Naukri.com founder Sanjeev Bikhchandani’s most ambitious collaborative social venture, Ashoka University, aims to create a new generation of citizens who are sensitive to the world around them. Having made his wealth from online and offline ventures in recruitment and executive search, Bikhchandani started giving around a decade ago with modest contributions made to friends involved in specific social ventures. Over the years, he has grown to appreciate the reach of strategic philanthropy, and the value of collaboration. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Could you talk us through the journey of your evolution as a philanthropist?
My very first experience in this was when I gave a few thousand rupees to a friend who ran a non-profit and asked me for help. Over time, as I was left with greater surpluses from my business, I was able to give more and to a wider range of non-profits. And around eight years ago, I began my most engaged experience of giving when we started work on Ashoka University, which has demanded much larger outlays of both money and time.
How were you inspired to support Ashoka University?
At a conference in 2004, I bumped into a girl who had been with me at college, and I asked her what she had been up to. When she said she was teaching economics in Delhi University, I asked what her syllabus included, and she said it hadn’t changed since 1980— that’s 24 years! And that shocked me! That’s when I started seriously thinking of doing something fresh in this space.
How did the university project evolve from that point?
By 2007-08, I approached Ashish Dhawan, who has studied at a leading US University. I told him maybe we should consider starting a US-style university in India. He liked the idea and we got more people on board. We went to Pramath Sinha, Vineet Gupta, Ashish Gupta. We built momentum around it. I think Ashoka’s primary aspiration is to catalyse a transformation in Indian college education. We felt if we can make one Ashoka succeed, hopefully 100 others will spring up following our model.
What do you think is the value of collaboration in philanthropy?
To my mind, collaboration is critical simply because you can’t do great things alone. Specially in philanthropy, you can’t build a truly scalable and holistic solution without engaging with other kinds of stakeholders, such as intermediaries, technical experts and government.
Having collaborated with other philanthropists, what were some of your big lessons learnt?
When we were conceiving Ashoka, we would express it in grand terms—to others and to ourselves. But then the meltdown happened in 2008, and suddenly nobody was feeling rich anymore; nobody was putting in much money, including me. Meanwhile, our application for land for the university was approved by the Haryana government and the condition was that we had to put up 25% of the money in order to take possession in 12 months. I went to Ashish and I said, “Listen, if we lose the land, this thing won’t happen. We have to produce this 25% from somewhere, so why don’t you bring in 12.5% and I’ll bring in 12.5%—let’s just get the land.” He thought about it for a couple of minutes and said, “Let’s do it”. So the biggest lesson for me was if you don’t stand up and walk, you can’t expect others to follow you.
What does the phrase “strategic philanthropy” mean to you?
Strategic philanthropy is something that makes a large-scale, long-term difference. For instance, I can give money to one school—or I can fund a technology that changes the way teaching is done in 10,000 schools.
The latter is strategic. The philanthropy that we need to really focus on is something that can be a force multiplier, something that has wide impact, with a big ripple effect.
What would you like to see philanthropists in India do differently?
Many, many more people need to give. And those who already do, need to create a pipeline to give more.
What is the one change in attitudes you would like to see in the non-profit space in India?
To me, a not-for-profit organization doesn’t mean it shouldn’t make a profit. It means you shouldn’t distribute the profit to its shareholders or to those who contributed to its funding. That’s all it means. But if you really want an organization to have a big impact, the organization has to scale. And you can’t scale only on injections of philanthropic money every year—there has to be enough internal surplus.
What do you think are some of the barriers to giving in India today?
I would say a large part of the barrier to giving in India today is in the philanthropist’s head. Second, we need to ensure that philanthropic contributions are channelled well. One of the challenges of the non-profit sector is that it is very often not subject to the discipline of the free market, which means capital efficiency and measurement of outcomes is often missing. We need a big push in that direction.
This interview is a part of the India Philanthropy Series, a joint initiative between Dasra, a strategic philanthropy organization, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This series showcases through videos the journeys of some of the most strategic and innovative philanthropists in India.