offerings at the mosque

Offerings at a Mosque in India

The Malkani family made its fortune selling plane tickets and tour packages to India’s fast-expanding middle class, building one of the country’s first online travel agencies.  Now the Malkanis are among a growing number of successful Indian entrepreneurs blazing another trail: charitable giving.


“Earlier, if an Indian traveled, it was so rare that 25 people would see them off at the airport, garland them with flowers and print their picture in the newspaper,” said Anjal Malkani, whose husband helped her family start the business. “That has completely changed in India, and we’ve been so blessed in our lives to benefit. We wanted to give back.”

As India’s wealth continues to expand, a growing number of millionaires here are finding ways to do more for the poor, especially as cash-strapped foreign donors, including the United States, curtail aid.

The philanthropic mood extends to some of India’s biggest corporations, many of them IT companies at the forefront of India’s boom.

India has a long tradition of giving, and all major religions here – Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism – see charity as a cornerstone of a noble, happy life. Wealthy families have long built wells and schools in their native villages, and even the poorest Indians leave a rupee coin at a temple or mosque.

But organized, large-scale giving by wealthy Indians and corporations has only recently become common as India’s economy soars ahead.

“Old money really looked at alleviating poverty and community development – largely at factory sites – by providing services and facilities to their workers,” said Priya Viswanath, a philanthropy expert. “New money giving is really about empowerment.”

The number of Indian billionaires grew from 27 in 2009 to 52 this year, according to a report by Bain, a global consulting firm. Half of the top 25 Asian billionaires listed in a recent Forbes magazine survey were Indian.

During a visit to China last month, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett urged Asia’s billionaires to give more. India’s growing pool of super rich would be their next target, they said.

Where to invest?

Indian billionaires give more than billionaires in China but less than those in developed countries, including the United States, according to the Bain report.

The U.S. Agency for International Development gives India $131 million per year to fund girls’ education, farming programs and solar energy projects. But those funds have long been a source of embarrassment for India’s government, which is teaming up with Indian corporations to help the poor.

“Corporations and India’s growing wealthy classes should be doing a lot more because all profitability is premised on stability,” said Narendra Jadhav, a senior member of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s planning commission for economic development. “The corporation should, out of enlightened self-interest, move forward to join the change of India’s underprivileged participating in India’s prosperity.”

When President Obama visits India this month, his meetings with business leaders will focus on ways to strengthen India’s growing middle class and lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, senior U.S. and Indian government officials said.

“The India-U.S. relationship is no longer one of donor and donee,” said a senior U.S. government official. “It’s more equal, and we are looking to help unleash that potential.”

However, some of the rich in India say they don’t give more because they question how the money will be spent.

“In India, there’s a psychology of scarcity. So in India, the tipping point for philanthropy has yet to come,” said Arpan Sheth, a partner at Bain who wrote the report. “There still has to be more institutions in place to make people feel more comfortable about giving. There is a significant amount of wealth creation. Now the question will be what to do with that wealth.”

Last month, India’s Tata Group donated $50 million to Harvard Business School, the largest gift ever received by the institution from an international donor. The gift came days after another wealthy industrialist – Anand Mahindra, a Harvard alumnus – gave $10 million to the Humanities Center at Harvard.

“There was a lot of criticism here, and Indians asked, ‘Why couldn’t you both give it to India?’ ” Sheth said. “But others felt like, ‘Well, the structure is there at Harvard.’ Everyone knows where the money will be well spent.”

‘Spirit of giving’

Deval Sanghavi and his wife, Neera Nundy, worked as investment bankers in New York but decided to move back to India. They now run the Mumbai-based Dasra, which helps prospective donors sift through the country’s 3.4 million registered non-governmental organizations to determine which would do the best work with their money.

In March, they held the first Indian Philanthropy Forum to introduce prospective donors to potential programs. They also host quarterly workshops and visits to school and health projects.

“In India, the need is really there and so is the spirit of giving,” said Sanghavi, who recently organized a giving circle of 10 wealthy philanthropists, including Malkani, which will donate $600,000 over the next three years to Mumbai’s public schools. “We want to create a community of do-gooders who can motivate each other.”

On a recent afternoon, Malkani visited Salaam Baalak Trust, a shelter she helps support. The children there were preparing for a party celebrating Diwali, one of India’s most important Hindu holidays.

A large Indian bank was sponsoring the party, and dozens of young professionals, BlackBerrys beeping in hand, had come. Some seemed overwhelmed at first, but within a few minutes, they were dancing with the children.

As sweets were brought out for the children, Malkani explained that her father had been a middle-class family doctor who often helped feed his less fortunate patients. One day, a client who couldn’t afford to pay his bill left him a deed to his struggling travel business. The Malkani family later found the deed and decided to start their own company.

“My father’s family was blessed by his act of generosity,” Malkani said. “I hope many more people like me start giving in India. Kindness is how we overcome all suffering.”

Via Washington Post