The Art of Philanthropy and the Indian Diaspora

Indians have a long tradition of charitable giving that flows from the concept of 'daan' as a religious obligation, and many Indians who have gone abroad to make their fortune also want to do something for their homeland. IIT alumni associations have set up foundations that have collected substantial funds, which have been used to upgrade facilities, add to the infrastructure and set up new schools in the alma mater.

Individual NRIs such as Britain-based Raj Loomba have done considerable charitable work in India. Punjab-born Loomba began business with a market stall in Cheshire in 1964 and over the years built a flourishing clothing and fashion business in Britain. In 1997, he registered the Loomba Trust as a charitable institution in Britain in memory of his mother with the aim to provide education and support for children of poor widows. The trust began its operations with the target of providing education for 100 children in each of 29 states of the country. It now supports the education of 3,610 children, including 500 orphaned children of tsunami victims in Tamil Nadu, and has extended its activities to Bangladesh, Kenya and Sri Lanka.

Loomba's drive and enthusiasm has made the Loomba Trust a well-recognized Indian charity in Britain. Its Diwali function was attended by a host of celebrities and raised 250,000 pounds ($493,000) for its charitable activities. With its emphasis on widows and their children, the Loomba Trust organized the premiere of Deepa Mehta's film "Water" in London and has raised funds through other high-profile events.

Other people of Indian origin settled abroad have also felt the need to give something back to the country. The Indian diaspora has responded with contributions in times of need such as wars and natural disasters, from the time Indians in East Africa sent donations to India during the 1962 Sino-Indian war to the overwhelming response after the earthquake in Latur and Gujarat.

Estimates on the inflow of diasporic philanthropy are difficult to come by because a large part of it is carried out through informal channels. Giving funds for charitable purposes while on a visit to India is the most common form of diaspora philanthropy. Most charitable donations by overseas Indians are given to organizations where there is a personal link through family or friends since there is little personal satisfaction for a donor that his contribution has made a beneficial impact when there is no feedback on how the donation was utilized. 

Having prospered abroad, Indians want to give back to their native places. Most of these contributions have been routed through friends and relatives rather than in response to appeals for donations by NGOs or charitable organizations. But the experience of giving has not always been a satisfactory one. For instance, Chicago-based NRI Ramu Verma's cousin had helped set up a computer lab in his local village school in Haryana, but when Verma visited the village five years later he discovered that the lab was no longer in use. He found to his dismay that three computers were not working and two others were missing. Village politics and factional fighting had rendered the lab dysfunctional and there was no one Ramu Verma could turn to for setting things right as his own relatives were involved in the factions.

According to another NRI, most Indians give mainly at the time of natural calamities at home. "I would like to make regular contributions, but I'm not sure how I should go about it. Indian associations in America mobilized contributions for those rendered homeless by the devastating earthquake in Gujarat and victims of the tsunami. But there is some discomfort among the donors over whether their contributions reached the victims or not. Some of us have heard stories about aid not reaching the truly needy," the NRI said.

There is a strong distrust of government organizations among the overseas community due to perceived corruption, bureaucratic sloth and inefficiency. Indians living abroad are also wary of civil society associations and NGOs because of a lack of transparency in their functioning and accounting methods. The personal link with individual organizations usually helps to overcome the misgivings about the functioning of Indian organizations.

The Indian ethos of giving is a personal one linked to religion, but in the West, Indians have become familiar with the institutionalized manner in which charitable donations are made in those countries. Indians living abroad have been influenced by the Western pattern of social service and culture of giving. Many large American companies have a policy of making matching contributions to the donations made by their employees to certain listed charities. Companies with a significant number of Indian employees have some Indo-American not-for-profit organizations on their list of charities. But for more organized and systematic philanthropy, recipient organizations in India need to build up public credibility with greater transparency in their operations. 

Philanthropic institutions in the West understand that well-defined distribution channels for philanthropic contributions have a significant effect on helping to increase the volume of donations. The awareness that a well organized and effective distribution network exists usually has the effect of converting a generalized willingness to give into the positive action of making a donation.

Overseas Indian associations have been active at times of natural disaster but now some of them are trying to make a more valuable impact. Indians living abroad have offered not just financial support but also help in accessing resources such as specialized knowledge skills and new technology. The American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) is initiating a pilot programme in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar for rural healthcare using innovative practices in preventive care measures and community preparedness.

"To make a difference where it matters" TERI has started a programme that seeks to make technology based solutions for rural areas under the adopt a village concept. Its website details the kind of programmes it offers - from supply of drinking water to sanitation to water harvesting - and also lists the cost involved in each project. It allows prospective donors to choose projects in their preferred geographical locations in the country and to be active partners in the project if they so desire. While the programme is new, TERI has received queries from Indians abroad wanting to make some contributions.

The Indian government also intends to set up a Global Indian Foundation - or Pravasi Bharatiya Kosh - to promote philanthropy in the diasporic community. It is likely to be launched at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas function Jan 8-9. The foundation would provide a channel for overseas Indians to contribute to causes such as education, health and rural development in India. Contributors can make small or large donations for specific projects in the region of their choice. The foundation will follow a similar pattern where contributors can view the impact of their contribution on the internet or make a personal visit to the area of activity in India.

(Shubha Singh is a writer on the Indian diaspora and international affairs. She can be reached at


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