The New Philanthropists: Rohini Nilekani, Founder and Chairperson of Arghyam

2 February 2016
SERIES Funding for think tanks part two: the private sector 9 items

You only get what you measure. But what you may be able to measure is not what you treasure

Rohini Nilejani is the founding chairperson of Arghyam, former journalist and philanthropist. She is an active supporter of think tanks in India. This interview is made up of two parts. The first is the transcript of an interview carried out by Dr. Annapoorna Ravichander, from CSTEP for Aditi. The second, follows from it, and was carried out by Enrique Mendizabal for On Think Tanks.

She provides a refreshing insight into funding for think tanks and reinforces our view that the only way forward in developing countries is to leverage and mobilise domestic funds for policy research.+

Dr. Annapoorna Ravichander: Why was water chosen as the main area of focus of Arghyem?

Rohini Nilekani: When I started on water I was looking for an area in which an Indian foundation could step is and fill some gap and also do some strategic work. And I hit upon water actually by accident. But as soon as we started doing some research on the water sector we realised that it was an area where there was going to be tremendous crisis and there was a good scope for philanthropic effort.

AR: What do you see in the role of think tanks in developing nations such as India? How can they make an impact?

RN: I think think tanks in countries like ours are going to play and increasingly important role as we enter a new phase of both economic development and inclusive agendas, which in a country like ours with 600 million people being left behind cannot be forgotten. There are many public policy areas and areas of research that need to be undertaken and encouraged.

Obviously we need a multitude of think tanks. There are already several good ones in India but for a country this size and for a public policy landscape that is emerging I think that we need many more and they should be backed both with good academic rigour, public commitment, and advocacy strength. And if a diversity of credible voices are able to influence the public policy sector in India I think the outcomes will be good.

AR: What aspects do philanthropists like you consider when supporting think tanks and what outstanding concerns do you have with regards to funding think tanks in India?

RN: Speaking for my self: I like to support think tanks because we need to have good data, good research, we need thinking people of integrity to put out papers, to put out evidence, to collect data to speak truth to power, to hold a torch light to government, to research areas where there is not enough public discourse as in some cases when it comes to governance or environmental issues. [We need them] to deepen the discourse and to do it all in a civil manner. And to really inform the debate.

That are the reasons I fund think tanks. In fact, I fund think tanks that sometimes think differently to me because I believe that wherever people are coming from, from across the ideological spectrum, if they are doing work with commitment and integrity and are adding evidence to the policy debate I think they must be supported.

I do not need to agree with every paper from the think tank I support; I do not need to agree with everything that comes out from them. So long as it is backed by integrity, commitment and evidence.

AR: How can government best support philanthropy in India? What kind of financial, political or institutional conditions should be in place?

RN: There is still scope for government to do a bit of policy tweaking in the philanthropic sector. The philanthropic sector depends on many actors that have to be supported and I think that in the last few years government has come down quite heavily on the NGO sector in terms of pushing them, various regulatory issues sometimes have been handled rather heavily, and perhaps we need to create a system of transparency and trust between government and the civil society sector.

If you really want to encourage philanthropy in India then you have to look at what other countries have done. We need to have a debate on inheritance tax, we need to look at structures that we have set up in terms of societies and trusts and see if there are any more innovative structures that have relevance to the Indian condition that need to be allowed by Indian policy. So I think there is scope for the government to do a lot and to create a fair, transparent and equal regime for philanthropists to operate in and for civil society actors to engage in.

That way we increase the absorptive capacity of philanthropic capital; which right now I think is quite low.

If you want to have impact and scale up you need to work with government. If you just to innovate then you can work without government. So most philanthropists have to work with government whenever possible and in many cases government has been quite open to that partnership.

There can be natural tension between philanthropists and government but that is also important. We have to be able to speak openly to each other.

Sometimes it can be a contrarian relationship. For example if some philanthropic capital is going into exposing government then obvious government is not going to roll over and say “wow come and do more”. So we have to balance our role as philanthropists.

AR: Which global philanthropic organisation do you admire? And why?

RN: There are several I admire and it is hard to pick out one. Certainly George Soros’ work with the Open Society Foundations, some aspects of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, many of the early work of Ford Foundation, many other smaller groups that are doing small but important work and there are lessons to be taken form there also.

I do not want to ignore what is happening on this side of the world. There are many east Asian family foundations that are also doing important work and I think sometimes we leave them out but I hope that going forward that we can have more cooperation and partnerships with philanthropists from other Asian countries. I can see that coming in the near future.

Some of their work is quite relevant to India. We do not get many chances to meet but the few I have met are very interesting. There are many places to get inspiration from.

AR: If you were to fund new areas for social change in India with no limits of funds available what would some of them be?

RN: I think a lot more work remains to be done in health and mental health: preventive health, primary health care, mental health, etc.

Issues related to the environment: how do we keep growing the economy when more and more people can participate in it and yet not go the Chinese way? Even to unpack those things is going to require a lot of philanthropic capital.

