to give is a tricky issue. Personally, I had to battle for my identity because Nandan takes up such a large space. I had to work and demonstrate over time, my approach is complementary and different to his. I was fortunate enough to put my own money into Infosys, so I became independently wealthy and have more control over my own finances. Families need to understand that women can use their talents, not only in their jobs and home life, but can also work to improve their community. I urge women to take this up confidently, start as small as you feel comfortable with, but do not be afraid to make the demand on money to give forward, because it’s another way to contribute to the family and instill important values in the next generation.  

In the last two decades, people have had these conversations and learnt from each other in the sector. They are beginning to join head and heart and pocket. It is true that people start either from the heart or from the head, and strangely the journey from the heart to the head is actually a very long and deep journey. It’s an evolution. It’s a learning path, and people who start from head quickly realize that they need a bit of heart, and people who start from the heart realize, “Oops, we need to think this through much more for systemic change.” So they get there eventually, and again, we must make sure those of us who are so passionate about this sector, ask how we can keep more resources out there so that people can converge their head and heart and not forget about their pockets as well. Open your head, your heart, and your pocket.

Most people have understood that they have to work with the government, the biggest player of all. And that doesn’t necessarily mean the Prime Minister’s Office. It could mean working with the local panchayat, ward councilor, or mohalla committee, or it could be any form of a state or a para-state organization. So first of all, we need to understand what we mean by government. And if you’re doing new philanthropy, begin small. There are a variety of opportunities to engage with the government and it will help to expand your own work, even if it is at a very small scale. Today, if you go to your ward councilor and say, “I want to give books and uniforms to one school”, you are already working with the state and the political system. If you begin small, you will quickly understand how that will help you to scale up your work.  

The Challenges for Indian Philanthropy 

I think philanthropists who are business people who have to constantly work with the government, are generally very nervous to take on risky things which the government might think are anti-government. Even though they may not be, right? If something is pro-people, it’s not necessarily anti-government. So, we have to be very careful in our philanthropy. It must be pro-people or pro-ecosystems that also benefit people. And I think Indian philanthropy needs to take a very hard look at what is actually happening on the ground. Why are people suffering? With climate change, who’s going to suffer? Those who live at the edge of livelihood and land, livelihood, and water, those kinds of places.

If we do not understand now that the economy is, as they say, a wholly owned subsidiary of the ecology, then even businesses will not thrive. Otherwise, corporates will shy away from the hard questions about pollution, water sustainability, land issues, agriculture, and many more issues. Being pro-people and pro-environment for our country is important right now. We can afford to take more risks, even in terms of access to justice. How many people are languishing in prisons without trials because they do not have easy access to courts and lawyers? Societal issues are intricately linked together, and those connections are being woven tighter together as time goes by. We need to understand this and use those insights in our philanthropy.  

I think that civil society in India needs to realize that they were dependent on foreign and multilateral organizations for funding, and that they did not spend enough time and energy to bridge divides between them and Indian funders. Instead of assuming that people will not fund them, they need to now tell their stories in a way that will help funders understand. So there is a lot of work that civil society needs to do to reach out to Indians who are becoming wealthier or are already wealthy. We need to galvanize our own super wealthy, and get the wealthy to start openly giving. When we talk about wealth in India, it is often in hushed tones. Wealth creation is actually a good thing because that’s how you bring more and more people into prosperity, which is why societies allow it and the state encourages it.

But wealth must be used and must be seen to be beneficial for all society. If only a few private people are benefiting from wealth creation, and masses of people are not seeing the benefit of that wealth creation, then clearly something is very seriously wrong. So, there is a lot of churn going on right now. These last 20 years, a lot of economic papers have celebrated billionaires, but I think we are seeing a tipping point now. People have understood that while wealth creation is good, accumulation of so much wealth in few private hands that is not visibly being deployed for societal interests, people are beginning to wake up to the problems that that poses. And I think today all wealthy people need to reflect on the opportunity to be more useful to far more people and do it visibly. I think the time to be shy about it is over.

Finally, we need to look at retail fundraising. How do Indian civil society organizations tap into this more effectively? While I think we do need to professionalize civil society, the core of the sector is the volunteer energy that people have in them. The desire to do good for its own sake, without transactional results, is what motivates us. That is what we need to see coming up again, so civil society has to learn to tap into that. 

Moving Towards a Digital Civil Society 

The pandemic has helped us realize the importance of digital spaces, especially when it comes to creating a more resilient civil society in India. Whether in terms of organizations’ capacity to quickly respond to emerging problems, or the capacity to not be dependent on a few funding waves, the sector would benefit from the move to the digital. In order for this to happen, we need to build out capacity building as a sector in philanthropy and civil society. We need to provide more training, tools, and resources to civil society organizations because without financial support they may not be able to do it. 

Over the past few years, our teams at EkStep and at the Societal Platform have been thinking about how to use technology to build for inclusion. Although I am not a techie, I have learned to expand my definition of tech – farmers use the plough, Gandhi used the charkha, we moved from bullock carts to cars, and these are all examples of technology. Everything is technology, but information technology particularly is double-edged and we know it can be used for both good and bad. Information technology amplifies intent, so working on intent and declaring it is very important. We need to constantly make sure that our technology does not lead us away from our intent. So how do we make technology work for society, to serve Samaaj? This is why we designed Societal Platform Thinking. If we want everyone to have an education, healthcare, access to justice, water, or any other basic necessity, can we use the power of all these emerging technologies to do that instead of trying to capture value at one end of the spectrum? 

There are no simple solutions, but I believe the way forward is to create open public digital goods so that everyone can be a part of taking back technology for society. I don’t see how else we can solve these complex societal issues, which is why I urge civil society organizations to bring themselves into the digital age, because the new societal problems are going to be digital age problems. We need a healthy digital civil society to tackle digital age issues on virtual platforms. These are complex issues, but they can be made simpler with the goal that technology must enable inclusion, choice, access, and agency. And we have to design for all these principles, which is what we hope Societal Platform Thinking will do. 

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