Shloka Nath, Executive Director of the India Climate Collaborative (ICC) and Head of Sustainability at the Tata Trusts, sheds light on India’s first major philanthropy collaborative focused on climate change.
The India Climate Collaborative (ICC) is an India-led platform founded in 2018 by a group of philanthropies interested in continuing to accelerate India’s development, while also exceeding its climate goals. The Tata Trusts is one of India’s leading philanthropic foundations and an instrumental actor in driving the ICC forward.
In this episode, we learn of the fight against climate change within an Indian context and the collaboration between philanthropists and diverse stakeholders that is leading to innovative thinking and additional funding in this field.
In addition to her roles at the ICC and Tata Trusts, Shloka Nath is the Vice President of the Bombay Natural History Society, one of the largest non-governmental organisations in India engaged in conservation and biodiversity research, and she is a member of the Advisory Board to IUCN’s Nature-based Recovery initiative. Prior to this, Shloka co-founded and was the Managing Partner of Sankhya Women Impact Funds, a gender lens fund with a focus on sustainability. She has spent over a decade in journalism with the BBC in London, as a news anchor with New Delhi Television (NDTV) and Principal Correspondent with Forbes in Mumbai.
Shloka has a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a BSc in Government from The London School of Economics and Political Science. She is also the author of the book, “Hidden India: Journey to Where the Wild Things Are” (April 2018), a compendium of photographs and writing about Indian wildlife and landscapes.
Alberto Lidji: Shloka, welcome on to The Do One Better Podcast.
Shloka Nath: Thank you so much, Alberto, this is, you know, I'm such a big fan of the work that you do through this podcast and I'm so excited to be here with you today.
Alberto Lidji: Excellent. Well, welcome onto the show and why don't we start by finding out a little bit about the India Climate Collaborative, the ICC, what's it about?
Shloka Nath: That's the million dollar question. So thank you for that. I think the simple answer for you, if there is one is that we are the largest private, philanthropic collaborative in India today. So over ten of a country's foremost philanthropies and businesses have come together to found the India Climate Collaborative.
And it's really the first ever collective response, if you will, by industry leaders for effective action towards a shared climate goal. And what I love about the ICC is that it really stretches beyond philanthropy because it's mandated to amplify and spread local solutions. So we are a coordinated ecosystem, if you will, of Indian donors, implementers, government representatives, businesses, academia, civil society, and communities who will work together with support from the international climate community.
And the idea really is for the ICC to drive collective investment, to connect diverse voices and in doing so to craft a really unique Indian response to climate change. One that is truly attuned to our needs and development priorities.
At the moment, climate focused philanthropic funding in India remains very low. It's lower than the global average of 2% of total philanthropic funding as a proportion of total philanthropic funding. And it's primarily concentrated in India, in sectors like agriculture, like energy, the environment. And this is really because despite the opportunity philanthropies face a set of challenges that they really require assistance with, whether it's a lack of technical knowledge in how do you connect climate change action to philanthropic activities. There's a lack or absence of a collective climate strategy to establish the best practice and programs. There's also a low level of awareness in the sense that some foundations know about the unintended impact of their programs on climate change. But not much action is really being done or taken to address it.
And equally important funders in India, they really lack the capacity to measure the impact of their own programs in contributing to climate change, nor are they able to assess the potential effect of climate change on their current portfolios. So the entry barriers, as you can imagine, are really, really high.
And why collaboratives, because I feel like that's an important point to bring out here. It really makes sense to de-risk investments by ensuring that there is collective will to act, we need collective, you know, will to coordinate a wide range of actors to exchange ideas. Collaboration allows for, you know, knowledge sharing around best practices.
And it also really is a key to collectively identifying what is priority research and knowledge needs. It helps us frame a longterm agenda for tackling climate change. We can avoid duplication and research. We can align financial investments towards outcomes that are highly innovative and necessary even if risky.
And collaboration also means opportunities for co-investing in institutional capacity. In other words, how can we drive our capital to build the climate change ecosystem in India? And that is literally what the ICC is hoping to do.
Alberto Lidji: Fascinating stuff. You're fairly new, right? The organization itself, you launched a couple of years back?
Shloka Nath: We launched a year ago, in January of 2020, we've been in the design stage for a couple of years, but our formal launch was last year.
