Shefali Munjal: The art of philanthropy

03 July 2023

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Having made her mark in the family business, Shefali Munjal now has big plans to take their philanthropy vision to the next level. As the Serendipity Arts Foundation prepares for another multi-disciplinary arts festival in Goa, we caught up with her to discuss her ambitions and motivations. They include growing the family’s philanthropy in terms of size, uniqueness, impact and sustainability. And for this to happen, they’re looking for support across the UK and US.

In addition to your professional success within the Hero Group, you have carved out a special interest in philanthropy. Why is this so important to you?

Shefali Munjal (SM): I come from an Indian family background where we were always taught that no matter what we accrued, we needed to apportion a part of it back to society. This has led me to follow in my father’s footsteps and get involved in philanthropic opportunities for more than 10 years.

As a family, we initially started out by working in the areas of healthcare and education in India, and providing affordable medical care and schooling for people who couldn’t afford it. Then we looked at other spaces where philanthropy was insufficient or completely lacking in the country. We found that artists, craftspeople and artisans were consistently missing out when it came to accessing philanthropic funds, and this subsequently became my central focus. 

In addition to healthcare and art, are there any other areas you focus on? 

SM: Our family foundations – which were set up by my grandfather and granduncles – run charitable schools in the northern states of India which have more than 30,000 students. I am personally involved in running charitable schools on the foothills of the Himalayas in a province called Uttarakhand, which has a population of about 20 million. These schools were started about 13 years ago and are funded by the corporate responsibility funds which we generate through our businesses. We now see around 1,700 students graduate from these schools each year.

That sounds fascinating, and presumably it keeps you very busy?

SM: It does but it’s not a chore, far from it. Being involved in these projects has given me an enormous sense of satisfaction and purpose. While we have experienced considerable success in our businesses, using some of the funds from them to forward our philanthropic engagement is very rewarding. I would certainly encourage my peers, colleagues and other people from my generation to do the same with their family businesses, in whatever way they can, whenever they can.

That said, I must admit that it’s not always easy and one should not expect results immediately. In fact, it can be several years after having set up philanthropic organisations that you might finally see traction in terms of rewards, impact and outcomes. 

You talk about encouraging your peers to get involved in philanthropy – what is your view of philanthropy in India?

SM: Being from a well-known family with a large business footprint, I see two key responsibilities. First, it is important to build momentum in whatever we do: we must gather more families with our profile and get them to give back. Second, we must create more awareness about some of the ignored and neglected areas that have somehow fallen through the cracks of philanthropic endeavours over the years.

Of course, several families in India are already doing wonderful charitable work; some focus on women’s rights, and there are others looking at medical healthcare, education, and so on. The stream that we have chosen for ourselves is arts and culture. In a short period, we have managed to sensitise the importance of this area to many people in India and overseas through our festivals and outreach programmes, and we would like to do much more by bringing many more like-minded people along with us. 

Let’s talk about the Serendipity Arts Foundation, a unique social project of which you are a founding patron. Why do you think it’s so important to bring national and international attention to Indian arts and culture?

SM: It was about eight years ago when we set up our first eight-day arts and culture festival based in Goa, and over that time, despite losing two years during the pandemic, the festival has gained international recognition. Barring the COVID-19 years, footfalls during the festival have ranged from 300,000 to 500,000, which is quite sizeable for an arts and culture event1.

In fact, some of our artists, who were previously unknown, have now exhibited at New York’s famous Metropolitan Museum of Art2. We have also established partnerships with several international organisations, which now recognise us as being one of the largest arts expos in the world.  

This presents a huge opportunity for the artists, artisans and craftspeople we support. Many of them often live on the edges of society, not just in India but across South Asia. By promoting them, upskilling them and by giving them a visible and contemporary platform, we are helping them become part of the economic mainstream.

So, what’s next for your arts and culture initiative?

SM: Instead of just holding a one-off festival once a year, we are developing a full-blown arts centre in the capital of India, which will encompass the work that we do at the Serendipity Arts Festival, plus much more in terms of educating and promoting artists, craftspeople and artisans.

This huge project is under construction now in the heart of New Delhi. We want it to showcase the best South Asian art practices in a modern and contemporary manner, bring international art to the public in India, to be a catalyst for art-based start-ups and to ignite a culture of innovation across the arts. We expect the centre to be ready within the next three to four years, by which time we would like to emerge as a truly international platform.

Are you speaking to international partners about this?

SM: Yes, indeed we are. We are currently in conversation with internationally recognised institutions with whom we see synergies and think we could work well together. Our existing partners include The Factory in Manchester, the Southbank Centre in London, and the Delfina Foundation, also in London.

To develop connections and build a strong foundation for this unique project, I’ve personally relocated to the UK for a couple of years and am looking to set up a Friends of Serendipity UK organisation. This mirrors a similar US Friends of Serendipity organisation, which is already bringing in several US patrons to support our foundation and the upcoming project in India.

How do you inspire and motivate the next generation to get involved in philanthropy and create valuable change?

SM: It’s a good question. The uninformed perception of philanthropy typically revolves around the idea that money alone solves everything, and merely writing a cheque is enough. That’s not the case, and whenever I get the chance, I try to convince members of our generation and the next about the truly impactful aspects of philanthropy, which go way beyond money: they involve time, passion, real commitment, and lots of patience.

There are several large Indian business houses that have already taken up philanthropic causes, established by the first and second-generation founders of these businesses who have taken corporate responsibility funds and set milestones to give back to society. And I do think that new and future generations will follow suit. However, it will be up to them to decide which stream of philanthropy they would like to support, and how much they will bring in terms of time, commitment and involvement. That, to my mind, will make all the difference. 

What are the causes that you see attracting most attention?

SM: There’s certainly a broader understanding and deeper awareness of developmental issues that India faces right now, compared to earlier years. Such issues include climate change, gender health, women’s issues, immunisation and medicare. While there’s a lot of discussion on these topics, they need to be backed-up by real intent.  

If philanthropy is to have a real impact in India, donor families need to take up one specific niche at a time and avoid spreading themselves too thin. 

For my family, art and culture represent that niche.


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