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L.Srikumar Pai
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A few most generous  women

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All four Indian entrants featuring in Forbes' list of Asia-Pacific's most generous business personalities this year are women. Leading the wave of change are Biocon's CEO Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw; Anu Aga of Thermax; Kiran Nadar, collector of contemporary Indian art, and Rohini Nilekani, founder of Arghyam. Sarika Malhotra catches up with three of them to know how they get the bang for their 'philanthropic buck'

—Rohini Nilekani

'Every paisa is spent carefully'

Path to philanthropy

For Rohini Nilekani (50), wife of Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys Technologies, activism started in college. Later, being a journalist was her way of being in the socio-political space. With Infosys, wealth came her way and she began doing her small bit in education, microfinance and health sectors. But April 3, 2005, was the day when she experienced her moment of epiphany and realised that it had to be water that she had to support. That's how Arghyam's water connect happened. "I came into big money in 2005 through the Infosys ADR and decided to give it toward building up one sector. I started research on where it could be invested most strategically to make a difference." Soon, she found that there were no Indian foundations that were exclusively focusing on the water sector. "Most people accept that there is a crisis ahead of us and unless we do things to repair our current trajectory, India will be in a tight spot in terms of water," she says. In hindsight, Arghyam seems to be the right decision for her. It is now working in more than 800 villages and supports everything from hygiene training, groundwater management to rainwater harvesting.


Rohini chairs Arghyam and Pratham Books and, by own admission, is a hands-on chairperson for both. "That's all I do. I don't have to run a company and am no longer a journalist, even though I continue to write an occasional piece. This is my day job and that's all I know best." For Pratham Books, the motive is to create quality content for children, which is accessible, affordable and attractive. Nilekani has full-fledged teams running both the organisations on a daily basis. "I am very proud and lucky to have Sunita Nadhamuni in the team. From one to 35 members, our team is growing fast."

For Arghyam, she created an Rs 100-crore endowment and has topped it up with another Rs 50-crore this year from her own funds. Arghyam's budget is between Rs 12-14 crore a year.

So how does she monitor her whopping social investments? "In the case of Pratham Books, we are the implementing agency, we are the publishers and we measure the impact by how many children we can reach. Last year, we sold and distributed one million books." Pratham is concentrating on children in villages, slums, government schools and community libraries. "As a team we periodically judge what is the quality of these books, what are the peer reviews saying, are we able to drive the prices down. So in Pratham, it is easy to gauge what is the value of the donations one is making with the results."

But in Arghyam's case, monitoring is a little harder and much more complex. "We have a set of indicators. Our partners and the grant team sits together while looking at a project. The grants team evaluates the proposal by the partner NGO and then goes ahead. If there is cost correction in the middle, so be it," she says. Nilekani adds, "As long as we are able to see some social outcome, we are happy. It's not really quantifiable. It's hard to track if women have equitable access to sanitation and drinking water."

Arghyam is completing five years on April 3, and it is stock-taking time. Nilekani plans to do an external assessment, "to see if we have really made an impact and chalk out a roadmap for the next five years".

Over the years, Rohini has donated $40 million to a variety of groups supporting education, microfinance, health care, the environment and access to clean water and sanitation services. Her biggest contribution has been to Arghyam, which now has a $32.5-million endowment.

She feels that when a public charitable trust is set up, it is accountable to the public. So she is very clear about how Arghyam's finances are handled. "Every paisa is spent carefully. We go through an internal and external audit process and the auditors look at the books with a big magnifying glass, a board of trustees is very much looking at what's happening and all the details are published on the website," she explains.

The business of giving

She points out that "newer foundations are in a big hurry to achieve social change and this impatience comes from the corporate ethos, where performance measurement is embedded in the culture". So how does she rate this trend of corporate ethos creeping in the social sector? "It's both good and bad. The entry of corporate-trained people coming into the social sector is by and large a good thing, but those who come from the corporate world need to understand how social change happens." Nilekani explains it's imperative to understand what you are dealing with. "If you are able to get a vaccine developed in a time frame and it's able to protect 10 million children against a new disease, it will be something great. But one has to understand if it will stop the upstream problems, will it address the root causes or the symptoms? Sometimes you have to deal with both; you have to be tactical and strategic. And that is where the challenge lies."

