Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Amit Chandra Brings a Portfolio Approach to Giving

Amit Chandra is a prolific donor, not just of his money but also of his time. More significantly, he is a credible voice promoting philanthropy among entrepreneurs and professionals

Published: Dec 4, 2013 07:27:34 AM IST
Updated: Dec 4, 2013 08:34:03 AM IST
Amit Chandra Brings a Portfolio Approach to Giving
Image: Prasad Gori for Forbes India

Award: NextGen Leader in Philanthropy
Amit Chandra
Age: 45
Why He won: For giving his time and money to social causes and bringing the advantage of his business networks to his philanthropic work.
His Trigger: a) Introspection during a Vipassana course. b) Reading Chuck Feeney’s biography The Billionaire Who Wasn’t, the story of the American founder of duty free chain DFS. Feeney, one of the greatest and most mysterious philanthropists in modern times, quietly transferred his entire wealth to a foundation, which would give away his entire wealth in
his lifetime.
His Mission: To make a difference.
His Action Plan: To use 30% of his time to work with causes that he is passionate about.
His Next Move: To scale up continuously to increase the impact of his work.

There was hardly a dry eye in the audience when the boys from Patna’s Shoshit Samadhan Kendra School took the stage at an event in July this year. The moment their performance started, the transformation was dramatic, their confidence absolute. The lines from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth were delivered just right, in perfect English. The children left the stage to thunderous applause.

The appreciation was for more than just their talent. The children belonged to Bihar’s most exploited and deprived community, the Musahars (rat-eaters); comprising mainly landless labourers, the community’s literacy is below 3 percent and its condition has been bordering on sub-human for decades. Described as Maha-Dalits, they live as bonded labourers in ghettos outside villages in central and eastern India.

The Shoshit Samadhan Kendra School, a residential institution for 320 students, was started in 2007 by Shoshit Seva Sangh, an NGO that was set up 2005 to provide quality education to Musahar children, thereby helping them break out of the vicious, soul-crushing circle of poverty.

The audience that day comprised teachers, parents as well as representatives of families from Mumbai that support the Patna school. The latter group included Amit Chandra, managing director of Bain Capital, and his wife Archana, who is the joint honorary administrative director of Jai Vakeel School for children in need of special care.

Two years ago, a friend had introduced the couple to Jyoti Sinha, a retired IPS officer who had started the NGO to help Musahar children leap-frog from the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder and avail of the opportunities that education creates. The Patna school has since become one of the core causes supported by the Chandras, with both their time and money.

Amit Chandra, 45, is among India’s most prolific donors; he gives away more than 75 percent of his annual earnings to causes of his choice. More significantly, he has, through his actions, emerged as a credible voice promoting philanthropy among entrepreneurs and professionals. He leads fund-raisers, events and auctions where others can get involved. He has also helped define new ways to channel organised giving.

Entrepreneur Ajay Piramal, who has known him from the time Chandra headed investment banking at DSP Merrill Lynch in the mid-’90s, says, “The big thing about Amit is that he is willing to give money and time to the numerous causes he supports. He offers a combination of strategic thinking as well as compassion. And this is immensely useful.’’ Incidentally, Chandra is on the board of Piramal Enterprises and has helped shape some of the group’s social initiatives.

The foundation for doing good was laid early in Chandra’s life. He grew up in a lower middle-class household in Mumbai. He remembers his sister helping their unlettered milkman Shyam Bali learn the alphabet. “She would teach him every day after coming home from school till, one day, he was actually able to read,” he says. Reminiscing about those days, Chandra says the growth in his philanthropic activity has been gradual.

Amit Chandra Brings a Portfolio Approach to Giving
Image: Prasad Gori for Forbes India

Ironically, the journey began in a period most would associate more with Mammon. In the bull run of the 1990s, Harshad Mehta and the budding financial industry were the poster-boys of optimism in India. Chandra was in the thick of things, heading the largest investment bank in the country and had, later, become the relationship manager for the biggest corporations of India Inc. “Banking is mostly about money and power. Over the years, I had built up a lot of connections in the corporate world,” he says.

Chandra’s boss at the time was the hard-nosed DSP founder Hemendra Kothari, who came from a family of stock brokers that has been involved in charitable work for several generations. Kothari remembers Chandra as a bright banker “who was willing to donate money, even at an early age when people want to save for themselves”. Kothari, now 66, devotes a considerable portion of his time in the running of a foundation that focuses on preserving jungles and wildlife. Chandra had asked Kothari if the company would be willing to give away 0.1 percent of its profits for charitable causes. Kothari said he was okay with it, as long as revenue targets for the company were met.

The markets were on a roll and DSP Merrill Lynch did more than well with the numbers. Chandra and his colleagues got the green signal they needed, and they decided to go about the donation process in an organised way. They invited NGOs to make presentations about their work, so that they could choose the most deserving of them. “The process introduced me to two of the most fantastic people I know. They have, over the years, helped shape my philosophy in the social sector,” says Chandra. “They are Shaheen Mistri, who founded the Akanksha Foundation and now heads Teach For India, and Venkat Krishnan, founder of GiveIndia.”

