Act of giving: Philanthropy across generations in India

Meher Pudumjee, Aga's daughter and Thermax chairperson, too is involved with the foundation. Although they both agree that the foundation will focus on education, they have different ways of working


In a municipal school in Pune, Anu Aga picks up a broom and bucket. A gasp of disbelief resonates across the gathering of staff and students as the former chairperson of Thermax, the $1.1 billion engineering company, bends and starts scrubbing the toilet floor vigorously. She demonstrates to them how much water to use while cleaning and has them take turns to do the job.

“Anu got right into it and it was an example for me to follow,” says Shalini Sachdev, principal of KCT Vidya Niketan, one of the two municipal schools the company foundation has adopted. Set up in 2007, the Thermax Social Initiative Foundation is funded by 3% of the company’s pre-tax profits from this year; earlier, it was 1%, and was hiked after the March 2011 India visit by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, the world’s two biggest corporate philanthropists, who urged India’s wealthy to loosen their pursestrings to help the disadvantaged.

Meher Pudumjee, Aga’s daughter and Thermax chairperson, too is involved with the foundation. Although they both agree that the foundation will focus on education, they have different ways of working. “Anu will act immediately if I go to her with a problem,” says Sachdev. “Meher will take me through the paces and help me think it through first.”

Pudumjee also has a few causes she supports individually. “I am passionate about music and have helped someone go abroad to study music,” she says. This was sponsored from her own funds – both Aga and Pudumjee give away 30% of their dividend income to causes such as these. Like Aga and Pudumjee, three other wealthy families – the Nadars, the Kotharis and the Jindals – are also passing on the baton in philanthropy in a manner where both generations are working together to create impact. While the children are starting early and playing a central role, their parents, who came in late, are helping them with funds and direction.


The inspiration and force behind Aga’s philanthropic work was her son, Kurush, who died in a car accident at 25. Kurush, she says, was bothered by poverty in India. “He told me that poverty was like a mosquito trapped in a net,” says Aga. He encouraged her to give a substantial part of her earnings to the social sector.

The family had been giving individually and sporadically. But it was only in 2007 they decided to bring all their efforts under a corporate foundation. The belated response was partly because Aga, then 65, was busy steering Thermax following her husband’s death. It was also because she was insecure about losing her wealth. Her meeting with Buffett and Gates changed that notion and she decided to give more.

Even Hemendra Kothari started giving in earnest late, in 2007, at the age of 61. In spite of two generations before before him being involved with philanthropy, the fabled investment banker didn’t dive in. “You reach a stage in life where you feel comfortable and consider giving a part of your wealth to other people,” says Kothari, who, along with his daughter, Aditi, directs his money and efforts in to wildlife conservation.

16-year-old Roshni Nadar

By comparison, the younger generation is starting sooner and with more tunnelled thinking. In 1998, a 16-year-old Roshni Nadar, sat down with her father, HCL chairman Shiv Nadar, to have a serious conversation about her future. “She asked me if I would be disappointed if she didn’t study IT or do anything in the business line,” recounts Nadar. He told her to find something that gave her happiness and go with it. Today, Roshni Nadar is doing just that.

At her father’s insistence, she did an MBA in social enterprise from Northwestern University’s prestigious Kellogg Graduate School of Management. She then asked him to help her build a career in the social sector. Roshni joined HCL in 2008 at the age of 26 and has been working on building the brand. “No matter how much money you give, it will never be enough, but building a brand will last a long time,” says Nadar. Roshni is also behind bringing all the group’s philanthropic initiatives under the umbrella of the Shiv Nadar Foundation.

Its key initiatives are the Shiv Nadar University in the National Capital Region, the SSN college-level institutions in Chennai, and VidyaGyan, which seeks to educate the brightest students from economically weak sections of Uttar Pradesh in partnership with the state government.


