When DG Gopal Rai Mandhania of District 3141 went to invite for the District Conference Manoj Israni, an AKS member, who had given $250,000 just the previous year, and urged him to donate some more to TRF during its Centenary year, what he wasn’t prepared for was one stark and simple sentence from the businessman: “Okay, I will give you another $250,000. Will that be enough?”
But then Israni’s philosophy is simple: “I believe you should make money upto only a point and then you should start giving it away; otherwise you’ll start doing stupid things with your money. And believe me, I’ve seen people doing just that. There is no end to it. Bob Marley has famously said money is just a number and if you start chasing higher numbers, you’re never going to be satisfied. The chase is infinite.”
Israni’s is an interesting story; even though born in a rich family, he knows both about charity and the value of money. “People have a misconception that just because I come from a rich family, I love to give large donations… it’s not like that.”
I’ve taught my son humility, which my father taught me. I learnt humility while travelling in trains by third class, where you have to manage heat and other discomforts. I went to school by bus and can tell you the bus routes in Mumbai.
When he was in the Sydenham College in Mumbai, he became part of AIESEC, a non-profit organisation. “I became its vice president for India in 1990, and during that period learnt a lot about charity and how it works.” During his stint as vice president, the young Israni would travel by third class in trains, and recalls how once his train broke down for three days in Jamshedpur “and we visited the TISCO (now Tata Steel) mills. During this period, we also met a lot of corporates to raise funds.”
So even though his father was a rich man, he learnt quite a bit about how ordinary Indians live. Israni had his early education in Hong Kong and Japan, where his father was the chief of a company, and returned to India when the child was seven. “So, despite my early education being in an American school there, after returning to Mumbai, I learnt and topped Hindi in three years!”
After completing his B Com, he started working immediately in his family business, and has been successfully running a pharma company for 25 years for Blue Cross Laboratories.
After working for 25 years, he made enough money, and told himself it was now time to give back to society. “I just keep wondering… seriously, I keep wondering… about what people do with Rs 10,000 or Rs 20,000 crore. At the same time, you see the plight of the poor people around you, not only in India, but so many countries of the world you travel to and that makes you introspect about how much imbalance exists in the world. I am not the kind of person to buy planes, jets, and similar things.”
Of course he bought a Merc, and “one Bentley. I’ll be honest with you, because I didn’t know what to do with my money. But then I said what am I going to do now? Start buying camels? Or private jets? So I thought let me give it to charity.”
Next came the question of finding a worthwhile partner, who was already doing charity, to give his money to. A Rotarian from RC Bombay, “I thought Rotary International is one of the best organisations to work with because you can be sure your money will be well used. If I was a fancy guy who wanted a private jet or live in a 10,000 sq ft home, I could have done that. I wouldn’t have bothered about Rotary. But I am very content.”
I gave because I could, and I thought if I don’t give here, I’ll end up doing something stupid like buying another car or a plane! And this is going to RI and will help society.
Israni became a Rotarian in 2008. Having been in AIESEC, he wanted to do something for society and decided to join Rotary. “It took me nearly a year to get in because I wanted to join the best club — which is the Rotary Club of Bombay. And I believe everything has a time!”
But having joined Rotary, he didn’t want to give his cheque immediately for “this kind of big amount, and thought let me work my way in the organisation,” he reminisces.
When Nandan Damani became the President of the club, he made Israni Chairman of the fundraising committee “perhaps because he saw something in me.” He was soon asked to organise an event to raise funds. So Israni put together a team, held his first Rotary event and stunned everybody by getting 1,000 people to show up for a single club event! “We raised Rs 3 crore in a single event, and this mainly because I had the right team.”
In those days, he says, there was no real concept of art auction, but fortunately one of his colleagues in the committee knew eminent painter Akbar Padamsee well. “Art auctions had just started; he donated a lot of work, and through his works we managed to raise so much money.” After this mega success, unsurprisingly “every president wanted me as the chair of the fundraising committee because I became known as the guy who knew how art auctions work!”
And he decided that instead of just calling 100 or 200 people for such events “let’s call everybody who can put their hands in their pockets.” And everything conceivable — merchandising, tickets, gifts, auctions of art pieces, watches, etc — was brought under the gambit of fundraising.
