A true philosophy of giving – Part II

In our earlier piece we mentioned being struck by the fact that Mr. Mohandas Pai’s philosophy of giving was also a ‘philosophy of living’. It wasn’t a statement of how much money he gives to charity each year. It’s not about which NGOs he supports. It’s an expression of the values that govern his work and influence his actions towards others. Curious? Read on!

The principles of philanthropy:

  • Duty: One got the sense that Mr. Pai believed that doing good towards others is a duty that he has to perform. Rather than CSR, he felt that individuals taking up responsibility would drive social change. He mentioned that one should consider donating 10-20% of one’s income to charity. There is a caveat – donations should not be made with the intention of seeing one’s name on a plaque somewhere, or cleaning off sins. A duty-bound donor is driven by a desire to pay off one’s debts to society and see everyone around him or her prosper. Mr. Pai expresses gratitude to the receiver who has provided Mr. Pai with an opportunity to give back to society. He never fails to he join his hands in front of the receiver and believes that ensuring that the recipient’s dignity is respected in the act of giving is paramount.
  • Accountability: Pai mentioned that he, like millions of Indians went to a low-cost government school. Subsidised fees made it possible for him to get a good education and access to a job market. As he said ‘Somebody paid for me.’ This country has given a lot to many of us. It is therefore up to us in turn to pay for other people. Imagine if all of us operated with such a strong sense of accountability towards others! Many of our social problems would reduce immediately. He also mentioned that for every student who received a subsidised IIT education, a hundred have probably died of hunger. If we are part of this society and enjoy these privileges, we should also give back to our society. Mr. Pai even took this one step further. Our time on Earth is one thing, but what happens when we meet our maker? Should we not be able to answer the question – What did you do with your life? Did you leave the world better than what you found it?
  • Giving back to one’s community (ies): Mr. Pai mentioned his personal philosophy of giving – first to the country you belong to, then the state, city and finally your own community. He mentioned various initiatives that he is part of that reflect this focus:
  • Country: Founding team member of Akshaya Patra which currently works in 7 states
  • State: Supports scholarships for deserving students through the Manipal group of colleges and a scholarships NGO in Karnataka
  • City: Mr. Pai, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and other prominent citizens have spearheaded the Bengaluru Political Action Committee (BPAC). Political Action Committees are popular outside India. They work as a vehicle through which citizens come together and advocate with governments and elected representatives for their common interests. The BPAC hopes to improve governance of the city of Bengaluru, create infrastructure of global standards and improve the image of the city.
  • Community: Mr. Pai, a member of the Konkani community pointed out that his community numbers only 2.5 million in India’s population of 1.2 billion. He supports the provision of scholarships for students from the Konkani community.

This is a wonderful principle to follow indeed, as most of us have an identity of being citizens of India, live and work in a particular state and may belong to a community that is not part of that state. Each of these groups have different priorities, and it would be necessary to direct time, money and efforts towards each in a different way to achieve results. In this manner, we can work for the welfare of all the groups we are part of without neglecting a single one.

  • Ownership: Yes, we may belong to different states and communities. Yet Mr. Pai emphasised that every time he sees a child in need on the street, he feels for him as if it were his own child. As he said, many of us are well-off because our parents took good care of us, and we in turn take good care of our children. This should not result in a world view where we are only concerned with the welfare of people who are related to us. As Indian citizens and members of society, it is upon us to look out for all those in need.
  • How to choose a cause: There is an old quote that states, ‘a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in’. This philosophical sentiment was also echoed by Mr. Pai when he spoke of his choice of causes: ‘Pick a problem that is so big that you cannot achieve it in a lifetime’. Wouldn’t it be easy to say ‘I donated at Diwali time, I have done my part’, or ‘I gave away all my old clothes, there’s nothing more I can do?’ Real generosity lies in taking a long-term view of a problem you cannot solve alone, and making a start anyway. At Akshaya Patra Foundation, they took the view that they would not shut down the programme if even one child was hungry. There were a lot of times when the organisation was short of money, or did not know how it would meet its expenses. They soldiered on anyway.

Having such a value-based philosophy ensures that you bring about the maximum good towards others and the most peace towards yourself. It is an approach well worth emulating!

Re-engineering philanthropy the Deshpande way

Although he’s now known for being a visionary entrepreneur and investor, Desh Deshpande’s journey into entrepreneurship wasn’t a planned one. The IIT-Madras graduate assumed he’d spend his career working in academia after completing his PhD at New Brunswick, Canada. He even spent a year teaching before taking up an offer to work for the engineering unit of a company owned by Motorola. (The company went on to do over $100 million in revenue in 1991). The success of his work led to him to strike off on his own, and he dove into entrepreneurship. His second venture, Cascade Communications, was so successful that at one point 70% of all internet traffic was flowing through switches produced by the company. Cascade’s $3.2 billion sale to another company earned him his first big money as an investor. He’s been widely recognised for his entrepreneurial acumen, most recently co-chairing US President Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship in 2010.