Patience Nilekani adds is the key. "Don't expect social change to happen quickly, you have to be patient and humble. You can't think that because we know how to run a corporation, we can achieve it here as well. You have to have a solid theory of change."

With all the talk about new foundations and the professional approach of running them, she misses the good old ways of philanthropy too. "I think some philanthropy should be done in the old spirit of philanthropy, where you have trust and you support the cause and hope that it will make the difference; it's hands-off philanthropy," she says. She adds how she has in the past supported good organisations that needed an infusion of capital and has been happy doing it without interfering with their work.

She observes more people putting in the money and also wanting to oversee what is happening to that money. "It's about hands-on philanthropy. There is also a growing trend that if you are wealthy, you better have a foundation or two or you are no good." But she believes that this trend is better than owning latest designer jewellery, as people are at least waking up to the fact that wealth has to be responsible to society as well.

She feels people got so wealthy because today's tax regime in India allowed them to be. "When society allows wealth creation to happen and allows it to stay in the hands of the individual, it assumes that the wealth will be spent well. Now that more of the wealthy are beginning to see that connection, it's a good sign." Her husband Nandan has always been supportive of what she does and she relies on his on advice immensely, but adds, "He is not on any of my foundation boards!"

—Kiran M Shaw

Shaw for health, insurance, education

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw contributed $10 million to establish the 1,400-bed Mazumdar-Shaw Cancer Centre in Bangalore.

Due to open this year, it will provide free care to poor patients in the evening. She also donates $2 million a year to her Biocon Foundation, which runs a micro health insurance scheme that covers 1,00,000 villagers.

She has also committed $3 million to the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw could not share the details with FE as she was travelling

—Kiran Nadar

'Art should be shared, appreciated for what it is'

Path to philanthropy

For Kiran Nadar, it all started with her inclination towards buying art, followed by the experience of living with it. Over the years, the emphasis for her shifted from buying to collecting art. "As my collection grew, I felt unhappy with the idea that I had to put many works in storage and not get to see them myself. The next thought was, why not set up a museum and share the works with all," she recalls. That's how idea of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art evolved. Kiran (58), wife of HCL Technologies co-founder Shiv Nadar, believes that not only should art be shared, it should gain appreciation for what it is. And, she is supported fully by her husband, who feels the same way.


The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) is open to all artists and does not focus only on big names. Nadar explains, "Any collection displayed at KNMA does not qualify its presence in the museum because of the name of its creator. The selection criterion is purely based on the work, its appeal and creativity." In her endeavour to inculcate a habit of art among Indians, she is planning to involve schools and universities in the initiative for promoting the cause. Says Kiran, "We already had delegations visit us from Jamia and several other institutions and plan lectures and discourses on art. We plan to engage a younger audience too, inviting school children for not just visits, but also art workshops and camps that will inculcate in them appreciation of art and its relevance to life." To encourage the cause, the museum charges no entry fees. As Nadar reasons, "We would like to encourage visitors to the museum as much as possible. We receive almost every day people from neighbouring companies, artists, collectors, and several HCL employees, who visit and often re-visit the museum during lunch hours and find themselves moved by the art works displayed." The museum is located on the outskirts of New Delhi and currently houses 47 paintings and sculptures from her collection. Nadar aims to open a bigger venue that's planned for next to the HCL campus.

The business of giving

Nadar opines that the broadening scope of philanthropy is a very positive indication. She says, 'Feeding the poor is a very narrow view of philanthropy in my opinion. Feeding refers to a dole-based charity more than a sustainable livelihood opportunity, which makes the recipient literally dependent on the donor."

Similarly, she affirms art is a different subject altogether. "I believe it transcends class, social barriers, gender and is relevant to all. Some of the artists whose works are displayed in the opening exhibition have risen from extremely challenging backgrounds and are today celebrated for insightful depiction of their life experiences. So when a contribution to art is recognised, I feel it reflects a very evolved vision."

