My Brush with Philanthropy

Until I got into it I didn’t realize what difficult work Philanthropy is. Having money and giving it to a cause is the easy part. I was only 19 when I started my business and I had to wait for 9 Diwalis before the business started to make any profit. Imagine 9 long years of struggle, perseverance and patience.

Giving back to society is a very strong sentiment I possess, probably it comes from upbringing or the fact that I am a Jain and one grows up with this virtue playing in the foreground all the time. So when I reached a stage in life where I was ready, I started RK Trust and various ventures under it, which where close to my heart. This I felt was my way of giving back. Kalandri Foundation was set up to help with the grass roots development of my ancestral village. Cancerve Foundation an online platform aimed at connecting donors directly to beneficiaries. Jain Temples of Pakistan to conserve the heritage we left behind after partition. The Jain Foundation to spread the values of Jainism and Let’s Mask India to help citizens combat the pandemic by giving them free, comfortable, export quality, 3 ply, reusable masks.

Cancerve was set up with a view to assist cancer patients, with already compromised health and sky high cost of cancer treatment, it is a tough situation for many. We first started with providing monetary funding, found the money being misused. Then we changed the model to providing medicines, the medicines were misused. Finally we had to resort to sending a person with the medicine and physically ensuring it was administered. Hey Bhagwan! (Oh God!) what all needs to be done to ensure that the aid reaches the person it is meant for.

Let’s Mask India was a huge initiative to not only give masks to the needy but also to ensure garment workers didn’t lose their jobs due to the pandemic. It was launched by the Honorable Chief Minister of Bangalore on Mask Day, 18th June 2020. Right through the event the entire focus was on the film fraternity who had graced the event with no mileage for Let’s Mask India. We had pledged 1 Million masks, free, to the city of Bangalore. I totally get that the masses find the glitz and glamour of the film fraternity attractive par thoda sa idhar bhi dekh lo bhai! (But do give us a glance too brother!)

We further innovated and got India’s first contactless vending machine made, to ensure distribution of masks at public places. Right from obtaining permission to installing it in an appropriate place, was tougher than asking your prospective father in law for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Here a Trust was undertaking a charitable venture, with the only expectation being to facilitate distribution of free masks. We however experienced such interesting things from the machine being manhandled and broken; to us innovative Indians using jugaad* and pulling out up to 150 masks at a time, compromising the internal structure. This state of the art vending machine has now become a thorn in the side. Would it have been a better idea to have a simple cardboard box full of masks…. jitna lena hai ley lo bhai! (take as much as you want brother!). At least I would have saved the expense of the machine and having it manned through the day.

That actually brings back a memory from childhood. My father was very keen to have a water cooler installed, which would provide free drinking water in the heat and dust of Adoni for whomsoever wanted to quench their thirst. Originally it used to be a clay pot with a lid and a tumbler, now replaced by this Blue Star water cooler. Within no time the water cooler was mishandling and broken and the dream of having a continuous supply of cool fresh water for the thirsty, met with the harsh realities of life in India. Dil key aarman aasoon mein behey gaye….. (Dreams turned into tears and flowed away).

Well! much has not changed in the last 50 years. So if you want to be a philanthropist and also ensure aid reaches the deserving, then get ready to do double time, double resources and double manpower. Many times I sit back and wonder should I just donate to a cause, close to my heart and be done with it…par kya karein yeh dil mangye more…(but what to do that’s just not good enough).

*Jugaad – a flexible approach to problem-solving that uses limited resources in an innovative way – Source: Oxford dictionary

Opinions in this piece belong to the author: Ramesh Kumar Shah
Ramesh Kumar Shah is the founder of the RK Group, founder of RK Trust ( and co-founder of Harvard Business School Angels of India. Apart from being a businessman, he is keenly involved in making as much of a difference in people’s lives as he can, most recently through the Let’s Mask India initiative, that provides a free mask to all the residents of Bangalore.

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