We recently had the pleasure of conducting an exclusive interview with Indian billionaire and businesswoman Anu Aaga. Anu was one of the top 10 wealthiest females in India and a top 50 wealthiest family in India, she is well known for her philanthropy and social work in the country and region.
In many of Anu's public talks she discusses the undernourished, ill-equipped and unskilled mass of young people in large numbers who are to become India’s workforce and who have to sustain the growth levels that we all dream about. Have we created opportunities for them to improve their own lives and destinies?
A couple of other questions that Anu raises in her talks include:
i. How do we (re)build that sensitivity to respond to human suffering, especially in India?
ii. How do we dismantle the power hierarchy between donors and NGOs?
iii. How do we expand our understanding of philanthropy beyond finances? - time and skills
- What is the #1 most costly mistake you have made, or seen many investors/business owners make that could be avoided?
I would not call my mistake costly, but it taught me a very important lesson. I tend to be impulsive and act on feelings without checking out details about an NGO. Years ago, for what seemed like a very good cause, I agreed to pay a certain amount. Later I found that my entire donation went toward the salary of the CEO and since she could not mobilize other donors, she did not do what she had set out to do nor honestly share her problem.
Before giving the money, I need to study the work, ask more questions, and if possible, visit the NGO to make an informed decision. Feeling sorry and impulsive giving is not good for the donor nor for the NGO. There needs to be a balance of emotion and connect to the cause along with the actual work being done on ground by the NGO.
Another pitfall is to continue giving or renewing grants without reviewing progress periodically. Oftentimes, NGOs begin strong and show immediate short-term impact but can lack sustainability and fizzle out. The focus needs to stay on the long-term impact and investors can play a pivotal role in building that accountability.
- What is the most valuable strategy, worth far more than $1 million, that you wish someone provided you with early on that you can share here?
When we started this work, nobody provided a valuable strategy but with experience I learnt that there are several causes that need attention but finding out the cause that my family and I are drawn to is the way forward. It is better to focus our givings on that rather than give a little to several causes.
This strengthens the long-term impact that we will be able to create through our philanthropic efforts.
This is not a rule that applies to everyone, and some may prefer to help multiple causes, but we found our giving more satisfying and impactful when we decided to focus on primary education for the underprivileged in India.
It is also important to invest beyond money in the causes that one is giving to. It can be in the form of one’s time, skills, strategic inputs or other resources as well. This helps in strengthening one’s understanding of the work being done on ground and contribute to its long-term impact.
- What was the major turning point, point of increased momentum, or strategic choke point, that once you acquired or completed, made everything you were doing surge forward?
When we started our philanthropy journey, we had not decided how much we would give each year. My daughter, Meher and I made the decisions and informed my son-in-law Pheroj. My grandchildren were young but when they were in their late teens, Pheroj suggested we involve them by explaining why we were giving and our strategy. This advice of not doing things unilaterally got the entire family involved.
We decided that we would give 30% of our dividends as philanthropy and from this year raised it to 50%.
The entire family formally being involved was the turning point. Each member had their own pet cause. We decided that we would take into account Pheroj’s interest in helping hospitals (especially the one in which he was a trustee). My children are passionate about dogs, and we give a very small amount because our rule is that unless a member is spending time for the cause that she is keen on, we do not make a substantial contribution.