Family Philanthropy Speaks: A Conversation with Vilas Dhar

Vilas Dhar, President of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, joins NCFP President and CEO Nick Tedesco for a Family Philanthropy Speaks episode on data science, artificial intelligence, and the foundation’s recent merger. Hear about the innovative strategies the McGovern Foundation is using to tackle social issues.

Philanthropy is a practice borne out of compassion and commitment—and one that is deeply rooted in family. It’s also a practice that must continue to evolve to effectively meet the needs of the communities it seeks to serve. Thankfully, there are countless social sector leaders who are advancing the field with their bold ideas and unwavering enthusiasm for the greater good. The National Center for Family Philanthropy is honored to share the stories of these leaders through its program, Family Philanthropy Speaks—a series of conversations designed to feature the innovative spirit of family philanthropy. These dynamic discussions aim to capture emerging trends and solutions, share new and diverse voices in the field, and lift up the role of family philanthropy—past, present, and future—in stewarding social change. We hope you will join us to explore what it means to give with intention!

Watch more Family Philanthropy Speaks conversations here.


Nick Tedesco: Welcome to the Family Philanthropy Speaks video blog series from the National Center for Family Philanthropy. These conversations highlight the innovative spirit of family giving. Today, I’m joined by Vilas Dhar, President and Trustee of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, a global foundation advancing artificial intelligence and data science to create a more equitable, thriving and sustainable world. Vilas, thank you so much for being here today.

Vilas Dhar: Nick, it’s my pleasure. I love being in conversation with you and I’m such a fan of the work that you do.

Nick Tedesco: Thank you. I’m really excited for this conversation and congratulations on your appointment. It’s been about a year now, right?

Vilas Dhar: That’s exactly right. We’re going to month 14.

Nick Tedesco: In the announcement of your appointment to this role, you made a bold statement asserting, “Now is the moment for a broad coalition of voices to come together to purposefully build resilient institutions that can harness the transformative potential of technology for our common good.” Talk to me about the role of technology and innovation in the pursuit of positive social impact.

Vilas Dhar: I love it. That’s a big question and a big statement that I made a year and a half ago. So, let’s talk about it a little bit. Look, fundamentally, I think the conviction that drives us is the fact that the world’s at the brink of a transformation, a transformation not just of what we’re capable of doing, but the fundamental principles that lead into the decisions we make.

Let me tell you a bit about that. So, as we all know, AI and data science, they’re always in the news these days, it feels like. These are kind of the progression of what’s been a 20-year revolution in digital computing and a transformation around the internet. But now we’re finally at a moment where these tools that are being developed, have the capacity to fundamentally transform economic, political and cultural institutions.

So, it strikes me that in this moment, where humanity faces a totally new world ahead, we should probably take a quick step back and ask some pretty basic questions about what kind of future it is we want to design? It’s a conversation that no single sector can do by itself. As the private sector building new tools, as governments trying to regulate, as the civil sectors trying to solve human challenges, we have to come together to figure out where the intersections of those interests lie with the application of these technologies. It’s a moment, for me, of incredible optimism and excitement, but also a cautious moment and a reflective one to step back and say, “What is it we’re trying to accomplish?”

Nick Tedesco: Really well said. Let’s talk a little bit about this moment of fundamental shift. How do you see this moment as a tipping point for the sector?

Vilas Dhar: Absolutely. I came to this work really through a personal pathway that’s taken me through a career in technology and then a career in the private sector and then to philanthropy. And as I look at the decisions in front of us, I realize that many of the things that we in the sector of philanthropy think about is driving motivations and challenges, to deliver better quality of life to people across the world, to ensure direct access to healthcare, to nutrition, to education. Each of these challenges will be uniquely impacted by what AI and data science can provide us.

Let me give you a very basic example, for a number of years now, as a sector, we really looked at how we deliver healthcare to last-mile villages and developed models like Community Health Workers, like ensuring that we have robust national health systems.