Alberto Lidji: And how's the reception so far? I notice that you have some really interesting partners. Some of the partners that you have have been guests on the podcast here as well. So, the Oak Foundation, we had Doug Griffith, the Hewlett Foundation, Larry Kramer was on the show. So those are just two of your many partners. Give us a little bit of a flavor for how the initiative of the India Climate Collaborative has been received thus far. And how you're getting these partners on board.
Shloka Nath: I'm always amazed, Alberto, first off by just how wonderful and extensive your guest list is on this podcast. You're right actually, a lot of the folks that you've mentioned are some of our early supporters and they've been really sort of, instrumental, I would say in helping bring to light the need for a concept like the ICC, the need for collaborative platform in a country like India, where we have to sort of revitalize and regenerate domestic capital towards climate change.
I think in terms of the reception, look, the writing's on the wall. You know, India is deeply vulnerable to climate change. We have a high dependence on agriculture. We have a long coastline and we have a tremendous reliance on fossil fuels. We're already facing the initial effects of climate change with rising temperatures. We have decreasing rainfall in India. And we have extreme weather events that have become more common. In the last few weeks, we've had two cyclones that have hit India, which is, and it's unprecedented. We don't have this frequency along the western coast of India, for instance. So unless we act now, I think it's fairly obvious and clear that India is going to risk deeper and more systemic effects in the future. We're the fifth most vulnerable country to the impacts of climate change. The statistics go on and on. We have, you know, 42% of India's land area is drought in 2019, which is worse than the farmer crisis. We've got, you know, 150% rise in air pollution related deaths over the last 20 years.
I mean, these are just, of course there are, there's tremendous human tragedy behind each of these statistics. And I think the one thing that we realized within the philanthropic community and of course within business and industry as well, is that climate change materially affects nearly all work.
Whether philanthropic or commercial, it's just, you know, that it's not, not just those sort of pieces, which are concerned with its more obvious effects, but to give you an example, climate linked health issues and reduction in agrarian incomes can actually lead to reduced school attendance and learning outcomes.
So in a country like India, where you have sizable populations living under the poverty line who are exposed to climate risks, it's an issue that can really profoundly affect development outcomes. In terms of, you know, sort of the reception, I would say within the donor community, as I mentioned, there is this sort of profound sense and understanding now that climate change is a problem we can't ignore.
That there is no critical pathway to sustainable development that is innocent of climate. It doesn't exist. I think if you had spoken to the philanthropic community five years ago, that might not have been something that they would have intuitively realized in the way that they are today.
So the reception to the ICC has been absolutely fantastic. We have over 30+ funders on the platform already, both within India and globally, we have over a 100+ partners. You know, whether they're government agencies or CSOs or research institutions, and think tanks again, both within India, as well as across the globe.
And we're really sort of aiming to be that cohesive bridge, that bridge builder, if you will, within the Indian climate ecosystem. How do we bring this diverse set of actors together? How do we help them craft a common agenda? And how do we tell the story of India's climate change issues and impact in a way that is materially different and distinct from the global north?
Alberto Lidji: That's really fascinating. What came first, and I don't know whether there is one coming before the other, but was it the notion of tackling climate and then... then it followed through that you thought, well, setting up a collaborative would be a sensible thing to do, or was it the appetite for a more creative approach to philanthropy... collaboratives are really interesting these days. They're becoming more prominent these days. What's it the notion of setting up a collaborative that enthused you first and then the thematic focus on climate, or did they both come up at the same time?
Shloka Nath: It's a wonderful question. And one that I haven't been asked yet actually, Alberto. I have not... you know, a little bit of the answer lies in sort of how the ICC was created or established. It's been incubated by an organization called the Tata Trusts, which is one of the largest and oldest philanthropic organizations in India. It's over 127 years old. And I was very moved by the need to do something on climate change, you know, that had, it was, it was sort of a personal mission... something that I felt was imperative. And there was this opportunity to sort of build out the sustainability portfolio within the Tata Trusts. And when I arrived, you know, in order to understand what we could best do as sort of this large, you know, vast multilateral institution across the country, it became imperative to sort of landscape the climate ecosystem within India.
