The complex art of giving

A wholistic and comprehensive approach to philanthropy demands a willingness to engage with the messiness of life itself

Over the last several decades, philanthropy and its various modes of giving have continued to gain greater salience in the development journey of communities. While many legacy donor organisations made clear and intentional shifts from charity-based, top-down models of giving to strategic approaches driven by a desire to achieve tangible impact for the underserved, the path to meaningful change for the communities we seek to serve remains elusive for the philanthropic world in general. 

The last two decades have witnessed a significant growth in the tools, concepts and strategies that philanthropies deploy to define and drive social growth and change. However, every change in method and philanthropic approach, if not examined critically, has the danger of leading us to a new form of orthodoxy, preventing us from exploring approaches that can shift the larger levers that drive inequality.

Inequality translates into multiple embodiments of deprivation when measured by way of various development indices. This inequality is experienced on the ground by communities and individuals in the form of lack of access to quality human services or adequate economic opportunities. It is also, equally, determined by larger public and private systems, human and social complexity, cultural specificities and traditional realities.

A wholistic and comprehensive approach to philanthropy demands a willingness to engage with the messiness of life itself. Steering philanthropic giving towards the impact one yearns to achieve is an act of balancing the power one holds as a donor with resources to drive change and a humble acknowledgement of our powerlessness in the face of complicated human realities.

Aparna Uppaluri

Aparna Uppaluri, chief operating officer at the Tata Trusts, trained as an epidemiologist and her global work includes nurturing philanthropic collaboratives, intergovernmental partnerships and strategic field building across thematic areas.

Impossible choices

To develop a strategy for philanthropic giving is fraught with what seems like impossible and, at times, irreconcilable choices. Do we work at depth or aim for scale? Do we invest in a handful of promising innovations or support issue-agnostic community building at the grassroots? What should form the basis for resilient communities: more livelihood options or greater access to basic human services? Should philanthropy invest in improving service delivery or in strengthening institutions and systems? Is it worth investing in research and innovation when there are urgent and immediate needs for community relief? 

What underlies our choices is the complexity of the context within which solutions for social growth and change are sought. Of the many concepts that have come to dominate the practice of strategic philanthropy, the notion of ‘scale’ has taken the deepest root. Depending on the vantage one occupies in the ecosystem of stakeholders and actors, the definition of scale might look very different. What is clear from over two decades of philanthropic learning across the globe is that there is no one way to define scale, that it can be understood in many ways. 

While scale has generally come to be thought of as ‘scaling wide’ for larger reach, it is not the same as ‘scaling deep’ for sustainable and transformational impact. And what is often not factored in is scaling up to change systems through advocacy and policy that address systemic issues or underlying causes. The reality is that lasting change at scale requires investing across all these dimensions.

With most communities, the approaches to working at scale are often multidimensional, since the drivers of inequality and deprivation they experience can often sit far away from where their effects are experienced. Achieving scale requires contextual knowledge and lived experience as well as strategic planning and localised innovations relevant to the lives of individuals in communities.

Scaling up the right way means prioritising the depth of impact as much as the breadth of reach. Helping those working with communities to build frameworks to chart the ways in which multidimensional interventions translate on the ground, or to document the ripple effects of the indirect impact of community-rooted interventions can help us map the path ahead. If scale in this sector is multidimensional by its very nature, achieving impact cannot be reduced to measuring scale along a single dimension.

Strategic, outcome-driven philanthropy is also driven by a second and equally important factor: the time horizon. Measuring impact, by necessity, requires one to frame the strategic time horizon within which impact or results are expected to be achieved. Choosing a time horizon can be difficult, and implementing the selected approach can be even more knotty.

The salience of temporal considerations in philanthropy is gaining centre stage, as is the sense of crisis that has come to define so much of our civic life. Climate change, the Covid pandemic and growing humanitarian concerns are adding to a sense of urgency and surfacing the need to act with immediacy and urgency.

Much of the change we seek to embed, along the multiple dimensions of achieving impact at scale, needs long-term investment. This is an imperative that highlights the need for greater collaboration among donors to ensure that the right combination of transformative patient capital and short-term investments is deployed.

Balancing act

A recent survey by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors demonstrates that despite the growing popularity of time-limited approaches, the in-perpetuity philanthropic model continues to remain popular. It is clear, though, that in the coming decade donors should consider temporal issues in their decision-making, carefully calibrating ‘giving in time’ and ‘giving across time’ to ensure the effectiveness of their social sector initiatives.

For us at the Tata Trusts, we are fortunate to be guided by the principles of our founders and the choice they made to establish modes of capital deployment well beyond their lifetimes. As data shows, their vision continues to resonate with contemporary family philanthropies. 

The key motivations for adopting an in-perpetuity approach are related to their ability to provide sustained and long-term support to address persistent challenges (71%); strengthen a family’s purpose and values (56%); and have a greater impact on communities over many generations (41%)1.  

Enduring legacy philanthropies such as the Tata Trusts have a critical role to play in stitching together complexity of scale across dimensions and time across scale. With our founders’ values and our vision, we are well poised as an organisation to address the difficult questions that we face as a country and as a planet.

In his foreword to Pathways of Hope — Stories of Courage, Tata Trusts Chairman Ratan Tata said with unequivocal clarity that “… philanthropy is about the love of humanity”. The wisdom, courage and the great promise of legacy philanthropies such as the Trusts is to transcend limitations of scarcity and time, to help us all imagine a more equal and just future — “for the love of humanity”. 

1Global Trends and Strategic Time Horizons in Strategic Philanthropy 2020, Campden Wealth Limited and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

An open-air class in a Tata Trusts-supported project in Vasai village in Gujarat’s Devbhumi Dwarka district