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Get personal about philanthropy

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February 3, 2011
N. Venkat Krishnan, Director, Giveindia

When we started GiveIndia a decade back, six out of 10 times we would have to explain to a potential donor why we should give and try to convince the person to make a donation to a cause of their choice. Today, at least eight out of 10 want to make a donation and only need help with how to go about giving.

More Indian billionaires are announcing significant philanthropic contributions. Sure, at 0.4% of gross domestic product (GDP), we're still giving only about one-fifth of what the Americans do, but the momentum and direction are there, and we'll probably end up at 1% of GDP in the next 10 years.

Yet, we have a long way to go to ensure that philanthropy isn't tokenism. What we need is a wave of deliberate and engaged philanthropy, where individuals choose the causes they believe in, study and select organizations and approaches to social change that they'd like to support, and bring not just their money, but their time and skills to the table as well.

Venkat get personal

Here are four things we can try and do as a nation to make this happen.

First, understand that philanthropy is not corporate social responsibility (CSR); it is what we do individually. In an era where individuals rarely own more than 15-25% of the companies they run, using CSR to run a personal philanthropy agenda is actually downright dishonest. What we need to see is personal and family foundations set up by India's billionaires and donations of 2-5% of our annual income by the rest of us to different causes.

Second, draw a line between aspiration and greed. People often ask me who is competition to an organization such as GiveIndia, and my honest answer is "holidays in Mauritius, Versace stuff, and an apartment with a swimming pool in Mumbai". For a vast majority of India's noveau riche, growing up was about managing with three-four pairs of clothes, looking forward to the new ones during festival season. It was about taking the bus or train to school or college.

So as our aspirations grow from a scooter to an entry-level car, as the annual family holiday moves out from Dilliwale Chacha's home to five-star hotels in Goa, we need to ask ourselves: "What is enough and where do we want to draw the line?" Half-baked wisdom will argue that we need to spend to keep the economy going. True, but whoever said we need to spend on ourselves to keep the economy going? One hundred cataract surgeries that cost the same as one person's Europe holiday will do as much if not more for the economy!

And while we may not need to put our children through the same hardships, we must remember that it is this difficult childhood that made us strong and capable of building our own careers. Today, we risk giving them things too easily and wind up having a generation that believes in its rights but not in any duties, and lacks the capabilities to fight adversity and create value.

Thirdly, get more involved in our real world. Food inflation is a fantastic way to teach our children mathematics. Try having your child plot a graph of how incomes have grown in India for different jobs between, say, 1950 and today (engineer, doctor, maid, driver). Have them plot how costs have grown in the same period; it will be a fun exercise.

By the time they finish the exercise, not only will your children learn a lot, but likely you will realize too that while our incomes have zoomed 300 times in this period, salaries of maids have probably gone up only 50 times, and costs have gone up 100 times. Your maid still has a seven-day week, with no paid vacation or casual leaves. And realizing just how lucky we are is often the first step towards serious philanthropy.

Fourthly, engage actively with a cause of our choice. I am often asked, "Where do you even get started?"

It's quite easy, actually. You can start by scaling up what you already do. Go and visit a nearby village school over the weekend. Seeing the reality as it is will automatically tell you what you can do and how you can help. Keep your spouse and children with you, as you go along the journey, and soon you'll find that you are not only actively engaged in making a difference, but you've got closer together as a family too! In the end, it is what each one of us individually does, that will make a difference. Like Peter Drucker said, the purpose of philanthropy, is that each of us can see in the mirror what we ought to see: "A citizen who takes responsibility, a neighbour who cares."

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