Giving Is not Enough: Increased Urbanization Demands That Indian Philanthropy Shift Focus

India’s cities are home to roughly 377 million people. An estimated 26 percent – 97 million – are officially poor.1 That’s equivalent to the combined populations of the U.K. and Canada.

Now, imagine that half the expecting mothers in the United Kingdom and Canada don’t have access to safe delivery options. Imagine that 71 percent of the nations’ children are anemic and 47 percent are malnourished. Imagine that 62 percent of all U.K. and Canadian citizens defecate in the open.

It’s hard to wrap your brain around, right? And yet, those are the estimated percentages affecting India’s urban poor.

The Time Is Now

With India’s urban expansion on track to happen at an unprecedented speed (McKinsey projects that India’s urban population could soar to 590 million by 2030, twice the population of the United States today) the time to address these issues is now. Unless we tackle urban problems like the nation’s affordable housing deficit and its crumbling infrastructure – and unless we give urban residents the tools, and financial and educational access they need to begin carving their own paths to upward mobility – an already difficult situation will become exponentially worse.

There aren’t, of course, any easy answers about how we do this. But there are clear steps that those of us working to find solutions, especially those of us in the philanthropic community, can and must take to begin addressing the challenges facing India’s growing population of urbanites. Given the scale of this challenge philanthropic funds alone won’t make a dent in this problem. Donors need to:

  1. Strengthen and support existing institutions to maximize their impact. This means partnering with central, state and city governments to improve their programs for the poor ranging from housing, to education.
  2. Play a catalytic role in pioneering new markets and ecosystems that can create large scale impact.  A great example of the importance of this type of approach is the Kenyan success story of M-PESA (a mobile payments platform,) which was developed by Vodafone with significant grant support from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).
  3. Rigorously measure our impact to continuously improve and refine our programs. Transformative change takes time and patience, and we can’t expect short term results. However, measuring and tracking interim outcomes will ensure that programs are on track and that challenges can be dealt with quickly before they derail the entire initiative.
  4. Acknowledge and embrace failure. Doing all of the above is challenging and risky. We will never have all the data, and there will always be some subjective decisions that exacerbate the risk of failure. In reality, if you don’t have failures, you’re playing it too safe and likely won’t have the impact you’re looking for. These failures are fantastic learning opportunities for yourself and your peers. David Damberger says it best in his Ted Talk.

Catalytic Giving: A New Focus for Indian Philanthropy

India is making progress. The government has recognized the challenges faced by the urban poor and has pledged additional resources through urban-focused interventions such as Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), Rajiv Awas Yojna (RAY) and National Urban Livelihoods Mission (NULM). Indian business leaders including Azim Premji, Shiv Nadar and Rakesh Jhunjhunwala have made large pledges to address some of the challenges of poverty in India. But as FSG’s research on Indian philanthropy makes clear, philanthropists must shift focus from the simple amount given to strategic thinking about ways to increase the impact of every dollar given.

1 The 26 percent estimate is per the Indian government, whose poverty line is significantly lower than the $2 a day standard set by the World Bank.


The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation focuses on urban poverty initiatives that directly and measurably transform the outcomes of impoverished urban children around the globe. In India, we supplement traditional philanthropy with a focus on catalytic impact. We support the development of new, socially oriented markets such as urban microfinance, and support pilot programs aimed at enabling government to adopt and maintain high quality health and education programs that address issues related to urban poverty.