As they got more involved in various causes, the Chandras began giving away a larger portion of their income every year. Meanwhile, slowly, over a decade, their approach also changed.

Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) vice-chairman S Ramadorai has known Chandra for several years. Chandra had advised TCS when the software giant bid for (and subsequently acquired) public sector company CMC in 2003. The two stayed in touch even after Chandra joined Bain Capital in 2008.

After retiring from an active role in TCS, Ramadorai had begun work on a variety of social initiatives. One of the projects that he and his wife Mala were passionate about was a super-speciality paediatric hospital in Mumbai, where treatment would be affordable for the poor. Though the Ramadorais had located a defunct hospital site at Worli that could be revived, the project had not taken off in the absence of anchor donors.

Chandra became aware of these plans through a speech made by leading cardiac surgeon and philanthropist Dr Devi Shetty at an event late last year. “What happened subsequently was amazing,’’ says Ramadorai. The Chandras were interested and did a thorough evaluation of the project. They went through the project plan, met the partners, Dr Shetty’s Narayana Hrudayalaya and the Society for Rehabilitation of Crippled Children, and asked the tough questions. Once they were convinced, they came on board as anchor donors. Thereafter, they started to raise money for the project. Among those they roped in as a donor was Kothari, whose family already runs a hospital in south Mumbai. The Rs 85-crore project achieved financial closure this month, and construction is expected to start soon. When completed, it will be the country’s largest children’s hospital.

What Ramadorai finds most valuable is the Chandras’ involvement. They were willing to travel, meet people and give their time to make it happen, he says.  

The hospital project is an example of the kind of philanthropy Chandra has been practicing:  It isn’t just  about writing cheques; there is more focus on outcomes.  

Chandra’s background in the financial sector shows through in his attitude towards not-for-profit activities. His vocabulary, the way he operates and the portfolio approach to social initiatives are offshoots of his professional life.

“I am shameless about pestering people when it comes to getting them involved. Very often, they respond and, sometimes, they don’t,” he says. “We have a network of friends looking for good projects. In some ways, it is like looking for good companies to invest in.” Among the people he has approached often, over the years, is stock market trader Rakesh Jhunjhunwala.

For instance, last year, Chandra learned that Jyoti Sinha’s team at the Shoshit Seva Sangh was looking to build new school premises to accommodate 500 students. After he became a key donor for the new project, he reached out to others who could contribute. Now, six Mumbai families, including Jhunjhunwala’s, support the project. The new premises, spread over 90,000 sq ft, will open next year.

Over the years, Chandra’s activities have become more structured, partly due to his association with others in the social sector. Interactions with Venkat Krishnan and Deepa Varadarajan, vice-president (HNI) at GiveIndia, have helped shape his two-tiered giving strategy in no small measure. “One question [the Chandras] always asked was if they were spreading themselves too thin,” says Venkat. Though Bain Capital is supportive of Chandra’s work, the time available for philanthropy is finite. He has, therefore, defined his portfolio such that about 70 percent of his time and money is spent on a few core projects such as GiveIndia, Akanksha, Shoshit Seva Sangh and the children’s hospital in Mumbai. Chandra sits on the boards of some organisations, dealing with them almost like a private equity investor. They send him monthly reviews and quarterly updates; he plans site visits and interventions when needed. Does this approach work? Though many NGOs say that reporting to donors and boards is a burden, Chandra believes that for organisations to become scalable, they have to prove that they are on track.  

The second tier of his social investment is made up of causes where he is involved as a donor but where he is not as engaged in terms of time.

Chandra says a good project brings him “more joy than a multi-bagger financial investment”. His wife Archana, an integral part of the journey, puts it more elegantly, saying they have always got far more than they have given. Ask him which has been his best social investment to date, one that has “returned the most”, and his answer is the ‘Joy of Giving week’. The idea of celebrating a week (October 2-8) every year, as a time focussed on philanthropy, has caught on all over the country; it has spawned thousands of events in schools, companies and in the social media. Chandra was among those that seeded and funded it. “It started on a piece of paper five years ago—it was an idea that Venkat had. It is hugely satisfying to see how it has grown as a spontaneous, open-architecture movement that no one owns,” he says.

Everyone believes that the rich in India do not give enough—even the rich concur. As Ajay Piramal says, “The wealthy have to give much more, and do much more.’’ To lead the way, in a sense, Chandra has become less private about his philanthropy than he was a few years ago. “One reason to become more public about his activities is to try and motivate others to give more,” Piramal says. The tendency is still to look down upon those who talk about their charity work.

Chandra says he has always been inspired by stories of philanthropy and is now open about his work in the non-profit space. In fact, the one magazine he waits for every year, he says, is the Forbes Philanthropy List issue. “It lists people who have given away very material parts of their wealth. If you look at the data in India, we pale in comparison. There are the Tatas, the Azim Premjis and the Shiv Nadars,” Chandra says. “But, for a long while, we hid behind a veil treating giving as a private activity. The truth is that it would probably shame people if we really knew how little they were giving relative to their wealth.”

(This story appears in the 13 December, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)