Rohini Nilekani is a leading Indian philanthropist. She is the founder and chairperson of Arghyam, a public charitable foundation supporting sustainable water and sanitation solutions in India, and EkStep Foundation, a nonprofit education platform. In 2017, she and her husband Nandan Nilekani—co-founder of the multinational information technology company Infosys—signed the Giving Pledge, committing half their wealth to philanthropic causes. CAPS (virtually) sat down with Rohini in February 2021 to understand what drives her philanthropy, her experience working in the water and education sectors, and the advice she has for other philanthropists looking to address social challenges.
CAPS: Rohini, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. You have been a committed philanthropist for over three decades. To achieve long-term change at scale, you advocate for initiatives that bring together society, state, and markets (‘samaaj, sarkaar and bazaar’). Can you tell us more about this philosophy?
Rohini: Complex social challenges require the collaboration of society, state and markets (‘samaaj, sarkaar and bazaar’). My work is rooted in samaaj (society)—its institutions, its moral leadership—as I believe it is the foundation. The market and state both serve and add value to this foundation. By focusing on society, I believe one can develop a framework for accountability which serves as a check on the state and markets. Over the years, I have learned more about how to work across these three sectors to create long-term, sustainable impact.
CAPS: Could you share some of these learnings and insights?
Rohini: A key insight is that when it comes to public services and impactful change, working with the state is a necessity. The government has the mandate, resources, and ability to scale initiatives emerging from the private and social sectors.
How to engage the state and at what level has been a valuable learning. We found that some initiatives are best addressed at the local level by working with the panchayat (village-level governing body). But if we wanted to impact policy, we had to work with the state or national government.
We also learned how to find champions in government who believed in our cause and helped propel it forward. Investing time in finding these champions and building relationships with them, whether they be politicians or bureaucrats, is paramount. There is no shortcut to this effort.
Finally, we learned that the ease with which we can garner government support varies by sector. Take EkStep Foundation, which works in education. Finding the sweet spot where the interests of the community, government and nonprofits aligned was easier because there is a shared understanding of the building blocks of good education.
Contrast this with Arghyam, which works in water. The water sector is more complicated and it is harder to align incentives. The state is often interested in BIG WATER—building large irrigation canals and hydropower projects, with little scope for nonprofit involvement and collaboration with society. To add to the complexity, while education falls under a single government ministry water cuts across 17 ministries or departments and comes under the purview of around 20 budget heads.
CAPS: How did Arghyam overcome this challenge? Where is it now?
Rohini: We did not allow the fractured system to stop us. We opted to work with the department that best aligned with Arghyam’s objectives—the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation—in rural areas under their jurisdiction.
Currently in the fourth phase of its development, Arghyam has evolved to focusing on developing a tech platform as the backbone for building water sector capacity. The goal is to enable the easy and rapid upskilling of water professionals. And to make their skills discoverable for their personal use as well as for improving local public infrastructure and services. Building this knowledge capacity allows for solutions to be contextualized and cater to local needs and challenges. This is especially important in a country as geographically diverse as India, where a solution from one location often cannot be copy-pasted to another.
CAPS: What is the biggest risk you foresee for Arghyam?
Rohini: The biggest risk is that behaviors won’t change. People will need to adapt to the digital age, and form digital communities for sharing and learning. However, slow or limited uptake from both the water professionals and the government is a risk that could hamper this effort. We need a better understanding of how to scale behavior change and give people more agency while doing so.
CAPS: Information technology features heavily in both EkStep Foundation and Arghyam. What are your thoughts on technology’s role in addressing social needs broadly?
Rohini: This is the digital age, and we must empower people digitally. I have learnt over the years that digital technology can be a powerful tool to amplify good intent. But solutions have to be technology-enabled, not technology–led. Technology can be a double-edged sword—it can create efficiencies but can also be orthogonal to equity. If the approach to addressing social needs is problem-led, solution-led and people-led, then technology can bring about rapid impact and a faster response to emerging challenges. It can spread agency, democratize knowledge.
Take, for example, data on water in India. If all the data only flowed upward to the central government, people in the community would be deprived of the understanding of their own water resources and how they are linked. This would create a power imbalance. Giving those consuming this water access to knowledge regarding it can help make them smarter consumers and help preserve this natural, finite resource. So the design of the technology matters greatly—we should aim to create open, public digital goods that share and not lock up knowledge. This will also make philanthropy itself more effective.
CAPS: We know that education has attracted the largest share of the philanthropic pie in India. Have you seen the water sector gaining more traction and attention from philanthropists?
Rohini: Yes. There has been a growing interest in investing in water. We had a massive response to an event convening philanthropists a couple of years ago. And in March 2020 the Action Covid-19 Team (ACT) Fund was successfully launched to raise philanthropic funding for education, healthcare, environment and inclusion of women in the workforce. Water falls under the environment pillar. Many donors are looking to do serious work in water, as it is clearly a critical resource.
CAPS: Do you have any advice for philanthropists and other private sector actors who are looking to work more effectively to address social challenges?
Rohini: Intent matters. If you as a philanthropist want to work with the government, people will be attracted to the power of your intent. But it is important to understand the state’s mandate and the public policies that dictate their budget and priorities. This will enable you to better understand and work with and within the state’s mandate. Understanding this is critical—it indicates the sectors in which the state is most open to collaboration. Bureaucrats change, governments change, mandates can change, and budgets can shrink.
But philanthropists must be patient. We must be nimble. We must underwrite risk and prove good models. We should also try to distribute the ability to solve. If we remain committed to our chosen cause, and if we are willing to step out of our comfort zones, to give up control, we can create a truly collaborative model between state, society and markets to address increasingly complex problems at scale.