Nilima Achwal

The Power to Give Strategically: Indian Philanthropy Forum by Dasra

The opulent Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai set the stage for high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs), socially-conscious investors and foundations, and corporate leaders to converge and discuss the state of strategic giving in India. The speakers at Dasra’s 3rd annual Indian Philanthropy Forum kept such a fast pace and depth that attendees I encountered walked away feeling fresh and ignited to push forward new ideas in their individual realms of work and influence.

According to Bain’s India Philanthropy Report 2012, HNWI giving in India has risen from 2.3 percent to 3.1 percent of yearly income from 2010 to 2011. These givers are novices in philanthropy, with 77 percent of them having less than three years of experience, as compared to the majority (74 percent) of American HNWIs having three to five years of experience. As philanthropic capital becomes “the most important force in the world today if we want to build the kind of world we want to live in,” according to keynote speaker Matthew Bishop (New York bureau chief of The Economist and author of Philanthrocapitalism), a “good billionaire” is increasingly becoming defined as one who, Bill Gates-style, thinks twice before simply writing a check, instead giving in a thoughtful, researched way. Bishop cited two major focus areas for these individuals:

  1. Understand the whole system and the bottlenecks.
  2. See the tipping points, where small amounts of money can move the world dramatically.

But with this shift to thoughtful giving, capital is getting paralyzed – thinking systemically is very difficult, and one person can never entirely understand an issue and its complexities before giving. So, it’s critical to recognize and award “heroic failure,” so that philanthropists and foundations feel free to be nimble and start trying different approaches to understand what works.

Once in action, Bishop believes that it will be the “posse” – a coalition ranging from business people and government leaders to social sector leaders – who will drive systemic change. This “coalition of the willing,” much like posses of cowboys in the Wild Wild West, will gather almost instantaneously to tackle dangers, united and driven by the problem they seek to address instead of by their job descriptions, he said.

The idea of a cross-functional posse centered on an issue is reflected in the battle for adolescent girls’ rights. The panel entitled “Owning Her Future—Empowering Adolescent Girls” featured social entrepreneur Safeena Husain of Educate Girls, Dr. Shabnam Sinha from the World Bank, and philanthropist Lynne Smitham from Kiawah Trust. Spurred into conversation from the research piece co-created by Dasra and Kiawah Trust, “Owning Her Future: Empowering Adolescent Girls in India,” all of the panelists agreed that it is critical to empower adolescent girls in order to address the myriad developmental and economic challenges facing the nation – and the world – today. These include health, maternal and child mortality, economic growth, and the countless other issues that rely on the protection of women’s basic rights.

One panelist said that if all girls stayed in school until 18 years of old, they would contribute $100 billion-some dollars to the nation. “The status of girls shows how civilized we are as a country,” stated Husain, describing the unimaginably high rate of girls getting married off before the age of 10 in Rajasthan alone. Sinha urged the audience to leave their metropolitan comfort zones and physically go to regions where these pernicious issues are affecting violence and entrapment on millions of women.

Sinha also pushed for productized solutions to facilitate the flow of capital (e.g. toilets in schools—a huge barrier to education for girls) and also for linking girl-centric schemes to employability – especially non-traditional, higher-paying occupations such as plumbing and masonry.

Overall, the 3rd annual Indian Philanthropy Forum facilitated much high-level thinking on strategic philanthropic, bringing together the new philanthropists of India – often less experienced and younger, but with the vision, conviction, and patience to care first about the work, and second about signing the check.

corporate social responsibility, impact investing, philanthropy