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Vita and Jalaj Dani: Creating self-sustaining communities

The Danis are focussed on what is described as constructive philanthropy--i.e. empowering individuals and communities through transformative actions like holistic learning, promoting well-being like physical literacy and sports, and more

Manu Balachandran
Published: Mar 3, 2023 11:26:06 AM IST
Updated: Mar 8, 2023 10:55:37 AM IST

Vita and Jalaj Dani founded Dani Foundation to help create a self-sustaining society by empowering individuals
Image: Neha mithbawkar for Forbes IndiaVita and Jalaj Dani founded Dani Foundation to help create a self-sustaining society by empowering individuals Image: Neha mithbawkar for Forbes India

For Vita and Jalaj Dani, it all began with going back to their roots. Sometime in the early 2010s, the husband-wife duo—whose family are co-owners of Asian Paints—decided it was time to do something in the town that Jalaj’s grandfather came from. Kapadvanj, a historic town in the Kheda district of Gujarat, is known for its stepwells and Jain temples.   

“Our grandfather used to go to a polytechnic school there before he came to Mumbai and started Asian Paints,” says Vita. “We always said, we will go back there and do something there because that’s where we have come from. That’s where our roots are. We don’t like to forget our roots. And it’s only appropriate to start there.”  

There, the duo began working with Kapadwanj Kelavani Mandal, an 80-year-old foundation looking to provide affordable education to the citizens of Kapadvanj. “As a family, we have believed that it’s better to have partnerships instead of reinventing the wheel and starting all over again. It always helps to work with local organisations and local bodies,” adds Vita.
The foundation runs 13 educational institutions, many of which are named after Suryakant Dani, one of the founders of Asian Paints. “We said if we can tie up with them and work along with them, that would be the best thing that can happen,” says Vita. “Now, of course, we have also expanded our area of focus as one thing led to the other.”  

A decade later, the husband-wife duo has set up the Dani Foundation, a not-for-profit initiative that wants to create a self-sustaining society by empowering individuals and engaging communities through transformative actions. That includes providing holistic learning, promoting well-being, particularly in the areas of physical literacy and sports, and access to better means of livelihood.  

The foundation, which focuses on what the Danis consider constructive philanthropy, works with five organisations—Kapadwanj Kelavani Mandal, Annamrita Trust, ELMS Sports Foundation, Project Mumbai and Pratham. In addition, it also runs the Sports for Transformation fellowship which provides sports professionals with an opportunity to work with teachers.  

Vita and Jalaj Dani founded Dani Foundation to help create a self-sustaining society by empowering individuals
Image: Neha mithbawkar for Forbes IndiaOf this, Annamrita focuses on implementing the government’s mid-day meal programme in municipal, government-aided and non-aided schools, and distributes over 10 lakh meals per day across 6,500 schools in India. “A good meal for a child will keep him away from child labour,” explains Vita. “It will give the child education. He or she will not become a burden to the parent, which very often is the reality.” 

Then there is Pratham that works towards improving the quality of education to underprivileged children. Pratham’s initiatives have reached over 4.5 million children. The Dani Foundation has also been supporting Project Mumbai, which offers a unique model of public-private-people partnership, working on everything from health to environment and governance to education to improve the city of Mumbai. 
Over the past few years, inspired by their son’s interest in sports, the Dani Foundation has turned up its focus on sports. The foundation is the promoter of ELMS Sports Foundation, which focuses on improving sports, especially grassroots-level sports, to help the country win medals at global sporting events. ELMS has trained over 20,000 teachers, assessed over 10,000 students, and worked with over 150 coaches and administrators so far.  
“We are truly privileged,” says Vita. “We are blessed in life, and I think if we do not go about making this change, then we need to think and give life a serious thought.”   

Also read: How family philanthropy can shape a new social contract in India

Making it Work  

Today, Vita spends most of her time on philanthropic activities at the Dani Foundation. Jalaj, who serves as chairman of Addverb Technologies Private Limited and is on the board of many other organisations, including Reliance Foundation and HDFC, also takes time out to identify initiatives that the foundation wants to focus on.  

“We want to be involved and contribute—be it with talent, time, network or accessibility with people and places,” says Vita. “We don’t believe in passive philanthropy. We want to make a difference and only when we can do that, we will be different than the others.”  

