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Going Beyond Funding As A Philanthropist

By Harsh Mariwala August 26, 2023

Collaboration with partner organisations is vital in philanthropy. Learning from their work, recognising their challenges, and supporting them in achieving their goals is key to creating sustainable impact

Going Beyond Funding As A Philanthropist
Active giving means giving your time, expertise and resources as well. When it comes to capacity building, we must open doors to the social capital that we, as philanthropists have. Image by rawpixel.com on Freepik
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As I entered my 50s, I realised I had achieved the wealth and recognition I had aimed for as an entrepreneur. It was time to begin looking for something else, my higher purpose in life. From here on, I made a conscious decision to give back to society in a more dedicated and systematic manner. With deeper thought on how I can make this effort more meaningful came a few realisations.

My philosophy is that before contributing to a cause, it is essential to think deeply about the issues you truly care about. The cause should align with your values and beliefs, and you should be passionate about it. I spend considerable time, effort and research in identifying the issue and developing a roadmap of what I want to achieve.

This principle is clearly reflected in the initiatives I have been involved with. I have always believed in the need for supportive, safe spaces for entrepreneurs to share and learn from each other’s experiences, aspirations, and dilemmas. With this mission in mind, ASCENT Foundation, founded more than a decade ago, has emerged as a powerful peer-to-peer platform that leverages the power of the collective. 

Another key aspect that has driven my philanthropic effort is the identification of areas, or issues, that are being neglected and therefore, hold great potential for creating a difference. Undertaking an insight exercise to gain better awareness of the area you are interested in supporting can help in creating meaningful change. It will aid you in identifying the gaps and challenges in the sector and developing an understanding of the stakeholders involved. Steps should include speaking to current users of the services to know more about the problems they experience, existing service providers, experts, academicians, and other funders. Such an exercise will enable you to decide what you should fund/support within the sector and how you can do it. 

When it comes to philanthropy, I believe in active giving, which looks at support beyond funding. Active giving means giving your time, expertise and resources as well. When it comes to capacity building, we must open doors to the social capital that we, as philanthropists have. This could be through visibilising partner work through PR or introducing HR or IT experts when partners seek support in engaging with their teams or evaluating technological upgrades. Essentially, I play a catalytic role in supporting our partners’ work. 

Following this ideology led to the foundation of Mariwala Health Initiative (MHI) in 2016. I had always been interested in the field of preventive health and aspired to an in-depth, long-term commitment. With the support of Dr Shruti Chakravarty (MHI’s Chief Advisor), I held multiple dialogues with stakeholders and subject matter experts in the mental health space. I soon understood that the field was grossly underfunded and under-represented. To help address this gap, MHI has been structured as an advocacy, capacity building and grant-making organisation.

When MHI was set up, I used to have monthly catch-ups with iCALL, our first partner, to get a clear picture of the issues they face daily. This enabled me to gain invaluable perspectives, which I then used in identifying other partner organisations to support. Collaboration with partner organisations is vital in philanthropy. Learning from their work, recognising their challenges, and supporting them in achieving their goals is key to creating sustainable impact.

This is especially important when supporting grassroots organisations. These organisations are deeply aware of the issues and communities they serve and can create significant impact locally. MHI actively seeks opportunities to partner with and fund small-scale organisations working to make mental health services accessible to the most marginalised communities and persons.  

Another learning that has come from the last few decades has been the importance of a dedicated and diverse team of professionals who have the necessary skills, experience, and a shared passion to your vision are key to drive change effectively. 

The success or impact of any initiative is usually measured through quantifiable metrics such as the number of people reached, services accessed, and geographies covered. This approach is appropriate for business, but when we want to bring about large-scale social change, which results in breaking institutional structures, the impact is neither immediate nor linear. For example, how do we measure stigma reduction in mental health? Is it just through awareness campaigns and the number of people who attended them, or could it also be measured when an individual with mental health issues feels empowered to apply for the local mental health review board as a person with lived experience? 

Lastly, it has been said enough, but it is always one of the hardest realities to accept - failure is a part of the process, and it is important to learn from it. Over the years, both in ASCENT and MHI, we have had some ideas that worked and others on collaborations or advocacy that did not work. An organisation’s culture should reward success, but it should also have enough space for innovation and, thereby space for failure of ideas. 

To me, therefore my journey as a philanthropist has included -

1. Identifying a passion – For me, it was entrepreneurship and health.
2. Undertaking insighting exercise – Understand multiple perspectives based on conversations with different stakeholders.
3. Shortlisting areas to initiate work – Instead of jumping into all aspects at the same time, we decided to focus our efforts on what needed most attention. In the case of Mariwala Health Initiative, we decided to start with grant-making.
4. Prototype the idea – As MHI, we started with fewer grants to learn from them.
5. Experimenting and evolving – Try various ways of working, be open to failure 
6. Scale-up operations – Based on learnings in initial areas, expand the area of work supporting the cause. As MHI, apart from grant-making, we also focus on advocacy and capacity building.
7. Building an ecosystem - that enables one to be recognised as a thought leader and influence others to enter the sector. 


The focus must always be on investing in social change. Only then can we make a long-term, meaningful impact, and a better future for everyone. 

(Harsh Mariwala is founder of Mariwala Health Initiative, and chairman of Marico Ltd.)

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