Rotary Group Study Exchange programme was a life-enhancing experience

A whole new mechanism is being worked out at The Rotary Foundation to ensure that a good proportion of the CSR funds that the Government of India mandates large profit-making companies to invest in welfare activities, comes to TRF, says TRF Trustee Gulam Vahanvaty.

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In an interview to Rotary News, when asked to elaborate on the hitch in Rotary getting a good and steady flow of CSR funds from India as the senior Rotary leadership in the zone had expected last year, he said the Trustees are already working on this.

Vahanvaty explains that the Trustees decided that TRF should allow the CSR funds from India to “come to the Foundation because many companies said we want the security and name of TRF to receive our funds. We were very happy to receive those funds. But the Trustees said this money won’t go back straight to the projects, and will come through global grants.”

Haseena and Vahanvaty.
Haseena and Vahanvaty.

But the mismatch between what the corporates wanted their funds to go into and the ‘community needs assessment’ that Rotary needed, meant the rejection of several global grant applications. “We are working on a mechanism to sort this out; but to answer your question, yes, we haven’t been as successful as we’d have liked to be to get CSR funds from India.”

Asked to define the relationship between RI and TRF, Vahanvaty says, “They are very closely connected. They are part of the same organisation or two sides of the same coin. RI deals with issues related to clubs, administrative matters and the essential money matters. TRF is meant to do good in the world so it collects money from the donors or benefactors and then ensures the funds are given to and spent on projects that incorporate one or more of Rotary’s six areas of focus. Some of these areas are very popular compared to the others, but we are going ahead with all the six areas of focus. We’ve done a lot of tweaking of the actual words in the policy document which is now very clear and without any grey areas. But, answering your question, RI and TRF really must work closely together.”

Vahanvaty being introduced as a Trustee of TRF at the Hamburg Convention.
Vahanvaty being introduced as a Trustee of TRF at the Hamburg Convention.

Giving an example, he says, “Director Basker and I worked very closely together, we had an excellent relationship and I look forward to working as closely with the two incoming Directors Bharat Pandya and Kamal Sanghvi.”

I next ask him to spell out what is so special about TRF that it attracts people like Bill Gates, Rajashree Birla, and more recently, D Ravishankar, President of RC Bangalore Orchards, to entrust it with such large chunks of their money.

Vahanvaty smiles. “Just trust. Trust which has been built up over the years. Consider this: who decides that TRF is the right place to give money to? I may shout from the mountaintops that this is the best place to give your money, but then I am Rotarian and I can be biased. The donors see various reports that come from independent assessors and then take a decision.”

Son’s wedding. From L: Gulam Vahanvaty, mother Fatema, Zameer, Khatija, Haseena and daughter Zahabia.
Son’s wedding. From L: Gulam Vahanvaty, mother Fatema, Zameer, Khatija, Haseena and daughter Zahabia.

The most notable of these assessing agencies is Charity Navigator, which is based in the US and rates nonprofits only in the US. “It rates about 8,000 to 9,000 nonprofits every year on a large number of parameters on which they judge you and then give a rating of 1-star, which is the lowest, to 4 stars, which is the highest rating. For 11 years, we’ve got a 4-star rating, which speaks for the integrity, stewardship and the fact that we use the bulk of our money for our projects, using a very small percentage for admin and promotional expenses.”

Vahanvaty’s family comes from a small town, Bagasara, in Gujarat, which is about 100 km from Rajkot. But he was born and grew up in Mumbai and during his childhood “my mother had the most influence on me. Both my parents were not very educated, but she was very clear that she wanted her children to be educated in the best school they could afford. So I first went to St Mary’s High School, graduated from St Xavier’s College and then went to IIM Calcutta. I had got admission into an American university but the moment I also got selected to IIM Calcutta, my father said forget about the American university, I respected Dad and stayed on in India.”

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Through campus recruitment at IIM Calcutta, he was selected to join the Tata Administrative Service before his graduation in 1970. After his training, he was assigned to Tata Oil Mills (which was later sold) where he worked in the marketing department for over four years. But in 1974, as his father was very unwell, he submitted his resignation. “And here the greatness of the Tatas comes in. They said why are you leaving? When I explained that I was the eldest son and would have to take care of the reasonable business we had in iron and steel scrap processing, they offered me lien for a year.”

But within six months his father passed away; “they came to offer their condolences and extended my lien by another year. I had a two-year buffer to decide if I wanted to return. But once you are in a business of your own, it is very tough to leave it. So I stayed on; we were ship breakers and iron and steel processors. Much later, we bought a ship breaking yard in Kochi, which unfortunately created a problem and had to be shut down,” says Vahanvaty. Now he is in a different business; an alliance with Raymond where he runs a showroom ‘Made to Measure’ in Mumbai and another that markets Ora jewellery and also an arts and crafts gallery, called Cache.

