ws logo Saturday, 20 July 2024

Ishk Tolaram’s Nanwani and Aswani: “Effective collaboration will deliver value over the long term”

5 min read

By Prachi Jadhav

Ishk Tolaram Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Tolaram Group, aims to empower children and facilitate learning through inquiry. The foundation partners with organisations to implement their in-house programmes and through grants to amplify the scalable impact.

Mohan Vaswani established the Ishk Tolaram Foundation in 2016 with the vision to enhance the quality of living of underserved individuals and to continue the Tolaram family’s 100-year history of philanthropy. Physician Seth Tolaram dedicated his life to treating underserved patients, and this core value of serving the underprivileged was passed on to the next generations of the family.

The Tolaram family operates the Tolaram business group, a 73-year-old business with operations in Asia, Africa and Europe, as well as a multi-family office, Maitri Asset Management. In 2016, Tolaram restructured from a shareholding company to a family trust. Ishk Tolaram Foundation is a 25% beneficiary of the trust.

The Tolaram family uses a three-pronged approach to strategic philanthropy, first, design quality programmes to address pressing issues; second, partner with existing credible organisations through grants to amplify their scalable impact; and third, ensure responsible investing for their individual investments.

They run an early childhood education programme in Indonesia, community healthcare and skills training and entrepreneurship for the local youth in Nigeria, and have recently begun working in education for children and skills training for vulnerable individuals in Singapore.

Mimu Nanwani, third generation family member and Indonesia programme director, and Sandhya Aswani, Singapore and Estonia programme director, share their foundation’s work in Indonesia and Singapore, how the focus areas are tied to their founder’s vision and explain what it means to be impact-driven in this conversation.

“The world’s complex issues cannot be addressed by a single individual or organisation. To make a big vision actionable, different stakeholders across systems need to be mobilised,” Aswani emphasised.

The following key points were discussed:

  • Ishk Tolaram Foundation’s programmes are evidence-based and human-centric
  • Success relies on effective collaboration between different stakeholders
  • Collaborative philanthropy is an emerging trend in Asia that can drive large-scale impact


Prachi Jadhav (PJ): Could you tell us about the foundation’s early childhood education project in Indonesia? There is significant evidence to show that quality early childhood education has an impact on the child’s overall personal development. So, what is the overall goal of your project? Who are the stakeholders involved?

Programmes are evidence-based and human-centric

Mimu Nanwani (MN): Ishk Peduli Anak Indonesia (IPAI) supports interventions to improve the quality of early childhood education and development (ECED) in Indonesia so that children are better equipped for further schooling and develop to their full potential. This intervention is building the capacity of teachers and school leaders to apply positive ECED practices at school. IPAI partners with local governments and ECED associations to provide a holistic training programme that enables individuals, especially those without an ECED background, to become qualified and competent teaching assistants.

PJ: Under IPAI, your foundation has introduced a new pedagogy for training teachers that is different from the traditional way of teaching. Could you share about the play-based pedagogy and how it addresses the existing gaps in traditional form of learning?

MN: Traditional education systems focus on a child’s achievement in areas that are quantifiable: reading, writing and numeracy. As such, parents also expect teachers to focus on these and show tangible progress. Our teacher training programme, however, is centred on learning through inquiry and play. Beyond literacy and numeracy-based outcomes, this form of learning enhances social, emotional, physical and cognitive skills. Here, children take responsibility for their learning journey, while teachers facilitate it by encouraging them to ask questions and use evidence-based reasoning to answer them. Play enables children to learn and grow through experience, discovery and deep physical, mental and social engagement. Although research has found that play contributes to holistic skill development and future success in a knowledge-driven world, it has yet to be seen as a form of learning by many. Shifting mindsets is, therefore, a challenge. We work on this by ensuring different stakeholders understand its impact on our children and as part of their training, teachers also take the lead on this as they engage parents.

Success relies on effective collaboration between different stakeholders

PJ: How many teachers are currently trained in this pedagogy? The Indonesian government has also been taking steps to improve their educational outcomes. How does IPAI complement the Indonesian government’s professional development programme Diklat Berjenjang?

MN: Since 2018, 577 teachers across four cities in Indonesia have been certified as competent teaching assistants after completing level one, Diklat Dasar, through physical or online training. As of October 2021, an additional 778 teachers are currently in training.

Over 48 hours of theory and 300 hours of application, teachers are trained in child-centred, play-based pedagogy, which has proved to develop critical cognitive and non-cognitive skills and improve the holistic wellbeing of children. After completing their certification, teachers continue their professional development by engaging in training opportunities, peer networks and knowledge sharing.