And what I realized very quickly was that, you know, the challenges we were facing as the Tata Trusts in trying to understand where we might best enter or tackle this gigantic problem of climate change was one that was faced by the sector, you know, across the board. We were not alone.
And I think with that realization came, again, the understanding that there would be tremendous benefit if the Tata Trusts were to not go it alone and fund individual or singular programs in the wider climate ecosystem -- that's important work and it must be done -- but could we build a platform that would seek to scale the capacity of solution providers to act rather than just the solutions themselves.
You know, how could we make a thousand flowers bloom and in that way, really lift and drive and catalyze the Indian climate ecosystem.
Alberto Lidji: Right. And I didn't mention this at the start but you're still involved with the Tata Trusts.
Shloka Nath: I'm still involved with the Tata Trusts. I do wear two hats and the ICC while I'm no longer incubated by the Tata Trusts does look towards the Tata Trusts as one of its key and core supporters, of course, amongst a host of other members.
Alberto Lidji: Right. Incredibly well-known name and entity. What about the other funders that are coming on board... the other people who are participating with the collaborative? So what's your time horizons do they engage you with; what sort of funding levels are they looking at? Give us a little bit of a flavor for that and how they actually get involved, so whether it's entirely funding or through technical expertise...
Shloka Nath: There are a number of ways to get involved. You know, one of the things that we were very keen to establish at the start is that if it's a collaborative, it's got to be a big tent. We don't want to discriminate on the basis of size of, you know, funding or foundation. There are, of course different ways in which the members get to engage based on, you know, how they choose to invest in, sort of the collaborative itself, as well as of course the programs that we're building out.
And quite frankly, Alberto, for us, like, you know, if the funders don't necessarily have to fund, the ICC or fund through the ICC, it's a win for us. If we get funders within the Indian ecosystem... philanthropic ecosystem or business ecosystem to just drive more funding towards climate action in general, it doesn't have to sort of come through the ICC. So I think for us really, as I said, whatever we can do to sort of garner that momentum and drive it up is really important.
We have core donors or core supporters, if you will, who've come on board to fund the institution of the ICC itself. And those are some very key and important ways in which you can engage.
And I said, because it's the first of its kind collaborative platform in the country on climate action, that in itself is such a sizeable impact, you know. And when you think about the work we're doing to expand the role of civil society around climate, the creation of the ICC itself is very much a big step in that direction.
Then of course you have a whole host of funders, as I said, who seek to support or work through the ICC programs and will fund programmatically. And that's wonderful. We do play a little bit of an investor sort of pitch platform role, where we seek to identify opportunities in the wider ecosystem to highlight those opportunities and bring them to our donors and funders and align them to their core interest areas.
And then of course, there's, you know, the wider network, which is really the heart and soul of ICC, the network of, you know, civil society organizations, government agencies, research, institutions, think tanks, you know, you name it, the folks on the ground, the field in the ground really who are doing the work, the necessary work on securing and really building that resilience in India.
These organizations and individuals are part of the ICC network. We really focused on making sure that we highlight the work of these climate actors, that we raise them to the notice of funders, that we can match them to funding opportunities, but more importantly, that we're using them to really drive the right kind of solution. So that the ideas are not sort of imported within India, but that we're growing a relevant set of solutions that can not just serve, you know, India as a whole, but can be useful for the global south that will add to the global narrative around how climate change is going to impact us going forward. And I think that's the one thing I would say about the ICC is that its unique and important because it's not championing one solution or one approach. It exemplifies really what we know in our hearts that no one is protected and everyone has a responsibility. So the power of the ICC is really in its diversity of sectors and its people. We want them to be inspired and engaged, but ultimately really motivated to take action.
Alberto Lidji: Excellent. It's very enlightened of you to say, look, we're really just happy if funds get into climate in India, whether they come through the ICC or otherwise, the notion that funding is coming for this cause is important to you and that that works well.
Let me ask you also, in terms of the structure of the collaborative, or... there are different models out there and, you know, there are organizations like Co-Impact that are quite high profile that are doing interesting things. There's others that are less high profile, but also sort of engaging with... different funders coming together and engaging at different degrees of distance with each other, whether that's joining up the funding or also going farther in the administrative function and joining that up and the project evaluation and joining that up and all of these things. How did you, when you thought to yourselves, ok, a collaborative would be really a sensible thing to do, a great thing to do... where did you look to for guidance? Because it's not like you have loads of books in the library saying this is what a philanthropic collaborative organization look like.
