January 2016 | Philip Chacko

Philanthropy fine-tuned

The Tata Trusts has — through integration, use of technology, advocacy, partnerships and more — set course for a renewal aimed at deepening the impact of its numerous charity endeavours

How do you enhance an idea of philanthropy that has served and sustained countless people and communities from across India for more than a century? That was the question the Tata Trusts asked itself two years back when it embarked on an exercise to evaluate the efficacy and influence of the myriad social uplift programmes it was supporting.

The Tata Trusts are exemplars in the charity mission, extending a helping hand to numerous among India’s needy in a wide range of spheres, from health and education to livelihoods and natural resource management

The answers, arrived at after lots of discussion and debate, have been the basis of a renewal that has given new direction to one of India’s largest, most extensive and consequential charitable foundations. What remains unaltered is the core purpose and mandate of the Tata Trusts: to improve the quality of life of those it touches.

That has been the rationale that has nourished the Trusts ever since the first of them, the JN Tata Endowment, was established in 1892 by Tata group Founder Jamsetji Tata. A host of other philanthropic institutions were seeded in the years since by members of the Tata family.    

The financial backing these varied trusts provided to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) undertaking community development projects — this was the preferred form their philanthropy took — has delivered remarkable outcomes down the decades. But could they go further? Could their efforts have a greater impact? Could they be more nimble and responsive to the development challenges of the day? Could they think and work under a collective canopy?

These were some of the queries that crowded Ratan Tata’s mind in December 2012 after he stepped down as Chairman of the Tata group. Mr Tata had been chairman of the Tata Trusts and he continued in the role, but he was now able to give plenty of his time and energy to steering the multiple constituents within its fold.

Mr Tata’s deeper involvement in the running of the Trusts would have a profound effect on an institution that, while still loyal to the legacy of its creators, had become too set in its ways. Mr Tata believed change, if not a transformation, had to take place, for the Trusts to give punch to its weight in terms of impact. He also believed an assessment was in order and that the assessor ought to be from outside the cocoon.

The Bridgespan Group, an international nonprofit that measures and advises philanthropic organisations, was brought in for the evaluation. They endorsed much of what the Trusts were already engaged in, but there was sage counsel on what could make it better.

“We wanted to see whether we had to refocus, whether we had to look at new fields in which to make our grants,” says RK Krishna Kumar, a corporate stalwart for long at the Tata group and a member of the Tata Trusts board. “We wanted to retain the good in what we were doing. But we also wanted to consider today’s issues of nation-building and the deficiencies there.”  

The imperative now is direct participation in development, which translates into feet on the ground. This is a radical shift from the previously prevalent regimen, where the Trusts put resources in the hands of NGOs and monitored the deployment of these resources.

R Venkataramanan, executive trustee of the Tata Trusts, is clear about where the priority lies for the Trusts. “If you get down to the essence of who we are attempting to benefit and why we exist, there is a straight line leading back to Jamsetji Tata and his tenets. It goes back to the fundamental principle: we exist to make a difference in the quality of life of the community of people that we serve.

The Tata Trusts now has a ‘yellow card’ agenda for their philanthropic endeavours. The term comes from the yellow piece of paper on which Mr Tata jotted down five points: enhanced scale; measurable impact; a finite period of support to projects; ensuring that these projects are sustained after the Trusts has withdrawn from them; and benchmarking with global peers and best practices, a part of which is sourcing the best available technology.

The Tata Trusts in collaboration with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai have developed the Mission Garima Programme to eliminate inhuman, unsafe and undignified working conditions in sanitation work

Add to this the cluster-based approach that the Trusts has settled on, wherein any social uplift initiative should encompass programmes from multiple thematic spheres — the interlinking of health, livelihoods, education, etc. — in groups of villages across a particular region.

“Philanthropy itself has evolved over the years,” says Arun Pandhi, programme director with the Tata Trusts. “We are no longer looking at building institutions. Also, our charity corpus has gone up, from about Rs40 million a year in 1996 to Rs7 billion a year today.”

The Tata Trusts has a mass of goodwill accumulated over long years of spreading the philanthropy net to help raise the standard of living, and of life itself, of communities spread all over India. The recast Tata Trusts has the promise and the potential to deliver more than ever before, and to more people than has been possible thus far.

This article is part of the cover story about the Tata Trusts featured in the January 2016 issue of Tata Review:
'The Tata Trusts will have to keep renewing itself'
Ratan Tata, Chairman, Tata Trusts, talks about the trusts' evolving philanthropic approach, future growth and priority issues facing India
Read the complete articles, and more, in Tata Review
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Net gains are cooking
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In search of that creative edge
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Equity and excellence
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Mission maximum
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Rhythm reloaded
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A canvas widened
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