Well, even in the last couple of years, we’ve seen how the application of AI technologies fundamentally increased three different things. One, the availability and access of medical care, rather than waiting for a community health worker to get to a village to provide diagnostic or care, we now have the ability to provide a chat bot that’s powered by AI, and we’re seeing the rapid implementation of these tools across so many languages and communities.

The second is the ability to say, “Well, now that we have this ability to engage with populations, how do we work on better health-related behaviors?” We’ve seen it in the pandemic. How do we push out trusted messaging around better sanitation around how virus is spread, about how we can do limiting and control of these in populations.

And maybe the third example that I feel is just so powerful, now that we have data about these hundreds of millions of health interactions that are happening around the world, how do we actually use AI and machine learning to take that information and empower governments to say, “We’re actually able to identify higher-risk populations for certain diseases.” What if a government could be empowered to actually provide intervention much earlier, to target the delivery of vaccines, to provide better nutritional counseling.

I share this with you and I know that’s a very broad set of discussions that I’ve tried to compress into a minute, but it’s just one example of how decisions that we’re making in philanthropy need to be informed by the capacity of the tools we have. And I think that’s the conversation we need to have as a sector is to make sure that we’re actually being informed.

Nick Tedesco: Absolutely. So, is it fair to say that technology and innovation are necessary at this moment in time for us to see some substantial and needed gains around social impact strategies?

Vilas Dhar: Absolutely yes. Fully agree with that. And I’ll even take it one step further, Nick. I had a chance earlier this week to speak with a group of former prime ministers and presidents of democratic countries around the world. And our conversation didn’t focus so much on what the tools allowed us to do today, but first on what the tools might allow us to do in five or ten years, and how that possibility should inform our fundamental conversation about basic things like rights to universal healthcare or rights to food.

Because for the first time, we have a path in front of us that says, “Technology might make universal access to healthcare not just an aspiration or a conviction about rights, but a real and fundamental possibility in the world.” That moment is right now for us to make those decisions.

Nick Tedesco: Well, I’m excited to explore further your strategies around this, particularly your Data and Society initiative. So, we’ll come back to that in a moment. But I want to take a look back very briefly and talk about your journey and what led you here. You’re an entrepreneur, you’ve had many ventures over your career and you are now at a foundation. I’d love to hear a little bit more about your professional experience and what led you to philanthropy and the McGovern Foundation.

Vilas Dhar: I’d be happy to. Thanks, Nick. So, I was very lucky. I grew up as a generation of… The first generation of a family that had moved to rural Illinois from rural India. And as I grew up in a small town, about two hours South of Chicago, there was one kind of shining moment of technological supremacy that was around us. The federal government had endowed a set of national super computing centers.

So, here I was with cornfields and soybeans out behind my house and just a few blocks down was one of the five centers of computing excellence in America. And so, in that place, I realized, one, just how powerfully technology could transform communities, just having this institution created a buzz, an availability for education, even as a young child for me to engage with tech and computers.

But there’s a flip side of that story, and I talk about this sometimes of, in the summers, I would leave the day-to-day of school with my Jansen backpack on and going on the school bus and all of that stuff. I would go visit my family in India, where things like running water or reliable electricity weren’t necessarily things that you just had it and could take for granted.

Now, in this context, I’d take back little pieces of tech, early Game Boys or whatever it was. And I’d sit down with my grandfather, who was a real social change leader in his own right. But came from a different era. And as I tried to show him how excited I was about tech, he’d ask one very basic question. He’d say, “This is cool. It’s fun. But how does it help people in their lives?” That’s something I’ve taken through my entire career.

As you mentioned, I’ve done a number of things in the private sector and started a few businesses. I’ve spent some time in academia, really trying to understand this transformation we’re in. But it became quite clear to me that if we’re not figuring out how tech helps make people’s lives better, we’re missing the point.

So, I’ve come to philanthropy through that lens to really think about not how we build institutions of public capital, but to really build institutions of public trust, that really take on this challenge of making sure our technical future is as bright as our human future.

