Finance

Art of giving: Non-billionaire Indians pledge to give 50% of their wealth in charity

Poot kapoot to kyon dhan sanchay, poot sapoot to kyon dhan sanchay. (Why accumulate wealth for an unworthy son; why accumulate wealth for a worthy son).” This Hindi adage represents the Indic wisdom that accumulating wealth for one’s offsprings is a futile pursuit. If they are worthy, they will create their own, if they are not, they will squander the inheritance. Understandably, this thought hasn’t found many practitioners. A small community of like-minded individuals are changing that, by committing to give back more than half their wealth to society.

LivingMyPromise (LMP), a movement started by a group of professionals and philanthropy enthusiasts, takes its cue from Giving Pledge, launched by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett. While the Giving Pledge invited the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to giving back, the Indian adaptation is more broad-based — it aims to get upper middle-class Indians with a net worth of more than Rs 1 crore to promise to donate a minimum 50% of their wealth to charity. They hope to create a culture of giving and a community of “givers” that is not restricted to a few billionaires.

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Uma Kathyayini and Javali Ramanath, a retired couple from Karnataka, are among the 51 promisors that LMP has so far. Both were engineers with the state government and pooled in Rs 5 lakh from their savings to start a trust.

More than 50% of their pension goes towards supporting students from six government schools in villages. “I have nine siblings who have children. I felt my family had procreated enough. My wife is like-minded, so despite it being a taboo, we decided not to have our own children and use our resources to uplift other children. We have been working for years, but joining LMP is helping us connect with others who are doing great work at a larger scale,” Ramanath said.

Entrepreneur and founder of India Welfare Trust Venkat Krishnan was among the first to commit. He has given away more than half of his earnings and aims to give almost 90% of his cumulative wealth. “I knew some people who would make such a big commitment but my worry was how to create something much bigger. Then some unlikely people joined — like parents with young children or individuals who are not super-rich. That was a wow moment for me. I am convinced a few thousand people can easily join this movement.”

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The list of LMP is an eclectic mix of people — including seasoned corporate executives, artists, retired government officials, young couples and some individuals.

“India is at the bottom of the World Giving Index; almost 80% of parents bequeath wealth to their children. We are a country with a vast population and great needs. We can’t just bank only on the government,” said Girish Batra founder of Glocal Projects, a consulting firm. He initiated the LMP movement along with people he had met while volunteering for social causes. India ranked 82nd among 128 countries on the World Giving Index prepared by the Charities Aid Foundation in 2019.

“The mindset that you need to leave your wealth to only your progeny to secure their future needs to change. If you invest in society and the environment, you will leave a better world for them. With LMP, we are trying to create an infectious culture of giving,” said Amit Chandra, chairman of Bain Capital Private Equity-India, who has taken the pledge along with his wife Archana.

Chandra said the promisors have committed about Rs 500 crore. “We hope to have 100 promisors by March. We can easily add 1,000 every year thereafter; that’s the kind of potential this movement has because it looks to motivate the upper middle class and not just billionaires.”

Sensing that many are scared of committing because of the uncertainties in future needs, LMP offers a spreadsheet to help them calculate how much they will need to meet their personal expenses for the rest of their life. Those who take the pledge make a commitment publicly and share a statement explaining their decision. The promise is only to give the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes either during their lifetime or in their will. It is not legally binding but there is moral accountability to one’s self and to each other. The signatory can define the road map of one’s philanthropic journey.

Gita Nayyar, senior finance professional and a board member of several companies, said giving should be seen as “celebrating wealth” by spending on one’s needs and sharing. “Women are more predisposed to giving than men, but even now very few women own wealth. Taking this pledge has given me a definite personal benchmark to work towards, and to ensure that my charity is effective.” Another promisor, Sudhir Shenoy, country president & CEO of Dow Chemical India, also saw the merit in joining LMP. “You need to give in a way that it has a greater social impact. That is something I am learning from the more experienced philanthropists.” Shenoy said his parents had to borrow money for his education, so he wanted to give his two teenage children “a decent head start in life” but not hoard for them.

Former CEO of Genpact Pramod Bhasin, who signed up in July, said: “I am under no illusion that my success is only because of my hard work; there are so many other factors — luck, timing, upbringing, privileges. So how can I hoard the wealth for myself. The sheer possession of wealth is meaningless; it doesn’t help the economy or the society. There is a flaw in our thinking when we put people who have accumulated wealth on a pedestal and not appreciate people for their ability to give.”

The group is driven to bring to the mainstream the practice of sharing wealth, not just giving leftovers. “This is a diverse group, the only common thread we see is that all these people live with a deep sense of gratitude. They don’t see their successes as their own, they are grateful for all that they have received and want to give back,” Venkat said.

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