While large gifts like the ones made by Azim Premji make news, Bangalore can boast both a history of charity that goes back decades as well as a culture of generosity on the quiet
When the legendary US investor and philanthropist Warren Buffet visited Bangalore in March 2011, he stressed it was important for “big time charity to tackle things that may fail.” His reasoning is that if philanthropists are giving to easy causes, they might not be doing enough.
Indian philanthropists, whether inspired by Buffet or not, don’t necessarily agree. They believe it is crucial to take on doable projects that can show results, particularly important in a still-developing country struggling with a range of problems.
And while it is nobody’s case that there is anything “easy” about reforming India’s education sector, it is clearly emerging as a preferred channel for making a difference.
After all, the oldest cliché in helping out one’s fellowman is not to give him a fish, but actually teach him to fish. Statistics suggest that 20 per cent of India’s poor have no access to education. Nearly 85 per cent don’t have access to technical and vocational training and 45 per cent drop out of school before eighth standard. And the woes of our higher education system are numerous too.
Buffet’s efforts to rally around billionaires ready to give wealth away is now well-known, and days after Wipro Chairman Azim Premji signed the Buffet-driven ‘Giving Pledge’ earlier this month, he made his biggest philanthropic gift.
Premji donated nearly 300 million Wipro shares, worth some 2.2 billion dollars (Rs 12,000 cr), to his Azim Premji Foundation, which works in the field of education. The donation brings down Premji’s personal stake in Wipro from 70 to 58 per cent. It takes the foundation’s holding to almost 20 per cent, coming as it does on top of earlier such donations.
(When he set up the foundation in 2001, Premji gave 125 million dollars worth of shares. In December 2010, he pledged 213 million shares worth 2 billion dollars (Rs 11,000 cr).
Forbes magazine, which tracks Indian and global philanthropic giving, reported that with this new endowment, Premji joins the ranks of the world’s top five givers. His 4.2 billion dollar gift (Rs 23,000 cr) bests that of the world’s richest person, Carlos Slim Helu, who has gifted 4 billion dollars to his foundation.
Towards the end of May last year, Premji also played host in Bangalore to a number of top business leaders and philanthropists, including Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, Warren Buffet’s partner in his philanthropy campaign. According to a media statement released then, the “group expressed belief that philanthropy and social service are integral to the development of any society.”
The statement added: “Noting that India has its own significant tradition of philanthropy and social service, the group reaffirmed the view that there is vibrant thinking and action on philanthropy in India.”
The 2012 edition of the India Philanthropy Report, brought out by management consultancy firm Bain and Company, bears this out. Bain partner and report author Arpan Sheth says in the report that more than half of High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI) in India planned to increase their charitable contributions in 2012, with a large chunk planning to boost their donations by 10 per cent or more. India has one of the fastest-growing HNWI populations in the world. An updated report is due for release early March.
Also encouraging is a strong commitment to “giving back” from HNWI donors under the age of 30. The majority of the HNWIs surveyed by Bain are under 40.
Of course, India’s HNWIs are newcomers to philanthropy — 80 per cent are novice donors compared to 74 per cent in the US who consider themselves experienced. But fellow Bangaloreans and corporate stalwarts like NR Narayana Murthy, Kris Gopalakrishnan, and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, to name a few, are all known for their generosity to charitable causes. And genorisity can take different forms. Murthy’s Infosys has given away some Rs 50,000 crore worth of employee stock options. Elsewhere, other groups like the Tatas also have a track record of giving to charitable causes. But there is no doubt that over the last few years, there has been increased interest.
At the same time, it is important not to forget that Bangalore, and India in general, have had their own illustrious history of giving. Take for instance, Arcot Narrainsawmy Mudaliar who set up numerous schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chamaraja Wodeyar conferred the title of “Dharmaratnakara” on him.
And over the years many of Bangalore’s educational institutions, like National College and the NMKRV College, have benefited from donations.
Ravi Venkatesan, former head of Microsoft in India and a founder of the Bangalore-based philanthropy group Social Venture Partners (SVP), notes that a lot of work is being done on the quiet, as befitting a culture of giving that emphasises anonymity in charity.
“Our idea of philanthropy is quite different from that in the US, where there is an inheritance tax and you can stand to lose as much as 50 per cent of your wealth. So there they do big ticket philanthropy. Our traditional model is quite different. In the middle class, for example, we take care of our parents, we might finance our niece’s marriage, not turn away any beggar who comes for food, and so on. They are small amounts, but the sigma is a big chunk of whatever modest means we have,” he told Talk.
Of course now that India has a growing group of HNIs, big ticket giving is happening, not all of it publicised. “While this change is good, our traditional model should not go unappreciated or ignored,” Venkatesan emphasises.
What is more, the work being done quietly is substantial. Since the donors wish to remain anonymous, many of the schools they are now running, at significant cost, cannot be named. “Big ticket giving is not what changes the world. It is the drops that add up,” says Venkatesan.
SVP itself now has some 60 partners, who have come together. “We have just started the grant making process. Soon we will have Mumbai and New Delhi chapters. In a few months time, I’ll be able to give you numbers and the impact,” Venkatesan said.
HR Ananth, managing director of the venerable Bangalore Press, who have been adding their own “drops to the ocean” over the years, makes another point. “I have noticed that a lot of giving comes from the generosity of people who have made Bangalore their home, rather than from our own people. Our own people should be sensitised to giving, sharing,” he told Talk.
The Bain report warns, not surprisingly, that continued growth in big ticket giving will be “contingent on organisations raising confidence in the returns on giving….Philanthropists cite a lack of accountability as the biggest obstacle.”
This is probably the main reason why for large givers, it makes sense to operate with their own private foundation. “With the Azim Premji Foundation and others like the Shiv Nadar Foundation leading the way, the model for private foundations in India is gaining traction, similar to the role they play in the US,” says the report.
Anurag Behar heads the Premji foundation and is also the Vice-Chancellor of the Azim Premji University, which the foundation runs. For Anurag, education is the most “organised, social means of building a better society — a better society defined as one which is just, humane and equitable.”
And within the sector, “school education is the most direct means available,” he told Talk. The foundation aims to improve both access and quality, and is currently working with some seven state school systems, which have some 3.5 lakh government schools under them. Obviously, their level of direct engagement with the schools will vary, but they hope to impact them all, with efforts covering everything from curriculum to capacity building.
The quality vision is ambitious in scope. It is multi-dimensional, in that they hope to impact the school child on ‘ethical, social, emotional and cognitive” parameters. The child has to “fulfill its potential” and play out her role as an “active citizen.”
And in the university, which offers masters level programmes, Anurag is seeking to create “education sector experts.” For example, someone might do an advanced programme in curriculum and pedagogy, or child nutrition.
While Premji’s wealth is estimated at about 16 billion dollars (Rs 87,000 crore), ranked 50 in the world’s rich list after fellow Indians Mukesh Ambani and LN Mittal, Buffet is worth some 53 billion dollars (Rs 2,90,000 crore) — he has pledged to give away 99 per cent of his wealth.
The upward momentum in India will hopefully continue, as the upside is large. Bain’s Arpan Sheth writes: “Our most affluent individuals have a strong desire to donate a portion of their wealth ...we are only a few steps away from better supporting that need.”
And projects both big and small will help.