Young Vahanvaty: a passionate horse rider.
Young Vahanvaty: a passionate horse rider.

Coming to his Rotary journey, Vahanvaty remembers “very clearly” the Sunday morning in 1978 when he saw an ad in the Times of India inviting applications from young men — “mind you in those days it was only for men!” — between 25 and 35 years for an exchange programme in Indiana, US. “I was married by then and asked my wife Haseena if I should apply, and she said what is the worst that can happen; you won’t get selected.”

He applied and did get selected! “At that time, I knew very little of Rotary, except that there was a very rich men’s club (RC Bombay) which met in the Taj Mahal Hotel every week and had great food! That’s all I knew but when I went to the programme, it just changed my entire outlook of Rotary; it was a life-enhancing trip!”

He adds that five persons were selected from some 100 applicants after several rounds of interviews “and I consider myself very lucky to have been selected.”

Vahanvaty, seated fourth from left, during his college days.
Vahanvaty, seated fourth from left, during his college days.

It is nothing short of awe with which the TRF Trustee recounts his Rotary Group Study Exchange programme experiences. During the six-week exchange programme, the young men stayed with 13 different families. “And I really mean it when I use the words ‘life-enhancing’. This programme was so beautifully structured that some of the families have stayed in touch with me till now.”

He went on this programme in 1978, and next year, in November 1979, he joined RC Bombay Midtown. In 2000, when he was nominated DGN, a Rotarian in the US who was taking over as DG, invited him as a speaker for his district conference, saying that all he would have to do is pay for his ticket and the organisers would take care of the rest.

“I went and imagine my delight when at the airport I was met by the first family I had stayed with in the US. And during that trip, I lived in the same room in the same house I had stayed in 22 years earlier! Such magic can happen only in Rotary!”

With PRID Sushil Gupta.
With PRID Sushil Gupta.

To the question if his rise to the governor’s position was difficult, he shrugs and says: “I don’t know; that’s a tough question. It took me many years to become a DG. I was club president in 1985–86 and then I was selected the alternate team leader for GSE twice, but never made it as the team leader! But I am happy that eventually I was selected DG; it was a unanimous decision, and I became governor in 2002–03, and we had a phenomenal collection in TRF, the highest-ever in any district and that record remained until 2006–07, when incoming Director Bharat Pandya surpassed that figure as DG. Pandya was one of my assistant governors, as also Raju Subramanian.”

Next, in 2004, he became an RRFC (Regional Rotary Foundation Coordinator); “I had only one fallow year. Rotary has been very kind to me.”

He had also put his hat in the ring for the RI director’s post. How disappointing was it not to make it to the director’s post? “Very disappointing; there are no other words to say that. I was chosen as the alternate… what can I say?”

But then very soon he was chosen as a TRF Trustee… a bit of a dark horse, I dare to suggest!

Imagine my delight when at the airport I was met by the first family I had stayed with. And I lived in the same room in the same house I had stayed in 22 years earlier! Such magic can happen only in Rotary!

Vahanvaty smiles in response, and with the word ‘horse’ triggering memories, says: “Let me digress here. I am very fond of horse racing. My family has been involved in horse racing for long years, and I started riding a horse from the age of eight, and continued riding till I joined the Tatas. I became a steward of the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) about 10 years ago. The stewards are those who control and regulate racing; their objective is to ensure fair racing. After that I was elected to the committee, and became chairman of the stewards, which is a three-year term.”

An important election at the RWITC took place on Sept 11, 2017, “and the selection of the RI director nominating committee took place on Nov 18. I lost and was disappointed and thought would continue as chair of the stewards committee. On Sep 24, I got a call from RIPE Barry Rassin appointing me as Trustee and the Board voted on that three days later on Sep 27. “I don’t know how it happened, but I am very grateful and privileged to get this position. Very rarely does a person who has not served as an RI director becomes a Trustee. There are only two in our region, though several in other parts of the world — PRIP K R Ravindran and O P Vaish; both became directors only after they had served as Trustees. The Vice Chairman of TRF (TRF Chair till June 30, 2019) Brenda Cressey is not a director.”

The rapport that Haseena created with the spouses of my presidents was something special and was emulated in subsequent years.

I next ask Vahanvaty on India’s stellar performance in TRF giving, bolstered last year by the stunning donation of Rs 100 crore ($14.7 million) by RC Bangalore Orchards President D Ravishankar. But he did have many apprehensions and confusions, as spelt out in an interview to Rotary News. And to address them Vahanvaty had gone down to Bengaluru. How did that meeting go?

He smiles and says, “Very well, we hit it off; there was mutual respect and understanding and a lot of give and take. He had many doubts and I am grateful to the Foundation because we made a lot of allowances for him.”

In what way?

“Well, the endowment… because it was such a large sum, normally the Trustees would have said let’s stick to the straight and narrow, but to meet his needs we made a lot of adjustments and the Trustees were very proactive in taking this decision.”

