Frank F. Islam
The Power of Purposeful Philanthropy: The gift that keeps on giving
I would like to take this opportunity to express my deep gratitude to MR, Sanjeev, and Gabrielle for inviting me to speak.
It is an honor to be asked to speak at another Indiaspora event. I was privileged to share my thoughts on philanthropy at Indiaspora’s Fifth Anniversary Leadership Forum last year.
I want to reinforce and expand upon the main points that I made back then in my remarks here today. I have also been asked to talk about my journey – how I got to this point in my life and career – and I will do so.
I came to the United States from India at the age of fifteen to pursue the American dream. At that young age, I wasn’t quite sure how I would achieve that dream. But, I knew even then that being a business owner would be part of it.
I also knew that it would mean being apart from my family and developing my own career track with little parental or professional guidance. But, I recognized that it was an opportunity. That’s the way I saw it – an opportunity to define myself in America, the land of opportunity.
That process of defining myself here in America had five stages:
* Getting a good education
* Doing my apprenticeship
* Becoming an entrepreneur
* Building a strong team that shared my vision and values
* Moving on to other things
I was encouraged to come to the United States by Professor Wolfgang Thron, a visiting professor of mathematics from the University of Colorado at Aligarh Muslim University. He saw potential in me and asked me to apply to the University of Colorado to get the quality of education required to be successful in the emerging field of computer science.
I did. I was accepted. And, I went on to get bachelor and master degrees in computer science from there. That gave me the knowledge that I needed to go into business.
When I graduated with my advanced degree, I was not prepared to go directly to owning a business. That’s because I didn’t know how businesses operated. I had no real exposure to business prior to starting college.
I knew I needed experience before launching my own venture. So, I worked with two major information technology firms in the Washington DC area for about a decade to learn the ropes and the ins and outs of doing business. That gave me the skills and real-world grounding that I needed to start my own business.
After doing that apprenticeship, in 1994, I purchased the QSS Group, an information technology firm for $45,000. We mortgaged our house to purchase this company. Within thirteen years, along with my key management team, we took that firm from a workforce of 1 employee – me – to more than 3,000 employees and approximately $300 million in revenue.
My team of talented senior managers was central to everything. As all of you know, success in business is a team sport. It’s we not me who made it happen.
n 2007, I sold my company to Perot Systems. That sale allowed me to establish a private foundation along with my wife Debbie and to begin to engage in philanthropy.
That’s my journey and my story in a nutshell. But, as all of you in the audience who have made your own journeys, my journey was not a straight line. It was not always easy. There were twists and turns. There were dark and desperate days. And, the final destination was not certain.
What enabled me to prevail on my journey was a belief in myself and those around me and the opportunity presented by the American dream. Success taught me to move forward. As importantly, failure taught me to never go backward.
From the time I started my business, I knew implicitly that you needed to move ahead and that if you did not you would be left behind. In other words, I was purpose driven. That is the same perspective that I have brought to my philanthropic involvement.
My story can only happen in America. It is America’s inclusiveness and openness that provide me ladders of opportunities to succeed. These are the strengths and values of America that all of us can proudly and truly embrace.
Let me shift gears now and move from my personal journey to focus on philanthropy. I will begin by quoting President John F. Kennedy who in his first inaugural address famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
For we Indian Americans, President Kennedy’s request should be modified to state “Ask not what your countries can do for you. Ask what you can do for your countries.”
As members of the Indiaspora, we recognize a dual obligation in the goals of this organization. Those goals call upon us to collaborate to forge stronger bonds between India and the United States and to build stronger capabilities in both countries.
The third goal of the Indiaspora reads, “Help underprivileged Indian Americans and Indians by redefining the philanthropic model to promote more effective ways to donate money, services and time.” In my opinion, the best thing that we can do to “redefine that model” is to engage in what I call purposeful philanthropy.
Philanthropy takes many forms. The philanthropy that is of pivotal importance, in my opinion, is purposeful philanthropy.
Purposeful philanthropy is making investments directed at creating a difference in pivot point areas that matter to the future of society. The returns on those investments are changes to problematic conditions and/or the creation of individuals who will become change agents to address those conditions.
There is a distinction between purposeful philanthropy and charity. The distinction is a critical one.
The focus in charity is to provide a handout. The focus in purposeful philanthropy is to provide a hand-up and to enable and empower people by giving them a helping hand.
There certainly must be charitable support and assistance to address the needs of the socially and economically disadvantaged and natural disasters. Considering the hurricanes last year and the wildfires this year here in the United States, and the flooding in Bangladesh last year and the dust storms in Northern India this year, the importance of generous charitable giving to well-recognized groups such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Doctors without Borders and local non-profits becomes evident.
Charity as the sole means of philanthropy, however, has serious limitations. It does not get at the root cause nor change the underlying reason for the need for the charity.
By contrast, purposeful philanthropy concentrates on improving circumstances and conditions. This hand-up approach can take a wide range of forms, ranging from eliminating contaminated water that poisons those who drink or bathe in it; to enhancing the safety of working conditions; to developing the requisite knowledge, skills, abilities, attitudes and behaviors for a person to be successful in life.