Nadar feels that the giving back culture is on the rise in India and it has to do with financial security, growth and confidence levels. "Indians are financially more secure today than ever before, and India's growth has given us the confidence to re-invest in the society that has nurtured us. However, there is much more space yet for building up social enterprise and philanthropy in India. Fund raising in our country is much less organised and much less prevalent in the consciousness of the average Indian than it is in the UK, US or Germany for instance," she points out.

—Anu Aga

'The business of business is not just business'

Path to philanthropy

Anu Aga's involvement with education began quite accidentally when she supported the learning centres of Akanksha in Mumbai. Director of Thermax, 67-year-old Anu thought of concentrating on India's 'educational inequality' and co-founded 'Teach for India' in 2008.


'Teach for India' recruits graduates and professionals under 35 years of age to teach for two years in low-income schools. Such was her zeal during the conceptualisation of 'Teach for India' that reportedly Aga made calls to various corporates in an effort to convince them to support the cause. "Wherever the 'Teach For All' movement is on—the US, UK and 11 other countries—the municipal school or the state help out by paying for the Fellows (whom we recruit to teach for two years in municipal or low-income schools) and their training."

However, she adds that in India they got no financial support from the government and seeking corporate support was a must. "Companies have reached out by allowing their employees to take a sabbatical for two years (paying them salaries) and become our Fellows, or have helped us out with funds. It is a new concept in India and support is not as forthcoming as we would like," she rues. Thermax donates 1% of its net profits to charity each year and Aga and her family hold a 62% stake in the company.

The business of giving

Today, Anu is convinced that in India, with its wide disparities of income and opportunities, education can make people employable and, eventually, bridge the inequality in society.

Aga believes that the real purpose of business is human well-being and is sure that some corporates fulfill her belief that "the business of business is not just business", but human well-being. To her, it means being fair and thoughtful to all its stake-holders. She explains, "Let me focus on two stake-holders—employees and community. To me, well-being is investing in employees and pushing them to give out their best, treating them with dignity and letting them make a difference. It also includes enabling them to reach out to the larger community in meaningful ways." Aga feels that there is a growing awareness among Indians that it is better to support organisations with good credentials and track records. "This could be the beginning of a more hands-on approach to philanthropy, where we not only give funds, but get involved and demand accountability and more purposeful action," she says. In order to best utilise the resources she donates, Aga supports organisations with which she has direct contact and is also personally involved with the NGOs. Even as the 'giving back' culture is India is picking up, she says we still have a long way to go. She cites the example of a study conducted by Karmayog, a non-profit organisation, which evaluated 500 companies on a scale of 1 to 5 on two parameters of containing the harmful consequences of their processes and using their resources for community benefit. The results were disappointing—226 (46%) did not qualify for any rating, 91 companies had a rating of 1, and 139 qualified for 2. "If this analysis is correct, corporates have a long way to go. We often see ostentatious weddings and one-upmanship. I wish the rich would compete in outdoing each other in supporting social causes," she says.

In times when the rich are setting up foundations as arrival symbols, she affirms, "It will not be genuine and sustainable. India has the largest number of malnourished children in the world and the illiterate in our country almost equal the population of the US. If the rich become sensitive to these issues, in their own enlightened self-interest, they would not allow such huge disparities to exist."

She is pained that despite its scale and potential role in tackling Indian social problems, philanthropy in India does not appear to be working to full effect. In spite of our GDP growing at 9%, philanthropy in India has not gone up substantially. Many NGOs continue to seek support from developed countries and our own resources are not fully tapped. And old mindset is coming in its way. "During pre-liberalised India, when we had crippling tax structures, it inhibited philanthropy. But in recent years, the tax structure has been very reasonable and there is no reason why we should operate from the old mind-set," she argues.

What is also disturbing for her is the fact that with newly acquired wealth, the wealthy become self-absorbed and self-centered. "But whatever the reason, the rich need to be woken up to the reality of the situation and sensitised by the NGOs and the media."

Sarika Malhotra / Yahoo news

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