New philanthropists in India – Returning to their roots?

Bina Rani

In India philanthropy emerging out of business activity has been around since the early part of the last century. In 1912 in Bombay, Sir Ratan Tata (a Parsi inspired by the Zoroastrian faith) provided funding to the University of London to research the causes of poverty and come up with suggestions on relief. A Trust set up in his name four years later has since played a pioneering role quietly promoting hospitals, schools, some of India’s premier professional educational institutions, and in recent years important development initiatives.

Jump forward to today and the new group of Indian philanthropists which has emerged. With Bill Gates and Warren Buffet always in the news, a blog called Sepia Mutiny ( asked ‘Are rich brown people simply more selfish than rich white ones?’[1] The discussion (which did not provide an answer!) threw up names like Tata, Birla, Mittal, Ambani, Premji, Nilekani and Murthy as well as lesser-known ones such as Dr Kiran Patel, who gave the University of South Florida $34.5 million in 2005 to build a centre that focuses on ‘creating solutions that deliver a sustainable quality of life for all people’.

And what of India’s women philanthropists? Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, who heads a leading Indian biotech firm, has set up a foundation to provide quality healthcare and health education. Sudha Murthy, wife of the founder and mentor of IT giant Infosys, heads Infosys Foundation, while Rohini Nilekani, wife of Nandan Nilekani, CEO of Infosys, describes herself as a self-taught philanthropist, building two foundations committed to education and water issues in India.

British Asians too have their pioneers. Chris Mathias, a UK-based social entrepreneur, has a hands-on, results-oriented approach to philanthropy. He funds start-up charities that are not fashionable in India, recycles computers from British businesses to African schools, and is chair of a new UK charity, Connect for Change, to link British Asian donors with exciting development initiatives in South Asia, starting with a pilot in India.

Major changes are taking place in philanthropy in India. Many initiatives of the past 50 years were heavily dependent on international aid. This is less so now. While religious giving continues to be dominant, new initiatives are emerging largely (though not exclusively) led by people with a business background. Apart from the newer foundations mentioned above, there are other important initiatives, perhaps the most significant being the Give Foundation, which helps NGOs raise funds. Others are Partners in Change, which builds links between companies and NGOs, and CAF – India, which guides companies in their giving and in areas of social responsibility.

By and large, the new generation of Indian philanthropists do seem to conform to Matthew Bishop’s definition of philanthrocapitalists. They do see their philanthropy as social investment rather than charity; they are results-oriented; they do like to take a hands-on approach to their giving and apply their business skills to their philanthropy. Azim Premji, billionaire head of Bangalore-based software company Wipro, is a good example. His foundation, which he funds through his shares, helps reform India’s education sector by implementing on-the-ground assessments of the effectiveness of teaching programmes in thousands of schools in Karnataka, South India. Premji sets the direction and monitors monthly progress but leaves the running of the foundation to a dedicated team.

But arguably India’s new philanthropists are also returning to their roots. Sudha Murthy, Chairperson of Infosys Foundation, recalls that J R D Tata, Chairman of the Tata Group, asked her, at the time of her leaving the company in 1982, what she was going to do: ‘“Sir, I am leaving. My husband is starting a company called Infosys.” “Oh! And what will you do when you are successful?” “Sir, I don’t know whether we will be successful.” “Never start with diffidence,” he advised me. “Always start with confidence. When you are successful you must give back to society. Society gives us so much; we must reciprocate.”’

Good advice indeed. However, there is a ‘but’. This new generation (like most of the old) is still not willing to tackle the tougher issues of development such as the environment, corruption, human rights, and violence against women. The approach is still predominantly to give back, rather than to lead a change in living and in wealth creation.

1 (‘Today’s Carnegies’, 25 June 2006).

Bina Rani is Founder Director of Connect for Change, London. Email

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