Philanthropy Blueprint

Courtesy: Sanjay, my IIM-B Classmate

Note: I do not have authorization to re-publish this piece, but I believe that what Mr Premji has succinctly elaborated in this speech is so valuable that it requires as wide a coverage as possible, so I am taking the liberty here in publishing this on my Blog. Mr Premji is Chairman of WIPRO.



Azim Premji makes an impassioned plea to forge connections with the less privileged. His mantra for giving: start early in life, get good people on board, cultivate patience, tenacity and empathy

It was suggested by The Economic Times that I share some thoughts on philanthropy on this occasion. So let me do so. Let’s think about tonight. We will all go home or to our hotels and sleep. No matter where we are, within a couple of kilometers of where we are sleeping safely and soundly, there will be a young girl, who is our daughter or granddaughter’s age, trying to sleep in the cold night of December on the roads. She has been abused in the past, and she will be abused in the future. She is probably desperately hungry. In her circumstances, going to school or having anything else that every child must have is not even a remote possibility. When she wakes up tomorrow morning, it’s just the start of another day of trying to survive, to again sleep shivering on the cold pavement somewhere. This girl is not alone. There are probably three million children who are homeless and will sleep on the streets in India tonight and every night. She is also not alone in sleeping hungry. More than 200 million of our people will probably sleep hungry, like her. In very simple terms: can we be indifferent to this? To my mind that is the basic question that we need to ask ourselves: Do we feel connected to our country, to the people around us? Should not every Indian have the very basic, bare necessities of a life of dignity? This is certainly not hoping for too much; it’s just basic safety, adequate food, a roof to sleep under, basic education and healthcare. Most of us would feel this way. I think we just need to act. I have mentioned only a few kinds of issues. But as all of us know, our country is facing challenges of a similar kind on every front. Be it education, healthcare, nutrition, sanitation or of deep inequality and discrimination. Each one is as complex as the other, as necessary for a life of basic dignity. We can perhaps justifiably say that many of these issues need to be addressed by the government. Certainly the government needs to do more and better. But that doesn’t in any way lessen the responsibility that we have. I and you, who have the privilege of being successful, have a greater responsibility. To me philanthropy is the connection that we can have if we are not indifferent to all these issues that face us. It is the mechanism for us to contribute to making some positive change. And I think greater our success, the greater the responsibility for us. I must also say that the desire to engage must come from within. No one can be told to be philanthropic. At its core philanthropy is about the connection that you feel with the people or the world around you. Many who feel this connection and have taken action have experienced that there is enough reason for hope in our country, and that one can genuinely contribute. The foundation that we have set up has been working with various state governments to improve equity and quality of government schools for the past 12 years. I have learnt that trying to improve education is a very
long process, but I think that basic education is the basic route to building a better society, so we remain totally committed to it. Let me narrate one of many things that give us hope in this journey. We work in some of the most disadvantaged districts of the country. We have 50-70 of our own people in each of these districts. They are all deeply committed to the cause of education, and are capable of educating teachers. In all these places we run voluntary learning forums for government school teachers, among many other initiatives. What this means is that teachers come to these learning sessions on their own. They spend their own money for transportation; they come from up to 30 km away in difficult conditions. They also spend their own money on food. They do this on a holiday, usually a Sunday. Can we imagine this happening in the best of the companies? How many employees of such companies will spend their holidays and their own money, so that they can do their jobs better? How completely contrary is this experience of ours, to the notion of the disinterested government employee? These are all government employees, but they are deeply committed and genuinely care. Our experience has been that between 12% and 18% teachers in a district become a part of such forums over a period of time. And if you ask them why they do it, they all have the same answer, which is that they want to learn so that they can teach better. We are not talking about small numbers. In a typical district with 5,000 teachers, this implies that 600-800 teachers are engaged in such forums. I find this a great reason for hope. When so many people from within the government school system have this kind of commitment, I am sure education will improve, given time and sustained effort. As I said before, we have been at it for 12 years. I have only one regret about my philanthropy, which is that I wish I had started earlier. There is so much to do, and this kind of work takes so much time that the earlier we try to contribute, the better it is. With these 12 years of our experience, let me share three other things that I have learnt about philanthropy. Those of you who are very active in philanthropy would perhaps resonate with these lessons that I have learnt. First, involving your family early on in philanthropy is very important. Their understanding, endorsement and involvement may eventually be the most determining factor. There is another positive aspect to this early involvement. Some of the smartest people I know have been those who chose to become homemakers. They can perhaps play a significant role in starting off their families’ philanthropic efforts. Second, the key to scaling up philanthropy and doing good work is getting good people in the team. This is exactly the same as in our businesses. The work in philanthropy is perhaps more complex than business, because social issues are more complex. So it needs really good people. I think the most serious start to anyone’s philanthropic work would be to pick one of their top people from within the business, a person who has the intent, empathy, ability and trust, and move him or her to the philanthropy side. Third, philanthropic work needs patience, tenacity and empathy. It is different from business. We all know that intellectually, but it’s very challenging when one gets into it. One has to change one’s mindset significantly if one has to make a difference. I have learnt this only slowly in the past 12 years. Thank you for hearing me out. I absolutely believe that we are trustees of our wealth for this society, and we must use it as such. We must do philanthropy because it is the right thing to do. I also believe that every one of us has the basic empathy with the people around us; we just need to let it find expression. I am certain that none of us wants to let the young girl I talked about earlier to go hungry, to get abused, or to sleep in the cold night of December on the road, when our daughters and granddaughters are sleeping safe and sound – as they should. Thank you.

Courtesy: Sanjay, my IIM-B Classmate

Note: I do not have authorization to re-publish this piece, but I believe that what Mr Premji has succinctly elaborated in this speech is so valuable that it requires as wide a coverage as possible, so I am taking the liberty here in publishing this on my Blog. Mr Premji is Chairman of WIPRO.


Vijay Srinivasan
16th March 2014


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