In most cases, the big idea is clear and the focus sharp. Like the Thermax foundation, which supports decaying urban schools at a time when the social sector’s focus on education is rural. The foundation spends Rs 15,000 per child per year on the 718 students in the two schools. This mostly goes into paying salaries and maintenance costs, while the government provides uniforms, textbooks and stationery. Or, the Kotharis, who are using their two foundations to protect wildlife. Their Wildlife Conservation Trust has adopted 25 national parks and works with 40 NGOs to influence people living in and around forests against poaching.

The Hemendra Kothari Foundation, the family foundation, helps them in this endeavour by providing some of life’s essentials: healthcare, job training and educational facilities. So, it conducts healthcare camps in villages. Last year, it started offering vocational training to provide them livelihood alternatives besides the forest. According to Kothari, the foundation has reached out to 5,000 people, spending Rs 8,000 per person for a threemonth course. “With charity, execution is important,” says Kothari, chairman of DSP BlackRock Investment Managers. “Funds need to be utilised well for the objective.”

It’s why daughter Aditi, an executive vice-president in DSP BlackRock, wants that professionals should run the foundation and that it should not depend solely on family funds. “The idea is for it to run independently,” says Aditi.

While Kothari’s interest lies in conserving wildlife and protecting the natural ecosystem of forest areas, Aditi is more passionate about education. Last year, she engaged with Teach for India, a not-for-profit organisation that wants to create leaders who will work to eliminate educational inequity, and Dasra, the philanthropic foundation, to support their work as part of DSP BlackRock’s corporate social responsibility activities. She is also introducing her father to new-age philanthropic organisations like Dasra and Samhita, which act as facilitators between donors and empanelled NGOs. “I am more academic in my approach to giving,” says Aditi. “I do a lot of research and interact with the organisations.”


While most scions prefer to manage, Tanvi Jindal Shete likes being on the ground. The daughter of Sajjan and Sangita Jindal did a short stint at the family’s JSW Foundation before joining Teach for India. She currently teaches in one of the Akanksha schools in Mumbai. “I believe in giving time more than donating money,” said Tanvi at the Dasra Philanthropy Forum in June.

Sangita Jindal, who heads the JSW Foundation, focuses on the arts and the well-being of communities residing around the group’s operations. Her approach to giving is different from her daughter’s. “She believes in the ultimate community benefit and does not mind doing this incognito,” says Sangita. “I seek collaboration, but perhaps also a distinctive identity.”

The younger generation, like Tanvi, is more focused on understanding the work ground up. They spend time with a grassroots organisation to understand the issues they are grappling with.

Deval Sanghavi, co-Founder and CEO of Dasra, says second-generation givers tend to move away from an own-and-operate model. “The next generation is more strategic in its funding and pushing families to find existing organisations to scale up,” says Sanghavi.

Implementing vision

The Thermax foundation, for example, focuses on the NGOs that are implementing its vision, not at the emerging space of funding for-profit social enterprises or executing internally. “Even in our business, we have grown organically. Developing metrics for social businesses will take a long time. We can see the impact of our work with NGOs now,” says Pudumjee, adding that the door is always open to explore newer models. Shaheen Mistri, founder of Akanksha Foundation and founding CEO of Teach for India, asked the Thermax mother-daughter to join her board.

“They are different,” says Mistri. “While Anu has a strong understanding of people, Meher is very detail-oriented and a strategic thinker.” Aga has helped Mistri deal with conflict resolution at the grassroots level and hiring, while Meher helps her with managing finances and discusses strategy.

When the adoption process for the two schools was going on with the Pune Municipal Commission, Pudumjee wanted to finish the paperwork before starting, but Aga wanted to start. “I felt if we kept waiting for all the details, we would never start,” says Aga.

What is emerging is a greater focus on impact rather than recognition. As Sangita Jindal admitted, she seeks personal recognition, but her daughter doesn’t. It’s yet another stage in the evolution of philanthropy in India, one that feeds off a parent-child engagement, and is characterised by new ideas, greater organisation, collaborative giving and more resources.

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