'We are to the universe only as much as we give back to it'
Three years after it was launched, Meera Gandhi's Giving Back Foundation has helped thousands of underprivileged people across the world, including several in India, get a better shot at life. Gandhi, who divides her time between US, UK and India, is also going to host a television show on Indians who are giving back to society. She speaks to Dhiman Chattopadhyay on the need to look at organised charity seriously and on her upcoming TV show
What made you start the Giving Back Foundation in 2010?
For the last quarter of a century, I have been involved in charitable works with various organisations. I even wrote a book called Giving Back, which shares 75 inspirational stories of giving back to the world and is currently being sold across a dozen nations through Amazon. But when I moved back to the US from Mumbai in 2000, I became even more involved with organised charitable fundraising and giving through the Asia Society, the American Ballet and the Natural History Museum in New York. Finally, in 2010, I decided to get fully organised with my own giving and started the Giving Back Foundation which is a registered tax-exempt organisation in the US and India.
The foundation has done some sterling work in the recent past, helping schools, providing education for underprivileged children and supporting widows among other things. How do you select who to help and how to help?
We have grown very fast in the last three years and my foundation gets requests for help from all over the world, including from the US, India, African nations and the UK. Through word of mouth and also through our website, we have spread the word about what we do and how we do it. We go through all the requests and then reply and try to help as many causes as we can. For me, it has always been difficult to differentiate between needs because to each person, his or her need is greater than any other. Is education less important than cancer? I am never able to choose so we try to focus on one organisation at a time and one individual at a time. However, our larger projects are all signed with five-year commitments.
In sheer numbers, India probably has more underprivileged children, malnourished women, and neglected poor than anywhere else. What is the Giving Back Foundation doing in India?
I believe very much in giving back in my own backyard. So we have signed a 10-year commitment with St Michael’s School in New Delhi which we have adopted. We have built the hostel, the playground and a brand new school block with beautiful bright classrooms. We just inaugurated the new classroom block last week. The Giving Back Foundation has fully adopted St Michael’s and its 180 students. We have also initiated other social projects, such as building drinking water wells in several villages of UP and regularly visiting many homes in the areas. We are hands-on, I am hands-on and so is the foundation. This reflects in all our projects across the globe.
When it comes to giving back to society, where does India stand? Are we stingy with our money when it comes to charity?
I think like every country, there are those who give and there are those who do not. Some say to me ‘We give quietly’ and to them I often say, is it because you know you should be doing so much more that you give quietly? Is there a reason to hide? Maybe you should open your heart and your voice and give a lot more!
Giving is a great thing on all levels and it enriches the giver as well as the receiver. On a more sombre note, I think India lacks organised giving, which produces longer lasting sweeping change. When I give something, I want to know that I have made an impact to someone’s life, which will last. Sometimes India lacks this.
In this context, I believe you are doing a 12-part series for a TV channel in India on how Indians are giving back to society. What is it about?
It is a very exciting, and inspirational TV series that will feature well-known and unknown givers and organisations across India.
I have spoken to Dr Prathap Reddy of Apollo Hospitals. I find him to be so innovative and dynamic at 80. I have also asked Union Minister Kamal Nath to talk about the dynamic computer and technology centres he has built to train the next generation of youth in India. I would love to feature the good that the Ambanis are doing. On the other hand, we have also spoken to the Naga sadhus from the Kumbh Mela and how they keep working on positive energy. We are also speaking to a blind teacher, who is doing amazing work for other blind people. I would love to have Azim Premji on the show but I have not been in India long enough to meet him. The list is fantastic and the idea is terrific.
When does this show go on air?
January 1, 2014. We are currently planning the shoots.
Have you done a TV show like this before? How was the experience?
Yes, I have produced a documentary film profiling 10 people and organisations. It was even picked to show to a packed audience at the legendary Woodstock Film Festival in New York! The film did very well and is still selling extremely well on DVD.
This success taught me that there is a market for such a subject. People want to be inspired, they want to be uplifted and they do want to give back in their own way. So the TV series was a logical next step.
On a personal note, what moves you or inspires you as a person?
People inspire me, the rain inspires me, goodness inspires me, pushing myself beyond the realm of regular inspires me, my family inspires me and my husband and kids inspire me above all.
You live in the US, your children study in the UK and US and you have a home in India as well. How do you manage your work?
I have offices all over. I get off a plane, head home, check in with my family, cook, talk, love and learn and within that role of nurturing, I take it to the outside circle where I go to the office and continue with the foundation projects. Approvals, time lines, people and the Internet has made a lot of this very much easier.
Your friends tell us you can never sit still and you just have to do something new every now and then. So what’s next on your mind?
In spite of my get-up-and-go lifestyle and attitude, I am basically a calm person. I sleep very early every evening in any part of the world that I am in. I do yoga almost every day and love to do new things. I hate not listening to a new person or an idea. I feel that is unfair to those who come to me with great expectations. At times it all gets too overwhelming but the spirit always guides the soul and I manage. We have started filming the TV show we just spoke about. My book — Giving Back — will soon release in India. I look forward to sharing the book with the Indian audience. I want to keep experiencing life and taking people along with me on this great journey. My life motto is, ‘We are to the universe only as much as we give back to it.’