Philanthropy’s changing gender?


Philanthropy has been overwhelmingly male-driven because (obviously) it’s men who’ve accumulated enormous surplus of wealth across eras and industries. In the last 20 years of American philanthropy, women have finally made it to the leading lists even if, for the most part, as husband wife duo - the most promiment being Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.

Closer home in India, the EdelGive Hurun Philanthropy List for 2019 has two Nilekanis in the Top 10. The famous Nandan at #4 is not a surprise but the person at #6 (Rohini Nilekani) could be for the casual observer. The fact that the two Nilekanis have hitherto pursued parallel philanthropic tracks (including legal entities) is the first remarkable thing - don’t think any other billionaire couple operates this way. The second remarkable thing is that their tracks might be converging in an intriguing way (per a recent interview on The Ken).

A quest for a good society

The purpose statement from Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies’ (RNP) website: “We seek to support ground-breaking work anchored in networks and movements, to create and strengthen communities that work for their own betterment. We believe that the value of samaaj which is on this quest as beyond measure.” A further elaboration of the organization’s purpose:

  • Strengthening Samaaj aligns Sarkaar and Bazaar to our collective purpose of a good society.
  • We believe in healthy, vibrant, active communities and networks. In the continuum of samaaj (society), bazaar (market) and sarkaar (government), only a strong society can keep markets and the state accountable to the public good.
  • The philanthropy looks to support ideas, individuals and institutions doing ground-breaking work that enables a strong samaaj with ethical leadership, a sense of urgency and the courage to learn. This, we believe, will lead to revival of communities and help build their capacity to fulfil their functions and duties for their own betterment.
  • We cannot be mere consumers of good governance; we have to co-create it.

39 current and 56 past grantees

What’s interesting about RNP vis-a-vis others in the Top 10 list is that it’s the only organization NOT focused on one vertical. Shiv Nadar, Azim Premji, Mukesh Ambani, Anil Agarwal, and Gautam Adani are all focused on Education; Rahul Bajaj and Godrej Family on Livelihood Enhancement; and Cyrus Poonawala on Sanitation. RNP stands alone in having given grants across 10+ categories - a staggering 95 organizations have received grants (of which 39 are current grantees). Grants across multi-category suggest that Rohini (unlike most billionaire philanthropists) is thinking less of legacy (and more on thesis formulation) in the first few decades of giving.

The Ken summarizes RNP’s giving into 6 high-level categories:

  • Climate & biodiversity (26%)
  • Societal platform (24%)
  • Water (15.5%)
  • Active citizenship (9.6%)
  • Young men & boys (9.45%)
  • Others (15%) —> think tanks, Education, Arts & Culture, Media Accountability, everyday giving, etc.

The third pillar —> Societal Platform

From the Ken interview and parsing RNP’s website, it’s evident that Raghuram Rajan’s Third Pillar may have had a non-trivial role in charting the future of the Nilekanis’ philanthropy. Janet Yellen has this rousing endorsement of Rajan’s book - “successful democracies require balance between competitive markets, honest governments, and healthy, local communities. But our communities have been ravaged by globalization and ICT. Restoration of that third pillar is therefore the most essential task facing policymakers today.”

If Nandan’s first act was focused on Bazaar (markets), his second at the intersection of Sarkaar (state) and Bazaar, his third act (in partnership with Rohini) aims to play at the intersection of samaaj, sarkar, and bazaar.

Rohini credits a Bihar-based partner (Premji) for providing a historical framework and injecting a curiosity that ultimately led her to the anchor purpose - to “strengthen Samaaj” so that it “aligns Sarkaar and Bazaar to our collective purpose of a good society”. She’s pretty clear that Samaaj ain’t no ‘tertiary’ pillar. In her own words,

Because the samaaj sector is not the third sector; it’s the first sector. Bazaar was created for samaaj. Sarkaar was created for samaaj. Not the other way around. We are citizens first. We can’t be consumers or markets first. We can’t be subjects of a state first. Getting more people to be inspired by the possibility of acting as citizens first is what I try to work on.

Rohini’s journey to her current thesis (also Nandan’s now) has been preceded by three major inflection points: Arghyam (a deep-dive into the water & sanitation sector) followed by Pratham Books & Akshara Foundation and finally EkStep (an open educational platform) which was her first official joint venture with Nandan.

Societal Platform as described on their website:

Societal Platforms is an approach to inspire systemic change at scale. Imagine an environment where actors from civil society, government and markets can combine their efforts towards a unified purpose. And as they co-create diverse and sustainable solutions, they add to what is a dynamic, ever-evolving resource base. In time, the solutions and knowledge assets diversify, as their impact grows exponentially.

The Societal Platform approach, at its heart, aspires to build the playground necessary for this kind of co-creation. By bringing together risk capital, deep technology skills, a commitment to the commons, and strong mission leadership – it seeks to help…

Decoding Societal Platform

While each of Nandan’s prior platform plays (Aadhaar, India Stack/UPI, Sahamati/Account Aggregator) — in a leading or supporting role — were easy to pin-down in terms of scope & impact, Societal Platform looks to be a different beast.

Societal Platform spans five themes (Lifelong learning, financial inclusion, preventive healthcare, sustainable habitats, emerging livelihoods) and supports 11 organizations (now called “missions”):

  • aastrika (Respect & dignity for women under childbirth)
  • Arghyam (Enable water security for all)
  • Avanti (Access to affordable financial services)
  • Digital Green (Empower smallholder farmers)
  • eGov Foundation (Catalyzing urban transformation)
  • EkStep (Connect every child to learning)
  • Platform for Inclusive Entrepreneurship - PIE (Enable an ecosystem of rural enterprises)
  • Project Echo (Democratize medical knowledge)
  • reap benefit (Empower youth to be citizen champions)
  • ShikshaLokam (Empower school leaders)
  • storyweaver - Pratham Books (A book in every child’s hand)

In parsing the who we are page, it appears that EkStep Foundation has grown up to become Societal Platform.

On what success will look like

In The Ken interview, Nandan and Rohini were both asked what success (in 3-5 years) would look like for Societal Platform. Nandan calls out EkStep and eGov Foundation in his reply:

We are now fairly confident that in the education space, societal platform thinking will have a big impact in the coming years on learning and learning outcomes in India. So, that would be a big win.

EkStep had built an open-source platform called Sunbird, which the government is now using as part of Diksha . That is having a huge impact on so many things, like teacher training.

There’s the eGov Foundation, which is rolling out municipal systems in several thousand cities. If those systems then build an ecosystem of players around them, which gives citizens more benefits, I would call that as a success.

Rohini’s reply is nuanced and tinged with humility:

I’m very hopeful that success means two kinds of successes. One is where we are still actually directly involved in helping ourselves and others do societal platform thinking and apply it to complex societal problems. Whether it’s with water and Arghyam, or education and EkStep, or something as simple as getting birdwatchers together on a national platform around the environment.

We have not dropped down from somewhere. We have also learnt from other people. We also stand on the shoulders of other giants who have tried to effect change globally.

It’s nice that some of the things we are talking about are being talked about globally in other situations and other institutions. People are reaching out to us to ask how can we work together, how can we collaborate?

For me, that is the beginning of a success that I hope will lead many others to invest themselves. Philanthropists, civil society organisations, governments, markets should invest in this broader idea underpinning societal platforms.

Together, if we can reduce the friction to collaborate, and philanthropy backs some of the risks along the journey, then I think we will be able to see change happening at scale with samaaj.

The Ken interview is eminently worth a read so if you’d like a trial subscription code, post a comment or reply to this email.