The New Good Samaritans

A new crop of successful professionals are giving back to society and it’s not just cheque-book charity

Published: 08th August 2015 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 08th August 2015 09:22 AM   |  A+A-

Philanthropy is not restricted to established business houses like the Tatas and Birlas. A new crop of successful professionals are giving back to society and it’s not just cheque-book charity

“The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful than a thousand heads bowing in prayer.” —Mahatma Gandhi

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For some, the seeds were sown when they were quite young, while for others certain incidents served as turning points in their life. An employee’s sudden demise altered Ranvir Shah’s view of life, while entrepreneur Ashish Dhawan had formed an idea, though nebulous, that when he touched 40, he would give back to society. An increase in profits for industrialist C V Jacob would help raise the outlay towards charity, while Infosys honcho Binod Hampapur Rangadore sought to build a hospital in his father’s memory.

Similar thoughts have sprung up in the minds of other equally successful entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. These are the new philanthropists on the block, many of them young and restless, setting a refreshing new tone to India’s giving outlook.      

Philanthropy is not new to Indian culture. It is replete with examples of generosity, charity and giving. Much before India’s charity poster boy Azim Premji, the legends of Karna in Mahabharata and Raja Harishchandra were symbols of unselfish benevolence. Even Lord Brahma’s instruction ‘da’ was interpreted by human beings as ‘datta’—to give in charity. The Bhagavad Gita says that one who enjoys abundance without sharing with others in indeed a thief. Yet in the latest World Giving Index covering 135 countries, with three parameters of giving—helping a stranger, volunteering time and donating money—India (69) is still far from its smaller neighbours, Sri Lanka (9) and Myanmar (1). It, however, fares better than other developing nations like China (128) and Brazil (90)—and has risen from 134 in 2010.

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This rise may be attributed to new laws and domestic initiatives like the Reliance Foundation and NALCO Foundation (both set up in 2010) which have come up in the past five years. The government’s Corporate Social Responsibility rules mandate that companies with at least Rs 5 crore net profit, or Rs 1,000 crore turnover or Rs 500 crore net worth spend a minimum 2 per cent of their profits on activities beneficial to society.

A few years ago, Warren Buffet’s and Bill Gates’ appeal to wealthy Indians to join the Giving Pledge, a world philanthropic movement, was received with a few smiles. Thankfully, Premji made up for the embarrassment when he offered to sign up, making good his pledge by transferring 12.5 per cent of his holding in Wipro—worth $2.2 billion—to a public charitable trust named after him.

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Moreover, everyone sees charity through a different lens. When steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal was asked about philanthropy in 2006, he replied that he was “too young for charity”. He was 55 then. Whereas the 26-year-old, co-founder of the successful start-up Housing.com, Rahul Yadav, recently gave away his personal shares worth some Rs 200 crore to his 2,000-plus employees stating that it was “too early to get serious about money”. Thankfully, India Inc. has a lot many Rahuls. And it is not just cheque-book charity, rather an involvement that is every bit challenging and fulfilling.

Fulfilment that went beyond personal needs was what Delhi-based social entrepreneur Gauri Gopal Agrawal was looking for. This 28-year-old with a master’s degree in finance and economics from Warwick Business School, England, had visited Peru in 2009. Working with a non-profit organisation there, Agrawal got an insight into the borrowing habits of Peruvian families along with developing business models for small-scale entrepreneurs. This experience came in handy, when she, bored with the job of a quantitative analyst at Deutsche Bank, left it to start Skilled Samaritan, a social enterprise to enable the use of solar power to light villages and schools, zeroing in first on Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Anxious to bring about a tangible change, she began by devising financial models by which rural communities paid for the services and products provided to them, since philanthropy does not necessarily mean charity. The first electrification project that she installed in Sirohi (40 km from Delhi) had a four-member committee collecting a monthly energy charge of Rs 70 from each household. The money collected is ploughed back into the initiative. Last year, Skilled Samaritan spent Rs 3 lakh lighting up 35 houses in Khoiri village using mini grids, in addition to Rs 3.5 lakh on stand-alone systems there, with another Rs 2 lakh spent this year to light five schools in Uttar Pradesh.

