Giving to create change

Giving to create change

Philanthropist Luis Miranda and his wife Fiona work on a number causes that are dear to them. They have also used their resources to aid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In a conversation with Danuska da Gama of NT NETWORK, Miranda talks about philanthropy and highlights how collaborated efforts can bring positive change


With roots in Goa, Mumbai-based philanthropist Luis Miranda earned his wealth and repute by investing wisely in companies.

An MBA graduate from Chicago Booth, Miranda is a chartered accountant who started investing in India’s infrastructure and private equity. Not only has he invested in, but he has also served as board member of several companies like GMR Infrastructure, L&T Infrastructure, Delhi International Airport, Gujarat Pipavav Port, Gujarat State Petronet, and Manipal Global Education.

And now, teaming up with his wife Fiona he invests money and time for various causes that matter, make a difference and bring about change.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q. An increasing number of wealthy individuals in the world are turning to philanthropy. What in your view are the reasons for it?

It’s actually a variety of reasons. People want to do good; they want to help others; they want to sometimes make themselves look good; there is always a motive. Sometimes it’s because you feel guilty of making too much money and not shelling something out. Sometimes people have grown up with giving traditions, whether through the family business or their own families, and this has passed down through generations. My wife Fiona and I find ourselves lucky and we believe that because we have got more than we need we can therefore share some of it with people who have not been so lucky.

Unlike before, there’s a lot more talk about people giving. Some still don’t like to talk about what they do. When we decided to give to St Xavier’s College, the professors said they would display our names, and we wondered whether this was the right decision. But when we talked to a few other people we realised that others knowing about this, would also encourage them to give. More people seem to be giving now, which is because people are talking about it.

In Bengaluru, Girish Batra started a programme called Living My Promise, where he founded a group where each member would pledge that during their life or in their will, they will give 50 per cent of what they have. Today we are 45 promisers who have agreed to do that. The purpose is that it makes people come forward. With more people knowing about such initiatives, it encourages them to think: “Why can’t I also do the same thing?”

Q. Do you see such a trend among the wealthy in India also and why?

Yes. There are a variety of people who are leading this, partly it’s the new breed of entrepreneurs. There are several great people who’ve being doing catalytic work. Whether it is Nandan Nilekani or Rashesh Shah of Edelweiss… there’s something in their DNA which wants them to give to people. There are people who set up businesses and pick up causes relevant to them. There are also traditional organisations like the TATA Trust which is still doing good work. Nowadays, younger people are also involved in taking part in causes, donating online, besides helping out those in need who they come across. People all across are very caring. But, seldom do these positive stories come out and there’s a lot of good happening. Creating a new set of institutions like Ashoka University, and several other universities set to provide world class education is also a cause being taken up. I was involved in starting Indian School of Public Policy. So, yes, people in India do give and there’s generally a good feeling about it.

Q. What sections of society are the main focuses of philanthropy in India?

A lot of money was being given to traditional causes like religion, education, health, and in recent times sanitation, and other causes. But today, the money is now all being diverted to COVID. With the economy slowing down, there’s less money to give, so it’s a tough environment to be in now. Existing organisations which are in a crisis could be options to be looked at while everyone else is helping migrants, etc. Fiona and I give money for ‘capacity building’ that helps organisations grow – to help capital starvation. The head office sometimes needs funding and thus needs assistance to grow. When we support organisations, we look at the future, making it long lasting and building its capacity. Fiona is on the board of an NGO called 17000 ft Foundation in Ladakh to educate children. And we do this because we care and educating children will go a long way.

Q. Can you give a brief idea on how philanthropy has helped in mitigating hunger in India?

There have been many instances, but in recent times, with people affected by COVID, suddenly people realise there was a problem here. Food is a basic necessity and during the lockdown we saw how people struggled. So, we chalked out a list with costing of food items that would be necessary for about two weeks, only to realise that there was a bigger challenge in sourcing material. So, we worked with DMart and managed to get supplies that were distributed to over 10,000 families. Then the issue of migrants was out in the open and so many NGOs got involved in supplying food for the migrants and helping in providing them shelter. With the fear of the virus spreading, creating panic, migrants were seen walking on foot and then food was supplied to them along the way, on the trains. While the government should have been doing all this, they weren’t geared up for it, but I know, people put in their efforts, as I am involved with lots of groups. The non-corporate sector managed to do work because people were willing to give money. The amount of money that people have given for this has been phenomenal.

Apart from this, the government initiative of providing mid-day meals was a great way to make sure that children get one nutritious meal a day. And then there have been organisations like Akshaya Patra which have done a phenomenal job of supplying hygienic nutritious meals to kids in school, etc. Work has been done to resolve the food crisis in India.

Q. How has philanthropy helped in mitigating illiteracy in India?

I’m involved with an organisation called ‘Educate Girls’ started by Safeena Husain in Rajasthan. Here, enrolment of girls, retaining them in school, and making sure they learn and that the education provided is useful to them, has benefitted over five hundred thousand girls even in UP and MP. The other problem is government versus private schools. There’s a lot of criticism today against private budget schools, but frankly they are serving a strong need. I’ve been to some government schools and they are fabulous and at the same time I have also been to some private budget schools which are fabulous and some which are not so good. The private budget schools have also been instrumental in passing education to people, whether it’s through churches, temples or madrasas. We also work in Manipur and Nagaland with Sunbird Trust where one of my classmates Chris Rego set up schools and is creating access to education which we used to never have before. He worked in villages that are so remote and difficult to get through and we see passionate people there – from founders, teachers, volunteers and community workers, wanting to improve and give access to education. In Ladakh we are dealing with kids who are first generation school goers, their parents are shepherds or nomads. You can see the change happening across and that’s all again funded by philanthropy – where everyone is brainstorming and trying to resolve the problems.