“I said I am not going to be the DJ on the stage; I took these fundraising events to a professional level,” smiles Israni.
Even today in Mumbai, not many Rotarians know that he is the person behind the financing of an annual event held to honour and thank those who keep Mumbai and Mumbaikars safe. After the horrendous terror attack on Mumbai in July 2008, “a friend of mine initiated a project and I sponsor the event.” It costs only Rs 5 lakh every year “which is not big but we do it consistently. At this event I thank the Mumbai police, the Army’s NSG and all the others who are involved in keeping us, Mumbai’s citizens, safe. There are several ways to do charity, but I believe that silent charity is the best.”
Last year, the then DG of D 3140 Subhash Kulkarni invited Israni to work on his team. He agreed and they decided on art auction. “He asked me how many people do you need on your team. I said only two — the auctioneer and the Editor of G2 magazine Abhinav Agarwal. He is also a Rotarian from RC Bombay. The DG was surprised and said: ‘Only two? Not a whole team?’ And I said no, not a whole team; it is like flying a plane, you need a good pilot and a co-pilot.” Israni chose Agarwal because in “G2 I’ve seen him organise such events with celebrities such as Amitabh Bachchan and I’ve seen his finesse in the way he does such events.”
Israni also decided to outsource it to Saffron Art whose co-founder Dinesh Vazirani is a good friend. “I said I will get the works from different artists. So with a two-man team… of course towards the end many people got involved… and mainly Abhinav and Saffron Art, we pulled off a good auction and raised Rs 1.7 crore, one of the highest ever!”
On his becoming an AKS member, Israni says that a friend and fellow Rotarian Nirav Shah told him about the AKS concept. “And I said I can’t afford to give all the $250,000 at one shot.” But then he was giving a sizeable sum twice a year and it all added up to the total required last year.
When Kulkarni’s term as DG was over and Mandhania took over, “Nirav (Shah), who has a lot of passion for Rotary, said I am going to bring the new DG Gopal Mandhania, and he asked me to donate something to TRF. He was expecting $25,000 and I said okay, I will work out something. But I thought as Gopalji himself has come, let me do something which will make an impact, and I decided to give $250,000. They were a little surprised!”
Now that is indeed an understatement! As Virendra Widge, also on DG Mandhania’s team puts it: “DG Mandhania was shocked; he didn’t expect such a big sum.”
In response, Israni grins and adds: “I gave because I could, and I thought if I don’t give here, I’ll end up doing something stupid like buying another car or a plane! And this is going to RI through my club and it will help society.” He was also happy to learn that he was among one of the youngest (he is 48) to donate such a large sum.
Asked how his own son Rohit, who is only 17 and studying, looks at charity, Israni says, “One thing I have taught him is humility. And I did so because I’ve learnt humility right in the beginning from my own father. I learnt humility while travelling in trains by third class, where if your train is delayed or breaks down, you have to manage heat and other discomforts.” His father ensured that he commuted to school only by bus — (“even today, if you ask me the major bus routes in Mumbai, I can tell you”), and there was no question of his having a car when he was in college. “The first car I got was when I got out of college and started working. And with my son too, I believe that if you give fancy cars to your children, they’ll end up with the wrong kind of company, and learn wrong values.”
While Israni believes that getting CSR funds for public welfare projects is a good idea, “I’d rather that people examine their own conscience about how they need to share with their fellow Indians. But anyway CSR has now been made compulsory (for companies above a certain level) and I have no problem with it. But sometimes, if there are no good projects available, the balance is carried forward in the balance sheet. Many people have their own foundations, and some of these do good work.”
He of course has no family foundation or charity arm, and prefers to give his money to TRF/RI. “I do believe that money given for a good purpose and to right organisation is money well used,” he adds.
He is not sure at this point if he will continue to make such large donations to TRF. “I am not sure I’ll do it every year, but if god is kind enough, I might do it again next year, but I can’t make any promises at this point.”
But what he does know is that “I am not an accumulator or a hoarder of money; as I said before, money is just a number and if you have a craze for money, it can make you crazy.”
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat