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October 12, 2014
DNA India
Marisha Karwa

Meet the givers

dna-meet-the-giversThe growing tribe of Indian billionaires is not the only one turning its attention to philanthropy. A shift in attitudes is seeing more and more Indians, even those with meager incomes, sharing their time and money to ensure the well-being of others, finds Marisha Karwa

Had I even an inkling, I would have posed in a better outfit. If you see, I was in a crumpled khadi kurti and looked pretty groggy,” says Manju Kalanidhi, the Hyderabad resident who kicked off the Rice Bucket Challenge — a plea to every individual to donate rice to the needy. The 38-year-old, who posted a photo of herself donating a bucket of rice (22kg, Rs.800) on Facebook, didn't expect it to get more than 50 'likes' and perhaps two 'shares'.

“I thought of bullying two friends and my siblings to take part in the challenge,” she says candidly.

But her siblings and friends were spared the bullying. The Rice Bucket Challenge — a desi version of the Ice Bucket Challenge meant to raise awareness about ALS, a neuro degenerative disease went viral. The Rice Bucket Challenge page has received more than 65,000 Facebook 'Likes' so far. Its hashtag (#ricebucketchallenge) first appeared on Twitter on August 24, and was retweeted 11,000 times within a month. The Challenge resulted in at least 40,000 kg of rice donations.

About a month after Manju first donated the rice to idli vendor Satthibabu, people took the challenge across the globe — from the US, South Africa and Madagascar to Bangladesh, Philippines and Singapore and beyond. The 'givers' were not just young instagramming, tweeps in urban areas but even those in smaller towns who just about manage to eke out a living.

One such person who donated, says Manju, was a young man from the backward Icchoda village in Telangana's Adilabad district. “It was great to see this young boy save money from his meagre income from a MeeSeva job (handling online bills for water, power, etc) to donate some 5 kg,” she remembers.

Manju is now set to receive the Karamveer Chakra Award, which seeks to celebrate and inspire individual citizen social responsibility, justice and action initiative.

The rice bucket and the ice bucket challenges are not exceptions. The recently-concluded Daan Utsav (earlier called the Joy of Giving week) had over three million participants for more than 1,000 events. Participants came from across 100 cities and towns, including Maoist-affected Dantewada and the hill town of Shillong.

Five years ago, in 2009, the festival had started with just 30 cities. “We know that the festival is growing with each passing year because of increased participation,” says Daan Utsav volunteer Tanuja Krishnan. “There have also been instances, when, unbeknownst to us, individuals, educational institutions and housing societies participate in the giving week to do their bit.”

Shift in attitude
While giving has always been a part of Indian culture with some religions prescribing the percentage of family income that ought to be donated, the shift in attitude, from giving for religious or family purposes to more secular giving, is a recent one.

“There was an inflexion point in March 2010 when Warren Buffet and Bill Gates visited India to talk philanthropy. Just the fact that they came here led to a burst of conversations about giving and generated a lot of media interest in philanthropy,” says Dhaval Udani, CEO of Give India, a nonprofit venture that promotes efficient and effective giving by connecting donors to a range of causes. “This had a positive effect, not just in the upper echelons of society but down the line, to the point where even the man-on-the-street started to think that he could contribute in his own small way.”

Give India is witnessing first-hand the evidence of this change. The organisation channeled Rs.248.1 crore in 2013-2014, up from Rs.132.5 crore in 2010-2011. It raised more than Rs.50 crore in funds for charitable giving in 2013-2014 alone. But a buzz around a subject alone is not enough motivation for people to keep giving. “People want to be approached and they want a convenient process that is not time-consuming,” says Udani, explaining that people initially want to be hand-held as they take baby steps into philanthropy. “Then, they want choices. Not everybody is motivated to spread education or end malnutrition. People have different motivations and are passionate about all kinds of causes. The other thing that really keeps people on the path of giving is transparency. They need to know where their money has gone and how it has helped the beneficiary.”

This is why Give India, and Dasra, another venture that promotes philanthropy for social impact, conduct rigorous audits of NGOs and their programmes to ensure that donor funds reach the end-beneficiary and that their money is not misused. Feedback reports to donors also help in building trust and bridging the gap from one-time giving to regular donation.
Udani explains that first-time giving happens for various reasons, but there is a pattern of evolution among philanthropists and others who give regularly. “People give for various reasons — they believe it is a duty to give back to society, some give to reduce a feeling of 'guilt' or to wash off their 'sins'. This sort of giving can be termed altruistically selfish,” says Udani. “The second time a person gives, he will give more time/money. This cycle of raising the bar can occur several times until he stabilises.”

Up until this level, most people give because doing so makes them “feel good” about themselves. “The next stage,” says Udani, “is when a person wants to ensure that his money is having an impact. This is the stage where most HNIs (high net worth individuals) are at. Their contributions are very large, and they are involved in how their money can be best utilised.” This sort of giving is exemplified in India by leading philanthropists such as the Tata family, Azim Premji, Anu Aga and Shiv Nadar (see table). Most are highly motivated and united in their desire to resolve deep and complicated problems facing Indian society.

Among them is Rohini Nilekani, whose philanthropic journey started 15 years ago. She and her husband, Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, have given crores of their wealth to diverse efforts ranging from finding sustainable solutions for water to urbanisation and literacy.

“The concentration of too much wealth in the hands of too few is dangerous unless used for public good,” emphasises Rohini when asked why she gives. “Societies will not tolerate the rich unless they behave responsibly.”

Rohini grew up in Mumbai in an average, middle-class family, which was “service oriented”. Both her grandfathers gave selflessly — while one worked alongside Gandhi, the other spent his energy and resources in setting up educational institutions. Both went about their work after tremendous sacrifices. There was no easy flow of money after marriage or during the period when Infosys began to grow into a technology behemoth.

“At Infosys, there were no big payouts or dividends. And we believed in delayed gratification, so whatever (little money) we got, it went back into Infosys,” she says. So much so that when the “big money” came — about Rs 100 crore during Infosys' 2004-05 American Depositary Receipts (ADR) offering — it took her some time to get used to the idea that they were going to be wealthy. “At first, it really bothered me. But once I figured how to be responsible with the wealth, I became quite deeply engaged in how to use the money.

”Rohini gave away the entire Rs 100 crore as an endowment to the foundation she had set up, Arghyam, which supports safe, sustainable water and sanitation for all. She has subsequently given grants to several organisations, such as Pratham Books, Atree, IIHS and PRS. Together, the Nilekanis have contributed Rs.530 crore of their personal wealth to their philanthropic work. Asked if she can do more, Rohini says, “Of course, I can do more — much, much more. As long as I am alive, I will keep giving. ”