Much of the philanthropic spending from them depends on the person heading the initiatives. “Leadership is what is going to make the biggest difference,” says Vita. “What the leader is all about… the leader’s vision and attitude.” Then, there is the focus on causes while writing cheques. “Do we relate to it is a factor,” Vita says. “All our experiences draw us toward certain causes.” There are also friendships that lead them into making philanthropic decisions. 
But at the core of it all, says Vita, is a stress on transparency when it comes to funding projects. “We want to make sure there is a genuine leader with the right principles. That’s the only way I think a sustainable change can take place,” says Vita. Lately, the duo has been actively involved in improving the sports infrastructure in the country. “Because our son is so involved in sports, it has motivated and encouraged us to promote sports,” says Vita. “So, sometimes it’s everything that one is passionate about or everything that one becomes passionate about.”  

With a firm focus on health care, education, community living and sports, the Danis are clear about where they put their money. And that means not going after everything. “We don’t want to have our fingers in too many pies,” says Vita. “It’s better to consolidate in fewer initiatives and do them well. We are not here to prove anything to anybody. We are doing it because we want to do it.” 

The Danis’ ELMS Sports Foundation focuses on grassroots-level sports and has trained over 20,000 teachers and assessed over 10,000 students so far  The Danis’ ELMS Sports Foundation focuses on grassroots-level sports and has trained over 20,000 teachers and assessed over 10,000 students so far  

Focus on Sports  

Even as the Danis spend their time towards focus areas such as health, education and community building, a significant amount of their time is spent on improving the sports infrastructure in the country.   

ELMS, which stands for excellence learning and management in sports, looks at capacity building, physical literacy and high-performance centres. The initiative is guided by Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra and badminton star Pullela Gopichand. It has collaborated with 12 community-based organisations in six aspirational districts intending to reach the most underserved areas, and develop both physical as well as life skills in children.
The initiative also aims at devising sport-specific and athlete-specific high-performance plans, delivering high-performance leadership programmes for sports administrators, and pursuing thought leadership in high-performance sports management. The foundation has tied up with Loughborough University to provide a high-performance coach development programme, designed to help athletes achieve optimal athletic performance at the professional level. “We are a country of a billion people,” Vita says. “How can we not create champions?”  

With the government laying a lot of focus on sports with the Fit India movement and Khelo India programme, Vita reckons the time is apt for improving India’s performance across sports, and bringing home medals. “A lot of people are plunging into sports,” says Vita. “Everybody wants to do sports management and wants to be associated with sports because it is fun. When that fun becomes a way of life, becomes part of work, I don’t think you can have a better combination.”  

Vita co-owns the Chennaiyin FC soccer club, which participates in the Indian Soccer League along with actor Abhishek Bachchan and former India cricket captain MS Dhoni. She is also a promoter of Ultimate Table Tennis, a professional table tennis league. Her son, Mudit, is a professional table tennis player.   

“I have seen them over the last few years relentlessly support this initiative and get into every detail,” says Gopichand, chief national coach for the Indian badminton team and a former winner of the All England Open Badminton Championships. “They are ready to take up any challenge since their son has also played sports at a professional level. It brings a unique perspective, which can come only from some experience. ELMS is a product of this passion and the growth of it is testimony to their wonderful work.” 

Also read: Indian philanthropists need to become bolder, lead with trust, look for new areas to fund: Rohini Nilekani 

Taking it Forward  

The Danis keep a tight check on the progress the causes they support make. That means reviews once every two weeks.  
“It’s the time that we want to give,” says Vita. “It’s the treasure that we would like to share and make a difference whether it’s through volunteering, mentoring or through our skills and expertise.”  

While one can see immediate results with some initiatives like the mid-day meals, the sports schemes usually need time. That means frequent phone calls with community leaders. “I’ve had the opportunity to witness first-hand the passion and dedication of Jalaj and Vita Dani towards making a meaningful impact in the world of sports,” says Bindra, India’s first individual gold medallist at the Olympics. “Their vision to support sports and a healthy lifestyle is inspiring, and the impact of their philanthropy is felt across communities, touching countless lives.”  

The Danis are also helped by their children in their philanthropic activities. “When we started, the children were very young,” Vita says. “As they have grown, we asked them if they were in sync with what we are doing, because we write cheques of substantial amounts. Our children say we have to do it, especially since we have so much in life. This is the greatest victory for me as a parent.”   

All that means the Danis are just about getting started when it comes to ramping up their philanthropic activities. And they don’t like talking much about it. “It is important for us to see a smile in somebody else ‘s life,” says Vita.

(This story appears in the 10 March, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)