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Philanthropy in India Report Sparks Questions…and Opportunity

December 11, 2017

Sdgs-circleRecently, 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 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. But because the report, understandably, offers only a partial view into Indian philanthropy, it raises as many questions as it answers.

Giving by the middle class in India is rising rapidly — this is one important insight offered by Hartnell's paper, 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 doing anything to change our collective approach. And still other findings, such as that almost 33 percent of the Indian population live below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day while around 69 percent live on less than $2 a day, provide a strong call to action for philanthropy to respond to.

We often look for the "silver bullet" in reports and 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; Hartnell's report helps us do exactly that.

Is too much funding going to education?

An important question raised by the report is whether education funding is the most important lever for change in India, and that begs another question: If everyone is funding education, who is funding everything else? Clearly, education is necessary to the eradication of poverty, reducing inequality, and generally improving quality of life overall. It isn't 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 twenty times and, as the report notes, is being done by all types of philanthropists and philanthropic entities. Bain & Company's annual India Philanthropy Report, first produced in 2010 and most recently this year, claims that "the most popular causes in 2010 were education, food and housing — a list that hasn't changed significantly to this day" and 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 percent) 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 can improve literacy, boost female empowerment, and contribute to the development of technical skills. But students won't be able to get jobs if the local economy is weak, 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 destroys small lot farming, leaving people without a basic source of income. Even Charities Aid Foundation India notes that of the projects it managed in 2015-16, 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 the people that are giving to education gave to support 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 essential, how that funding is structured says a great deal about the value of these interventions. Who is being educated — only those that can afford it, or the nation's poorest as well? Are the funds going to support educational quality, 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." Therein lies the nexus between research and education.

Why the lack of data to inform funding decisions?

India is world renowned for its talent in data, coding, and technology and would seem to be the ideal environment for such important work to be nurtured. But this work does not yet seem to have been integrated into the philanthropic landscape. Why? The report suggests that one challenge for NGOs is that they are not ready to invest in technology or to scale their operations with the help of data because they feel they don't have sufficiently trained staff, quality databases, and adequate funding to invest in online giving tools and promotional activities. I wonder, however, if somewhere beneath the surface some data is indeed being collected but not being shared due to a lack of transparency, accountability or willingness, as well as legitimate concerns around security or storage. Without active sharing, it is also possible that the value of such data is not well 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 the report, which finds a lack of willingness to partner to be characteristic of Indian philanthropy. It's not a new issue, but the fact remains that individual organizations cannot solve complex societal problems 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 its financial resources and human capital.

Is Indian philanthropy indeed less eager to collaborate, to work in partnership and build bridges? Givers do seem to realize (in theory at least) that building social capital in communities can be difficult but is necessary, and that 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 & Melinda Gates Foundation explains in the report, "[I]nterventions completely external to the government are unlikely to have the long-term sustainability and impact you can have if you do engage with and catalyze 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, for one, realized it could do more than just make grants through partnership with the government, so it 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?

One framework that could help encourage and guide collaboration and assist funders to find partners and synergies across their work is the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As someone who works across numerous countries that are connected in their work through the SDGs, I paid extra attention to the role outlined in the report of the SDGs in Indian philanthropy.

The SDGs are a set of seventeen 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 and the need for better 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 catalyze the national engagement of private stakeholders in the SDG process. The SDGs can also help funders identify where blended finance mechanisms may be appropriate and help them 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 a donor wants to give and giving where it is needed most; donors care about issues that align with their values and passions, and that affect their lives. I hope some of the questions I've raised stimulate others, 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 the cross-cutting nature of development issues can increase the impact of their investments in India, allowing all of us to contribute to more effective grantmaking and development outcomes there.

Headshot_lauren_bradfordLauren Bradford is director of global partnerships at Foundation Center. This post originally appeared on the Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace site.

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