Wide Angle - Buffett and the Art of Giving
Mar 24, 2011

Sidharth BhatiaWarren Buffett, the smartest investor in the world, known as the Oracle of Omaha for his pronouncements on investments and the state of the markets, is in India and is getting a reception usually reserved for heads of states. Every word he utters is followed and analysed by the news media and businessmen and politicians, to say nothing of investors, are falling all over themselves to get a meeting or at least a glimpse of him. Taking a policy with his company could have got you an invitation to one of his lectures, but even if you did not, there is enough in the papers and on television to keep you satisfied.

It is hardly surprising that he has millions of followers, including in India. They all want to know how he made so much money and if possible get some tips from him. To give an idea of how successful his techniques – value investments as he calls them – have been, consider this—a $10,000 investment in Berkshire Hathway in 1965, when he took control of the company, would be worth over $50 million today. Naturally you want to be around when he utters a gem or two.

But surprisingly, many Indians, especially the tycoons who want to attend a session with him, are not so enthused about the other message he wants to spread. Buffet is a well known philanthropist and has pledged 99 percent of his wealth to charity. That still leaves a good amount of money from the $50 billion he is supposed to have, but even so, it is a fantastic gesture. Buffett doesn’t stop at giving. He and his friend Bill Gates have become evangelists of the idea of donating wealth to charity and during his India visit, he is telling every big businessman who will listen to do the same. Reports say that those coming to his meeting in Delhi were asked if they would like to sign a pledge to give away their wealth after they died; most if not all have declined.

Why should that be so? Why are Indian businessman telling the old man, in effect, “it’s all very well for you to do so, but we would rather not. We too believe in charity, but 99 percent—now that is too much.”

It is not as if Indian businessmen stay away from philanthropy. Almost every big organisation or business family has a trust, a foundation or a Corporate Social Responsibility arm that donates to good causes. Some do it without publicity, some make sure everyone knows. Some are new at it while others (like the Tatas and Birlas) have been doing it for decades. Then why should they hesitate?

Two possible explanations come to mind. Firstly, Buffett is suggesting they give their own personal wealth rather than use their company’s money; that is not something that will be so easily acceptable to most. And secondly, the definition of philanthropy in the US is very different from that in India.

Though Indians do give away money to beggars, temples, orphanages and organisations for handicapped or underprivileged children, very few of them are into institution building. The Tatas and Birlas set up institutions of higher learning, huge hospitals, research centres etc but hardly anyone else has done the same in India and if they have, it is usually for the elite rather than for the mass. Lately, many of them have given millions of dollars to American universities, because that guarantees publicity.

Also, while Indians happily give to temples, Americans, though their charitable impulse comes from Christianity, tend to give to secular organisations. Donating gold to a church would never be an option for the average American tycoon in the way an Indian would shower it in Tirupati. Instead, Bill Gates wants to fight disease and is ready to give huge amounts of money towards that end. Of course, there are exceptions in India, like Azim Premji and now G M Rao have donated generously towards education and similar social causes.

Yet the idea that someone should just hand over hard earned personal wealth to an anonymous organisations which will then control it after one’s death is simply anathema to the Indian way of thinking. One big industrialist had recently said that this was because Indians were still in the first generation of big money making—but then Buffett is a first generation billionaire too.

Let’s not get disheartened. We should welcome Buffett’s message even if it does not produce immediate results. It is bound to spark a debate and stir a thought among Indians – and not necessarily the rich ones about the virtues of giving. One generation later perhaps we will have our own home grown entrepreneurs who will happily leave behind money for social causes and for the betterment of their own less fortunate brethren. After all, you cannot take it with you; why not do some good with it?

This article is written by Sidharth Bhatia is a senior Indian journalist who has worked in print, broadcast and online media. He is a columnist and regular commentator on current affairs for several leading publications and on national television.

You can write to Sidharth at   wideangle@personalfn.com


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Mar 26, 2011

Excellent article: I think east and west will meet some day and exchange great ideas like Buffet's.  Indians are fanatically family centric - only concerned - about their family. Hope  the day is not really far off , when they will start practicing what they have been chanting in their prayers., unconsciously.