I think there is more to do in almost every field but even in the arts and culture space a lot more philanthropy needs to come in. Libraries, why can’t every nook and corner of the country have futuristic libraries?

I can go on and on and on.

Justice, access to legal rights, a lot of these issues have not been invested on enough.

I picked up the interview here. Having just heard the recording of the Aditi interview, I wanted to follow up and deepen on some of the issues raised in it. We had a conversation over Whatapp back in November 2016 after I had spent a week in Bangalore and visited one of the think tanks she supports, the Takshashila Institution. I began by presenting Rohini Nilekani with what has, by now, become a very typical statement from think tanks in developing countries:

Enrique Mendizabal: Think tanks say that the private sector and philanthropists are not interested in research. However, it is not difficult to challenge this statement. There are individuals who do support think tanks and who consider this support important. You are one such people but you are not alone. What may be happening is that what think tanks offer today is not what philanthropists are looking for. What do you look for in a think tank that you support?

RN: My husband and I have been supporting think tanks for a very long time. I am one of the few people who support think tanks and advocacy groups and publications from both the left and the right.

So long as I can trust the institution and the people, whatever the ideology, work in a way that uses then pen and not the sword, and do not instigate violence then I believe we need the debate. Nobody has the right answers anyway and whether we like it or not there is a post-ideology element in society and many people just need to be drawn into a debate no matter where they are coming from. So those are the reasons why I have been supporting groups that have differing ideologies from mine.

The reason I do that is that for me it is important tot have institutions that create spaces for debate and research and follow it up with outreach, advocacy and getting their ideas into public policy -and then of course monitoring what happens. And also keep their minds open about changing their minds.

Especially in a country like India, for the last three decades, somehow the young people of India have been depoliticised. In the 70s there was a lot of politics in campuses. I think we’ve had a couple of decades where young people are focusing on things other than progressive idealistic, even revolutionary, thinking. It seems to be coming back but I do not know whether it’s coming back in a progressive or regressive form. But when young people get depoliticised it does not speak very well for the future of society and for intellectual discourse.

So I think when we find entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs who do want to set up think tanks I like to support them.

One problem is that “how many can I support?” So the other thing that I do is to focus on talking to other philanthropists and encourage them to join this philanthropic venture, which is to find organisations that they like so that they can support them too.

EM: … the more the merrier.

RN: I do not know. What do you think? What is the right number? Is there such a thing?

EM: Unfortunately, I have to say that it will depend on the context. You could compare countries like Germany and Britain and consider factors like their size and available funding for research and you might expect Germany to have more think tanks but the German political system (and political practice) is less confrontational than the British and therefore there are fewer spaces for think tanks to emerge; whereas there might be more space for political foundations there than there is in the UK.

Similarly, you could think that in China there shouldn’t be too many think tanks because they are associated with organisations that contest power, but ther,e the Chinese government is adamant on creating them so there are more than you’d expect.

So how many should there be?

One of the things we have argued in On Think Tanks is that think tank funders should support the formation of future talent by funding and strengthening universities. If you have a critical mass of people capable of critical thinking in a society, they will set them up themselves. Eventually you may end us with a number of think tanks that reflect the nature (political, economics, social) of each society. This is something that is not easy to engineer.

So maybe India should have more –there seems to be a lot of space for growth- but the ultimate size and speed of growth will depend of many factors that are hard to measure and predict.

But let me go back to something you said; something that sets you apart from the usual think tank funders in developing countries. You seem to be looking for think tanks that have an identifiable ideology. Not just good research but also ideology.

RN: Some of the institutions I support are close to my heart. For instance the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. I think we desperately need breakthroughs in urban design and we need to train professionals. It is a think tank but it is also action-oriented organisation and I am proud to be supporting them. I think Takshashila is a bunch of young people who have very high integrity, high intellect, who are very passionate about what they believe in –which of course I am constantly disagreeing with them because I do not believe in half the things they do believe in- but you cannot just have one a sided discussion in a democracy. You need people to be able to provide evidence on all sides and we will make mistakes and will be able to take corrective actions. And I think that a multiplicity of diverse think tanks offers that.

So with Takshashila that is why I support them. With IIHS it is an issue very close to my heart and the work that they do is long term.

So of course I look for the credentials of the people, I look for values, and I look to match the concerns that I have. For instance, if there were a think tank on mining in South America I obviously wouldn’t be interested. I get many, many requests and I cannot fund all think tanks. I have to choose. It is tricky, there are many organisations that deserve funding but I cannot fund all of them.

The way I filter them is, often, I either first choose the areas of interests that may coincide with mine or look for the integrity and values of the people involved.

EM: And do you look for any particular type of outputs from the think tanks?

RN: Yes. I realise that think tanks can be output and outcomes oriented or can be really happy to sit in their intellectual chairs. At least when I am involved we try to get them to think how are they going to make something come out of [their research], without pushing them too hard.

