There is a great difference between charity and philanthropy, but it is a difference that is too often ignored. Charity is the act of giving money, any amount, but not actively engaging in the cause. Philanthropy involves giving money, certainly, but also requires personal and proactive involvement.
The traditional image of the billionaire philanthropist is outdated. Modern philanthropy demands dedication and ingenuity. In my view, the business community is perfectly placed to contribute to society in such a way: the skills and expertise honed by businesses and entrepreneurs are ideal for philanthropic work.
Most of us in the business community possess a wealth of contacts; many are entrepreneurial and consequently have vast stores of business expertise. These qualities, more than money alone, are the qualities which make for successful philanthropists.
Effective philanthropy demands us to think in a business-like manner. It requires us to identify the cause with the greatest need and to select one which will benefit most from our efforts and strengths. I believe that philanthropy need be no different from business: it requires the same skills and principles, and the same amount of effort and focus.
Successful businesses are governed transparently and professionally. The principles of governance which we apply to our businesses can only make philanthropic organisations more competitive and ultimately more effective.
It may not be smart to think of charitable organisations arranged as businesses. But ultimately, by encouraging philanthropic institutions and projects to organise themselves professionally, we are able to add value where value is needed most.
Andrew Carnegie said,
“It is more difficult to give money away intelligently than to earn it in the first place.”
Accordingly, and for real impact, philanthropic institutions must be well-managed and highly efficient, whilst philanthropists must be proactive and business-savvy. By donating our skills and expertise – by, for example, working directly with NGOs to develop charitable programmes –the business community can ensure that any funds donated are put to proper and efficient use.
Philanthropy is not only about writing cheques. And so, our charitable efforts need not be defined by how much spare cash you have!
Businesses of any size can contribute to society by identifying a need, one perhaps local to them, to which they can contribute in a measurable way. To that end, select a cause that aligns with the goals and expertise of your business.
Rather than simply giving money, think about donating spare office equipment; consider if and how your employees could donate their time to a chosen cause, and how you can facilitate that. And if the needs of the cause exceed the capabilities and reach of your business, connect with other businesses or community leaders to combat the issue together – there is no reason for us to be siloed. Indeed, the relationships and connections you built through charitable action may well prove valuable to your business in the future.
When it comes to philanthropy, I am a great believer in first-hand experience. Bill Gates gave the example of his project to bring computers to impoverished areas of Africa; it was only when he saw the terrible living conditions with his own eyes that he realised that “digital empowerment” was low down in the “hierarchy of needs”. Only through first-hand experience can we –the businesspeople and entrepreneurs – really understand what must be done.
Practice What You Preach
When attempting to illustrate my attitudes to social contribution and philanthropy, I always return to the work of my philanthropic organisation, the Tej Kohli Foundation. It was founded shortly after I visited Costa Rica, where I personally witnessed indescribable poverty. Since that moment, the Foundation has strived to fight against poverty and all that it entails – namely, disease and ignorance.
In India we have identified a cause which will benefit most from the aid we are able to provide. In essence, the problem is that people are ignorant as to the fundamentals of eye-care; and many don’t have the means of accessing ophthalmic treatment should they contract, what would be regarded elsewhere, as a relatively minor eye infection.
Approximately one third of the world’s blind people live in India. Visual impairment is India’s greatest health problem, with 15 million sufferers. But of these people, 4.6 million could be treated through corneal transplants. 
The figures are staggering, certainly. But what astounded me, when I was first made aware of the issue, was that so many of these cases of corneal blindness – 60% of which are children under the age of 12 – were preventable and certainly curable.
I approach our work with the same care and commitment as I do running my businesses. We work tirelessly to create a programme that facilitates free corneal transplants. We raise awareness for the need for corneal donation – which is greatly lacking. We work with eye institutes, local NGOs, grass roots organisations and directly with beneficiaries. Perhaps most importantly, we seek to teach people the basics of eye care, thereby allowing us to prevent many cases of blindness.
Go Beyond Charity
The work we have done through the Foundation goes beyond charity. Through first-hand experience we are able to accurately identify the problems and the solutions, and are thereby able to take a targeted approach to our work. We have planned carefully and tried to find the most effective approach given the resources available. In India, our ceaseless determination has allowed us to cure thousands of sufferers of corneal blindness.
Our journey has been, and continues to be, a long one. But never did I consider giving up. I dedicated my time, my entrepreneurial skills, and my contacts – all have contributed in no small a part to the Foundation’s successes, and all are qualities that the business community possesses in droves. Entrepreneurs and businesspeople have particular expertise that can help philanthropic organisations to be more corporate, efficient and effectively focussed.
So, it is time for the business world
to act, not charitably, but philanthropically.