Philanthropy: Meera Gandhi and The Giving Back Foundation
Meera Gandhi is founder and CEO of the ‘Giving Back Foundation’, a non-profit organisation whose focus is on alleviating poverty, illness and suffering and addressing the educational needs of young children. She talks to Peter Doherty about her inspirations, influences and personal philosophy.
How have your parents influenced you?
I’m from mixed parentage, father Indian and mother Irish. They’ve been happily married for fifty years and live in India. Mum was hands-on, super involved and always there for us. She’s a very spiritual person and we were brought up Roman Catholic. Mum at seventy-five is still active and really doing a lot of hands-on stuff. Dad being in the navy had that organisation and discipline about him, so they really complement each other. Without doubt most of my values were formulated through my parents.
The core of Catholicism is leading your life in the service of others. Do you think that informed your approach to life?
Of course and I went to convent school too! Also because of dad’s naval postings, we moved around a lot I had no real sense of hierarchy, society and position and that was a positive thing. I just got on with it and made friends. Mum is a huge influence and respected everybody equally. She taught us the value of giving back and how this impacts on our relationship with ourselves and our own state of being. She encouraged us to make friends but also said ‘be your own person’.
Do you agree that Philanthropy is not really part of the culture in Europe and in fact due to favourable tax benefits in the US, it’s more prevalent there?
America has been the forerunner, no doubt, with their tax set up, however, I think there is a real misnomer about rich people. If you want to save money you set up a trust and your kids get the money. If you set up a Foundation then you are compelled to give away that money. You are making a statement of intent. Successful people have a great work ethic. Many are very well educated too. So they reach a point where they look for the bigger picture. They look
Isn’t Philanthropy just a rich persons hobby?
When Bill Gates and Warren Buffett did their road trip to China to get people to contribute, some of the richest in that part of the world didn’t even turn up. They were not interested. Giving back is not just about wealth. Philanthropy can be defined by ‘giving to enhance the life of another’. On that point, my own driver, who had a family of eight invited us to his home and shared his food with us during an Indian festival. I made a comment about how tasty the sweetmeats were and he immediately sent half the feast to my kitchen. That’s giving. His kids were more deserving of it, yet what he had, he gave. Giving really does occur in many ways.
What has America taught you about giving?
America has taught me organised giving. To assess the need and affect real change. The spirit is there. They open their cheque books. They support each other. Sadly, India is sceptical, although it is changing though. Society girls in India are now interested. I don’t care whether they want to come to be photographed. Motivation doesn’t matter. Eventually they will realise. It’s a journey. I want to be the catalyst.
So you’ve brought that approach to bear on your own Foundation?
We have sixteen on-the-ground projects and we sign up to each project for five years, so we can monitor change. But there are wonderful individual cases too. We paid for a cataract operation for an eighty-nine year old man. The first thing he did post-op was to put pen to paper and write the words ‘this is the first letter I’m writing with my new eyesight and it’s thanks to you’. I don’t even know how he found our address.
Tell me about one of your projects?
We’re doing a reading program for disadvantaged young people in Harlem which is also supported by the police. Sadly, these kids are nearly all from broken homes and one was asked to do a ‘bag drop’ in the Lower East Side. He became tired of having nothing and he was given three hundred dollars for the delivery. He was befriended. He bought clothes and he felt wanted and special, then the cops picked him up and he was really messed up on drugs and the illusion of the criminal lifestyle. We’re looking at building a reading room with computers to give these kids another route out of poverty.
Do you think there’s a greater awareness about giving back amongst the young?
The younger generation are more conscious of the planet and other people’s needs. My husband used to interview graduates at Morgan Stanley and they asked about their bonuses first, now they ask what the company is doing socially and what their policies are in particular areas, like the environment.
Do you think there will be a tipping point where the concept of giving back becomes an integral part of our culture?
Yes, I think the cultural mindset is changing. There will be a point where people realise they can’t take their money and possessions with them. I’m actually doing a TV series that will feature well-known and unknown givers and organisations across India that will be screened over there. That’s the best way of exposing somewhere as vast as India to this way of thinking.
Mother Teresa said ‘Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty’. Don’t you feel poverty manifests itself in many ways?
Yes there is a poverty of love and spirituality and that’s not just amongst the poor. It’s everywhere and many search for meaning in consumerism and mass media but feel empty and unfulfilled. Wealthy people can also live a poor existence and be spectators of their own lives. They can be trapped and isolated by their position, not allowed to do simple tasks because of their entourage and social standing.
Don’t you think there is a greater expectation now amongst donors? Isn’t Philanthropy more of a ‘results’ business?
Yes definitely, people are very excited about seeing change. We send out newsletters showing progress on projects. The images are very powerful. People take the Foundation seriously. We also show the global dynamic, showcasing our work all over the world.
Running the Foundation is an immense task. You have to be tax compliant in every country for a start. The administration is huge. I’m doing this 24/7. There’s always a country on this planet ‘open for business’. For me I get the same joy seeing the kids at St Michaels orphanage doing well as I do my own children.
One of my aims is take wealthy people from the Upper East Side on a visit to St Michaels to connect with the kids. Spending time there makes you realise how lucky you are. You won’t see true giving in stadiums and podiums, but you can find it in your imprint on the world. Ask yourself this, ‘when someone crosses your path are their lives any richer for it?’