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Aug 08, 2011, 12.01 PM IST | Source: Forbes India

The art of giving

Rakesh Jhunjhunwala pledges a fourth of his wealth to charity at an event that saw donors and crusaders share the difficulties and concerns of giving

The art of giving
By: Jasodhara Banerjee/ Forbes India

Rakesh Jhunjhunwala pledges a fourth of his wealth to charity at an event that saw donors and crusaders share the difficulties and concerns of giving

On Monday evening, Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, investor and visionary at Rare Enterprises, often referred to as India’s Warren Buffet, made an announcement that added to his similarities with the US investor and philanthropist. Jhunjhunwala, ranked 1,062 among the world’s richest by Forbes, said he would pledge a fourth of his wealth to charity.

“I don’t really know how Forbes found out how much money I have… You should never ask a man his worth and a woman her age,” he said, laughing. “I have three children. But I will now think that I have four. Charity is my fourth child. And I shall divide my wealth between all four of them.”

Jhunjhunwala’s declaration has put him in a rare category of givers, but he admits it is a tough call. Giving is not quite as easy as it sounds. Writing the cheque is probably the easiest part. The serious concern is how that money is going to be used, for what purpose, and whether or not it has any impact.

GiveIndia’s First Givers Summit on Monday evening was about all this, and a little more.

The summit brings together people who want to make positive differences in the lives of those who are less privileged. For the sake of categorisation, these people can be divided into donors, facilitators, implementers and the likes (in the case of some, two or more categories may be combined). But the goals of all these categories of people are the same. What differ are their roles and their levels of involvement.

The summit is where all these people share their experiences, concerns and opinions. It also gives them an opportunity to hear some of the experts talk about how to go about doing it the right way. On Monday evening, this expert was Azim Premji who joined in through video conferencing from Bangalore. He talked about his initiation into the concept of giving and how he had grown with it. 

Premji highlighted, as one of his learnings, that not everything that is applicable in the business sector can be applied to the social sector. And this is simply because the parameters are completely different. 

So, neither can you look at short-term goals and gains (like the quarter-to-quarter results of a company), nor can you expect your efforts to show immediate results. Tenacity and patience are the key attributes that you would perhaps need the most, more so because you would be working far more closely with the government if you are trying to educate village kids rather than if you are making, say, soap.

However, there is one crucial aspect of business that is applicable to the social sector: The ability to scale up. And this involves the ability to recruit, train and power people. For Jhunjhunwala, giving money is not easy, because it is so difficult to know whom to trust. He recounted the life of his father, who was able to complete his B.Com because of a stranger who trusted him and funded his education. Giving, he said, is like going on a date. You go on a date, then get engaged and then get married. You start somewhere, and once you start enjoying it, you continue with it.  

For India’s most famous investor, picking a cause is like picking a stock. While selecting a stock, he looks at the company, the entrepreneur and the management, and then leaves the rest to his trust in God. Similarly, he chooses a cause, the right crusader, and puts his trust in it.  

But trust alone does not seem to work for Abhijit Banerjee, co-founder MIT-JPAL, who puts his faith in solid data. Armed with graphs and bar charts, Banerjee said that looking at philanthropy as an outsider provides an entirely new perspective. And intuition is really not good enough. Measurement is. “Donors need to be skeptical consumers,” he said, adding that they should always question the data that is presented to them. Else, “they will end up believing all kinds of stories”.  

Having worked with several NGOs over the past 15 to 20 years, Banerjee said that there are many who have the passion and put in a lot of hard work, but all that work often proves to be utterly useless. This is why creative measurement of impact — by asking the right questions — at every level is crucial. According to him, we should decide what we value, and then measure it, not the other way round.  

But asking the right questions, or any question for that matter, is not something our education system really encourages. In fact, as Ramji Raghavan, founder of Agastya Foundation, said, the traditional teaching methods give rise to what can be called “learned helplessness”. We are taught that things cannot be done. Curiosity is what led students of Agastya to bag awards at the national IRIS (Initiative for Research & Innovation in Science) awards.

“Two of my students were sitting beneath a tree on a hot afternoon. They wondered why it was cooler beneath a tree than standing out in the sun. This led them to ask if the leaves of different trees have different cooling capacities. This is how their IRIS project was born,” said Raghavan.

Shaheen Mistri, CEO, Teach for India, added to Banerjee’s concept of measurement by talking about the complexities involved in, say, measuring values and mindsets, and changes in these values and mindsets. Or measuring change in aspirations and ambitions.

Measuring the impact of social programmes was also the topic of a brief panel discussion, which included Abhijit Banerjee, Indrajit Gupta (editor, Forbes India), Venkat Krishnan of GiveIndia, Rakesh Jhunjhunwala and Stan Thekaekara (founder, Ashwini).

After all the talk on education — I could not help wondering why all the speakers of the evening were selected from the education sector and not a wider array of fields — it was refreshing to hear Thekaekara speak of land distribution among the rural poor and adivasis. Poverty is not always a number, as the government tends to make it, he said. It is more of a lived experience. And measurements, though necessary, may not always be able to tell the full story.

Summing up the different approaches that organisations are taking — for instance, Premji is improving upon the current infrastructure, while the Mittals are creating something entirely new — Gupta said that eventually there will be a merging of all the different paths and approaches. 

Donors, he added, are also taking the venture capitalist approach to funding social initiatives.

At one point, however, the panel discussion, with its diverse and interesting viewpoints, faced the threat of being high-jacked by a disagreement between an increasingly emotional Jhunjhunwala and a stoic Banerjee over the quantitative and qualitative nature of measurements.

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