Art Of Giving: Psychology of philanthropy in the year of pandemic

November 29, 2020 4:00 AM

The year 2020 saw philanthropy in full swing and in a variety of shades. However, there was also a bit of paradox to giving this year, where corporates donated wholeheartedly, but also laid off thousands. We examine the psychology of philanthropy in the year of the pandemic

Giving creates a circle of goodwill, says Kumari Shibulal, founder and chairperson, The Shibulal Family Philanthropic Initiatives, which distributed grocery and PPE kits.

By Reya Mehrotra

Some do it for the good of society, some for their peace of mind, some for social validation. Whatever the reason might be, the giver becomes the receiver of joy and the receiver the beneficiary of the goodness. We are talking about philanthropy or the ‘art of giving’. The year 2020 saw philanthropy in full swing and in a variety of shades, from thousands of crores being donated and meals being fed to something as simple as being there for the elderly during the lockdown. There was also a bit of paradox to giving this year, where corporates donated wholeheartedly, but also cut jobs and salaries.

Give & take

As multilayered as it is, the art of giving can be multi-faceted too. And this was exposed in all its entirety this year as the pandemic gripped the world. Crores of rupees were donated by corporates even as thousands were laid off.

Mukesh Ambani-owned Reliance Industries, which made headlines throughout the year for its major deals with Facebook and other giants, contributed Rs 500 crore to the PM Cares Fund. And yet, the company cut salaries and bonuses of its hydrocarbon workforce with effect from April 1. Reliance Industries chairman and Asia’s richest man Mukesh Ambani forego his salary for the entire year, board and senior leaders had 30-50% cuts and employees earning more than Rs 15 lakh a year had a 10% cut. When contacted, the group refused to comment.

Construction engineering company Larsen & Toubro, too, was quick to donate Rs 150 crore to PM Cares in March even as key officials took voluntary cuts of about 53% and chairman AM Naik took a 24.19% salary cut. The figures were verified by the L&T team.

Similarly, Indian hospitality chain Oyo donated Rs 2.5 crore to the PM Cares Fund, and allowed its accommodation facilities to be used as quarantine centres and for medical personnel, and even organised ‘Feed for Good’ food drives, providing 1,000 meals to migrant workers across cities. However, CEO Ritesh Agarwal took a 100% pay cut as business suffered because people were sceptical about travel. In April, according to details shared by the company, Oyo asked employees to accept a reduction in their fixed compensation by 25% for four months (effective till July payroll), with 70% staff facing pay cuts. The cuts were done in such a way that no employee was paid less than Rs 5 lakh a year. However, from August 1, the company restored full salaries of Indian employees with a fixed compensation of up to Rs 8 lakh.

Chinese telecommunications equipment company Huawei, too, donated Rs 1 crore to the PM Cares Fund, a spokesperson confirmed. A news report in July, however, claimed that the company laid off 60-70% of its staff in India. When Financial Express on Sunday reached out to the company, it denied the claims, sharing the link of the article which as per the company wrongly reported the layoffs.

Health and fitness company contributed Rs 5 crore to the PM Cares Fund, part of which, founder Mukesh Bansal said, was personal contribution. In May, it was reported that the company shut down its operations in small towns, laid off employees and went for salary cuts to survive pandemic-induced losses. Depending on seniority, the staff took 20-30% pay cuts, the management team 50% and founders Mukesh Bansal and Ankit Nagori 100% pay cuts. However, declined to comment on our enquiry.

Food delivery and ordering giant Zomato shared that, in May, a number of its employees had taken a 100% pay cut for at least six months and the company had announced pay cuts for all its employees depending on their salaries. “We do not foresee having enough work for all our employees. We won’t be able to offer that (jobs) to 13% of our workforce going forward,” a company spokesperson says. Yet it had initiatives like ‘Feed the Daily Wager’, ‘Meals for Migrants’ and ‘Zomato Gold Fund’ (to help the restaurant community) in full swing. The paycuts were reinstated in July this year, according to the company.

