Redefining Philanthropy in India: Unveiling the Multifaceted Landscape
Swati Shresth talks about non-profit ecosystems, philanthropy and transformative research at the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy
CSIP was established to support robust philanthropy and social impact institutions and recognise the contribution of the non-profit sector to the economic and social development of the country.
The field of philanthropy in India, in particular, is underdeveloped in terms of good data and credible research. The mandate of the Centre is to address these gaps and promote research on Philanthropy in India. In addition, we also pay close attention to the non-profit ecosystem in India- funders, donors and philanthropists, knowledge partners, organisations on the ground—essentially everyone whose stated mission is to create a better impact on Indian society. As an academic centre, we also study narratives and practices that influence the flows of power and finance within this ecosystem. The Centre is multidisciplinary in nature and we endeavour to engage with a diversity of stakeholders to shape and strengthen this field in India.
An often-cited challenge in studying philanthropy is the lack of definition of what constitutes Philanthropy. Originating in Greek “love of humanity”, the word today by default is associated with the wealthy, who having accumulated wealth, seek to contribute to society by way of establishing foundations and disbursing funds to identified causes. Philanthropy also enjoys the self-ascription of ‘private action for public good’ and hails its distinction from charity. Charity is often labeled as reactive whereas philanthropy endeavors to be proactive- focusing on systemic and structural problems and their solutions.
Over recent years, there has been a considerable challenge to this Western philanthrocapitalist understanding of Philanthropy. Originating in the Global South, this movement has not only mandated responsive foundations to interrogate embedded notions and practices of power but also reformed their systems of philanthropy. These shifts also impact the non-profit ecosystem in profound ways- from its administrative reorganisation and financial flows to issues of culture inclusivity, skill and talent. This makes an excellent time for researchers interested in politics, economics and justice to examine this space.
CSIP is currently planning a series of studies that will examine diverse cultures of giving in India. We want to recognise various acts of giving those ordinary folks perform every day; we also want to shift the focus of the field of philanthropy as it exists today to include non-cash giving. This includes donations in kind but also acts of volunteerism and support of causes. We feel this perspective to be more inclusive and more accurate in capturing the world of giving and its social implications in India.
Our groundbreaking report, How India Gives, is one of a kind in India and one of the few in the world. The purpose of this longitudinal study is to understand the trends, patterns and preferences of Indian households. Not only does this study provide data on household giving but also sheds light on Indian society.
The CSIP Research Fellowship on Philanthropy is the first and the only of its kind in India. It is an extensive research fellowship that allows Fellows to explore diverse kinds of giving and its implications in India. Our Research Fellows in the past have worked on novel topics such as “Philanthropy for the Ocean”, “Diaspora Philanthropy and Transnational Giving among the Mappilas of Kerala”, and “Debates and Practices in Feminist Funding in India” among many others. Through this Fellowship, we are trying to reimagine philanthropy in a way that sheds light on Indian society. This will expand our understanding and eventually help us change the narrative which is one of our goals.
We are seen as one of the six centres globally working on issues of giving and the non-profit ecosystem. In the next couple of years, we will continue to focus on populations that are excluded in usual consultant-led research in the Indian context. Our next report will focus on the giving practices of women in India. We want to understand Indian philanthropy, which is often community-driven and often tradition-based and continues to exist alongside modern philanthro-capitalist systems. We hope these studies will challenge persisting notions of philanthropy and also provide much-needed data for researchers interested in understanding the giving practices of a fast-growing nation.
Apart from its focus on philanthropy, CSIP carries out studies on the ecosystem as well. We have published research on structural challenges and innovations by non-profits during COVID-19. We have also collaborated with ISDM on compensation benchmarking and management of Talent in the non-profit sector. The microsite dedicated to compensation benchmarking is the first of its kind in India and will empower individuals seeking work in this sector as well as for donors and organisations to understand the human resources needs of people desiring to join this sector.
This site is also consistent in our mandate to work with and reach out to the broadest stakeholder constituencies possible. We are an academic centre—our research needs to be presented at credible research conferences and find space in peer-reviewed journals. This year, we presented four research papers at international research conferences: the European Research Network On Philanthropy (ERNOP) and the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organisations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA). However, our aim is also to disseminate information in our reports in a way that it can be read by as many people as possible. Our mandate is very much that our audiences— whether it is philanthropists, funders, or an ecosystem organisation—should be able to look at our data and be able to use it for their understanding and stated missions.
I must also acknowledge that we have learned tremendously from our engagement with diverse stakeholders. This is a new research field in India and we have benefited from the wealth of experience and knowledge of practitioners in the evolution of our research agendas. So, we constantly and consciously remember that whatever work we do, we must be humble, listen to people, see what is happening and be responsive in a way that brings out good, reliable and credible data. Our feedback, to date, has been great.
Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go. Building on the creative energies of our stakeholders we intend to host a Peer Learning Research Network–a research platform dedicated to small non-profit organisations in India. Many grassroots organisations collect information, data and insights from their work and experience- this is also knowledge-making and can contribute to a larger repository of knowledge in and on the sector. As part of CSIP’s capacity-building initiatives, we hope to fine-tune existing programmes and develop more that are sensitive to ground realities, broaden access to knowledge learning on the third sector with the aim of creating learning communities, and open up spaces for different actors to enter into impact-oriented dialogue. Additionally, we also want to learn about the unconventional methods that are applied in the field. Based on the response we received during our research conference last year, we realised there is great enthusiasm for training sessions on basic research methods. As a part of this network, therefore we also intend to introduce learning modules. CSIP, as an institution, is probably the best place to co-create such an exchange of knowledge and research. We hope this exchange of knowledge-making will be an intellectually stimulating space for all participants.
(Swati Shresth is Director-Research at the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy, Ashoka University. She is an academic with teaching and research experience across diverse research institutions)