Shloka Nath: Again, another incredibly insightful question and a profound one. We didn't have guidance. You know, there was... when I say guidance I don't mean that there weren't an army of supporters or individuals who served as sounding boards and really sort of came forward with an incredible amount of sort of courage and, you know, motivation when we needed it the most. We're a tiny team and, you know, there were just sort of two of us when we started out, but really it was... it's been one of the greatest challenges in building the India Climate Collaborative and one of the greatest experiences at the same time. Because it's all been white space.
So collaboratives in India historically have not really been sort of built on a platform they've been mostly, you know, pooled funds or, you know... if a collaborative is built in a certain way it's usually, you know, with a certain set of targets or goals in mind.
Here it's about building a platform that would build the ecosystem and trying to sell systemic change when the notion of philanthropy itself is so nascent in our country like in there where we still, you know, relate it to sort of charitable giving, you know, it's very transactional in nature at times, this idea of sort of looking at strategic philanthropy and looking at outcomes that are 15 or 20 years down the line has not been an easy one to build out or to sell.
And I think at the same time, you know, learning to understand how we might bring people together with this sort of myriad setup of opinions and insights and ways of being has been a real learning journey for us. There's been a lot of humidity involved in it. I think there's been a lot of leading from behind, you know, learning to sort of co-create and attribute ownership right at the start amongst sort of those who came forward, but at the same time, managing that delicate balance of not letting consensus rule, because consensus can be the death of ambition or aspiration, you know. You have to sort of maintain that high bar, in terms of the goals that you want to accomplish and achieve, but at the same time, make sure you're doing it at a speed and in a way in which everyone feels like they are part of the journey and that they are heard and going along with you.
So that's been a very precarious balancing act, but I think we've had some truly amazing people, as I said, who've lifted that burden a bit. You know, Rohini Nilekani is one good example. She's also one of our core supporters and she's, you know, she's an author, she's a former journalist, she's a shareholder of the IT giant Infosys. And she's the founder of the ICC as well. And she has been a longstanding advocate for a very indigenous model of innovative philanthropy in India. One that takes bigger risks. One that risks collaboration, one that's more audacious and gives more. And I think for whole climate change is clearly an issue that Indian philanthropy needs to be tackling you know or yesterday rather.
And, it's been through the wisdom and the experience of folks like her that we've really been able to sort of stand up on our two feet and, and take the chances that we needed to. And it's a bit like the wild west, you know, where we're sort of like binders out there doing what we're doing and really building the field as we go. So one of the big jokes, Alberto, at the ICC amongst the team is, you know, we joke often that we're building the plane while we fly it. Tying our shoelaces while running. And I think it's an acceptance that, you know, we have to sort of, you know, go with the flow as much as we can learn from our mistakes and just be really, really responsive to change and be flexible.
The joy of that as you might have rightly guessed is just the creativity that's involved, you know, who would have thought that, you know, you'd be able to talk about climate change from that perspective, but the opportunities are so vast and we just need to start reimagining the world around us, the way in which we want to live, and how we want to address these issues.
Alberto Lidji: If somebody is listening to this and they're like, well, that sounds really interesting, I want to get involved... I'm involved with the foundation or a philanthropic entity... do they need to have some sort of idea of what they want to do with climate in India and present that to you? Could they come in completely blind and just say, look, we care about the subject matter, but we don't know exactly where to start. In which case maybe you can present them with some alternatives or options of what they could do. Give us a little bit of visibility into the journey that a potential funder might embark on and what that entails.
Shloka Nath: They do not need to have any climate knowledge. I think that's something that I definitely want to put out there. We have a term for folks who are sort of, you know, interested in climate, but have not worked in that space before. And by the way, that is most of Indian philanthropy and business, we call them climate curious.
