Narayanan Vaghul: The Corporate Philanthropy Catalyst
Image: Raju Patil for Forbes India
Award: Corporate Catalyst
Why He Won: For his ability to build institutions and galavanise people for philanthropic causes.
His Trigger: Believes philanthropy is a basic human duty that one needs to fulfill.
His Mission: Support people and ideas that will enable the process of giving back to society.
His Action Plan: Provide guidance, funds, inspire people, inculcate a value-based approach to work and life, attract like-minded people onboard organisations.
There are some for whom you measure success by the profits they have brought for their corporations, the systems and processes they have set up, and the contributions they have made to balance sheets. For some others, success lies in the people and institutions they have nurtured and built, the values and principles they have instilled in those around them, and the inspiration and motivation they continue to provide in their absence. The latter is a smaller, rarer breed. And Narayanan Vaghul belongs to it.
Having spent a lifetime in the banking industry, Vaghul has seen the evolution of India’s financial institutions for longer than many. He has the distinction of being the youngest chairman of a public sector bank—he was chairman of the Bank of India in 1981. He joined ICICI Limited as chairman and CEO in 1985 and was the group head till 2009. He was also the recipient of the Padma Bhushan in the Trade and Industry category in 2010.
But it is not just his knowledge of the industry or its machinations that make him one of the most revered names in the institutions he has been, or continues to be, associated with. It is because of his staunch support for the things he thinks are right. Corporate philanthropy is one such thing.
“If you ask him ‘Why philanthropy?’ he is not going to tell you some story about a child dying in a corner. He will say this is why humans have been created. He will say every human has been created so that he can leave the world a better place than the one in which he was born,” says K Ramkumar, executive director, ICICI Bank, who has known Vaghul for 11 years.
“He is a very strong person who says that if you did not do what your duty calls you to do, you are a lesser human being. It is a very strong, black-and-white view.”
It is this sense of duty that seems to have guided not just Vaghul himself, but all those he has supported, encouraged and inspired.
Vaghul says the need for corporate philanthropy rests at different levels. At one level, “from the purely practical and logical point of view”, he believes “corporate philanthropy is very much in the interest of the corporate” as any corporation “cannot function effectively unless society is stable and coherent. And society cannot be stable and coherent as long as there is inequality, leading to discontentment and frustration.” At another level, he believes, corporations should step in and back NGOs in achieving their objectives of addressing various problems by working with the government.
But higher than these two levels is “the third and most interesting… the attitude that goes beyond the first two is more at a spiritual level. The very purpose of life is to have love and compassion for humanity at large, for all created beings. You should develop a very deep conviction, regardless of whether you believe in god or not… It makes very little difference at which level you function, but doing charity for the sake of your own afterlife is a very selfish way of going about it.”
Vaghul has been closely associated with the setting up and running of several philanthropic organisations—such as Pratham, GiveIndia and the Azim Premji Foundation—that work in the realm of education, health and livelihood.
“He does not need it to be necessarily his own idea. A lot of other people who do corporate philanthropy need idea-ownership, they are very often involved in co-creating the idea… One of Mr Vaghul’s biggest strengths is that he backs all ideas irrespective of whose it is. If he likes an idea, he will give it a lot of unconditional support,” says Venkat Krishnan, founder of GiveIndia. “And his support is, what I would say, available but not imposed. He will let you do what you want to do, rather than push his own agenda.”
ICICI Bank gave GiveIndia—a platform that enables donors to identify causes and NGOs they wish to support—a seed grant of $1 million a year after it started in 2001, and Vaghul joined as its chairman on Venkat’s request.
“He is highly regarded in the industry, and his coming on board ensured the credibility of the organisation. He built a really good board… many of these board members wouldn’t have known me or what I was doing. When Mr Vaghul came on board, it made all the difference. His ability to write to CEOs, his stature was such that it opened a lot of doors, and that was critical,”says Venkat.
Vaghul’s ability to bring talented people into the team has been a crucial element in his ability to build and support institutions. “ICICI Bank board members have always been very independent-minded, and it made him realise two things: One, he needed to find extremely talented people to work in these organisations, and that talented people don’t work in limited command and control structures. They needed to be given room to grow, independence to think, and needed to be supported rather than be directed in a narrow way. They need a vision, an idea,” says Nachiket Mor, former chairman of the ICICI Foundation for Inclusive Growth and founder of SughaVazhu, implementers of a rural health care programme in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu.
“The second thing that he realised is that from the external world, through the board or through advisors, you needed influential people who would not only help the institutions internally—by helping to govern and guide it better—but also by connecting it to the outside world. He always brought in very good board members, such as Ashok Ganguly and RA Mashelkar, and they worked with each other for a decade.”
Ramkumar believes that Vaghul’s ability to get people onboard a project arises from his ability to call people to duty. “It is very inspiring. When someone notifies your duty to you, it is an enormous motivation. He does not need to give speeches and give explanations, he just invokes the humanness in others.”