Between May and June, Swiggy laid off more than 1,400 employees across various verticals in India. When the lockdown was imposed in March, however, Swiggy CEO Sriharsha Majety was quoted as saying, “We are working with multiple state governments and eligible food providers to deliver safe and hygienic meals in bulk to migrant workers and medical workers, among others.” When contacted, Swiggy refused to comment on the issue.

Ride-sharing company Ola Cabs and travel firm MakeMyTrip, too, contributed during the pandemic and launched initiatives to support frontline workers even while laying off employees. According to data shared by Ola, Rs 5 crore was donated to the PM Cares Fund and Rs 3 crore to Chief Minister’s Relief Fund of various states. But on May 20, co-founder and CEO Bhavish Aggarwal wrote a letter to employees about the downsizing of the company and about letting go 1,400 workers, as the salary cut of those in leadership roles wasn’t enough.

In July, IndiGo announced laying off 10% of its employees apart from other cost-cutting measures like pay cuts and leave without pay, as the airlines remained shut during the lockdown. However, it operated relief flights from Delhi to Jodhpur, especially for Iran-returned Indians, and offered its planes to the government to ferry items like medicine, relief supplies and other equipment.

The PM Cares Fund itself saw crores of donations being received yet migrant labourers went walking all the way home with no initial government support. In May, it was reported that it had garnered more than $1 billion in donations.

There were also firms that stayed away from layoffs. Wipro, for instance, refrained from layoffs, but reduced hiring during the pandemic. Hindustan Unilever contributed Rs 100 crore to PM Cares and took several cost-cutting measures. “In March this year, our parent company Unilever announced that the company will protect its workforce from sudden drops in pay as a result of market disruption or being unable to perform their role. Our focus continues to be to stabilise the business and get our operations back on track, keeping the health and safety of our employees and consumers as priority,” a spokesperson said. The firm launched a Covid insurance cover for over 30,000 extended and third-party workers on the frontline. Infosys, too, froze hiring, promotions and salary hikes, but didn’t let go of underperformers.

Making a difference

Not all acts of giving were paradoxical this year. Gastrophilanthropy, in fact, was seen globally and more so in India, as thousands of homeless people were fed during the lockdown. Journalist Stephen Henderson’s recent book The 24-Hour Soup Kitchen: Soul Stirring Lessons in Gastrophilanthropy could not have been more timely. It talks of ways in which the hungry are fed free meals across the world and draws inspiration from the langar system of Indian gurdwaras about which he learnt while volunteering at Gurdwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi.

The langar also gained international attention when Michelin-star chef Vikas Khanna said that his sense of hunger did not come from India, but from New York, where he had stood in queues for free meals and blankets. “I am from Amritsar. Everyone gets fed there in langars,” said Khanna, who provided millions of free meals and ration to remote villages in the country during the lockdown.

There were other good deeds too. Actor Sonu Sood made headlines for providing buses to help migrant workers reach home. He also arranged chartered flights to bring home workers, including stranded students from Kyrgyzstan. The real-life hero continues to support the underprivileged.

Not just India, the pandemic saw the wealthy across the world open their hearts when it came to donating. In April, Forbes compiled a list of 77 billionaires who donated large sums to fight the pandemic. The billionaires on the list included Jack Dorsey, Bill Gates, Azim Premji, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma, among others.

Giving creates a circle of goodwill, says Kumari Shibulal, founder and chairperson, The Shibulal Family Philanthropic Initiatives, which distributed grocery and PPE kits. “Being of help to others offers the giver a sense of contentment. People who receive help, help others in the future when they can. This creates a circle of giving,” she says, adding, “Foundations have better resources and expertise to understand the challenges of the underserved population and help them accordingly. However, this does not mean that the work done at the individual level makes no difference. Any act of charity done with a noble intention contributes to building a better society.”