We should be net givers and not net receivers. Last year we gave $19 million and got back $18 million. I hope this year we give much more.

On stewardship issues found in India while executing global grants, Vahanvaty says: “There are 150,000 Rotarians in our zones. The number of people who have not followed the principles of TRF are minuscule… it’s an absurd percentage. And yet, these very few people constitute what is like putting one drop of ink in a very large bottle of water; the entire water will get coloured. What is embarrassing is that for some months, when I was a backbencher and PRID Sushil Gupta was the Trustee, every time the agenda had some India issues and they were all related to stewardship.

That’s why I keep stressing that don’t let these handful of people in our entire zone mess up our image. The message is now getting across and people are getting more and more conscious that we have to follow the highest standards in stewardship in executing TRF grants.”

There are only two in our region, though several in other parts of the world – PRIP K R Ravindran and O P Vaish – both became directors only after they served as Trustees.

Vahanvaty gives statistics to show how India gets the highest amount and largest number of global grants. “In 2017–18, of the total global grants money given all over the world, $18 million came to India through the largest number of grants. The second country was Thailand at $4 million! So there is a greater need for us to be extra conscious because we are getting so much of TRF money. I am happy that message is getting across.”

Another factor is that the biggest amount comes from the US; last year it was $138 million, “and they are not even among the 10 top countries receiving Foundation money. The greatness of the Foundation is that people give irrespective of whether they are going to get it back or not. And the objective of all the senior leaders in India is that we should be net givers and not net receivers. Last year we gave $19 million and got back $18 million. I hope this year we give much more.”

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat and Courtesy: Gulam Vahanvaty

At a glance

Relax: I love racing… the sheer thrill of it. I was a very good rider, having learnt horse riding at eight. I’ve ridden in Gymkhana races, won a couple of races, and did begin to play polo, but gave it up.

Fitness: I go to a gym thrice a week and workout for 60 to 75 minutes.

From L: Zameer (son), Khatija (daughter-in-law), Gulam Vahanvaty, Haseena, Zahabia (daughter); Satpal Brainch (son-in-law). Front row: Sumehra Vahanvaty; Rishaan and Jaiyaan Brainch.
From L: Zameer (son), Khatija (daughter-in-law), Gulam Vahanvaty, Haseena, Zahabia (daughter); Satpal Brainch (son-in-law).
Front row: Sumehra Vahanvaty; Rishaan and Jaiyaan Brainch.

Reading: I love reading. One of the best books I have read is A brief history of Time by Stephen Hawking. It’s a classic book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Music: I love Hindi film music, songs from the 1970s and 80s. I used to be very fond of Western country music but that’s gone into the background now.

Movies: I watch some light TV programmes… some brainless serials to completely relax, something that doesn’t tax your brain and allows you to sleep!

Food: I am a foodie. I eat all kinds of food. I love Asian cuisine, my favourite is Chinese. I like Japanese food too, but my daughter, who now lives in the US, has to be with me as she tells me what is extremely raw and what is not so raw!

Rotary’s gift: First of all, friends; not only in India but across the world; a sense of purpose and a platform through which I can not only do good for others but also grow individually, which I have done after joining Rotary. Today, in my personal life, given that my wife Haseena is no more, Rotary has filled a big void. She had cancer of the gall bladder, we diagnosed it in August 2014, and on Jan 1, 2015 she was gone. But fortunately, I don’t live alone and don’t return to an empty home. I live with my son and daughter-in-law.


Haseena’s role in his Rotary journey

Haseena and I met in 1962, when we were 14 years old, on a tour to Kashmir. We got engaged in 1969 and married in 1970.

In Goa with Haseena.
In Goa with Haseena.

As the spouse of a Rotarian, she was more than involved and became Charter President of Inner Wheel Club of Mumbai Downtown. This was in 1985–86, the same year when I became President of RC Mumbai Downtown. She was involved in every bit of my Rotary career, especially when I was DG. The rapport that she created with the spouses of my presidents was something special and was emulated in subsequent years. She helped me with my speeches; made sure I was properly and appropriately dressed and was my biggest critic. I valued her constructive criticism as it helped me improve. She made friends all across the world and Rotarians in India, Australia and in the US still miss her.


Role models

My parents: My father died at a very early age and yet instilled in me values of integrity and humility that I cherish. My mother, of course, was very special and thanks to her prayers and constant good wishes, which only a mother can give, I am whatever I am today. She was very close to me and though not well-educated, was very sure that her children should get the best possible education. In those days, for a Muslim woman, who was not well-educated, to insist that her children get the best of education, was nothing short of wonderful.

Kalyan Banerjee: What I admire the most about him is that he listens. I wish I had that ability to listen, absorb and then speak. He speaks very little, but when he speaks, it is of substance.

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