” Jamsetji Tata established his philanthropic foundation in India before even that of Carnegie,” – John Godfrey.

John Godfrey is a PhD Candidate at the Swinburne University of Technology, Australia, exploring High Net Worth Philanthropy in India. In this short interview, he explains how he got interested in studying Philanthropy in India, its dimensions – social, cultural and religions and how, if at all, it differs from Western notions of giving.


John Godfrey. Photo provided by Mr.Godfrey.
John Godfrey. Photo provided by Mr.Godfrey.

1. Please tell us a bit about how you got interested in High-net worth giving in India? 

 Like many Protestants I knew very little about traditions of giving other than the one in which I grew up – church collections on Sundays, occasional street day appeals and organized charity appeals for the likes of Oxfam, Red Cross and Save the Children.  Somehow I formed the impression that it was the West alone that provided relief and succour to the developing world.  I never read or heard discussions about indigenous traditions of charity or philanthropy other than my own – even in my early days as a professional fundraiser.

Around 2005 I was working for a firm of international fundraising consultants and through them met Major General Surat Sandhu, who had recently retired from Help Age India to become a fundraising consultant. Sometime later, knowing that I was visiting India, he invited me to give a workshop to some Indian fundraisers. For the first time I began to understand a little bit about NGOs and philanthropy in India. As time went on I became more a more struck by the scale and prevalence of philanthropy in India.

More recently when I was considering the focus of my research for the Ph.D. I wanted to do.  I was reading the extensive press coverage generated by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s first visit to India to promote the Giving Pledge. There was a great deal of discussion by Indian HNWIs themselves about their practice of philanthropy. I had never seen that in the West!  It seemed to me here was a fruitful area for further research.  Especially, of course,  because Ph.D. research is supposed to cover topics that haven’t been researched before. The sad fact is there has been almost no academic research on any aspect of Indian philanthropy.

 2. What is your background and experience ?

 As I mentioned briefly above, I am a fundraising consultant. I also train fundraisers. I began my career as an actor, then an arts administrator, then I became a fundraiser first in the arts and then in higher education – universities.

3. What have you uncovered so far about giving behaviors in the subcontinent?

 It’s hard to give a simple answer. The subcontinent is a complex mix of religions, castes, ethnic traditions, geographies, histories, politics and social class. All of these are reflected in one way or another in giving behaviors. However once again I would like to reiterate that there is, or are, strong traditions of giving.

4. Any surprises?

 No surprises other than the initial surprise that philanthropy and giving are so much a part of Indian culture.

 5. What is unique about Indian philanthropy, as compared to western notions of giving?

 I wouldn’t necessary claim that there is anything unique about Indian philanthropy, in comparison to Western philanthropy. One thing to remember is that Western philanthropy grew from traditions that were introduced from the East. The first endowed universities and hospitals in Europe were the result of Medieval Knights returning from the Islamic territories of the Middle East where they had been introduced to the tradition of Islamic philanthropy and waqf.

US philanthropy is an infant in comparison to the traditions of the Middle East and Asia having been imported from Europe in the 19th century.

Jamsetji Tata established his philanthropic foundation in India before even that of Carnegie.


6. Noam Chomsky said recently in an interview that most Indians are indifferent to others’ suffering? Do you agree with this, purely from a philanthropic perspective

I have great respect for Noam Chomsky as an intellectual and a great liberal. I don’t think the reported comment was particularly profound. He made an interesting observation about the reaction of someone else – Aruna Roy. And he tried to generalize it through his own sensibilities. I think he missed the mark and I hope that it isn’t held against him.

 7. What is the role of philanthropy in a society such as India? How does this intersect with the state’s responsibility? 

 There is much debate about the role of philanthropy in societies around the world. The philanthropic sector is sometimes called the third sector to distinguish it from the state sector and the business sector. There are some things that can be achieved by philanthropy which cannot be achieved either through the state or by business. There are also some things that can be done in partnerships of all three – the state, business and philanthropy. Of these, I suppose it would be fair to say, philanthropy has the most freedom to innovate and take risks. Certainly this appears to be a growing trend both in the West and in India.


8. How do you foresee the understanding of philanthropy growing in India, going beyond Corporate Social Responsibility? The field is pretty nascent in India, is that right? 

 As I have said already philanthropy is far from nascent in India. In fact, in comparison, it is American philanthropy that is nascent! There is much confusion about corporate social responsibility not just in India but all over the world. Corporate social responsibility and corporate philanthropy are not synonymous. In India the debate about corporate social responsibility has been renewed as a result of the government making it mandatory for some companies. However the definition of corporate social responsibility is still far from determined.

You may be alluding to the fact that there is a strong tradition of philanthropy within the business classes and industrial dynasties of India. There is in the public mind some confusion between corporate philanthropy, family philanthropy and CSR because of this. Similar confusion may even exist amongst those business families themselves.


9. Any concluding thoughts.

 A strong motivation for my undertaking this research into philanthropy in India is a belief that the world should recognize that there is much more to philanthropy than there is contained in Western philanthropy. Until now, 90% if not more, of the research that has been published has been published either by American or British scholars about American, British and Western European philanthropy. I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Middle East and was introduced to Islamic philanthropy. That began my curiosity and interest into other traditions of philanthropy.

India is remarkable because within one country there are so many different traditions. I think the world has a lot to learn from India.

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