It’s never too early or too little to start giving. Take baby steps, find a cause you are passionate about and set out on your philanthropic journey today, says Tata Sons director Amit Chandra

People should work harder to understand the social sector because its organisations and its people are solving much bigger problems than many companies are attempting to solve.”

— Amit Chandra, director, Tata Sons

More than a decade ago, my wife, Archana, and I asked ourselves a life-changing question: ‘How much is enough?’ We realised then that we needed a finite amount of money to live the life we desired. So, we decided that if we could somewhat cap the lifestyle we wanted, we could focus more on social sector pursuits.

Knowing how much is enough allowed us to pursue more interesting and meaningful things: it helped us contribute to building a university, a super-specialty paediatric hospital and a school for Musahar1 children, besides working in drought-affected areas. We could also invest our resources and time in setting up capacity building programmes for the social sector, promoting philanthropic platforms and helping build movements that celebrate kindness such as the Joy of Giving Week and Design for Change.

None of this would have even crossed our imagination when we started, largely because we felt limited by artificial mental constraints on how much to give in terms of time and money. Early on in my life, I didn’t have much money, so I gave my time. Then, as a busy professional, I started donating money. I soon realised that I enjoyed knowing that my skills were useful to organisations I was interested in. So, I gradually started giving both time and money.

Over time, Archana and I decided to undertake a more structured programme to allocate money to causes that we were passionate about. With the benefit of hindsight, we know we made a lot of mistakes. But it helped us become more thoughtful donors today — a journey that others can embark on too.

TAKE BABY STEPS

The biggest enemy of change is inertia. One needs to start experiencing something, in however small a manner, to make progress. When it comes to the social sector, potential givers always overthink, waiting for the elusive perfect moment.

Many of the people I know are business persons who understand investing. They are willing to invest in an imperfect stock, knowing fully well that it’s the only way to ultimately make money. With imperfect stocks, you start by investing a small amount, see how it performs and once you are comfortable with the stock’s performance, you enhance your allocation over time. Why isn’t this logic applied to nonprofits?

As an example, I recently met the CEO of a mid-sized nonprofit who told me that an individual she knew very well was hesitant to donate money to her nonprofit because it didn’t have a succession plan. Ironically, this well-wisher happens to be a sophisticated hedge fund manager and I can bet that 9 out of the 10 companies he has invested in don’t have robust succession plans.

People must approach the social sector with the same intelligence they use in other facets of life. Like everything in life, they have to be realistic that every experience will not be great. The key is to take the plunge, stick to whatever works and discard what doesn’t.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

People should work harder to understand the social sector because its organisations and its people are solving much bigger problems than many companies are attempting to solve. In the world of business, there are thousands of people solving one corporate problem. But how many people are trying to solve issues such as sexual abuse of the girl child and water sustainability, or developing an urban plan to make Mumbai more liveable?

These are issues that impact all of us in our lives today and tomorrow. In fact, their impact is far more powerful than what companies do. If a company goes bankrupt, another will take its place. But if civil society fails, what hope do we have?

Unfortunately, most of us have desensitised ourselves to our surroundings and we have all become ‘comfortably numb’. We are lulling ourselves into a sense of complacency.

There is a huge sense of misplaced pride that we, as a culture, are big givers. But data simply doesn’t support this. I spend a lot of time in rural India and I know that they are bigger givers than urban India; our poor are bigger givers than our wealthy.

In fact, when you look at the history of our philanthropy and the extraordinary donations made by families like Tata, Godrej and Bajaj in the early part of the 20th century, I feel we might well have been greater givers when we were a poor nation. As India becomes wealthier, we must introspect if we have become stingier with our wealth.

CELEBRATE GIVING

I fear that we Indians are beginning to celebrate consumption far more than we did earlier. In a country with so much inequity, this needs to change. For that to happen, we need society to celebrate giving. And we need more role models — wealth creators and professionals who give a large part of what they have in terms of money and / or time back to society.

The growth of philanthropy should reach a tipping point where it becomes a major national movement. And movements get from being nascent to real when they gather critical mass, when something magical happens and people look at it and say “this is the way we want to be”. I hope this happens before we have a cataclysmic event in our society.

My hope is that India reaches a point where we have so many compassionate capitalists that it becomes difficult to not emulate them. People should look at role models and want to give more: someone giving 2% of their wealth should want to give 10%, while someone at 10% should want to give 30%. And that should become the race. I hope it’s a race that philanthropists willingly get into instead of being mandated.

There are people shining the light, encouraging others. Chuck Feeney and others showed the light for Bill Gates, who showed the light for Warren Buffet. Gates and Buffet created the Giving Pledge and dozens of others have followed them, making it a movement. I hope that it happens in India and that we get to a stage where if you are an Indian billionaire who is not a signatory to the Giving Pledge, you are an exception.

SO, WHAT CAN YOU DO?

If we want to build the India of our dreams, we simply cannot afford to be disconnected from society’s problems. I have heard people say that they will start giving generously once they get to the level of Bill Gates or Azim Premji. But the fact is that there is no end to wanting to create more wealth.

Everyone should define their own capacity to give, but by setting a very high threshold for income before you start giving, you miss out on a great opportunity to experience the joy of giving. Start by setting a personal minimum bar for giving — 10% of your annual income is a good place to start. Don’t put off donating your time and money now in the hope that you will get to ‘being a Gates or a Premji’ at some point of your life.

If you are not able to give much monetarily, choose other ways to be engaged. Giving time is as valuable. It doesn’t even need to be an organisation that you give your time to — it can be unstructured volunteering to help someone in your neighbourhood.

It is also important to enjoy the journey of giving in terms of the people you interact with at the organisation you support. Therefore, as you deepen your engagement with the sector, think hard about some of the people and organisational choices you make.

While giving is an imperative in a society with massive inequity, it is also a huge opportunity for personal growth and for experiencing a kind of joy that is very different from what consumption offers. When we give, we really get a lot more.

1Musahars, found largely in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, are among the most disadvantaged communities in India.

Amit Chandra is a director on the board of Tata Sons. He is the managing director of Bain Capital, Mumbai, and a philanthropist. He is a trustee of Tata Trusts, a founder / board member of Ashoka University and a board member of Give India. He is also a member on the advisory boards of Bridgespan India, the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy, and Swades Foundation.

This article was first published in India Development Review (www.idronline.org).