Nick Tedesco: So, I’m hearing you say that philanthropy is a critical lever for social change. It is a platform that can truly, when harnessed correctly, informed by community, can really catalyze meaningful social change. So, why the McGovern Foundation? And what’s your vision for the foundation to be able to bring data and technology into the ecosystem of social impact?

Vilas Dhar: That’s a great question. And it’s a perfect confluence of a few different things. The first is an incredible donor who had a legacy that really focused on bringing technology to the people. Patrick McGovern was an international publisher, he spent much of the last half of the 20th century creating the primary magazines that we all learned about tech from, PC World, Macworld, building conferences, and also slightly more quietly was a real globalist. He was one of the very first people to open a venture in China when it opened up to Western interests. He worked in India and Vietnam.

That driving force through a lot of his work was the idea that technology would absolutely change the world, but only if we participated in a global conversation about what that technology should look like. So, in this foundation that he so very generously endowed, we try to live that value. It perfectly intersects with the conversation we just had about why exactly this matters so much.

So, what we’ve set out to do is build a 21st century institution that focuses on those core elements of foundations, grant making, certainly, and convening, but also builds in elements from what technology companies do so well, bringing scientists and engineers in house, and I’ll share a bit more about that with you, to actually say, “Let’s put not just our capital to work, but our aspirations, our capacities, and our ability to drive change.”

Nick Tedesco: I want to explore that a little bit further. Let’s talk about some of the remarkable changes that you’ve ushered in at the foundation so far. First, you’ve led a philanthropic merger, which is almost unheard of in our field. This merger prompted the launch of Data and Society, your new initiative to provide direct data services to the nonprofit sector. I’m interested to hear more about the merger with the Cloudera Foundation, which was a model of trust, collaboration and values alignment, and what the field can learn from you about the experiences with the merger.

Vilas Dhar: Well, you hit the nail on the head, Nick, with one keyword in that question, which is trust. Philanthropic mergers are something I’ve always been fascinated with. About ten years ago, I started a nonprofit, which I led through a very large merger as well. And in that process, I learned so much about the dynamics of the sector. In the private sector, mergers happen and they’re commonplace, they happen because we identify an opportunity to take the two different capacities of two different organizations and say, “Together they could have more impact.”

It’s something that in the philanthropic sector, we hold as a very core value around collaboration and around supporting nonprofits that work together in the field. And yet, as you mentioned, it’s very rare that foundations are able to come together and say, “Let’s actually acknowledge that together we could do more through a merger.”

Well, I think one of the things that has to undergird that conversation from a starting place is a matter of trust, because when you think about it, a philanthropic merger is certainly a merger of staffs and programs, of strategies and intent, but also, at its core, it’s a merger two discreet pools of money and two boards that have a strong sense of fiduciary responsibility over what they do. And the only way to really initiate a meaningful conversation is first to create a world of trust.

In our case, we got to know the Cloudera Foundation, which is a foundation that was endowed by a company that went public in the private sector, and had as a part of its core DNA the idea that technology could do more and well in the world. But before we ever got to talk about combining organizations, first, we had to really build trust both among the CEOs, then among the boards, to align on the fact that we had a shared vision of what was possible in the world.

And with that, we went through, unfortunately, a process that we had to build ourselves to think about what a merger would look like. It turns out there aren’t legal templates, there aren’t mechanisms already in place that are plug and play. As we went through it, we learned a few things, and I’ll share two quick lessons with you.

One is the idea that if you have a set of people that have common and shared intention, and have shared principles and values, many of the challenges that mergers have in the private sector, things like how do we connect culture? How do we make sure that people don’t want to leave just because we merged? Kind of just go away. It became an incredibly smooth process as we went through a merger, we incorporated the team from the Cloudera Foundation, we identified where parts of our operational backbone were particularly strong and kept those. We figured out where programs intersected.