And the more climate curious you are the better. As long as you have that interest and that desire to work on climate in some way, we're there to help you through that journey. You know, I think again, the good news about being a big dent, like the ICC is that we really do welcome you no matter what life stage you're at or in, when it comes to climate change, you know, it can be right at the start where you're just want to learn a bit more about the subject. It can be at the point where you're ready to fund. It can be at the point where you're ready to fund programs but you're also... I mean, through the ICC or other organizations or institutions, or it can be at the point, sort of the more advanced and mature state where you want to not only fund programs in the wider ecosystem, but you want to change your way of business or you want to change, you know, or bring living in a climate lens or filter across the body of work that you do yourself and actually actively work on it within your own organization. The ICC is most certainly on hand to take you through all of those various stages and to help you understand what you can do better.
Alberto Lidji: What about the flip side to that, so an NGO or someone who's interested in, you know, who's doing work in the front lines or in climate, climate repair, what have you, who are seeking funding, how can they approach you? What's the process?
Shloka Nath: So, this is something that we do all the time. The ICC does give grants. We're not a re-grantor per se, but we do fund programs and organizations that are working across the climate ecosystem in India. We do have a number of different sort of sector focuses.
But you know, I think as long as it aligns with the overall strategic goals of what the ICC is attempting to do, we ourselves are able to fund, but I think more importantly, and this is really a bigger role the ICC plays you know, which is why I say we're not really a re-grantor. We play this matchmaking role where, if we know that there are funders who are keen to sort of, you know, fund certain programs in the climate ecosystem or around climate change in India, we can connect them to those NGOs or organizations on the ground who are working on those areas who need that funding.
I think a big issue within the nonprofit sector in India right now and within the philanthropic sector in India is that you have a small... there's a big imbalance. You have a small number of organizations who are sort of getting all the funds if you will because they are working on issue areas that, you know, have been longstanding interest areas for Indian philanthropy.
What we're trying to do within the ICC is like widening that space, in that field so that we can bring in a whole other host of issues and solutions and also highlight the need to drive more funding towards those. The climate sector is definitely one that has historically, as I said, you know, received, you know, much newer sort of amounts of funding.
There are a tremendous set of sort of intersectional issues that we're finding now, whether it's healthcare or gender equity or, you know, just transition or your wider social justice issues that are all going to... and are being hugely impacted by climate change, but no one is thinking about it in that lens. And that's what we're trying to sort of shift and change.
Alberto Lidji: And in the world of philanthropy, so you're based in India, many of the biggest philanthropic funds in what we'd call the global north.... I remember having Clare Woodcraft from the Center for Strategic Philanthropy from Cambridge University on the show a while back and they really have a big focus on the power balance or imbalance between the global north and the global south. And I'm just curious to hear a little bit about your take because you're so involved with philanthropy in the global south in India. And, I'd love to get your take on that.
Shloka Nath: I mean, this is something, Alberto, as you will know is debated so deeply. It's a widely acknowledged imbalance in that very often the... and I'm referring specifically to climate change, you know, the funds or the capital are in the global north, but those who will be impacted most by the impact of climate change or the effect of climate change, are the global south.
And this is true on a more macro scale for the wider sort of philanthropic movement or sector as a whole across the globe. You do very often find that, you know, a lot of the issues when it comes to sort of poverty alleviation or developmental objectives, you know, the ones that we're really struggling with in the global south sometimes, and very often some of those pieces get decided by the global north, in terms of how we're going to choose to address them. That's what I mean. And, again, as I said, you know, climate change is of a new area of philanthropy. It's one that literally the ICC is building bit by bit within the domestic funder base in India for the first time. The current funding in India around climate change is primarily international. And these are folks who are incredibly sophisticated in their thinking. These are philanthropies who have spent, you know, decades really identifying sort of the issues, the complexities is within, you know, this huge intangible that we call climate change and how it impacts communities on the ground.
But they don't sit in the global south. And there is a recognition that we need collaboration, not just domestically, as in within nations or within a country like India, but we need collaboration between the global north and global south on a very, very deep level, because we can't have a one size fits all approach to an issue like climate change. It's just not feasible. It's not the way we want to go forward. And it's not the kind of mandate we want to set as a community. And when I say community, I mean the climate community as a whole. We're trying to be as deeply sensitive to localized issues, problems and perspectives on the ground as well as solutions.
And that's the most important part, the solutioning, right? The more we sort of impose these narratives on localized contexts and people, the more we lose out on the opportunity for those local innovations and grassroots solutioning to come forward. And that actually is how we're going to deal or, or solve for climate change.
