A Conversation with Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies
In CEP’s recent publication, New Attitudes, Old Practices: The Provision of Multiyear General Operating Support, nearly all interviewed foundation leaders emphasized the importance of trust between funders and grantees. Moreover, CEP found that foundation leaders who provide more multiyear general operating support made an intentional choice to do so based on their belief that it will build trust, strengthen relationships, and increase impact.
When Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies (RNP), a foundation located in Bangalore, India, gathered feedback from its grantees through the Grantee Perception Report (GPR) in 2020, RNP was rated in the top 1 percent of CEP’s overall comparative dataset for perceptions of trust. Simultaneously, RNP grantees rated in the bottom 1 percent of the dataset for the amount of pressure they felt to modify their organization’s priorities in order to receive funding from the foundation.
How did RNP achieve this? To what practices does the foundation’s team adhere to build trust with grantees in their interactions? How do they think about trust-based philanthropy?
For answers to these questions, we recently talked to members of RNP’s leadership team: Founder-Chairperson Rohini Nilekani (who, with her husband Nandan Nilekani, has signed the Giving Pledge), Director of Strategy Gautam John, and Associate Director Natasha Joshi.
The team explains their approach in this new video:
Here are some more thoughts from Nilekani, John, and Joshi on several key elements of centering trust in their approach:
Starting with Trust is Important
Rohini Nilekani (RN): We’ve all been on the other side (of the funding table) and know how hard it is. Things change so quickly on the ground. We need to be agile and can’t be stuck with budget lines or line items that we have to stick to. Of course, you have to do due diligence, but if you don’t start off assuming the right intent and methodology on the other side, then what are you going to do? Then you must take over and do it yourself. When you’ve found the right leaders and institutions, you have to let them do what they believe in. Because passion and commitment are what drive this sector.
Just like you can’t tell Picasso to use a little less red or blue when you commission a painting from him, you can’t tell civil society organizations, “Okay fine, but just do it my way a little more.” It won’t work! Starting with trust, after basic due diligence, seems to me not just a moral but also a strategic imperative. We have to first try trust — always.
Gautam John (GJ): I’ve spent 10 years working as a grantee trying to raise money from foundations. And in my experience, you can’t co-create by saying, “Do it my way.” That’s not co-creation, that’s called convincing. Our goal is to create something together. Co-creation is difficult because it means letting go of some degree of control — and that’s hard to do.
The Need for Humility
RN: If you keep chasing attribution, you become your own chokepoint. In philanthropy, it’s more important to recognize contribution, rather than seeking attribution. I can’t see how you can achieve the philanthropic goal behind what you want to achieve by chasing attribution. You have to hold your goal close to heart and be willing to trust others. Nobody can go at it alone.
Honestly, none of us know how change really happens. We only have some theories about it. I try to walk back from too much certainty; to occupy the grey and occupy doubt; to think, “My ideas may not be right”; to not allow myself to say, “I am right”; to keep a mirror in front of myself. Yes, there may be occasions where your perspectives may be understood and absorbed. But if you insist on doing things your way, you’ll only get a service provider, not a partner. You’ll end up with a contractor or vendor relationship, rather than with a partner who you can walk with.
GJ: Philanthropists usually wake up in the morning saying, “We know all the answers,” when really, we should be waking up with questions. Because the idea of co-creation comes from being willing to let go of some amount of control and to act from a place of humility and curiosity. Humility is rare in the philanthropic sector. “We don’t always know — you do, and we might be able to learn something from you” is what we need more of.
More Long-term, Flexible, Unrestricted Funding
Natasha Joshi (NJ): Rohini Nilekani deliberately chose not to set up a registered foundation. We were afraid of creating too much bureaucracy because sometimes, too much bureaucracy can make it hard to be flexible and responsive in your giving.
GJ: High-quality civil society organizations deliver high-quality outcomes. You can’t have one without the other, so one needs to be willing to invest in their organizations, their people, and attract talent.
Strangely, many philanthropists don’t behave with their nonprofit partners the way they do in their businesses. How people see for-profit companies versus nonprofits can be very different; the very same person can have completely different views on how capital should be used. I legitimately struggle with this and I don’t know where it comes from. In India, perhaps, it’s because the idea of ‘service’ has a long and deep history. On the other hand, I hear philanthropists bemoaning the lack of talent in the civil society sector. But you can’t have it all without being willing to invest in organization building by committing to long-term, unrestricted funding.
RN: Some philanthropists are nervous about trusting civil society organizations. In India, at the onset of Independence, and 60 years later still, many civil society organizations were Marxist and left leaning. Businessmen, who are usually philanthropists because they are the ones with access to capital, are usually more market leaning. This creates a political ideology divide. As a result, philanthropists in India don’t even get into trust modus. Rather, they create their own independent implementation arms. This means that you don’t have to trust anybody. The question of trust can be bypassed because you can do it all by yourself.
Of course, when trust is broken, you can pull back and create more rules. There are things that we can do. But when you have a car accident, it also doesn’t mean you never get in the car again.
But like I said, in order for real social change to happen, nobody can go at it alone. One has to always try trust first.
Charlotte Brugman is manager, assessment and advisory services, at CEP. If you’d like to learn more about understanding and improving your relationships with grantees, including through collecting grantee feedback via the Grantee Perception Report (GPR), contact Charlotte, who is based in Amsterdam and leads CEP’s work with global funders, at charlotteb[at]cep.org.