Lead Story

Young Altruists

The philanthropic activities and goals of Nithin and Nikhil Kamath, brothers and co-founders of online brokerage firm Zerodha, placed them among the top 10 individual givers in the country last year. This year, Nikhil topped up his commitment by pledging to give away half of his wealth 

Abhishek Sinha, founder of GoodDot, a plant-based meat products start-up, still remembers his virtual interaction with Nithin Kamath, co-founder of online stock trading platform Zerodha. He found him grounded and eager to help companies better manage their sustainability initiatives through his Rainmatter Foundation. What struck Sinha the most was Nithin’s belief that “the next big wealth globally will be created by someone who will solve any of the critical problems related to climate.”

Sinha considers them the apt role models for India’s youngistan. They have successfully built a new-age brokerage firm and taken it to the status of a unicorn, and, more significantly, achieved this feat while remaining bootstrapped. But more than this financial accomplishment, Sinha finds their aspiration for self-actualisation even more heartening. The brothers are known not just for their successful business venture but also for their philanthropic activities.

In 2021, the Kamath brothers had pledged a quarter of their wealth to philanthropy, with plans to donate Rs 750 crore over the next three years. They are ranked ninth in the list of individual givers in India, as per the EdelGive Hurun Philanthropy List 2022 which also states that their donations jumped 308% to reach Rs 100 crore in FY22. In June this year, Nikhil, 37, became the fourth and the youngest Indian to join the Giving Pledge, a global initiative by billionaires to promote philanthropy. He has committed to giving away 50% of his wealth. Other Indians in this list include former Wipro chairman Azim Premji, Biocon founder Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani and his wife Rohini.

In his pledge letter, Nikhil wrote, “I am particularly interested in contributing to areas such as climate change, energy, education, and health. In addition to these areas, I am involved with various organisations and foundations such as Rainmatter, Giving Pi, Bridgespan, British Asian Trust, YUVA, and many others. I am proud of the work that these organisations do and the impact they have made. As a young philanthropist, I expect to have more questions than answers.”

Thinking Green

Climate change and its impact on livelihoods is a topic that both brothers feel strongly about. In 2021, they established the Rainmatter Foundation to support grassroots individuals, organisations and businesses addressing issues related to climate change. Its primary focus is on initiatives related to afforestation, ecological restoration and livelihoods.

Nithin, in a blog post, states, “Amongst our core beliefs is that moving to a green economy and creating green jobs is an essential part of the changes needed for a better ecology. We also think that this needs to happen in a distributed fashion across geographies, with value and job creation everywhere and not being limited to a few urban centres.” Reversing both migration and concentration of value, wealth and resources are a major need towards this and will also need a strengthening of public goods and services across India, he adds.

Where the extensive and vulnerable population surpasses the capacities of both the private and public sectors, philanthropy emerges as a crucial player in bridging the gaps. Aakanksha Gulati, director at ACT Grants, a non-profit venture philanthropy platform which liaises closely with Rainmatter Foundation on ACT For Environment programme, believes that the choice of causes to support is a very personal one for each philanthropist. Explaining why activities related to climate change should be supported, she says, “We know that lack of healthcare and poor air quality impact educational outcomes which can impact jobs, which in turn affects healthcare and economic stability of an entire family, and on and on.”

Championing Sustainable Solutions

Philanthropy is vital to addressing key social need gaps that market forces cannot address. To drive this work, philanthropic capital is paramount. As many reports have pointed out over the last decade, India’s personal philanthropy could be much better, given the rise in the number and total wealth of high net-worth individuals. The pledge by the Kamath brothers will hopefully encourage more unicorn founders to give back to society.

A close second to philanthropic capital is high-quality talent and expert advisory because both are enormous needs in the impact space.  The brothers are in a solid position to provide mentorship, network connections and access to knowledge to the entities they are associated with and the start-ups they back through their respective charitable initiatives. For instance, the team at Rainmatter Foundation exchanges notes from time to time with stakeholders it works with on how the respective domains are evolving and shares potential innovations.

Nikhil has given charity a cool quotient for the contemporary crowd, and something that the Twitterati would happily participate in. He hosts the WTF podcast where he regularly runs charity polls, encouraging users to vote for a charity they feel deserves support. Non-profit organisation Parikrama won Rs 50 lakh in the first edition; The Live Love Laugh Foundation won Rs 75 lakh in the second, while Joining the Dots Foundation was selected to receive a Rs 1 crore donation in the third edition.

Shifting Timelines

The concept of philanthropy is evolving, and this shift represents a learning curve for the sector as a whole. This is where champions, whom people trust and respect, can play a huge role. By signing the Giving Pledge, the Kamath brothers are helping champion four big changes, says Gulati. First, they are bringing more attention to the causes they are supporting currently. Secondly, they are amplifying the clarion call for more high-net-worth individuals of the country to commit resources to build a more equitable India, she elaborates.

“Thirdly, as influential entrepreneurs themselves and through participation in initiatives like the Green Start-up Pledge, their actions can also inspire many other start-up founders to prioritise impact alongside their business endeavours. Lastly, they are shifting the timelines for philanthropy in a meaningful way,” Gulati adds.

Ultimately, social change happens when multiple people, sectors and stakeholders come together with a unified mission and with diverse strengths. The age-old construct has been that philanthropy is something one does at the tail end of one’s career or post-retirement. By prioritising it now, the Kamath brothers are helping create the much-needed urgency that will hopefully nudge others to think about it sooner and much earlier in their careers.