Indian philanthropy is frugal at best

The writer lives in London and is Executive Director of Pratham UK, a fundraising and awareness raising organisation for Pratham’s work in the education space in India. The views expressed are her own.

Indian philanthropy is frugal at best

India is home to the third highest number of billionaires in the world. In fact, according to Forbes, it overtook Germany to get to this position in 2020 – the year Covid struck and paralysed the world.

It is 2021 now and India is in the grip of a second wave of the pandemic which is unprecedented in scale and visceral in impact.

So, I ask where are you?


I am puzzled by your silence and disappointed by your absence during the second wave of the pandemic, especially as there are 140 of you with a combined net worth of US $596 billion.

Turn even a fraction of that into oxygen concentrators or ventilators or drugs or beds, or even firewood to cremate those who could not be saved – surely that is reason to give?

I am especially puzzled that in a year when almost every household in India has been led into a downward spiral of misery, fear and economic hardship, India’s three richest men have managed to add $100 billion to their wealth.
Turn even a fraction of that added wealth into gratitude or thanksgiving – surely that is another reason to give?

I am disappointed that at a time when India has turned to the world for medical and financial aid, India’s rich have not stepped up to help their countrymen.
Turn self-respect and the drive to be atmanirbhar (self-sufficient) into motivation to raise money internally – surely that is another reason to give?

Indian celebrities seem to have got the memo though. Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma have donated personally and also used their huge fan following to crowdfund Rs 11 crore and counting. Akshay Kumar, Priyanka Chopra, Sachin Tendulkar, Lata Mangeshkar, Shahrukh Khan and Sonu Sood are among many who have made donations and appealed for help in a very public way. They have not been afraid to put themselves out there and appeal to their fans for a cause that needed their help.

Turn this inspiration from their celebrity friends into philanthropy at a time of national crisis – surely that should be an important incentive to give?

I am overwhelmed by the generosity and hard work of ordinary Indians: citizens groups, resident welfare associations, students, volunteer groups who have worked hard and selflessly through this difficult time. Whether it is Oxygen langars in gurudwaras or plasma appeals on Whatsapp, artists donating their works in aid of coronavirus relief or ordinary employees of Indian corporations and banks sacrificing salaries, the ordinary Indian has been truly extraordinary.

Turn this into shame on the part of those who can do so much more – surely that is the most compelling reason to give?

I am not for a minute suggesting that the super-rich have not given – my point is that they have not given proportionate to their wealth and the giving has by and large come through their corporates (which are obliged to give as part of the CSR rules anyway). While the philanthropic giving in India tends to fall short of international and particularly American standards, I am still disappointed because I expected the super-rich to act differently this time, given the unprecedented scale of the disaster and its ramifications on the economy as a whole.

Disasters have always led to an outpouring of generosity. According to a report by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in Indiana, within six months of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, U.S. donors gave $4.2 billion, which is the highest total ever. They gave $2.6 billion after the 9/11 tragedy, $1.8 billion after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and $1.5 billion following Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, the three other largest waves of donations since 2001. A lot of this giving was fronted by American celebrities. Celebrities and philanthropists in the US give because of the motivation they hope to provide to people to follow suit.

In India we have had tragedy on a colossal scale, we have had celebrities acknowledge and act on it by rousing people to give, we had ordinary Indians giving and helping as never before but the super-rich behaved predictably. Doing just enough but no more.

The two notable exceptions to the above are Azim Premji who has committed Rs 1125 crore towards Covid relief and the Tata Trusts and Foundations who have donated Rs 1500 crore.

However, I don’t want to make this into a name and shame exercise. That is almost always unproductive. Instead of dwelling on the who (did not give), I would rather examine the why (they didn’t) … surely if so many super rich people behave in a certain and predictable way through a crisis, there are systemic issues at work.

As someone involved with fundraising for an Indian NGO for many years, all the literature and my personal experience points to this deficit in Indian giving (proportionate to wealth and capacity to give) worldwide. There are both structural and motivational reasons behind this deficit which are well worth exploring.

Motivational barriers stem from a lack of trust in the Indian system and misgivings about corruption and inefficiency. This applies to Indian philanthropy in general – at all levels, with small and large donors. It is true of Indian donors in India and NRIs wanting to donate to India. Indian giving tends to be through known and informal networks and friends who assure that “the money will be properly used.”

And while I understand and sympathise with the relatively small donor who cannot make sure his donation is going to the right place; the super-rich can monitor and evaluate the impact of their giving. It should not hold them back from professionalising their foundations and giving generously, particularly at a critical time like the second wave of coronavirus. Most grant funds have a monitoring and evaluation budget built into them and there are many professional M & E agencies available in India to do the evaluation and ensure the funds are being properly utilised.

Another motivational barrier is lineage issues. A lot of wealthy Indian business families believe that they are just holding the family wealth and growing it for the next generation and therefore have no personal right to give it away. This seems supported by the fact that it is the self-made billionaires in India like Premji who are the most generous philanthropists.

Since this is a cultural barrier, embedded in Indian society and the psyche of business communities like Marwaris and Gujaratis, it will take longer to break down. But I am optimistic, I have seen these very communities lead the way on getting daughters involved with the family business, taking huge risks by venturing into new lines of business and new territories abroad. Their children, for whom the wealth is lovingly preserved and grown are increasingly exposed to western norms through education at elite institutions. I am sure it will not be long before the young scions of these eminent families lead the way in philanthropy too. Especially at crisis times like this – when it motivates others to do the same.

Structural issues against large and very public philanthropy stem from a society that has traditionally viewed wealth and the making of it with suspicion. A long socialist history, Gandhian concepts of simplicity and the Hindu tradition of giving without expecting anything in return have definitely coloured Indian philanthropy. Flamboyant giving – American style – is not part of the Indian DNA. And 30 years of economic liberalisation have clearly not changed perceptions that much.

Add to this the fear of attracting negative publicity, the wrath of the income tax department (you have so much to give away huh, let us show you) – and you can be sure that no extravagant gestures in terms of large philanthropic donations are forthcoming, even when they are most needed, as during the second wave of the pandemic.

The answer to this structural problem is to have an open philanthropic culture. As well as Azim Premji, others such as IT billionaires Nandan and Rohini Nilekani have pledged half their wealth to philanthropy; Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw has committed three-fourths of hers; and many other families fund hospitals, schools, community kitchens, the arts and scientific research with very large donations. Why not draw these people into the public discourse and have debates and talks on what constitutes safe and high impact giving? The sharing of success stories will definitely build trust and inspire other philanthropic journeys.

Policy makers can ensure that tax incentives on donations are rewarding and due diligence on charities is effective; charities themselves can be more transparent in their use of funds. In other words, the foundation of a strong civil society is necessary if we are to grow the next crop of super-rich philanthropists in India.

And while I may have started on a disappointed note, I am hopeful for the future – philanthropy will come of age in India. There is a whole new generation of start-ups that have achieved billion-dollar valuations. Their founders are young, they are self-made and identify with post-liberalisation, westward looking India. They represent the new India: proud, confident and self-reliant. They listen to their heart, they are unafraid and I have no doubt they will give chappar phaad ke!