Reimagining the role of philanthropy in India
- Samar Verma, programme officer at Ford Foundation for Technology and Society, Future of Workers, and Philanthropy and Urvi Shriram, lead, Centre of Philanthropy for Social Justice at the Indian School of Development Management
India’s social sector is witnessing unprecedented growth as well as disruption. The robust civil society in India continues to work tirelessly towards accomplishing transformational change in socioeconomic structures to bring prosperity for all; where the benefits of growth and opportunities are more fairly distributed across communities and regions. Simultaneously, there has been rapid growth of the philanthropic community both in terms of increase in the amount of private sector funding (which totalled about ₹64,000 crore in 2020), and in terms of diversification in the approaches and practices of philanthropy.
Increasingly, we are witnessing a trend where philanthropists are seeking more structured and informed giving and engaging in newer forms of social and impact investments such as retail funding, crowd funding and venture philanthropy. Many philanthropists now come from unconventional backgrounds (for example women and people from historically disadvantaged backgrounds like the Dalits) and engage in philanthropy at a much younger age. Over the last two years, the pandemic has also triggered a rise in collaboration among civil society organisations, funders and the government to co-create solutions to tackle systemic socio-economic challenges. These developments give us cause for hope for a more equitable development.
India has a long history of charitable giving. While there are stellar examples of institution-building support specially in early years of independent India, traditional Indian philanthropy has focussed largely on supporting and enabling delivery of essential services and creating livelihood opportunities primarily in the areas of health and education for the poor, and in rural areas. The civil society organisations rose to the unprecedented challenge caused by the pandemic by joining hands with the governments in ensuring last mile delivery of various government services and goods- a role that was recognised and appreciated by the highest echelons in governments as much as by society at large. However, the Indian philanthropy has by and large not invested enough in a systematic manner in addressing the structural causes of poverty and inequity.
With the recent emergence of data on deepening incomes and wealth inequalities- and their corresponding differential impacts on various communities and regions, shouldn’t philanthropy go beyond traditional approaches and projects that address symptoms of poverty and begin to play a part in addressing underlying systemic causes of poverty and injustice? As we begin to ‘build back better’ following the pandemic-induced widespread devastation, is this then not the right time to rethink and reshape philanthropy’s role and responsibilities in helping create a more just, sustainable and equitable India?
For the philanthropic sector to make further positive contributions to the transformational changes happening in and outside India, it is critical to reimagine its role and create a new discourse of philanthropy. To address complex issues and create sustainable impact, civil society needs resources and support. With foreign funds drying up (40% fall between 2015-2018, according to one estimate), and rapid rise in domestic philanthropy both from individuals and corporates, it is critical that the predominant share of few themes (education, health, rural ,livelihoods) and regions (Maharashtra, Gujarat and, Tamil Nadu etc) in domestic philanthropy is addressed meaningfully. It is critical to also include areas that are vital for common prosperity and yet receive a relatively small share of resources and attention such as gender justice, digital rights and economic and& social empowerment of disadvantages sections of society.
Domestic philanthropy (especially individual/family philanthropy) has enormous potential to trigger and catalyse innovation to address the structural causes of poverty and inequality by nurturing and strengthening institutions and the ecosystem of knowledge creation, dissemination and evidence-based public narrative and policy change for a just society that benefits all. The pandemic induced disruption provides a huge opportunity to construct a bolder vision of philanthropy- towards philanthropy for social justice. It is not just about what a funder does. It is also about how it is done. It is philanthropy that actively strives to listen to, involve and empower the communities most affected by entrenched inequities and thereby influence long term, sustainable change.
We are now seeing philanthropists taking on complex social challenges, investing in high-need underserved areas, making their giving more outcome oriented and aimed at catalysing population level systemic change. The need of the hour is to give further impetus to this trend and ensure it advances far and fast. This can happen only if philanthropists, philanthropic and civil society networks and platforms work together to ensure sustainable and structural shifts that benefit entire communities and promote a dignified life for all.
The journey to construction of this bold vision begins with data and knowledge. Creating an appropriate knowledge infrastructure for the philanthropic sector is critical. Building more data and information on learning journeys of philanthropists practiscing social justice philanthropy, more robust information on organisations working at the frontline and on reliable funding mechanisms will encourage others to join force and eventually various scattered efforts will begin to leverage each other.
Moreover, philanthropy can bring on new partners, and collaborate in new, unconventional ways with communities and movements from every walk of life. Greater investment in understanding community philanthropy and other more participatory and inclusive models of philanthropy for sustainable social change is required. Equally important is institutional advisory support that philanthropists and specially the new givers might require to ensure compliance and improve giving practices as they design and deploy their philanthropic strategies towards addressing deep rooted social challenges. Building institutions focussed on professionalising social purpose organiszations to effectively multiply the impact of philanthropic money spent on social change is another key aspect. Philanthropic capital must also become more patient with results.
While it might be beyond the capacity of philanthropy to fix our systems entirely, all of us (whether individuals, families, corporations, or foundations) share a crucial responsibility to play our respective roles. The shift in philanthropy that we visualisze is about increasing credibility, about amplifying impact, and about revisiting traditional practices and narratives by approaching philanthropy through this frame of social justice giving, based on data and knowledge. Charitable giving is laudable but embedding justice in giving is transformational.
(Samar Verma, programme officer at Ford Foundation for Technology and Society, Future of Workers, and Philanthropy and Urvi Shriram, lead,Centre of Philanthropy for Social Justice at the Indian School of Development Management.)