Giving Journeys: Signing in to Help Build an Equitable India

2245306787_04d79a402bMy friend, Priya Viswanath, is a philanthropic consultant based in Delhi, India. She was formerly the CEO of Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) India and is on the governing council of Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium, (APPC). Priya has written and published extensively on the topics of corporate, diaspora and local philanthropy. Her book, Diaspora Indians: On the Philanthropy Fast Track, provided ground-breaking research on the Indian diaspora in the US, UK, Far and Middle East and their contributions to India’s development.

On April 16th 2010, India lost one of her illustrious sons – Professor C K Prahalad.

CK as he was popularly known was Paul and Ruth McCracken Distinguished University Professor of Corporate Strategy and taught at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan since 1977. The recipient of many honors and awards, Prahalad’s most recent accolades included a 2009 Padma Bhushan, one of India’ highest civilian honours.

A hallmark of Prahalad’s career was his belief that business must serve the cause of humanity as it produces profit. This theme was established early on in his work on strategic intent, arguing that imagination, not resources, was a key driver of corporate performance. He continued to build on his work exploring the human impact of business as he developed new strategic frameworks. His most ambitious work, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, outlined a model for large firms to engage with the world’s poor, significantly changing the assumptions of governments, corporations and NGOs about how to address the issue of global poverty.

His students, colleagues, industry leaders, friends and admirers continued to remember him and the impact he made on their lives and thinking. A friend and senior industry leader who had interacted with him in significant ways and was shaken by his loss wrote to me saying “an Indian magazine asked me to write a tribute to CK. Instead of recalling our several interactions, keeping the spirit of what he taught us, I decided to crystal-ball-gaze and write what he would have focused on in the coming days.” CK had just helped Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) craft the vision for India@75. In it, he had captured the dreams and desires of people from a cross-section across the length and the breadth of the country to build a nation that would be full of opportunities for every Indian, a nation that would see education, health and infrastructure and concern for the environment.

Subroto Bagchi in a wonderful memorium written that weekend describes CK as a crusader like no one else. “He wanted to see his motherland at par with the developed countries of the world that he straddled with the ease of an eagle. Wherever he went, from boardrooms in the US to think tanks in Europe or in his own country, he would ask people to do two things: to look at why something could not be done very differently and two, raise  their expectations from their own selves ten, hundred, and sometimes, a thousand times… CK saw the future like no one did. He was gifted by the Goddess of Learning with the ability to connect the dots, going forward. Most people can do it, only looking backwards.3”

“Everyone’s favourite compassionate capitalist is not satisfied with the 100,000 jobs he’s already helped to create” – this was how the Mint Lounge introduced yet another of India’s favourite sons – N R Narayana Murthy on April 17th 2010. Mr. Murthy is said to be hard at work replicating another Silicon Valley success story. Narayana Murthy along with wife Sudha and Arjun Ramegowda Narayan, a 28 year old MIT graduate set up a venture capital fund Catamaran that will support innovative entrepreneurs in their attempt to create scalable, globally competitive businesses within India. The Infosys Chairman and Sudha Murthy sold a chunk of their shares in the company worth Rs. 174.3 crores and Rs. 430 crores respectively to start up the fund. “Funding smart entrepreneurs who will leave a mark on society would be an obvious thing to do for Mr. Murthy” as the author remarked. The past three decades has seen Narayana Murthy “advocating for the creation of jobs as the quickest way of eradicating poverty.”

The same weekend yet another article caught my eye – On Two Wings and a Prayer – the story was on Azim Hashim Premji and an idea that had very few backers – two leaders running one business. He was repeating what he had done two years before at Wipro only this time it was at the Azim Premji Foundation (APF). The Managing Director of Wipro Infrastructure Engineering Anurag Behar was being moved to manage the Foundation jointly with Dilip Ranjekar, APF’s illustrious CEO and veteran. “In many ways, the opportunity here (at APF) was no different – We have a huge mandate, large canvas, two very accomplished leaders who have worked together and (the) benefit of the Wipro experience. So why not use it here?” says Premji (India Forbes, April 2, 200, p. 59). Today, APF set up with a modest $125 million donation from Premji works at improving 20,000 government schools in 9 states and had just received permission to set up a private university in Karnataka. 

The philanthropy lexicon is often all about “giving money”. As I read about these three high achievers almost back to back, I must admit I thought about “giving” in a different light. Men who had straddled the globe, built world class companies and had made their monies could just about call it a day. But what is it that differentiates them from others? Their wealth undoubtedly and in CK’s case his power and influence to leverage. But do they necessarily have to use their time, knowledge and skill set to help build an equitable India?

Indrajit Gupta in Call of the Nation a cover story he wrote in Forbes India earlier this year focusses on four Indians – Arun Maira (Boston Consulting Group), Nandan Nilekani (Infosys), Shailesh Gandhi (Civil Society/RTI) and military veteran Raghu Raman who were called on by the Prime Minister for Public Service. Giving up their corporate lives and all the frills that go with it, these four leaders are now applying their management acumen to large scale projects that would impact millions of Indians. And they are leading these critical change initiatives under very difficult and challenging circumstances hitherto unknown in their day jobs.

When I mentioned I was thinking of “compassionate capitalists” for my column on Facebook several learned friends called it an Oxymoron and one went on to say “Nice to hear you are dreaming of ‘Compassionate capitalists’. I assume that it is in the same way as I dream of Fairies at the bottom of the garden”! But I am an optimist, always believing in the goodness of men and their intent (unless they prove otherwise and in some instances they have as well).

The world is a complex place and India perhaps as no other time before needs infusion of skills and expertise – money too but I have always seen money follows good ideas! So maybe the philanthropy lexicon needs to change. “Giving Time” is as valuable for the country and development as is “Giving Money”. We certainly cannot afford to buy this expertise or the wisdom that goes with it.

The baby boom generation has matured. There is good sociological evidence that many among that generation are searching for personal validation and meaning within their lives and that philanthropy and service represent increasingly important ways to achieve such meaning. Research by The Independent Sector in the US has shown that the most generous years for many individuals are their 50s and 60s.

The question today is do we have the “collective will” to learn from these inspiring stories and draw down on these invaluable resources and their offerings. In my line of work, I have met many from the generation approaching that cusp. They are not in the league of Narayana Murthy or Azim Premji or other messiahs. But those that have “demonstrated will”! Maybe it is time for us to seriously capitalize on them to bring change in our world.

Credible leadership is of the essence. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s credibility brought these folk over the line; CK’s passion and missionary zeal appealed to one and all. As a business leader I worked closely with once said “In its ultimate sense, leadership is about creating fellowship. Not the hysteria of fans for their icons, but the belief of people in people they trust.” Can we help build mutual trust and bring all on board to see real change happen? That is the need of the hour.

Republished with permission by author. Formerly published in the Centre for Advancement of Philanthropy, Mumbai, Philanthropy newsletter. Photo courtesy of rahuldlucca, Flickr, Creative Commons.

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