Neera Nundy, co-founder and managing partner at Dasra, on the future of transformational giving in India.
Many organizations have epic origin stories around their naming. Nike is named for the Greek goddess of victory. Jeff Bezos hoped that naming his company Amazon after the world’s largest river might translate into it becoming the world’s largest marketplace. The naming of the organization my husband and I co-founded in 1999 in India was more serendipitous but equally aspirational.
We fortuitously stumbled upon the Sanskrit word “Dasra,” meaning “enlightened giving,” in a baby name book just after my now –23 year-old niece was born. While a complete coincidence, Dasra was the perfect word not only to call our organization but to characterize the opportunity for Dasra to catalyze the growing philanthropic sector toward more collaborative and impactful giving in India, to accelerate social change.
Our work at Dasra has always been guided by a strong belief in prioritizing vulnerable communities and trusting the wisdom of homegrown nonprofits. Now, more than two decades into our work of building partnerships for social change, the need for enlightened giving is more alive than ever. Our country can be viewed as two nations — India and Bharat, and social investors are playing a critical role in helping unite us.
India’s rapid economic growth over the last few decades now make it the fifth-largest economy in the world. Its growth story, however, cannot be called all-encompassing. The wealthiest 10% of Indians hold 74.3% of the total national wealth. More shockingly, the top 1% hold 42.5% of the national wealth. Bharat is the other side of our country: the bottom 90% hold only 25.7% of the total national wealth. Bharat is home to critically vulnerable populations that lack access to education, employment, and health care, remaining disproportionately disadvantaged.
A once-in-a-century pandemic forced us to acknowledge the sheer brokenness of our development systems. The COVID-19 pandemic has set us back significantly in our quest to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 — pushing more than 230 million Indians into poverty, widening the already stark inequality gap, leaving hundreds of thousands of children homeless, and rendering countless families jobless, with no financial or health security.
With the backdrop of such need and complexity, Indian social investors are reflecting: Where are we going? How are we impacting the most vulnerable populations? Are we authentically listening to their voices? And, how are we taking responsibility to rebuild a resilient nation?
The ecosystem of Indian philanthropy is rapidly evolving, and agility is critical to creating impact in the communities we serve and the humanitarian ecosystem at large. At the start of the pandemic-induced lockdown, we realized we needed to pivot. Instead of our usual practice of taking stock of the last week’s activities on our Monday morning Zoom calls, we discussed why Dasra existed and what more we needed to do.
We encouraged the funders and partners we work with to channel their righteous anger into fearless humility and to identify creative ways to support the disproportionately disadvantaged communities at a new, accelerated pace. In April 2021, as part of our COVID-19 relief campaign, Dasra raised US$20 million from more than 1,000 unique funders to support 150 nonprofits across 30 states of India so that they could continue their work with vulnerable communities and help them survive the pandemic.
In the last two decades, the Indian philanthropy sector has shifted from charitable giving to funding projects or portfolios, and collaboratives. Dasra had already served as a champion of funder collaboratives — anchoring the 10to19Dasra Adolescents Collaborative, the National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management Alliance, and Transform Collective. In 2020,we seeded a new collaborative impact program, Social Compact, which seeks to create solutions for informal workers to thrive. And, in March 2022, we launched the Rebuild India Fund, a long-term resilience fund to support grassroots nonprofits with flexible funding and capacity strengthening.
The family philanthropy landscape in India continues to evolve as many multigenerational philanthropic families transition responsibility and decision-making power from one generation to the next. From industrialists like Jamnalal Bajaj, G.D. Birla, and Ardeshir Godrej contributing to India’s freedom movement to Rajashree Birla playing a central role in the country’s efforts toward polio eradication, family philanthropy has had a pivotal influence in the building of modern India.
As we stand at a critical juncture, family philanthropy in India again holds the catalytic potential to help usher in a movement of social change. As reported by the India Philanthropy Report 2022, the number of individuals with a net worth over US$128 million increased by approximately 20% from fiscal year 2020 to fiscal year 2021. And, the cumulative net worth of this small population increased by approximately 50% in the same period. This trend was even more evident within the top wealth bracket, as the cumulative wealth of those with incomes of more than US$6.4 billion rose by approximately 80%.
Unlocking the full potential of family philanthropy will involve both giving more and giving more effectively. The wealthiest Indians give relatively less than their counterparts in China, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. To match Chinese and British donors, Indian philanthropists would have to increase their donations eightfold — and thirteenfold to match the giving of their U.S. counterparts.
Reaching the full potential of enlightened giving in India involves more impactful, system-minded giving. Fortunately, an increasing number of Indian family philanthropists recognize their truly catalytic philanthropic potential to support causes that are complex and under-resourced. They are pursuing even bolder outcomes, working across sectors with governments, nonprofits, corporates, foundations, and other partners to drive collaborative action at scale toward some of India’s most pressing development challenges. For example, Ashok Bhansali supports the Musahar, a vulnerable, rat-eating community in Bihar. Based on learnings from proximate actors during field visits, Bhansali Trust now runs schools and hostels, paramedical staff, and mobile health vans in the community. Their work of organizing biannual camps to perform cataract surgeries is now fully supported by the government.
The devastation of the pandemic dramatically accelerated philanthropic journeys for families in India. For example, GiveIndia, a crowdfunding platform, received over US$28 million in donations from individual philanthropists and foundations toward the India COVID Response Fund, which has supported more than 5.6 million people during the pandemic. At least nine Indian billionaires donated close to US$541 million for COVID-19-relatedcauses — the third most in the world behind the U.S. and China.
Perhaps most exciting, Now Generation Philanthropists, who make up the next generation of multigenerational philanthropic families, are bringing fresh perspective to the social investing landscape in India. Vidhi Shanghvi, the daughter of Sun Pharmaceuticals founder Dilip Shanghvi, is a great example of the high-risk, high-impact appetite Now Generation Philanthropists are willing to adopt to invest in innovative ideas. With the belief that mental health is an integral component of overall health, she launched Mann Talks, a nonprofit initiative of her family’s Shantilal Shanghvi Foundation that provides holistic, tech-enabled mental health solutions for underserved populations. The entrepreneurial and action-oriented spirit of her generation was evident in Shanghvi’s remarks at the 2021 Dasra Philanthropy Week. “Perfect is the enemy of good. … we’ve failed fast, we’ve failed often, but each failure has helped us refine our approach and we wouldn’t be where we are today without those learnings,” she said, speaking about Mann Talks.
Accelerating a movement of “enlightened giving” that propels inclusive growth and bridges India and Bharat will require more than just a prescribed set of practices. It requires adopting new mindsets: A systems mindset that thinks holistically, works with multiple stakeholders and sectors, and goes beyond symptoms to address root causes. And, importantly, a mindset of radical empathy. As the author of Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson puts it, radical empathy is listening with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective. “Radical empathy is not about you, and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it.”
Enlightened giving requires both a systems mindset and radical empathy.
With philanthropic capital increasing exponentially and the influential role of the next generation of philanthropists, Indian social investors have an opportunity to prioritize the lives of vulnerable communities like girls, women, migrant workers, and tribal communities by listening to their needs, thinking of them as the first mile and not the last mile, amplifying their voices, and together, ushering in a movement that transforms the landscape of philanthropy in a way that enables a billion Indians to thrive with dignity and equity.