September 17, 2018

Bold Philanthropy in India: Insights from Eight Social Change Initiatives

Photo: Digital Green

Eight initiatives that illustrate how bold philanthropy can play a unique role in surmounting India’s social challenges.

By: Niloufer Memon, Donald Yeh

Executive Summary

In 2014, Kris Gopalakrishnan, the executive vice chairman of Infosys, made the largest private investment in neurological research in India’s history, when he established the Centre for Brain Research in Bengaluru. With his commitment of INR 255 crores (USD 38.5 million) over 10 years, he aims to dramatically advance the field of Indian-based neuroscience research and help develop treatment strategies for the millions of Indians suffering from dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. This initiative exemplifies what The Bridgespan Group calls “bold philanthropy.”

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Like Mr. Gopalakrishnan, a growing number of Indian philanthropists are pivoting from “checkbook giving”—investing mostly in infrastructure projects (such as building hospitals and schools)—to focusing their philanthropy on the nation’s most vexing social challenges. With domestic philanthropic funding streams expanding rapidly, India’s philanthropists have the opportunity—and the wherewithal—to think and act boldly.

Information is scarce on the journeys of Indian philanthropists who have stepped up to the challenge of taking on entrenched social problems in high-need areas. To help fill this void, The Bridgespan Group’s report, Bold Philanthropy in India: Insights from Eight Social Change Initiatives, shares philanthropists’ approaches to bold giving and highlights opportunities, challenges, and lessons learned. The report’s objective is to inspire and inform more bold giving in India that addresses specific social change causes.

Drawing from a broad scan of India’s social-sector landscape and interviews with selected philanthropists and experts, a Bridgespan team reviewed about 100 philanthropic initiatives that aim to achieve social change in India. To identify those efforts that are truly bold, the team screened for a variety of factors, including philanthropic funding of at least INR 27 crores (USD 4 million), a clear goal, and a pathway toward addressing a seemingly intractable social problem where there is significant white space to do more. The team culled the list to arrive at a set of eight bold giving initiatives that best address the aforementioned knowledge gaps.

The eight initiatives illustrate several unique roles that bold philanthropy can play in surmounting India’s many social challenges. Though identified in the Indian context, these roles are so foundational to the global philanthropic ecosystem that they can be thought of as archetypes of bold giving:

Build innovative solutions. Google and Tata Trust’s Internet Saathi empowers local women to train other rural women to use the internet; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s (Gates Foundation) “Mainstreaming Private Healthcare Systems for Tuberculosis Control” is incentivizing formal and informal private healthcare providers in three Indian cities to notify tuberculosis cases to the government, adopt standardized tuberculosis diagnosis and care practices, and thereby battle back a disease that claimed more than 420,000 lives in 2016.

Scale proven solutions. Digital Green’s video-based knowledge sharing, funded by the Gates Foundation, uses locally developed videos to introduce effective farming practices to smallholder farmers, mostly women, and scale them through government partnerships in India and Ethiopia.

Support community-driven development. Funded by Tata Trusts and its associate organization, Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CInI), Lakhpati Kisan enlists local women to help tribal households in Central India rise irreversibly out of poverty.

Strengthen or reform systems. The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and Central Square Foundation are funding and supporting Rajasthan Adarsh Yojana, a government initiative, which is creating an adarsh (Hindi for “ideal”) public school in village clusters across Rajasthan, through holistic measures such as improving governance processes for education, reducing teacher and school leadership vacancies, and upgrading school infrastructure and learning.

Build a field. Kris Gopalakrishnan’s Centre for Brain Research fills knowledge gaps in the field of basic neuroscience research that is specific to India. Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys, and Srikanth Nadhamuni, CEO of Khosla Labs, launched eGovernments Foundation (eGov), whose multifaceted open-source, digital platform helps urban local bodies in India offer municipal services that keep pace with the country’s surging urban population and needs. Omidyar Network, Google, and Tata Trusts have also funded eGov’s work.

Inform public policy. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation funds the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), which collects basic reading and math learning levels data from children across India’s rural districts. Its pioneering approach has helped shift India’s national policy as well as global discourse from focusing on school enrollment rates to improving learning.

In addition to profiling the initiatives, Bold Philanthropy in India highlights three approaches that are key to amplifying a bold initiative’s impact; we call them the “3 Cs” of bold philanthropy:

  • Collaborate: Work with others who have complementary assets or capabilities
  • Course Correct: Embrace risk, learning, and iteration
  • Change Behaviors: Work with stakeholders, communities, and institutions to inspire change from within
The report also poses three critical questions that aspiring bold philanthropists might ask themselves as they think about designing and executing their own efforts.
  • What is the unique role that my philanthropic capital can play?
  • What measures can I take to increase the likelihood of success?
  • How can my bold initiative sustain impact over time?

While it is true that bold philanthropic initiatives do not always yield big advances, small, cautious efforts rarely do. As the report makes clear, India’s philanthropists have capital that is flexible and risk tolerant, and they have a vital role to play in helping the country achieve its long-term social goals.

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