Philanthropy in India

Rohini Nilekani

This speech was given by Rohini Nilekani at the launch of the Indian Philanthropy Forum (IPF) in Mumbai, 18-19 March 2010. The aim of the IPF is to build a dynamic community of philanthropists who are committed to developing high-impact solutions to poverty in India.


I am very honoured to be asked to speak here at the launch event of the Indian Philanthropy Forum. I think it is an extremely timely happening. In fact, some of us were trying to get something like this organized a while ago, but I’m very glad that Deval, Neera and Amit [Devel Sanhavi and Neera Nundy, co-founders of Dasra, and Amit Mukherjee, a Dasra trustee] stuck to it and actually made this happen today. I hope it’s the beginning of a very long journey.

I have ten minutes and I’m going to share with you my thoughts on philanthropy, especially in relation to the situation in India.

As Neera said, philanthropy has a very long tradition in India, and the concept of dana works across religions and cultures in India. From the 1900s onwards, we saw a lot of Indian industrialist households, and especially the Tatas, lead the way in reinventing philanthropy in the modern age. They have set up many kinds of institutions; they’ve supported many kinds of movements all across India.

The new century that dawned in 2000 now requires Indian philanthropy to move very rapidly, and move in many different directions, to solve the new problems that we have. In the last three decades, as you all know, many things have allowed the creation of extraordinary wealth in the hands of a few in India. It has also widened the gap between the haves and have-nots, and I think those of us who have unprecedented wealth have a tremendous responsibility, not just to give back or to give forward, but also to look at the very structures of society that can allow the concentration of wealth in a few hands.

What is it that became so different about India in the last three decades that allowed people like myself, perfectly middle-class people, to (ethically and legally, of course) make much more money than one could have dreamt of in one’s life? And what responsibility does that therefore bestow on me? Those are some of the questions I deal with on a day-to-day basis as I travel across the country, looking at exactly how poor the people in north Bihar or the hinterland of Madhya Pradesh are.

So what is philanthropy in our context? In the western world today, philanthropy has acquired a very interesting new orientation. There are lots of very bright young minds from the corporate sectors who are coming and saying that there are much greater challenges that I want to address and look at than selling the next pair of socks, or whatever it is – with no offence to those who sell socks or anything else!

What we are now seeing is that the smartest minds are coming into this space and the deepest pockets are getting opened up, and we want that to be combined with the warmest hearts.

So I think this is an extremely exciting time for Indian philanthropy, and I know many, many people who have become part of this new wealth generation and are genuinely interested in asking ‘what is it that I can do?’

And there is just so much to do. Six hundred million is the number that is now being tossed around – and I don’t know if it is even more than that – of people who just don’t have what we take for granted. When I say ‘what we take for granted’, I mean the entire creation of public infrastructure: the schools, the colleges, the roads and every single thing that we take for granted, which allowed people like us to get into good schools to get opportunities for ourselves.

So the real question is: can that kind of opportunity come to a small child in, say, a village in Khagaria district in North Bihar, which annually gets flooded and the child’s home just goes under water, and the family moves to an embankment for three months of the year, with no schools, no toilets, nothing?

That kind of degradation may or may not be solved directly by philanthropy, but those of us who are in this comfortable place – and I see many in this room who are in that space – are beginning to ask ‘what is the kind of local empowerment that needs to be created to get those people to believe that they are not just part of the problem, but perhaps can be empowered also to be part of the solution?’

What kind of philanthropy, then, are we talking about? Is it just about setting up schools and hospitals? In the case of some of the work that I do – setting up water filters or rainwater harvesting systems, or creating good books for children – is that enough, or do we need to understand that this space is actually a very deep political struggle?
For example, when Jamnalal Bajaj and G D Birla supported Gandhiji, they were unconditionally supporting him with money or whatever else he needed, not just so that a couple more children could go to school but actually supporting his form of political movement. I submit that today Indian philanthropists need to start thinking, ‘What is that next thing? What is the next Gandhi-like movement that needs to happen in this country to make philanthropy even redundant?’ Some of these very deep questions need to be thought through by all of us together.

In the meantime, as we begin to do that, there is a lot to be done. Because in any society where such creation of wealth is allowed, it is obviously because that society believes that that wealth in the hands of people, rather than taxed by governments, is actually going to serve society at least as well as if it were taxed and in the hands of government. At least as well – and hopefully much better, so that it will create a kind of distribution of resources and empowerment beyond what states could do.

So I believe that philanthropy has the very, very exiting potential to do what neither the state nor the market can do. There is that place where the state cannot go, because it is often ineffective, too ineffective to reach that last citizen for whose sake the state structure is set up. The market, obviously, for various reasons, cannot go beyond a certain point. So there is space at the bottom, where hundreds of millions of our citizens live, where neither the state nor the markets can reach. And that is the exciting place where philanthropy can begin to support individuals and institutions that are trying to reach that very last citizen.

These are difficult things to do; they require a lot of patience and tremendous amounts of humility. It is not ‘I who did something’ but ‘yes, I was fortunate enough to get some money, but how that money will be used is really not something I take full credit for’. But of course one can get a lot of joy from it, and that joy is well deserved.

So there are many things that one can do in that space where neither society nor markets can reach and I think that is the exciting potential for philanthropy in India today.

I think that means that philanthropists need to think about how you can really allow failure to happen. Because it is only philanthropy that can absorb the risk of failure. What are the things then we have to look for? You’re not going to say ‘Come on, let me fail!’ But what you are going to do, if we get it right, is to say ‘Where are the people with the real passion? Where are the people with the commitment to stay the long course that it takes to make social change really happen? Where are the institutions that need to be built? Who are the people? What are the kinds of institutions that need to be created that will create permanent and sustainable change?’

In the process of making those institutions, supporting those individuals, there will be risk, a lot of risk of failure. Because no one quite has the recipe for social change; you have to practise and practise and fail and fail. You can have some values embedded in your philanthropy, of course – that it will be non-violent, and really try to reach those who don’t have access. You can build your own values as philanthropists, and then pretty much let it go.

What I see now is that all of us – the new philanthropists, including me – are in a big fat hurry. Just as we know how to sell books and do good in markets, we are in a big hurry to achieve social change. I would say it’s fantastic that new philanthropists are coming into this space and they want to do so much, but let’s not think that we can get social change in a big hurry. Let’s wait. Let’s be a little patient, let’s be a little humble. And let’s support the right institutions, the right people, and let’s believe that if the smartest minds, the warmest hearts and the deepest pockets come together we can really make lasting change in this country, because it is just not right that so many of us have so little.

So I would say that it is a fantastic thing that the Indian Philanthropy Forum is set up. I think it is going to bring together a lot of thinking people, and a lot of generous, giving people, and I hope we can collaborate also with the state, at all levels.

And I hope we can create an environment, both at the policy level and at a society level, which turns not just the people in this room, but a great many of us who have more than others, into philanthropists, which means people who generally have a love for humankind and will make special efforts for the benefit of society as a whole.

Namaste and thank you very much.

Rohini Nilekani is chairperson of the Arghyam Foundation, which works for safe, sustainable water for all, and of Pratham Books, which seeks to publish high-quality books for children at an affordable cost in multiple Indian languages. Email

For more information

For more on the IPF, see or visit

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Article to read

Better together? A user’s guide to funding advocacy coalitions

David Devlin-Foltz