The psychology behind

Mental health experts say there could be many motives behind giving, but the effect on the receiver and society at large is always positive. “For the receiver, philanthropy helps in material and concrete terms, indirectly helping mental and psychological well-being. For the giver, it brings in social recognition and appreciation, which is also good for mental health. At times, it is also guilt-driven… for instance, in the case of NRIs and NRI foundations, there is a conscious or unconscious guilt of having left the country. It could also be for getting social recognition from the native land. Whatever the reason, one shouldn’t take away the genuine part of the act,” says Nimesh G Desai, director, Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS), and member secretary/CEO, State Mental Health Authority, Delhi.

Doing good helps one find meaning in life, says Achal Bhagat, senior consultant, psychiatry and psychotherapy, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, Delhi. “Sometimes, when we are helping through our skills, it helps us learn more skills. Since we are interdependent, doing good in an organised and strategic manner helps address larger issues,” says Bhagat.

Desai believes philanthropy in disaster situations is necessary, as many times government response is inadequate. However, philanthropy alone, he says, can’t bridge the gap within society. “It is a utopian idea,” he cautions.

Shibulal agrees: “Every individual has a role to play and can make a difference when it comes to bridging the gap. Poverty can’t be eradicated solely through the efforts of the richest members of society,” she offers.

Interview: Sudha Murty, chairperson, Infosys Foundation

‘Let’s give and not talk about it’

Sudha Murty, who established Infosys Foundation in 1996, believes it doesn’t matter how much you give, what is important is that you do. Recently, the foundation contributed Rs 100 crore towards Covid relief measures, including Rs 50 crore to the PM Cares Fund. In a conversation with Reya Mehrotra, Murty talks about the need to give. Edited excerpts:

As a philanthropist, how was the experience of the pandemic for you?

I have been the chairperson of Infosys Foundation since the past 25 years and we have come across many national disasters, but never a pandemic like this. But our experience helped us a lot. We had started preparing even before the lockdown began, in the first week of March. We prepared ration kits to last 21-30 days and ordered PPE kits and masks, as at that time there was a shortage of PPE kits. So by the time the lockdown began, we were ready. We started giving construction workers and then poor children through a school in Hyderabad.

Why did you choose to become a social worker?

The answer lies in my book How I Taught My Grandmother to Read (2004). My daughter once asked me, “Amma, what is your duty?” That made me take up social work.

What’s the societal and psychological impact on the giver and the receiver?

As a child, I used to live in my grandparents’ house. We used to have a lot of stored rice and four-five people came everyday for rice. I saw my grandfather giving, but never boasting about it and those who were receiving were never ashamed of it. It was natural to give, like it is to breathe. The receiver also took only as much as he needed and not to sell or store any excess. This is the equilibrium I saw very young and liked the concept. In my case, it is a pleasure to give, so I enjoy it and don’t feel that I have done something extraordinary. I have more and there are people who have less, so let’s give and not talk about it too much.

How has your perception changed after 25 years of philanthropy?

I have changed a lot. I have realised India is not just a country for gala weddings. If the children of my country get three meals a day, have three sets of clothes, know a language for communication and have survival skills, be it farming or any other job, I will be very lucky. I have realised that in real life, we don’t require so much that we need to store. Give without expectation. Once I give, I never turn back or even remember who I gave to. This detached attitude of the method of giving makes me enjoy my work. Robert Owen (an 18th-century Welsh textile manufacturer and philanthropist) made me realise the importance of helping and caring for the poor, and the need for equality in society.

Do you think philanthropy can help create a balance in society?

Definitely. In times of calamities, people get in touch with us so that help reaches the needy. We are very transparent and don’t hide anything. I recently got an email from the US where the person said that he had amassed a lot of wealth and had no children. He wanted to donate everything to us for helping during the pandemic. But we refused and suggested reaching out to smaller organisations that are also doing great work. An elephant has its own weight and an ant its own. There is a Sanskrit saying ‘yathashakti’, which means ‘according to one’s ability or power’. If you have Rs 1,000, give Rs 5. You don’t have to make your family poor by giving, but you have to give, even if a small amount.

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