And now, we’re only about six months through the merger, and it feels like it was years ago. We have one team that’s moving fast. So, that’s a very positive thing about philanthropy in particular is passion-led individuals, I think have the flexibility and the resilience to deal with the short-term bumps and really get right back to work.

But the flip side of it, and the second lesson I think is worth acknowledging is, it shouldn’t have been the case that we had to start from scratch. And now that we’re in a world where we validated this is possible, it is my real hope that we can share some of those structural bits, not even the learnings, but even the structural bits to anybody who wants to explore this. A foundation that has a very strong sense of purpose, but maybe doesn’t yet have the capital to realize their vision, and a foundation that has an incredible set of resources and is looking for that vision, there’s a real opportunity here to look through the sector and say, “How do we team up in ways that make us all better?” And in whatever way we can help with that, we’re definitely ready to step forward.

Nick Tedesco: Well, congratulations on the merger. And I think it’s worth noting that merger is one form of partnership. And I think we need to, as a sector, keep moving forward to explore how we can increase our partnership opportunities. So, I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about what you’re observing amongst your peers. Are you seeing a desire for more partnership formally and informally across foundation leaders? Are you seeing co-investment and collaboration opportunities? Anything that you’re observing?

Vilas Dhar: Yeah, well, I can speak to it from personal experience. As you noted early in the call, I’ve really only been in an executive capacity in a foundation for a little over a year. I’ve been a trustee of several foundations and my own family foundation work, but to be in an operating role, gives you a different and unique insight. And what I will tell you is, I have felt so warmly welcomed by the sector at large. I have found it so easy to find those circles of common passion and interest, and those other executives who are ready to form collaborative relationships. I think it’s a shining example of exactly why this sector is so ready for that kind of collaborative environment.

But I’ll also share with you the second part, which is because we are such a fragmented set of institutions in pursuit of a common goal, I don’t know that there’s enough really formal co-learning yet. And I’m still looking for them, and I’m very much in a learning mode. I’m always curious. So, I look forward to learning more about this with you as well. But even as we begin to think about some of these collaborations, it strikes me that it would be much easier if we had patterns and templates. If we had lessons learned and best practices. If we had mechanisms to store some of these learnings from experiences like the one we just talked about, and to imbue them in institutions that can play a bit of a role of that connector. I’d love to see more of that.

And the last thing I’ll say on this is, going back to my core message, there is so much happening in the private sector that it still feels like we in philanthropy are distanced from. That we learn about it from the media, or we learn about it because of targeted research. I’d love to see a world where we create a much more porous border between the two sectors, where we can both have talent moving between institutions, but also ideas and an understanding of where the emergent frontier is to inform our work.

Nick Tedesco: And what I’m hearing you say is, there needs to be a marketplace for ideas and opportunities. And we need to move away from the decentralized nature of sharing ideas and information and opportunities to partner. And we need to move into a place where those ideas and opportunities are readily shared amongst peers within the field. And that hopefully will promote more partnership, more collaboration formally and informally. Am I accurate in reflecting that back to you?

Vilas Dhar: Very eloquently said, and absolutely agreed with everything that you just mentioned.

Nick Tedesco: Let’s talk more about the Data and Society initiative. I’d love to hear about how it came to be and what the strategy is. I think it’s a bit of a mystery for many family philanthropies on how to focus on data and technology and integrate it into their work.

Vilas Dhar: So, we set out to address this opportunity through a few different lenses and with this set of core partners that I think are phenomenal. So, let me share with you a little bit of our structuring of the landscape, and we’ll talk about who some of those partners are. The first is we realize, in order to get to a place where we can really talk about AI and social good, we need to empower those actors at the front lines of social transformation with an understanding of data and AI.

So, we’ve developed a model around data maturity that helps an organization identify what its data assets are. And it’s a funny thing to say, because it sounds so technically complex, but often this is an engagement with a CEO or a program staff person to say, “You’ve been collecting data for 20 odd years in Excel spreadsheets or in your system, maybe for M&E purposes, and have been putting it once you’ve used it up on the shelf to gather dust. That’s an incredibly rich trove of understanding about this solution space in which you operate.” So, helping an organization start by identifying those and then taking them to a technical journey of understanding how to extract insight from it.

