What makes the content of a conference – as opposed to the networking opportunities – memorable? Everyone will have a different answer to that question, but I believe that most people would include the following: entirely new information about an important issue combined with robust dialogue about the implications of and possible actions one can take based on that information. By this standard, Indiaspora’s Philanthropy Summit, held at Georgetown University in partnership with the Georgetown India Initiative on July 17, 2018, was a success.
The bookends of this daylong gathering, organized by and for “Givers, Doers and Thinkers,” were a morning presentation of a new survey of Indian-Americans and their philanthropic behaviors and preferences and, at the end, a rousing call to action by Indiaspora founder M.R. Rangaswami. In between, panelists, keynote speakers, and members of the audience took part in an invigorating dialogue about what Diaspora philanthropy is and can be, especially in light of the survey findings. The Summit included a dynamic commentary on Twitter by energized participants who used #GiveDoThink.
Swetha Totapally, an associate partner to Dalberg Advisors, presented the major insights gleaned from analyzing the responses of more than 800 Indian-Americans to a survey that she and her colleagues designed with Indiaspora and that was promoted by respected nonprofits such as American India Foundation, Pratham USA, and the Foundation for Excellence.
The big news: Indian-Americans volunteer at twice the rate of the American public but donate significantly less. In fact, the survey suggests a giving gap of $2-3 billion every year – which is the difference between what Indian-Americans give (roughly $1 billion) and what they would give if they matched other Americans in their generosity. Not surprisingly, and as hoped, these findings have been picked up by the media and have sparked extensive discussion and debate.
Prior to the presentation of the survey results, two senior U.S. government officials – Tom Vadja of the Department of State and Gloria Steele of the U.S. Agency for International Development – addressed the Summit and were gracious and open enough to take questions. Vadja reflected on the foundation of shared values between India and the United States, including philanthropic values, and noted the many ways both nations were influencing the global agenda.
World renowned lawyer Nishisth Desai, who travelled from Mumbai just to join the Summit, spoke next. He talked about regulatory issues related to philanthropy in India today and also about the exciting areas of impact investing, social business, and purpose-driven finance that bridge the worlds of philanthropy and business.
Indiaspora Executive Director Sanjeev Joshipura, during a morning panel that he moderated, asked noted philanthropy experts how they felt about the survey results and what they thought they meant. Several mentioned generational and gender divides in terms of Indian-American giving, and that as women and younger people take a bigger role in making philanthropic decisions, the “giving gap” may close.
During that session, Bala Venkatachalam, the Executive Director of Pratham USA, mentioned that some organizations had reached much larger size than others but added that while scale was important, it was not the only thing that mattered. Gouri Sadhwani, the Executive Director of the Akanksha Fund, applauded that sentiment and noted that her organization was not trying to solve the entire education crisis in India but rather create a “model of excellence” that others could learn from and apply.
Next, Sunil Wadhwani and Frank Islam gave keynote addresses about what they had accomplished and learned while giving away millions of dollars to causes they support. Wadhwani’s progress in making “system-level changes” in how health care is delivered in Rajasthan through his WISH Foundation was one of the most compelling stories told during the entire Summit.
A panel that I moderated titled “Philanthropic Organizations: Collaborators or Competitors?” looked at the reality and potential of non-profit organizations working together rather than in isolation from each other. Throughout the rest of the day, themes from this session came up repeatedly and shaped how other topics were discussed.
A panel chaired by Ranjani Saigal of Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation USA got into more depth about philanthropic strategies to create lasting social change. Neelam Chhiber of Industree Foundation made the striking observation that China’s economic progress were what led to many of the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals and that it would be up to India to do the heavy lifting for ensuring progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. He further argued that progress on poverty in India should not be driven by rural-to-urban migration but instead by imbuing a culture of ethical consumption grounded in village-level production that is compliant with humanistic and eco-friendly standards.
Atul Satija, CEO of The/Nudge Foundation, noted that India was so busy “building the economy” that it forgot about building a society. Non-profits can address that omission, especially if their capabilities are enhanced.
Geetha Murali, CEO of Room to Read, gave the final keynote of the day. She explained her organization’s laser focus on improving student outcomes and, in response to a question, defended not getting overly focused on using technology and gadgets for their own sake or because doing so had become a new philanthropy fad.
The final panel on impact investing was one of the most stimulating of the day. Vineet Rai, the founder of Aavishkaar, echoed Bala’s comments about scale being important but not the only metric by saying that impact investing had a role to play in addressing India’s needs but it was no substitute for philanthropy, which was still very much needed. He also argued that there was an urgent need to develop improved infrastructure and greater regulatory support – what he referred to as “the plumbing” – necessary to allow impact investing to really take off in India in the coming years.
Respected philanthropist Deepak Raj, the chairman of Pratham USA and a donor to many worthy causes, shared that integrating a more aggressive major gift program had produced impressive results and that approach could be replicated by other organizations to increase donations.
Finally, MR Rangaswami urged everyone to share the survey findings, increase philanthropic collaboration, better understand why Indian-Americans are so generous to higher education, and develop a higher level of trust between Indian-American donors and the non-profit organizations they support. He thanked all the event sponsors and also the Indiaspora staff team, especially Gabrielle Trippe who served as the M.C. for the entire event.
This Philanthropy Summit built nicely on Dasra’s Philanthropy Forum 2018 held the prior week in California and will feed into the Indiaspora Forum scheduled for September, which will have philanthropy as one of its core themes. Clearly, 2018 is turning out to be a watershed year for dialogue and action around Indian-American generosity. Before long, the giving deficit may be transformed into a surplus. If so, this Summit may become known as the gathering that helped alter the trajectory of Diaspora philanthropy and in so doing ensured that critical humanitarian needs were addressed and even resolved.
Alex Counts is Indiaspora’s Senior Philanthropy Adviser. He previously served as President and CEO of American India Foundation, and prior to that, worked with Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus in several capacities, including founding and running Grameen Foundation for 18 years. He is author of “Small Loans, Big Dreams,” published by John Wiley & Sons.