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Harvard and Yale-educated Ashish Dhawan, 46, who made his money in the venture capital and private equity business, had it all chalked out early on—entrepreneur in his 20s and focusing on the social sector (mainly his passion—education) when he reached his 40s. And on both counts, Delhi-based Dhawan came up trumps, with him setting up Chryscapital in 1998 and then stepping down from the corporate world to start Central Square Foundation (CSF) in February 2012, which would focus exclusively on K12 (kindergarten to class 12) education. Says Dhawan: “We have accumulated a significant base of knowledge, becoming a go-to place for the school system of education; second is, of course, being a capital provider and helping young social entrepreneurs get started; and thirdly becoming a good system player, like, for instance, we provided a common platform to bring together those involved in school leadership.” And he is putting his money where his mouth is. Last year, CSF spent Rs 4.43 crore on grant-making, research and programme development, and general management. Besides CSF, the successful banker has played a significant role in building Ashoka University, a top liberal arts university launched in 2014. So far, it has spent about Rs 170 crore on land and infrastructure in Sonepat with plans to raise Rs 550 crore from philanthropists, corporate and HNIs by the middle of next year.

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Another Harvard fellow, Akshay Saxena, also an IIT graduate, set up Avanti Fellows to help coach students from lower-income group families for IIT and other engineering college entrance exams. In this, he was joined by his friend and IITian Krishna Kumar. Says Saxena: “I was moved by the plight of students from middle and low- income group families who were bright but could not crack the IIT exams as they could not afford the high coaching fees, relying instead on borrowed books. Also, at Harvard, I was inspired by the work done by ‘Quest Bridge’ USA that helped the underprivileged gather high level education.” Avanti Fellows was developed on similar lines in 2010 by Krishna Kumar with Akshay providing guidance from the US and on his return to India, fully involving himself with the venture. Avanti has a non-profit centre and a profit centre. Last year, it spent Rs 1 crore on the former, while pitching in with Rs 4 crore towards the profit centre.

Binod Hampapur Rangadore, Executive VP and Global Head of Talent and Technology Operations at Infosys Ltd, embarked on his role of a responsible corporate citizen when he funded the establishment of 150-bed Rangadore Memorial Hospital in Bengaluru in 2007. Named after his father, the late HS Rangadore, the 52-year-old is serving as the hospital’s chairman in an honorary capacity. Every Saturday has him visiting the hospital and taking interest in its management. It is not an easy task for one who is the global head of an IT major. “I got the first building of the hospital constructed and handed it over to the Sringeri Mutt. Later, with help from Bangalore Kidney Foundation, it became a dialysis centre,” he says. Following a cross-subsidy model, it benefits poor patients greatly with more than 2,200 dialysis procedures (at the lowest fee) and 200 surgeries performed every month. Just like the Murthys of Infosys, Rangadore is also reticent when it comes to disclosing the amount donated towards charity. “It runs into crores of rupees” is only what he will reveal. Rangadore has plans to build another hospital in Bengaluru very soon.

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Tragedy can be a great catalyst, spurring people on to greater things in life. While at the peak of his career, leading anesthesiologist Dr M Subramanyam was caught unawares when he lost both his parents to cancer. The personal loss pointed him in the direction of hundreds of terminally ill patients who, while undergoing painful trauma in the last stages of life, are also abandoned. This led to the birth of the hospice Sparsh in Hyderabad in 2011. The 53-year-old doctor says, “Over the last five years, the facility located in the Banjara Hills area has been able to support more than 600 dying patients, who enjoy free stay and medical care. There are no restrictions on visitors, and attendants are given free stay and food. So far, 175 home visits have been done.” Sparsh is managed by trustees and volunteers and funded by donations. In the last financial year, it spent Rs 41 lakh on Sparsh. “The members of the club came forward to celebrate Dussehra and Diwali with the patients, followed by dinner. We do this to bring a change from the usual monotony of unrelenting sickness,” he says.