Our teacher training programme is an extension of Diklat Berjenjang, the Indonesian government’s professional development program aimed at improving teachers’ competencies in early childhood education and increasing the number of qualified teachers at ECED centres. Our programme follows the national curriculum and the certification is endorsed by the federal government.

PJ: You have identified parents as a key stakeholder in enhancing learning outcomes of children. It is an opportunity cost for parents from low-income families to invest in school activities. How do you then engage with the local community and garner their trust to implement this new pedagogy?

MN: The programme’s success relies on effective collaboration between different stakeholders. Beyond working with our training vendor to train teachers, we work with school leaders to support teachers in applying their training to their classrooms. We also work with local governments to certify teachers who have completed their training, facilitate continuous professional development for them and ultimately, ensure the programme and its values sustain in the long term. Next year, we aim to train parents on positive ECED practices so children learn these at home as well. Aligning diverse stakeholders and getting buy-in on the different elements of our programme is a journey, but we make sure to bring them along with us through continuous engagement and dialogue.

PJ: What was the impact of COVID on the existing programme? How did you adapt to online learning model during the pandemic? What were some of the challenges?

MN: With the COVID pandemic halting in-person gatherings, we had to rethink our physical training format. We worked with our training vendor, the ECED associations and local governments to design an online training programme that preserved the depth and the interactive element of the original format as much as possible, while remaining relevant to home-based learning. We introduced an orientation to support digital access and paired teachers with trained mentors to enhance peer support during this time. Although we have held around seven online training sessions to date, we are continuously improving and adapting to feedback.

Collaborative philanthropy can drive large-scale impact

PJ: Collaborative philanthropy is an emerging trend in Asia. With a growing and diversifying philanthropic environment, cross-sector, multi-stakeholder collaboration at scale is becoming more viable in the region. As a result, a number of innovative philanthropic collaboratives have surfaced in recent years, for example in Singapore, Hong Kong and India. What are your motivations for institutionalising family philanthropy in Singapore?

Sandhya Aswani (SA): With Tolaram’s business headquarters and members of the Tolaram family calling Singapore home for decades, we were familiar with the level of transparency and accountability that institutions here are held to. As a relatively new philanthropic organisation, investing in strong governance helps us be more effective and supports our credibility in other geographies. Institutionalising the family’s philanthropy in Singapore also enabled us to give back to a country that we have been a part of for years (similar to other geographies) in a way that was meaningful and strategic. While Singapore is a relatively affluent nation, there are needs to be addressed here as well. Although the government takes the lead in many areas, it is also up to the private sector to support and catalyse efforts to make this an inclusive society where everyone can thrive, and that is where we lend ourselves.

PJ: Other than supporting specific projects, how is Ishk Tolaram Foundation expanding its philanthropy work in Singapore?

SA: Currently, our work in Singapore focuses on providing grants to scale the impact of programmes that provide access to quality education and skills training to underserved individuals. These programmes are run by other socially purposed organisations. Unlike a traditional funder-grantee relationship, we embark on a journey with these organisations in the long-term to co-create solutions, explore avenues beyond funding and enhance awareness around the core issue. In addition to this, we are exploring how we can apply our capital more effectively to create impact and are learning about tools like social finance and impact investing. We are still early in this journey but our long-term goal is to have all our assets aligned with our ethos in shaping the world we want to live in.

PJ: How do you see collaborative philanthropy bringing about systemic change in the region and the role of the next generation of philanthropists in boosting this?

SA: The world’s complex issues cannot be addressed by a single individual or organisation. To make a big vision, universal healthcare for example, actionable, different stakeholders across systems need to be mobilised. These include philanthropic, social change, academic, financial, and policymaking institutions alongside civil society. Collaborative philanthropy brings philanthropic individuals and other organisations, with their resources, expertise and networks, around one shared vision. This, in turn, can help unlock access to actors, private and public, and vehicles, like advocacy, investment and policy, that are critical to driving large-scale impact.

Keywords: Positive Impact, Play-based Learning, Pedagogy, Philanthropy, Underserved, Family Offices, Sustainable Business, Responsible Investing, Family Trust, Foundation, Teacher Training, Social Change, Policymaking, Civil Society
Institution: Ishk Tolaram Foundation, Tolaram Group, Maitri Asset Management
Region: Indonesia, Estonia, Africa, Asia, Europe, Singapore
People: Mimu Aswani, Sandhya Aswani, Mohan Vaswani, Seth Tolaram
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