Now, we absolutely understand that nonprofits don’t have the capacity or interest maybe to hire the teams necessary and build out the products to do that all the time. And so, what we’ve done is instead to bring that into philanthropy and say, “As a part of our support, not only will we provide you grant funding, but we have a team in house of data scientists and engineers who are able to work with you to identify those assets, to build that environment and to deliver those insights back to you in a way that puts you on a path to data maturity.”

In pursuit of that, we’ve launched a second cohort of an accelerator program. We’re looking to have 12 to 15 organizations that focus on climate change, who could really use these data and AI assets and build them into their programs. And that work is incredibly ably led by Claudia Juech, who’s somebody who I think is well known in the world of philanthropy, was the CEO of the Cloudera Foundation. And now joins us at the McGovern Foundation as our VP of Data and Society, a thought partner for me.

So, that’s a very direct and applied way to advance this work of saying, “If nonprofits need to use these tools, let’s help them get there.” That’s a big part of our work. There’s a second element, which is really thinking about the longer term social institutions, the moral and ethical uses of AI, and there too, we continue to do what I think Rockefeller did so ably around the field of public health or the Ford Foundation around public interest law to really say, “How do we build an ecosystem of actors that are working responsibly around tech?”

Nick Tedesco: I’m really curious if you’re receiving inquiries from your peer philanthropists about how to assist them in their strategies and how to strengthen their nonprofits. Are you interested in expanding this model beyond the McGovern Foundation to help others grow their capacity, building support for their grantees?

Vilas Dhar: It’s a great question. And it is a core conviction of our work at the foundation that everything we do is a little bit of the open sandbox. So, we try to build pilots that are really extensible. We had the pleasure, I hosted with the World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab a meeting of 20 large foundation presidents to talk about these issues. Since that meeting, the amount of inbound interest has been incredible. We are very open to talking about this, to share what we’ve been doing, not because it’s the model for how the field should progress, but because it’s one among many, we’re always open to that and happy to chat about this work.

Nick Tedesco: I want to go back to something that we mentioned earlier, that technology and data is necessary to make strides and social impact. I’m hearing that this type of capacity building is essential, and I’d love to get your thoughts on how many nonprofit partners are in need of more sophisticated data and technology capacity. Is this something you consider to be lacking in traditional models?

Vilas Dhar: So, I will tell you, I think we are overwhelmed by interest in a moment where I think many, if not all, organizations are realizing that at least this step of data maturity is super important. But let me give you three very quick examples of where these tools are actually intersecting with the work of organizations.

Right here in the United States, as the pandemic took hold, we moved very quickly into a solidarity approach and decided to commit about $15 million across a few different program areas to direct COVID relief. But one of the areas that kept coming up over and over again was the fact that food banks across this country were scaling up to match an unmatched level of need. And it turned out that for many of these institutions, one of the great structural unlocks might be helping support them with the data infrastructure to better streamline their logistic supply chains. So, that they could identify what they knew were food sources that were available at farms or at industrial concerns, and be able to actually understand the logistics and inventory necessary to get them to their end consumer.

So, we engaged in multiple projects around this over the last year, that have led to a massive increase in the number of meals served. Now, you might not always say, when I’m thinking about AI, the first thing I’m thinking about is the delivery of meals in a very local context, but there’s a clear intersection there.

A second thing that has popped up over and over again, again in the food space, is the idea that subsistence farmers that are operating in a subset here, an African context, or a South Asian context, have pretty much operated on the basis of sometimes kind of local, even religious modes of thinking about weather and climate, of thinking of how we go to, let’s say, more ephemeral sources of comfort and guidance.