Similarly an incident that took place almost two decades ago transformed the approach of the managing director of a large apparel company Ranvir Shah. Having dropped off his children to school by car, on the way back his driver died within minutes of having suffered a cardiac arrest. The incident both shocked and made him realise the transitory nature of life. Out of that realisation and a keenness to fulfil his dream, Shah started Prakriti Foundation with an initial investment of Rs 15 lakh, with a goal to promote the cultural scene. With his wife’s prodding, a few events were organised at home and other modest venues. The third year onwards, things gained momentum. Today, 17 years on, the foundation has spent more than a crore (last year it spent Rs 50 lakh on various events). It is providing the people of Chennai, their regular dose of art, heritage and cultural stimulation. Mostly all the events are free and open to all. Says Shah, “My role is to curate these wonderful festivals, lectures, and events and share them with everyone around. The accident that happened years ago, changed my perspective about life and what one can do with it. I live without regrets.”

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Taha Jodiawala has a master’s degree in management studies and a diploma in social work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. When Jodiawala used to commute to college, he would see poor children trying to eke out a living selling flowers and baubles. He made up his mind to better their lot. Thus, Hamara Footpath was established in 2001, with a volunteer base that includes counselors, educationists and mentors from all walks of life. The organisation’s primary goal is to get the footpath dwellers off the streets by providing housing for them and helping children secure proper education. “Our focus is mainly on children, providing and facilitating education, vocational training and rehabilitation of underprivileged children,” Jodiawala elaborates. The social entrepreneur has another wing ‘Rubaru’ which deals with child sex abuse and its prevention. So far, Hamara Footpath has spent around Rs 16 lakh on various projects including medical camps and treatments, with Rs 2.5 lakh being spent last year.

“Money is important, but how much really” is a question that Dr Priya Virmani wonders almost once every day. Possibly, the 35-year-old entrepreneur has worked it all out for apart from founding Empower Art, a company that provides corporate consultancy and training to maximise company efficiency through experiential processes, she is the brain behind a humanitarian project, Paint our World, which aims at emotionally empowering children with disturbed pasts. Physiologically verified activity therapy classes are imparted regularly. These include dance, music, skits, art, story-telling and more, the syllabus for which is designed by some of the best psychologists in India. “We work with under-served children who have been through unimaginable trauma like rape, sexual abuse and becoming orphaned,” she says.

If there was a vote for the oldest philanthropist on the block, C V Jacob, the 83-year-old chairman of Rs 500-crore Synthite Group, based in Kadayiruppu, Kerala, would win easily. “I wish our profit surges so that I can raise the outlay allotted to charity to Rs 5 crore annually,” he says.

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Seventeen years ago, when the then chief minister of Kerala late K Karunakaran, needed aid for the Cochin International Airport Ltd, Jacob readily gave away Rs 25 lakh. Teaming up with the United India Insurance Company, the C V Jacob Foundation introduced the Viswa Arogya Medical Insurance scheme (up to Rs 30,000 yearly) for people below the poverty line in Aikaranadu.

Other projects include reconstruction of a government hospital at Kadayirippu, constructing houses for the poor under the ‘Parpeddam’ scheme, and undertaking community projects (drinking water) in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Last year, the foundation spent around Rs 1.5 crore on its various philanthropic projects. Even the company employees enjoy this largess with a pension scheme for them.

In a state where strikes are the order of the day, the company has not seen labour unrest in the past 36 years nor does it have a union.

With more professionals ready to embrace the role of a responsible corporate citizen, it’s a matter of time before the community of givers widens.

With Suhas Yellapantula, Meera Bhardwaj, Uma Balasubramaniam, Shalet Jimmy, Ayesha Singh

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