Desh and his wife Jaishree were looking for a way to share the fruits of their success. They set up The Deshpande Foundation as the philanthropic vehicle for their charitable activities. But the Foundation’s work in India is not charity as many of us know it. Their idea is to create a culture of entrepreneurship and back entrepreneurs who will solve society’s most pressing problems.

Teach a man to fish

Desh’s philanthropy reflects the learnings of his career. A self-made man, Desh achieved his successes on the strength of his technical training, drive and innovative solutions. The sunrise years of the computing and information technology sectors saw his products succeed in one of the most competitive markets in the world, proving the importance of the market in building world-class products. At the same time, it illustrated the importance of creating a culture of excellence for employees and organisations to deliver ground-breaking results.

Indirect, Intangible- The DF looks to build (1)

Much of Desh and his wife Jaishree’s philanthropy bears the characteristics of his work in the for-profit sector. They place long bets on the future, invest in systems rather than processes, and aim for scale to achieve big results. Desh felt that innovation in the world of engineering “had a bad supply chain”. This drove the idea of the Deshpande Centre for Technological Innovation (DCTI) at MIT in 2002. The Centre was set up to facilitate research and development of products that had viable commercial potential. It wedded the technical acumen of MIT engineers to the business savvy required to sell their products in competitive markets. The Centre has been instrumental in the creation of 28 ‘spinout companies’ that have since attracted $500 million in capital.

They were then struck by the idea of bringing the same model to the non-profit sector. They chose Hubli, Desh’s hometown as the spot to build their incubator of social enterprises and entrepreneurs. Hubli now houses the Deshpande Foundation’s flagship offering. The Sandbox is an institution geared to provide social entrepreneurs and innovators with funding, leadership support, market linkage and other handholding they need for their organisation to succeed.

Lab to Market: Creating an innovation supply chain for the social sector

Desh’s philosophy seems focused on helping entrepreneurs succeed, and creating a pipline of entrepreneurs who will tackle solutions to developmental issues. His philanthropy doesn’t consist merely of grants (though that is a part of their work), but in creating leaders who can solve problems of the future. Desh believes strongly in entrepreneurs, and backing to succeed in realising their goals.

The Sandbox and its institutions act as an incubator and multiplier for organisations in their care. They are publicly asking what none would dare to ask NGOs. At the Deshpande Dialogue, their annual conference, it’s common to be asked ‘what’s your business model?’ and ‘what’s your revenue model’, unusual for non-profit conferences!

There are other features that they bring in from their work in the technology space. Desh has mentioned that work in the ‘for- profit’ contains a strong feedback loop – “either you get to a place where you’re useful to the world or you die”, some of which they want to bring to the social sector. This ruthless efficiency isn’t to turn NGO workers into a bunch of suits. Rather, it’s to ensure that they achieve the best results possible for as many people as they can.

The most striking feature is his willingness to place bets on the intangible. The conservativeness of the philanthropy sector makes the work of the Hubli Sandbox seem like the work of a maverick. However, it indicates that he’s operating from a different risk threshold than others in the fray. To quote DCTI Director Leon Sandler, they’re “not growing lettuce, we’re growing oak trees”.

Nonprofits can be run like for-profits

Another key feature of his vision, and one that is not articulated as much by others, is that non-profits can be managed and run like for-profit businesses. The Deshpande Foundation helps an organisation in developing a proof-of-concept (evidence that the ideas can work on the ground). They believe in the discipline required to have the non-profit deliver the best possible services.

Navodyami- Market support to entrepreneursThe Foundation’s grantmaking programmes have evolved over the years. They do not want to be perceived as a resource for money to support NGO operations. Earlier, they funded programmes of established nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity, India, Mann Deshi Mahila Saharika Bank, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). Their current partners are smaller in size and reach. However, they’re being groomed to provide high-impact programmes that fulfil community needs, keeping in mind the possibilities of scale and self-sustenance.

Desh has mentioned that in the initial years of the Hubli Sandbox the plan was to invite prominent American  NGOs to work in India. When they realised this approach was not working, they changed track and focused on  building local leadership. The impact delivered by the Hubli Sandbox led to sharing this model to be replicated  by entrepreneurs in Nizamabad and Varanasi. The Foundation now runs an accelerator helping businesses and  entrepreneurs in Merrimack, Boston, another Sandbox in New Brunswick, Canada and the Deshpande  Innovation Network aimed at connecting universities who encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. They’ve  achieved a significant amount of reach in the twenty years they’ve been operational!


The oak trees that will grow from the seeds that the Deshpandes have planted will be seen in the future. It seems evident that they have set up a strong and nurturing environment to help social entrepreneurs and organisations flourish.