By Lauren Bradford
Recently, Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace, in association with Alliance magazine, Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS), and the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy at Ashoka University, released a highly anticipated thought piece on the emerging philanthropic sector in India, one of the largest and most rapidly changing countries in the world.
The report, a working paper by Caroline Hartnell, titled simply Philanthropy in India, draws on interviews with key local actors to inform us about the varying types of philanthropy, illustrate some of the current challenges and opportunities, and throw light on the history of and approaches to philanthropy in India. The report does not purport to answer all questions or predict trends, nor does it present hard numbers on giving or impact, but it does start to give an intelligible and exciting glimpse into the complexities and highly varied contexts in which philanthropy operates in a country as multifaceted as India. Because of this, the report, understandably, offers only partial views into Indian philanthropy, so it raises as many questions as it answers.
Giving by the middle class is rapidly on the rise – this is one insight offered by Hartnell’s paper that I believe is extremely important to pay attention to, as it may be the most significant trend in Indian philanthropy. Other findings – such as the lack of donor education about local contexts and the constantly competing interests of local and international NGOs – are more troubling but equally important, in that we see these issues over and over worldwide without improving our collective approach. And still other facts, such as that almost 33 per cent of the Indian population live below the international poverty line of US$ 1.25 per day and around 69 per cent live on less than $2 per day, left me with a strong call to action for philanthropy to respond to.
We often look for the silver bullet in reports, for clear answers to send us on our way, but I strongly believe that if we are going to solve recurring and new challenges and eradicate global poverty, we need to get more reflective about the facts to help us design the right solutions – this report helps me do exactly that.
Is too much funding going to education?
An important question the report raises for me is whether education funding is the most important lever for change in India and, subsequently, if everyone is funding education, who is funding everything else? Clearly, education is necessary to eradicating poverty, reducing inequality, and generally improving quality of life overall. Sadly, it is not possible to come up with a total figure for giving to education due to the lack of data. In the report, however, funding to education as a key focus is mentioned over 20 times, and is being undertaken by all different types of philanthropy. Bain & Co’s annual India Philanthropy Report, first produced in 2010 and most recently this year in 2017, claims that ‘the most popular causes in 2010 were education, food and housing – a list that hasn’t changed significantly to this day’ and, further, that ‘the 2012 report … noted the abiding desire of Indian philanthropists of all stripes to invest in education’. Education also received the most funding (32 per cent) from CSR activities according to recently released figures by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs.
The problem is that education alone will not solve our greatest development challenges; development issues are cross-cutting. Education will improve literacy, help female empowerment and develop technical skills. But students won’t be able to get jobs if the local economy is poor, if there are limited job opportunities because we have neglected to fund efforts to develop small and medium enterprises or entrepreneurship in general, or if flooding caused by climate change subsequently destroys small lot farming, leaving people without their basic source of income. Even CAF India notes, of the projects that they managed in 2015-16, that the support mostly went to ‘safe’ areas such as education and care of the elderly.
Where is the vision and funding for non-education-based initiatives and approaches? Meenakshi Batra, CEO of CAF India, asks us to imagine what would happen if those people that are giving to education felt confident to give to all spheres of civil society. ‘It could yield vast resources to help solve the country’s most intractable social problems.’ Imagine.
While I believe funding education is noble and essential, how that funding is structured says a great deal about the value of these interventions. Who is being educated – those that can afford it or also the nation’s poorest? Are these funds going to quality of education, or to getting more seats in classrooms, or both? In the report, philanthropist Luis Miranda states, ‘a lot is being spent on education … but not enough on empowering communities and funding research on why the problems exist in the first place and how they can be effectively solved.’ Herein lies the nexus between research and education.
Why the lack of data to inform funding decisions?
India, ironically, is world renowned for its talent in data, coding and technology, and would seem to be the perfect place for such important work to be nurtured. However, this work does not yet seem to have been integrated into the philanthropy landscape. Why is this? The report suggests that one challenge for NGOs is that they are not ready to invest in technology or to scale operations by way of data because they feel they have insufficiently trained staff, poor quality databases, and inadequate funding to invest in online giving tools and promotional activities. But I wonder if somewhere beneath the surface some data is indeed being collected but not being shared due to lack of transparency, accountability or willingness, or maybe due to legitimate concerns around security or storage. Without visible sharing, it is also possible that the value of such data is not understood.
What about collaboration?
Finally, is collaboration a part of the philanthropic conversation in India? A discussion of collaboration, something of a buzzword in philanthropy of late, is very much absent from this report, which finds a lack of willingness of Indian philanthropy to work in partnership. This is not a new issue, but individual organisations cannot solve complex societal issues on their own. Philanthropy is part of a broader development ecosystem; by working with other organizations with a stake in development outcomes, philanthropy can begin to better leverage financial resources and human capital and skills.
Is Indian philanthropy indeed less eager to collaborate, to work in partnership and build bridges? Givers do seem to realize in theory that building social capital in communities can be difficult but necessary, and leveraging the existing relationships of local NGOs is a more strategic way of having impact on the ground, but there is little evidence that they are putting this into practice. The mutual mistrust between the wealthy and social activists seems likely to widen this divide even further.
Then there is collaboration with government. As Hari Menon of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation explains in the report, ‘interventions completely external to the government are unlikely to have the long-term sustainability and impact you can have if you do engage with and catalyse the government.’ Yet the ability and desire to work with government at all levels in India seems to be (not surprisingly) the exception, not the norm. The Azim Premji Foundation realized that they could do more than just make grants through partnership with the government, so they added ‘another component in the portfolio – systems-level work, which is really a matter of orchestrating a number of partners and working with the government to achieve a particular change.’
What role for the SDGs?
A framework that could help encourage and guide collaboration and assist funders to find partners and synergies across their work is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As someone who works across numerous countries all connected in their work through the SDGs, I paid extra attention to the role of the SDGs in Indian philanthropy.
The SDGs are a set of 17 cross-cutting goals created by a multi-stakeholder process and led by the United Nations to eradicate poverty by 2030. They position the service delivery development need for education (Goal 4) along with other thematic areas; they bring in an impact measurement component forcing the need for data (there are 169 targets and 230 indicators); and they encourage us to work in partnerships (Goal 17).
The SDGs Drivers Forum is just one local initiative that aims to catalyse national engagement of private stakeholders in the SDG processes. The SDGs can also help funders identify where blended finance mechanisms may be appropriate, and help them to better define outcomes. Funders looking for guidance should visit SDGfunders.org, which was designed to highlight who is funding which goals and where. The site also provides an SDG Indicator Wizard, a tool that allows organizations to identify exactly which goals, targets and indicators are relevant to their work.
Philanthropy in India, as in all countries, will always face the tension between giving where it wants and giving where it is needed most, because people care about issues that drive their values and passions, and that affect their lives. I hope these questions stimulate people who represent all types of philanthropy, from foundations to high net worth individuals and the growing cadre of middle-class givers, to think more deeply about how data, research, partnerships and understanding the cross-cutting nature of development issues can increase the impact of their investments in India, so we can achieve more effective grantmaking and development outcomes there.
Lauren Bradford is the Director of Global Partnerships at the Foundation Center.