Q. Can you give us a brief idea of how philanthropy has helped in mitigating diseases in India?

Organisations like the SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education & Health Action) which is an organisation I was involved with in Mumbai, make sure that expectant mothers take care of themselves and deliver healthy babies. And now as we battle COVID and seeing how the government has been putting efforts through volunteers and organisations, only makes one realise that there is a need to rely on the social and private sector to be able to fight it out at the required scale. And I hope that when this is all over, we learn to cooperate more with each other and will be able to change people’s lives.

Q. You have been engaged in bringing in business practices to make NGOs efficient. What have been your objectives and how successful have you been in achieving them?

All the NGOs I have been involved with have been doing fabulous work. When I look at them, I see the passion of the founders and the team. We try to be on the sidelines, helping them in different ways through our networks on how to connect the dots. This could be from raising funds; improving processes and governance; or recruiting at the CEO, senior level or junior levels. But honestly the people running the ventures know the sector much more than we know.

Q. Do you think philanthropy should contribute only where it can make social impact?

I am going to answer this question slightly differently. We go back to a conversation 30 years ago in 1989 when I graduated from the University of Chicago. Over dinner in Washington DC with a friend and his dad who was the dean of philosophy at the American Catholic University, the conversation revolved around my future plans. I mentioned that I would be coming to India and would work in Citi Bank and eventually want to get into politics, I didn’t, but these were my plans back then. He questioned my decision then about politics to which I said: “I want to make a change” And then he said something that remained with me, which was: “You don’t have to get into politics to create a change, if you are a good banker you’re making an impact, if you’re a good doctor you’re are making an impact.” That stuck with me.

I firmly believe that the most effective way to reduce poverty in the world is by economic development.

See how economic activity has slowed down when mining in Goa came to a standstill. I am not saying that the miners are good, bad, or ugly. The issues of environment impact, etc, are all valid reasons, but the fact remains that it made people realise that economic development is so important. I recently picked up a graph from the time frame between 1981 to 2011, that’s a 30-year period, that looked at various regions of the world. It was basically about the percentage of population living in absolute poverty specially in East Asia countries like Korea and Vietnam. Predominant among these was China that had 78 per cent of the population living in absolute poverty in 1981. They brought it down to eight per cent. I think it is the biggest ever change in poverty that you can see in the history of mankind and which was only because of economic development. So, it’s not only about giving money but it’s also about focusing on doing the right thing, following good practices, employing people, paying them well, feeding them properly, making sure they have a good life. All this made a huge impact over here, possibly much more than the work done through philanthropy, so economic development plays a huge part in a way, to reduce poverty.

Q. Do you think it is a good idea for many philanthropic organisations to get together to do a big project that can transform people’s lives in a village or town?

Like in most cases it is difficult to get people to work together; it’s difficult to get NGOs to get to work together, it’s difficult to get philanthropists to get to work together. But, on the other hand it is easier to get business people working together because it’s a common agenda and therefore there is a need to work together. But the thing of having an impact and believing what is the right way to do so is difficult. Axis Bank came together with the Axis Bank Foundation and helped developed 120 schools across a district over a three-year period with digital laboratories, libraries, good infrastructure, and playgrounds. So, when you partner with someone strategically, you can have good impact. At Educate Girls we are part of a project where we get rich billionaires globally to get together and fund, through a very exhaustive process through NGOs. Last year was the first time the NGO from Asia was picked where a lot of the capital of this people was able to make a change.

Whereas CORO is one of the leading foundations in the country that empowers leaders within the most marginalised communities to steer rights based, collective actions for social change. Here, people work in small villages where there is a forest, and tribals are allowed to make a living from the forest. We encourage them to do that, and thus by increasing their bank balance, the kids don’t have to move out of the village, because they make a living staying in their village.

Q. Why did you decide to dedicate your life to opening up new opportunities for NGOs and donors?

As I said earlier, Fiona and I consider that we have been lucky. We have been inspired by our parents to do good. In fact, it was my great great grandfather Luis Guilherme Dias who founded the Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI). Besides having such associations and other charities we also help young people get started off. In fact, that is how we got involved with a couple of organisations as volunteers. Today I spend most of my time on four organisations including CORO and Centre for Civil Society which is a non-profit think tank based in New Delhi started to promote the idea of free markets and institutional accountability.

Take Charge is another organisation we work with alongside the Archdiocese of Bombay where we run an 18-month mentoring programme for Catholic youth in Mumbai. Here, the kids are matched with a mentor and this helps them get inspired and open their minds to new opportunities. The other is the Indian School of Public Policy that I am a co-founder of in New Delhi. It’s the first post graduate public policy programme in the country, which has a tie up with the Harris School of Public Policy at University of Chicago.

Over the years we have also been involved with different initiatives like the National Independence School. We were involved with the Street Vendors Act started in Rajasthan and on a national bill to look after the rights of street vendors. We were also into a lot of research on education, etc.

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