But I’d be very much interested to see how the debate gets widespread, so it is not limited to only a handful of people, and how is it impacting on public policy and decision-making.

Even if I know it is so hard to directly link to outcomes I think at least to outputs and some measure of knowing who is listening at least.

EM: One of the differences between domestic and foreign funders of think tanks is that the foreign funder demands a lot more M&E of the quantitative nature of influence –they want them to demonstrate, and measure, impact. But domestic funders are more nuanced and closer to the political context so ask for more qualitative accounts.

RN: You only get what you measure. But what you may be able to measure is not what you treasure.

You are never going to be able to correlate between what a think tank does and the change in something on the ground.

It requires trust; it requires some institutional processes to be monitored. But at the end of the day, if the people themselves cannot be motivated to put out their best work, not just because someone is sitting with a stick over their heads, you are not going to get the results. We are talking about changing societies to become better not talking about making the philanthropist feel good about what he or she is doing.

So I am quite comfortable with a little bit of the fuzziness. Sometimes it can be very frustrating of course. But I am generally comfortable with some fuzziness.

EM: Some think tanks spend almost the same amount of time doing research as they do producing a report for their funders

RN: Exactly, I’ve seen so much angst among the organisations that I support, not because of what I do but because of what other donors do, that I feel some compassion. I think it is a waste of energy.

EM: You mentioned in the interview with CSTEP that you network with other philanthropists to convince them to join you. Does this happen only in India or do you have contacts in other parts of the word?

RN: Although I have contacts in other parts of the world I am more focused on India. My sphere of influence does not go beyond India.

EM: Do you see a trend in the rise of philanthropic interest for research or think tanks?

RN: I think there might be. For example the new Ashoka University, the Public Health Foundation of India, though not strictly think tanks, the fact that institutions like those and others are getting multi-donor support is an encouraging sign. I think people have realised that they need to build the intellectual framework for whatever thing they are interested in.

I wish there was more interest. But I think it will come. I can see a new generation of philanthropists realising that we need to support think tanks and knowledge institutes. We need a knowledge infrastructure to get stuff done.

EM: Do you think this will happen through the formation of professional philanthropy and foundations or is the Indian way going to be more personalised?

RN: In the last few years international entities who know how to aggregate philanthropy are coming along. There are attempts going on to get collaborative philanthropy for things that go beyond feeding people and giving scholarships

Indian philanthropy is maturing quite rapidly but even then it is mostly just based on individuals.

EM: Is there much research being done on philanthropy in India?

RN: Yes there is just beginning to be. The Ashoka University is setting up a centre for social impact and philanthropy. And Ernst & Young and UBS do annual reports. And others have been doing on and off reports.

We concluded the interview with an off-the-record conversation about the competencies and skills that think tanks lack and the need for strategic direction among many think tanks.

It is worth reflecting on some of the key ideas emerging from our conversation –and from CSTEP’s interview:

  • The search for policy influence is not the same as the quest for evidence informed policy: This we knew already but Rohini Nilejani makes this point very clearly in her effort to support think tanks with views markedly different to her own.
  • “What you may be able to measure is not what you treasure”: In her own words, an emphasis on measuring the impact on policy may distract think tanks from pursuing equally or even far more valuable roles. Funders must be aware that their M&E expectations and templates for think tanks to fill are more than just reporting tools –they can (and often do) have the effect of influencing think tanks own objectives and strategies.
  • Fuzziness is ok: It is not possible to link think tanks’ actions with policy outcomes with any degree of certainty. But to accept this fuzziness, funders must be close to the think tanks and to their political context. Only by participating can they assess, in the absence of absolute evidence, the relative contribution that their grantees are making to policy debates, processes, and outcomes.
  • Building the knowledge infrastructure is necessary for progress: In the end, what successful philanthropy does is build institutions. A nation’s knowledge infrastructure is one such institution; so are the spaces in which ideas get debates. And this goes beyond individual think tanks or researchers.
  • New philanthropy is interested in research –but nor just research: I draw this conclusion from our conversation, maybe from the following:

I realise that think tanks can be output and outcomes oriented or can be really happy to sit in their intellectual chairs. At least when I am involved we try to get them to think how are they going to make something come out of [their research], without pushing them too hard.

  • Horses for courses: Domestic philanthropy presents another challenge for think tanks in developing countries. Foreign funders, particularly multilaterals and bilateral agencies, have traditionally been larger and covered the broader understood “development sector”. Foundations (foreign and national) tend to be more specific and, where individual philanthropists are still the driving force behind the foundation, their own interests will limit what they will and will not fund. Think tank must approach these new funders looking, above all, for a relationship based on mutual objectives (even if not mutual ideology) that may develop into many different kinds of collaboration.

It is sometimes easier to think that domestic philanthropists are not interested in supporting research and think tanks –and to rely, instead on foreign foundations and development agencies. But, just as Rohini Nilejani, there are many others who are willing yet not always able to find think tanks to fund –either because these make no effort to reach to them as audiences of their work of because they fail to offer them an attractive offer.