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Nandan Nilekani: Philanthropic Pioneer

The Infosys co-founder and UIDAI founding chairperson cuts an inspiring figure, not merely for his towering professional achievements but also his consistent philanthropic endeavours 

On a sweltering July day, 21-year-old Shishir Pandey, a computer science and engineering student, jostled for space at the IIT, Bombay, campus to catch a glimpse of one of the institute’s famous alumni, Nandan Nilekani, at its 65th anniversary celebrations.

The excitement around Nilekani’s visit was more apparent because just a month earlier, the Infosys co-founder had announced his decision to donate Rs 315 crore to the institute to mark his 50-year association with it—Nilekani is from the 1973 batch of the institute. Considering his previous grants of Rs 85 crore, his is amongst the most charitable donations to the institution as an alumnus.

The EdelGive Hurun India Philanthropy List 2023, released on November 2, 2023, features Nilekani, the co-founder and chairman of Infosys Limited and founding chairman of Unique Identification Authority of India, and his wife, Rohini, at Number 8 and Number 10 respectively after they donated Rs 189 crore and Rs 170 crore in FY23. Rohini is the founder of Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and leads the list of women givers. The couple bagged a spot among the top 10 philanthropists in terms of overall giving as well as those donating entirely out of their personal wealth.

Focused Attention

When it comes to philanthropy, Nilekani has stuck to a couple of causes, focusing on education, where tech can play a multiplier effect, and infrastructure. EkStep Foundation, a not-for-profit initiative the couple founded in 2015 along with Shankar Maruwada, provides children access to learning opportunities through its open-source, SunBird digital infrastructure, which supports multiple languages and can disseminate digital educational content at scale.

In 2003, Nilekani and Srikanth Nadhamuni founded the eGov Foundation to improve the ease of living for citizens by focusing on health, sanitation, public finance management, etc. In 2011, the Nilekanis gifted Rs 50 crore to the Indian Institute for Human Settlements to fund the establishment of its School of Environment and Sustainability. A year later, Nilekani, along with industrialist Ratan Tata, founded social microfinance company Avanti to provide affordable and accessible financial services to the masses.

While talking to Badr Jafar, founding patron of the Centre for Strategic Philanthropy, about how he invests his philanthropic capital, Nilekani said he looks for strategic outcomes. “Getting impact at scale is very important, so we look at both impact at scale and speed. At the same time, diversity is important because one solution does not fit all.”

In 2017, he was instrumental in the launch of venture capital platform Fundamentum, which focuses on early-growth-stage companies.

Nilekani and his wife also signed the Giving Pledge, a global movement initiated by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett that encourages wealthy individuals to donate majority of their wealth.

Strategic Approach to Philanthropy

As per findings from the India Philanthropy Report 2023, co-created by management consulting firm Bain & Company and NGO Dasra, family philanthropy has experienced a notable surge of 12% over the past five years, reaching an impressive $3.6 billion in FY22.

“The concept of philanthropy is evolving, and this shift represents a learning curve for the sector as a whole. Traditionally, philanthropy meant direct charitable donations to non-profits or foundations, focusing on immediate relief for various issues such as poverty, health or education. This model is reactive; it addresses the symptoms of societal problems rather than their underlying causes,” says Naghma Mulla, CEO of EdelGive Foundation.

Many contemporary philanthropists, especially first-generation entrepreneurs like Nilekani, are increasingly adopting a strategic mindset towards philanthropy, emphasising investment in sustainable change over short-term fixes. They have realised that philanthropic activities have a better chance of success if multi-stakeholder partnerships are involved, as can be witnessed in Nilekani’s various associations. Mulla notes that these partnerships are easier to maintain if the purpose is clear, processes are in place and there are strong governance mechanisms with all stakeholders knowing what they are driving in the partnership. “When people of influence like Rohini or Nandan fuel such collaboratives, exponential impact is possible. They have supported collaboratives ahead of their time,” she points out.

Legacy of Inspiration

The Nilekani couple engages in philanthropy in places they are directly connected with while also addressing broader issues.

A case in point is the Co-Impact initiative founded in 2017 by Olivia Leland, managing director of The Rockefeller Foundation, and funded by a group of global philanthropists. The Nilekanis’ EkStep Foundation is its technical partner. Among the other co-impactors are Bill and Melinda Gates, Richard Chandler, chairman of the Clermont Group, Jeff Skoll, former president of eBay, and Romesh Wadhwani, group chairman of Symphony Technology Group, as well as his wife, Kathy.

Similarly, the not-for-profit reading platform PlanetRead is supported by Co-Impact and Rohini and Nandan Nilekani Philanthropies. According to Mulla, its grantees have engaged with over 30 countries.

Sharing his opinion of how philanthropy should evolve over the next decade at Dasra’s India Philanthropy Series 2016, Nilekani said that philanthropy needs to be more broad-based and be made a part of every person’s life, especially those who are doing well in their business or careers. He also touched upon the needs to get people to be aligned on different large goals and making sure that they do a better job of collaborating, whether the goal is sanitation or infrastructure.

In recognition of Nilekani’s support, IIT, Bombay, has named its iconic main building the Nandan Nilekani Main Building. Now, every time students like Pandey pass through its hallowed halls, they will hopefully be inspired to follow in the footsteps of the eponymous alumnus.