Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

No longer are we confined to the conventional and the familiar: Rohini Nilekani on philanthropy in India

In 2013, Rohini Nilekani was featured on the cover of our Heroes of Philanthropy edition alongside husband Nandan, co-founder of Infosys, for backing social causes others may find risky. The founder of Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies reflects on how far she has come, and how Indian philanthropy has changed along the way

Published: Jun 8, 2023 01:29:25 PM IST
Updated: Jun 8, 2023 01:38:40 PM IST

No longer are we confined to the conventional and the familiar: Rohini Nilekani on philanthropy in IndiaRohini Nilekani, Chairperson of Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and Co-founder and Director of EkStep Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India
When I look back at how far we’ve come, I feel cautious optimism for the future of Indian philanthropy. There has been a subtle but significant transformation in the approach to social causes. No longer are we confined to the conventional and familiar. Today’s philanthropists, especially those with first generation wealth, have begun to venture into uncharted territories. Whether it is mental health, scientific research, access to justice, or art and culture, they are investing innovative, patient capital for serious transformation.

 More importantly, people are thinking together, and at the scale of the problem.


Take, for instance, the Grassroots, Resilience, Ownership, and Wellness (GROW) Fund, an initiative pioneered by the EdelGive Foundation in partnership with a generous cohort of dedicated funders. This ground-breaking endeavour aims to fortify 100 impactful grassroots organisations over two years.

What’s remarkable about this is the spirit of collaboration. We are not just pooling resources; we are a unified front of philanthropists saying, “We can do more together.” By reaching out to grassroots organisations that often miss out on the spotlight of traditional philanthropy, we hope to create a new trend.

A similar story unfolds with the India Climate Collaborative (ICC) that we too are a part of. Here’s an initiative that understands the urgency of climate change and is committed to establishing an India-specific narrative. Launched in 2020, the ICC is a beacon of hope, inviting “diverse voices, innovative solutions, and collective investments”. Many well-known philanthropists and organisations, such as Ratan Tata, and esteemed institutions like the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology & the Environment (ATREE) are part of this collaborative.

Also read: Indian philanthropists need to become bolder, lead with trust, look for new areas to fund: Rohini Nilekani

No longer are we confined to the conventional and the familiar: Rohini Nilekani on philanthropy in IndiaEven where the efforts are in traditional areas, there is much more work at scale and in the spirit of true collaboration. Examples are the Anamaya collective for tribal health, spearheaded by the Piramal Foundation, the work on water security by ATE Chandra Foundation with partners like Caring Friends, and leadership development in education through Shikshalokam, primarily supported by the Shibulal family.

Hopefully, the philanthropic scene in India is on the cusp of great change. With the multitude of interconnected challenges India faces, from the widening inequality gap to the impending climate crisis, philanthropists are leaning more towards multi-stakeholder partnerships and holistic strategies that strike at the heart of these complex social issues.

In our own philanthropy, we have learnt to take a more ecosystems approach. With the Societal Thinking team, for example, we are trying hard to help the best social entrepreneurs to be even more effective. Through our mental health portfolio, we hope to deepen both research and practice in an area of extreme vulnerability and inadequate resources. On the environment issue, we are broadening and deepening our support to the many excellent non-profits working on improved resilience and restoration.

There is so much more to do in this country, as old problems morph into new ones, and traditional solutions seem inadequate. This is the crucial time for Indian philanthropists to really step up and give forward in a faster, bigger and bolder manner. L uckily, the green shoots are visible.

(This story appears in the 16 June, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)