Philanthropy conferences: ‘talking shops’ or action stations?



Alison Adnitt

Alison Adnitt

An antagonistic ‘tweeter’ a couple of weeks ago challenged Dasra on the funding that is actually channeled to frontline work through ‘these frequent philanthropy conferences’ and singled out what were obviously her own pet states, Orissa and Bihar, questioning whether our audience would know about projects in these states. Little did she understand the calibre of the Indian Philanthropy Forum annual event’s audience and the depth and breadth of discussion that took place – discussion and collaborative action that resulted in over £100,000 worth of commitments being made halfway through the day from just four of the members.

Now, the IPF annual event is not a Clinton-style pledging fest so this level of immediate commitment was neither asked for, nor expected, but it just goes to show that there was an eagerness to react immediately to the shocking and thought-provoking content delivered throughout the day, and the peer interaction between new and experienced philanthropists.

I don’t begrudge the question really, as I too feel that there is a certain conference circuit that is far too detached from frontline work, however in contrast I also feel that these days we are all getting far too used to hiding behind an electronic face, and in my experience real collaborative action comes when philanthropists meet, social entrepreneurs mingle and present, and stories are told face to face. Yes, ideas spur people to a degree, but I fear they spur people into further thought rather than action. Philanthropy is between people, people invest in people and conferences/forums are vital facilitators.

The Indian Philanthropy Forum platform was used to launch two illuminating reports that reflected the pattern of the day – a mix of debate around the demand (frontline issues such as child malnutrition) and the supply (the state of play and innovation in philanthropy).

Bain’s publication India Philanthropy Report 2011 is a follow-up to the report first written for the Indian Philanthropy Forum launch in 2010. Last year’s report was based on figures from 2006, but this year Bain has conducted primary research into over 300 high net worth individuals and philanthropists in India to ascertain giving preferences, barriers and the future plans of India’s wealthy. Updating the figures has allowed Bain to provoke headlines in the Indian press that commend India for its standing ahead of Brazil and China in terms of percentage of GDP given to charity, with private and corporate giving to charity increasing by 50% since 2006 to $5 billion. The report takes a prophetic tone and sees the UK and USA figures, behind which India currently lags, as something attainable in the near future rather than something off the radar.

With a strong presence from the corporate sector both speaking and in the crowd, including Kishore Biyani, the Godrejs, Piramals, Jindals and Kotharis, frontline issues were put into the context of the economic impact they have on the country’s development, with both malnutrition and TB cited as issues that have significant negative impact on productivity. Malnutrition decreases India’s GDP by 2-3% each year – in contrast to total private philanthropic giving being 0.3-0.4% of GDP. These kinds of figures were quite a wake-up call and, to add to this, the event highlighted a much-ignored killer, TB, that costs the Indian economy over $3 billion a year.

Aside from the frontline issues, the IPF this year drew out discussions on the engagement of business to leverage and scale solutions, with the Britannia fortified biscuits program cited as an example, alongside the potential of India’s 3% share of the global creative industries market to promote artisans and BOP workers. A high-powered panel presented a candid view of impact investing and made a strong case for what impact first investing really is all about, in the Indian context. A number of philanthropists also discussed their own personal journeys, concerns and challenges, throwing up great thoughts such as: ‘If you only do what is measurable, you can only take on a certain kind of development work – how do you measure the 200 years of slow progress towards women’s rights?’

There has certainly been a shift in engagement in the short year since the forum launched, with philanthropists showing a real desire for change. One IPF member commented: ‘You can’t live comfortably in islands of wealth amidst this sea of poverty – we certainly feel that IPF has a far-reaching effect in waking up more and more people to own and acknowledge the problems of the resource-poor and make it their personal business to devise ways of helping.’

What do other people feel about the link between conferences and frontline action? Are conferences just talking shops or are they a vital connection point between philanthropists and social entrepreneurs?

Alison Adnitt is director of investor relations at Dasra

Tagged in: Bain Conferences India Indian Philanthropy Forum

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