But now what we’ve seen is a shift to even on their mobile phones, the ability to access things like not just weather reports, but weather predictions, to guide how they plant, how they harvest, that help them figure out how they get the best price at market. And there are so many more examples that come.

And the last one I’ll give you very quickly is, we’re all familiar, maybe, with Google Translate, the fact that we can go online and translate from English to Spanish, to French, to German. Well, there are entire categories of languages, particularly of indigenous peoples around the world, that simply don’t enter into that commercial marketplace. So, an incredible project to go and say, “How do we apply these tools, but use a nonprofit as the structure that then captures these languages and brings them into public focus and makes them accessible to people around the world?” In doing so, protecting both the language, but the cultural stories that are told in those languages.

Nick Tedesco: The pandemic and focus on racial justice have really called philanthropy to put equity at the fore of our work. How does the McGovern Foundation think about equity, partnership and participatory grant making, particularly around AI and data science, where the nonprofit partner may not be as well verse as your team? So, how do you take an equitable approach?

Vilas Dhar: That’s a great question. Equity is such a powerful word and one that we probably use on a pretty regular basis, both as a word and a principle. So, two thoughts on this, the first is we are very much grounded in the idea that these tools that we’re talking about are somewhat agnostic to purpose. And what I mean by that is helping an organization understand how these tools cement and advance their own purpose is the core of our work. And in doing so, what it means is we are really significant partners perhaps on that equipping that capacity building, but we never step into, “This is how the work should proceed.” We absolutely acknowledge and realize that our partners know so much more about that than we do. So, it lends itself to a very nice collaborative approach.

But the second part I think is equity in the construct of technology isn’t just in who’s holding the tools that are available today, or who has access to them, but really is in who’s creating the tools that we are going to use as humanity for the future.

And there too, we’ve found an incredible upswelling of support from our nonprofit and social sector community, but also from private institutions to say, “Philanthropy holds a very unique position to be able to operate as a, let’s say, not uninterested, but disinterested convener.” To bring together groups that never would talk to each other and say, “You know what, we actually do have a common purpose here.”

So, we’ve been doing a lot of work around saying, “How do we bring tech companies and government regulators here in the US and in places around the world in concert and collaboration with those folks who really understand what circumstances on the ground look like?” What it means to be vulnerable in an environment where technology is empowering often national security and defense as the first priority, and we’re leaving behind all of this opportunity on the table. So, there again, I think an opportunity for many of our partners to step in with us and say, “Let’s build these conversations together.”

Nick Tedesco: We talked at the onset of the conversation about this moment of shift for the sector. What’s your call to action? What opportunity do you see for philanthropists to continue to make change?

Vilas Dhar: Opportunity is such a great word there. I think every single institution that we partner with, work with and have become from familiar with have such a capacity to direct the use of these technologies in ways that promote their core thesis, but also just create a better human future.

Now, to get there, there are probably a few steps and some work that we all have to do, to become familiar with the possibility of what exists today, to engage in some real deep thinking and partnership with our nonprofit organizations to say, “How do we make these tools useful for you?” And to say, “If we’re able to get to a point where we’re able to create really structural shifts in these challenges that these organizations face, what does philanthropy do to sustain and support those, to share best practices, to actually take those success stories and make them available to portfolios across borders and across constructs?”

I would never go so far as to say that this is the primary thing that foundations should be thinking about. But I think if it’s not firmly in the strategic landscape of both CEOs, but also a program staff and of operations folks across institutions, then there’s a possibility that we might miss a very great opportunity. And that’s not something that I think any of us look forward to. So, I think positive future ahead and really coming together to learn from each other to act in concert. And as Patrick McGovern often said, “Take on a let’s-try-it attitude just to see what’s possible.”

Nick Tedesco: Technology is a critical arrow in the quiver of philanthropy is what I’m taking away from this conversation. Vilas, thank you so much for your time. And we look forward to continuing to watch the strategy of the McGovern Foundation advance.

Vilas Dhar: Thank you, Nick. Absolutely my pleasure.