Yes, there are massive sort of decisions we have to take at the policy level. There's no doubt. And that's at the national or international stage, but really those who are going to build resilience within their communities, who are going to innovate solutions when it comes to mitigating climate change and its impacts for the future... very very hyper-local.
Alberto Lidji: How did you get into all of this? So you have a distinguished academic record. You clearly have a lot of knowledge and a lot of passion. Give us a flavor for that journey... That narrative of how you ended up where you are today.
Shloka Nath: You know, like most people, Alberto, it's not been a straight path and I'm actually grateful for that because life would have been very boring if I had known that this is what I'd wanted to do from a young age.
I've always been passionate about wildlife, my father's side of the family they're all wildlife conservationists and photographers, including my father. So I was one of those kids who learned how to fish before she could walk, but really grew up in the jungles across India. And, I thank God for that because it's something that has, you know, consistently in my life, brought me back to center.
But I did lose that aspect for a long time. And, you know, there was about a decade or so in my life where I was quite disconnected from nature, from our connection to the planet. Really got very involved in, you know, into work and was quite ambitious about what I was trying to accomplish. I was a journalist for a decade and that's really where I thought I'd make my career. And then, life happened. You know, I had gone to Harvard to finish my public policy degree. I was gonna go back to a journalism post and my brother passed away, just three months before graduation. This was back in 2013.
And he was a tremendous environmentalist. He was older than me and someone who I think on his death, I realized that the only sort of way I could feel some connection back to him was when I was out in nature. And, it quickly became a means by which to connect to him as well. And to also find myself. I think I was completely and utterly devastated and lost, you know, after he passed away.
And that really brought me back to what was essential, what mattered in this life, what were some of my values. You know, death can be very clarifying. It can be tremendously hurtful and really horrific, but it can also really set your clock right again. And I think that's what his death did.
I realized that climate change was something that I was going to work on no matter what, at some point, and I was fortunate enough when this opportunity presented itself with the Tata Trusts and it just felt too good to be true. And I just jumped on it and everything since has sort of you know, been a part of the journey that I'm so grateful for. I really live in gratitude every day for the opportunities that I've had to do something meaningful and hopefully in some way give back.
Alberto Lidji: Well thanks for sharing that story. That's very touching and indeed, well, it's good that you have that clarity of thought, which is really, really important. Any parting thought, key takeaway that you might have for our audience? What's the one thing you'd love for them to keep in mind after they finish listening to today's episode?
Shloka Nath: Oh gosh. You know, I thought about this. I actually have two parting thoughts. You know, India of course has been devastated by this latest wave of COVID-19 and it's been a lot of, I think, time for reflection for everyone here.
One thing that I have been reading that has given me a great deal of solace of late is a passage that I come back to you by Thomas Merton again and again. And I love it because it has so much wisdom in it. And he talks about how... or rather he says, do not depend on the hope of results when you are doing the sort of work you've taken on you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all. If not, perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate, not on the results, but on the value, the rightness and the truth of the work itself.
And I think for me, this has really sort of helped heal, you know, of late, because I realized that it's not given to you to know how things are going to turn out. But what is given to you is to quiet in yourself, to tend to your heart, to listen to what direction it is that you want to offer your life to this world.
And then whether it's climate change or injustice or racism, you can act, but you can act in a different way because it's a shift from trying to make it happen with your will and instead opening to what your heart tells you is the wisest thing to do from a quiet place. And then letting your actions follow something that's far more timeless.
And the second thing that has given me a great deal of hope actually is a favorite verse that I have of Pablo Neruda, where he says you can pick all the flowers but you can't stop the spring. And sometimes I have to remind myself of that eternal spring. Especially when you work in climate change. It's like, we worry so much about the future of humanity, but we forget the presence of eternity, that there are bigger seasons that the earth has, that it pushes through the flowers in the cracks of the sidewalks and it can't be stopped.
Alberto Lidji: That's excellent. Well, thank you for sharing all of the insight and for concluding with quite a bit of wisdom as well, which is really great. Thank you so very much. It's been an absolute pleasure hosting you on The Do One Better Podcast today.
Shloka Nath: Thank you so much, Alberto. The pleasure was all mine. Thank you so much for this wonderful chat.