The pivot point areas — areas that can be leveraged and effectively addressed to effectuate change and achieve positive outcomes — for purposeful philanthropy are virtually endless. My personal priority philanthropic areas are education, arts, world peace and civic engagement.
I have chosen those areas because they are important to me and because I know that improvement in them can make a meaningful and substantial difference. Let me give you the short reasons for my selecting those areas and tell you a little bit about my investments in them.
Education is bridge to the future and opportunity creator. It moves people up the ladder and to help others climb the ladder with them. It is a powerful equalizer for opening doors to all to lift themselves out of poverty. Education frees the human mind from the shackle of ignorance.
In the educational arena, I have supported many scholarships at colleges here in the United States. My most significant investment though has been in India where in February of last year my wife Debbie and I dedicated the Frank and Debbie Islam Management Complex at Aligarh Muslim University.
At that dedication, I predicted: “From this management complex will come the future leaders who will make the world a better place.” I firmly believe that. I also firmly believe that the students are our best hope. This is my way of saying thank you and keeping the hope alive and well.
President John F. Kennedy said: “Art nourishes the roots of a culture.” It connects and inspires citizens and communities. It has a unifying and healing power. The art transcends all boundaries. It represents the best of our humanity. I agree with President Kennedy’s perspective and that is why I agreed to serve on the board of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and to invest in its programs to expose youth to the arts.
We are living in an increasingly dangerous world and turbulent times. World peace is essential for the future of this planet. There is much deadly conflict now and threats of it around the globe which must be controlled. Recognizing this, I support the U.S. Institute for Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center both of which bring scholars and practitioners to develop programs to try to find peaceful means for conflict resolution.
The free press is one of the defining qualities of a healthy democracy and a means for promoting civic engagement. The free press is cornerstone of democracy. It is the pillar of democracy. Recognizing this, my wife Debbie and I are supporting Alfred Friendly Press Partners Scholarship to bring experienced journalists from India to work at a newspaper here and study at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
That’s a brief summary of some of my philanthropic involvement in the areas that are most important to me. I would now like to shine a bright light on an area that needs much more attention in terms of philanthropy. That is support for and the buttressing of democracy itself.
In this 21st century, democracy is descending and autocracy is ascending in countries around the world. Numerous studies are showing that.
For example, a Pew Research Center survey last year of citizens in 38 nations around the world found only, and I quote, a “shallow commitment to representative democracy” and “substantial percentages willing to consider nondemocratic options” across all of those countries.
That’s a bit abstract and conceptual. Let me bring it up close and personal by focusing on the two countries of our common and shared heritage – America and India.
India and the United States are the world’s two largest democracies. Active and engaged citizenship is essential to keep those democracies vital and vibrant and exemplars for democracy world-wide.
The Pew study found that in the United States 40 percent of the respondents were fully committed to a representative democracy, 46 percent were less committed, and 7 percent preferred a non-democratic option.
That’s not very good. But it is exceptional compared to the findings for India.
The Pew study disclosed that of all the countries surveyed “support for a strong leader who is unchecked by the judiciary or parliament is highest in India.” Only 8 percent of the Indian respondents were fully committed to a representative democracy, 67 percent were less committed, and 9 percent preferred a non-democratic option.
The Pew findings, in conjunction with other studies that I have reviewed, indicate that citizenship support is eroding in these democracies rather than increasing. That is scary – very scary for the future of the U.S., India and the world.
And, that is the reason at the beginning of this year I established the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. The mission of the Institute is to provide a wide range of assistance and support to promote 21st century citizenship with a particular focus on civic learning and engagement for youth in disadvantaged communities.
The Institute has been launched this year with the publication of a monthly newsletter. Next year, the Institute will make civic engagement champion awards to middle school teachers across the United States. It will move forward from there to work in collaboration with other organizations here in the U.S. and in India to seek joint solutions for the civic engagement deficit.
As I near the end of my remarks, let me emphasize that I have highlighted the area of democracy and described my four pivot point areas – education, arts, world peace and civic engagement – for purposeful philanthropy for illustration purposes only.
Each of us must choose the area or areas that matter for our philanthropy. The essential thing is to make that choice and to invest.
The size of that investment isn’t what counts. The act of investment is not just financially, but also in non-financial aspects such as giving time, talent and ideas or being a volunteer.
In closing, I would be remiss if I did not identify one final approach to charity. That is “hands-off”. This approach is driven by what I call an “edifice complex” – the desire to get one’s name on a building such as temple or mosque or church with little concern for what is being done there to improve the lot of the community or citizens in which it resides.
Purposeful philanthropy accomplishes this. It provides the platform for maximizing our philanthropic participation and contribution as Indian Americans.
That is why I am most pleased to see that Indiaspora has conducted the first-ever Indian American Community Engagement Survey. The results from this survey will enable us to target our philanthropic investments and unite as Indian Americans on issues and in areas that matter the most to us as a group to multiply the impact of our purposeful philanthropy.
Thank you for letting me share my perspective with you, I look forward to hearing yours and to a good exchange of ideas that will empower our purposeful philanthropy.
God bless you and reward you for all that you do.