How India's HNI philanthropists are solving social problems

Recent years have been exciting times for Indian Philanthropy, with large pledges made by business leaders. However, these philanthropic resources are a drop in the ocean given what resources are actually needed. What then does this mean for how philanthropy can help India solve some of her most intractable social problems? The answer lies in what we at FSG call Catalytic Philanthropy.

Updated: Aug 1, 2012 01:08:22 PM UTC

Everything in India, it seems, occurs at scales unimaginable anywhere else in the world. The scales are particularly daunting, unfortunately, when it comes to social issues. Close to 500 million Indians still live in what the World Bank defines as being absolute poverty (less than $1.25 per day), over 2 million Indian children under five years of age die a year, close to a million due to malnutrition alone. . .and the list goes on. Now consider an even more incredible aspect to this story – and that is, relatively speaking, how few resources India has available to address its massive social problems. For example, the Indian national education budget ($11.6 billion in 2010-2011) is a mere 1.2% of the US equivalent ($972 billion)!

So what does this all mean for philanthropy in India? On the one hand, these past two years have been exciting times for Indian philanthropy. Large pledges have been made by business leaders such as Azim Premji, Shiv Nadar, G. M. Rao, Rakesh Jhunjhunwala and others. On the other hand however, even compared to the relatively few resources India spends on its social issues, philanthropic resources here are a drop in the ocean given what resources are actually needed. For example, India’s national education budget mentioned above represents a sum which is eight times the total charitable contributions by individuals in this country. Even if we assume that half of all individual contributions go to education that would total a mere 6% of the public education expenditure. That is to say, all the philanthropic resources account for but a small portion of the total spending on public education in the country.

So, what then does this mean for how philanthropy can help India solve some of her most intractable social problems? The answer lies in what we at FSG call Catalytic Philanthropy. Catalytic Philanthropy is a term coined by FSG that refers to innovative practices that have the potential to catalyze social impact at scales that far eclipse the amount of financial resources invested – just as in chemistry, the addition of a small amount of catalyst causes or accelerates a much larger chemical reaction. What does Catalytic Philanthropy look like in the Indian context? To answer this question, FSG in partnership with the Center for Emerging Market Solutions at the Indian School of Business undertook a year-long research effort to find and document catalytic practices that were already underfoot amongst Indian philanthropists. To our surprise, we found quite a number of highly innovative examples. Donors like Dr. Anji Reddy and Azim Premji working through their namesake foundations, Rohini Nilekani through the Arghyam Foundation and Hemendra Kothari through the Wildlife Conservation Trust, are adopting approaches that have the potential to catalyze large-scale social impact on a variety of critical issues such as skills development, public education, water and wildlife conservation. These philanthropists are laser-focused, use data to drive systemic change, engage heavily in cross-sector collaboration to do their work, use multiple tools in the philanthropic toolbox (including advocacy, building knowledge for the field, mass/social marketing & communications) and measure and learn continuously.

I’ll share just one example here to give readers a sense for how innovative Indian philanthropists are in their approach. Here’s the story of how the Hemendra Kothari Foundation funded Wildlife Conservation Trust uses mass communications to catalyze change on its target issue: wildlife conservation.

In 2009, the Wildlife Conservation Trust partnered with the Indian mass media network, NDTV and one of India’s largest mobile telephone operators, Aircel to launch a major mass media campaign to increase public awareness around wildlife conservation. To make the campaign as memorable as possible, it was focused on a simple message about the danger of extinction of India’s most majestic and proud mammal – the Royal Bengal Tiger. The campaign, coordinated across multiple media and making heavy use of Bollywood celebrity endorsements, ignited the public’s imagination across the country - there were marches, cycle rallies and signature campaigns demanding action before it was too late. The campaign included a 12-hour save our tigers telethon that raised a total of $1 million – $0.5 million from the public, matched by $0.5 million by Hemendra Kothari, Chairman of the Trust. The Wildlife Conservation Trust, designated the implementation partner for the campaign, is now engaged in using those funds to create change on the ground.

More than the money it raised, the campaign has been a crucial contributor to significantly increase in public awareness of the issue of wildlife conservation. Anish Andheria, the Director of the Trust captured the impact of the campaign as follows: “The increased awareness has led to activism at a local level. You read much more today about conservation in the papers. The common person is talking much more about it. Both the public and local media are putting pressure on the forest department to take action. The government is taking much greater notice of the issue as a result of all this awareness.”

The full Catalytic Philanthropy in India report is available for download on FSG’s website. The report contains many more stories of these remarkable philanthropists and their even more remarkable work. We invite you to read, learn and share your experiences.

By Lalitha Vaidyanathan, FSG Managing Director
(Lalitha leads FSG’s efforts in India. She has advised a variety of clients while at FSG including corporations, private foundations, multilaterals, government community foundations, and nonprofits.  Her clients in India include the Godrej Group, the Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation, UN Women, The World Bank, and Eli Lilly)

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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