Creating a level-playing field, opportunity is what Indian American philanthropists are focused on

AIF honorees Michael Dell and Aditya Puri
From left to right: Ajay Banga, Aditya Puri, Lata Krishnan and Michael Dell at the American India Foundation Gala in New York on April 24. Photo credit: Twitter

Indian Americans bring a depth of knowledge, ideas and innovations, as well as money, to address India’s complex challenges.

(Editor’s note: A version of this piece originally appeared in The Deccan Herald, India.)

It was a glitzy evening on Wall Street. Influential members of the diaspora congregated in their tuxedos and colorful wear. Important members of corporate America were also in attendance because of their deep ties with India as well as the business and personal friendships they share with leading Indian American execs. The occasion was the annual New York Gala of the American India Foundation on April 24, 2019. Special guests included Michael Dell, Founder-Chairman and CEO of Dell; Aditya Puri of HDFC; and prominent Indian Americans, including Ajay Banga, Victor Menezes, Chandrika Tandon, Lata Krishnan, Dinesh Paliwal, Harit Talwar and Ali Velshi, among others.

One constant narrative that is circulated is that Indian Americans are highly engaged in the Indian elections.

That may be true of a small percentage of them living here in the United States. But it is a stretch to think that Indian Americans are obsessing over who will be the next prime minister of India. Don’t get me wrong!  Folks here have their favorites. They have strong affiliations, which, at times, they proudly wear on their sleeves. However the American India Foundation Gala is an indicator of the diaspora’s focus on larger development issues within India, the United States and the rest of the world.

The affinity for philanthropy is still work in progress. It is a well-known fact that the Indian diaspora in the US is among the wealthiest, most-educated and influential. Despite the clout of the Indian American community in business, academia, politics and practically every other sphere of life here in America, it lags behind in formal, structured philanthropic giving. This was also established in “The Indiaspora-Dalberg Community Engagement Survey,” the first of its kind survey, conducted in 2018. It found that Indian Americans volunteer at nearly double the national average but give substantially less financially.

Indiaspora is an organization established to transform the success of Indian Americans into meaningful impact worldwide and its members are influential Indian American and Indian leaders from diverse backgrounds and professions. There is a significant giving gap the survey found, estimated to the tune of $2 billion to $3 billion benchmarked against the wider American population. What this means is that the diaspora’s contribution could be consequential in addressing the development challenges of India and the rest of the world. In short, the philanthropy quotient needs to go up further.

India’s development challenges matter to the world the country’s scale and complexity. It could be neo-natal mortality, climate change or young people seeking jobs – how India deals with these issues impacts the world. A quarter of global newborn deaths happen in India. Some 12 million youth enter the workforce every year. There is a need for global engagement to augment and enhance the many indigenous solutions in India that are addressing these issues. The Indian American community, therefore, has a strong role to play. Again, it is no surprise that the diaspora in America and elsewhere not just bring money to address the issues, but a depth of knowledge, ideas and innovations besides institutional affiliations and resources.

The American India Foundation played a pioneering role in “collectivizing” the fragmented giving of the diaspora. It also created a platform to celebrate philanthropic giving. Today, it has become a “multi-theme and collective” philanthropic platform to provide effective and efficient giving for health, education and livelihoods related issues – bringing them all together to disrupt poverty. There are other flourishing organizations, such as Pratham, Akshay Patra, Ekal Vidyalay, Room to Read and Magic Bus, who have all harnessed Indian Americans’ generosity and affinity for India.

That same evening, just a few miles due north, adjoining the Central Park, the iconic lung space of New York City, was another gala in an equally colorful setting. Breakthrough, an organization that works in India to prevent the cycle of gender violence and empower adolescent girls, was holding its own fete with many successful Indian diaspora headlining the event.

Back on Wall Street, during the course of the American India Foundation gala, the uber-successful entrepreneurs of Syntel fame, Bharat Desai and Neerja Sethi, pledged $1 million to support the setting up of digital labs in under-served schools in the far flung corners of India. It is then safe to say that enabling a level-playing field and opportunity-creation is what gets the diaspora vote – at least, that was the unequivocal verdict from this gathering of over 600 influential diaspora members.

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