Over the last two decades, Dasra has found many next generation philanthropists1 and family-run foundations at a crossroads: Navigating between a giving legacy and the ideal future path. They are often mired in questions around what change they should lead and how they can spark sustainability in the institution during their tenure. A strong vision and strategy can help answer many such questions and be an aligning force for everyone involved. We had a conversation with Chetan Mehrotra, a businessman of 30 years who switched full time to the role of Executive Trustee for his family’s philanthropic institutions, and has recently committed to identifying the most impactful avatar for both the Sar-La Education Trust and the Radha Mohan Mehrotra Medical Relief Trust in India.

Dasra: What triggered your decision to undertake a vision and strategy development exercise for your trusts?

Chetan Mehrotra: Our trusts were created by my grandfather who was the soul decision-maker for grants given to a third party. Subsequently, the trusts evolved into two entities. My father became the decision-maker for the education-focused entity and my uncle for the healthcare-focused one, although neither had a background in the respective sectors. Similarly, today I play a significant role in decision-making for the trusts, even though my background is in business. I believe that by taking my grandfather’s vision forward, I will be connecting with him in some way. And while the elder trustees offer me their respect and trust, I feel the need for guidance, given my lack of sector expertise.

I initially tried getting this guidance from my family, but realized that their insights were limited to their own experience and common sense. So I decided to begin involving sector experts. Given that the foundations were now of a respectable size, I thought sector experts would like to join us, and my initial conversations with a few confirmed the same. This was the trigger. We needed to evolve the trusts into professional structures where the governing council constituted of sector experts and people had the freedom to develop their solutions, well-backed by the foundation’s financial support.

The need for this evolution, along with the desire to do it correctly and with the end beneficiary in mind, helped me decide on a visioning and strategy development exercise.

Dasra: What is the key outcome that you hope you will achieve through this exercise?

CM: The key outcome would be a plan to ensure sustainability for the trusts, from the perspective of finance, design and impact. Real financial sustainability is when all your contributions are made from the income you earn on the corpus. A sustainable design entails regularly staying in touch with the field and identifying what is the need of the hour, how best you can contribute to it, and ensures alignment among all arms of your work to achieve the same. Sustainability of impact means a consistent positive change that may grow gradually year on year but does not drop, rather than drastic change in one year and a drop in the next.

Today, I don’t know how other foundations are run to achieve sustainability at all these levels. But through the vision and strategy exercise I hope to learn about best practices among foundations, and leverage these to transform the trusts into professionalized institutions that have all the capabilities to run independently in the long run, while creating impact. Through this journey, I also hope to identify strategic partners and peers that we can forge strong relationships with, for mutual learning and growth.

Dasra: What would be your advice to other philanthropists who are working with their family foundations?

CM: I think if you are trying to transform your family foundations, 3 things would be critical:

  • Develop an institution that is open-minded, completely transparent and where each individual feels aligned to the ultimate vision
  • Encourage fresh ideas from the bright minds and youngsters in your family, rather than discounting them for being inexperienced
  • Create a culture where sector experts and professionals are welcomed to join the family foundation and their expertise is duly leveraged to make the institution cutting-edge. Without being open to expert advice you run the risk of not creating the desired impact for your end beneficiaries

Like Chetan, there are many philanthropists who are taking on the good work of their family foundations and converting them into institutions that are impact-led and sustainable. This approach is not a privilege but the onus of today’s philanthropists, who are becoming key catalysts to India’s quest for sustainable development through the next decade and beyond.