Coutts Hero Image

Shalni Arora - Million Pound Donors Report 2017

“Change does not happen if you don’t engage in effective communication and policy work”.

3 min read



Shalni Arora is the Chief Executive Officer and founder of Savannah Wisdom, an independent foundation which partners with charities and not for profit organisations with game changing initiatives in areas such as legal rights, child protection, corruption and peace and security.

Through Savannah Wisdom, Shalni focuses on structural change, social justice and “disruptive philanthropy”. She talks about her determination to tackle corruption in global pharmaceutical and healthcare industries, her support for women and girls in India and why it’s important to take your time when starting philanthropy.


How did your philanthropy begin?

I sold the biotechnology business I founded in 2009 and felt that, while that was a satisfying achievement, there was still more to do. So I decided to study for a Masters in International Development and, through that experience, realised that what I wanted to do was set up a charitable foundation. The kind of philanthropy we [my husband Simon and I] decided to engage with was driven by the learning from that Masters and informed by our own careers – around structural change, social justice and ‘disruptive philanthropy’.

How broad is your involvement in philanthropy?

Savannah Wisdom is our private independent family foundation. I choose to partner with organisations in our areas of interest, which sometimes involves giving time to take a strategic role in the direction of a partner’s work or sitting on the board as a trustee. It’s important for me to be involved with the decisions and direction of the work we are funding. Also, the business is our family founded [discount retailer] B&M Retail Plc and they do a substantial amount of charitable giving through the B&M Community Fund. My husband and I are passionate about making sure the money goes to the right causes in the communities our stores serve.

Is there a distinction between the corporate philanthropy and your private philanthropy? 

There is more in common than is different, although the B&M Community Fund is very UK centric and Savannah Wisdom usually takes an international focus and has the independence to take more risks. What they have in common is that they fund grass roots organisations and don’t shy away from core funding.


What is the approach Savannah Wisdom takes in creating change?

It is important to take time to study a landscape, whether mapping the systems or understanding a social movement. We identify how we can have an impact, and how our intervention will lead to a change. It is important to identify the partners needed and which stakeholders to engage from the beginning - and understand that change does not happen if you don’t engage in effective communication and policy work. We like to challenge structural systems, challenge ideas and question previous practices. Changing mind sets takes time – you have to meet with organisations and people and take an entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy. You have to sit back and think about why many of the challenges the world faces are still the same now as they were ten, twenty or thirty years ago.


“You have to sit back and think about why many of the challenges the world faces are still the same now as they were ten, twenty or thirty years ago”
Shalni Arora, CEO and Founder of Savannah Wisdom

Are there any particular grants Savannah Wisdom has made to illustrate the work you have been doing?

It struck me that after so much effort we are still trying to achieve universal health coverage and meet the basic healthcare needs of so many of the world’s population. Given the amount of money spent on healthcare and aid, there must be an issue in our delivery method or policy. Savannah Wisdom mapped healthcare systems and identified an issue around wastage, inefficiencies, fraud and corruption. We piloted a project with Transparency International, which has grown into a global programme looking at corruption in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry. I am so proud of how this initiative has developed. The programme, which I continue to steer, is working in Sub Saharan Africa looking at strengthening health systems and strengthening whistle-blowing programmes where bribery and corruption have been identified. We are about to receive a significant grant to expand further and look at procurement, contracting and tender practices within government health ministries. To have been able to convince other stakeholders and organisations to join us on this journey has been very rewarding.

We also support a lot of organisations in India that are involved in legal work. We find champions, including lawyers who are willing to take on cases that are either in the public interest, including litigation, or that support vulnerable young girls and women with cases that nobody else will take on, usually concerned with domestic violence or sexual abuse. Our grants here are usually core funding for inspiring, hard working lawyers and their organisations who give their time and dedication to strengthen the legal system so it can be accessed by the most vulnerable and poor in society. Setting precedents through case material and public interest litigation has a ripple effect and over time will change mind sets and hopefully the structure, within communities and the system.

In addition to your husband’s involvement, are other family members involved in your philanthropy in any way?

We have two teenage girls who listen to their father talking about the business and growth around the dinner table, and to me about some of the issues that our communities and the world face. So there is always a very interesting dynamic around the table. They are too young to be involved at this stage, but as the next generation I know they will be more socially conscious and hopefully keen to engage with Savannah Wisdom’s work.

What benefits does philanthropy bring to you personally?

When I am in the field, I am at my most peaceful. When I give my time constructively, I feel really rewarded. When I meet incredible people, I feel inspired. I always say giving is selfish because it makes you feel good and helps you sleep well at night.

What expectations do you have of the organisations you work with?

I’ve had to learn to tone down my expectations. I have realised that having relationships and talking to people is more important than producing glossy brochures or impact reports. I do expect people to be honest about the impact they have been able to achieve with the money they have been given and to be honest about deadlines and timelines as well. Having a relationship and rapport with the organisations we support means we can fix things. Many of the grants we give may not achieve short term, measurable impact, and you have to be able to take a more holistic approach sometimes and be patient.

“When I give my time constructively, I feel really rewarded. When I meet incredible people, I feel inspired”
Shalni Arora, CEO and Founder of Savannah Wisdom

What have been you key lessons learned?

There are many wonderful, well meaning people who work at the grassroots and do fantastic work helping people, but they aren’t always the same people that are also good at monitoring budgets, delivering strategy or giving presentations - and you can’t expect them to be.

The other thing you have to be very good at is spotting whether organisations really want to do themselves out of a job. Those that are looking to achieve real systemic change should be, rather than empire building.

What kind of advice would you give to someone who is embarking on their philanthropy journey?

It’s the journey that matters and not the destination so enjoy the process. Take your time and work out how you are going to make your grain of sand count. There is so much out there that you can do, but do your research and become knowledgeable in the area you want to focus on. Find partners and collaborators and networks that can help you on your journey and plan to be in it for the long game.

What has been the key development in philanthropy over the past ten years that has excited or concerned you most?

Looking back, I think people are getting a bit more wary about putting money to the same causes and not seeing progress. So I think people are becoming a bit more cynical and looking for alternative ways to give. I also see greater engagement from young people when it comes to philanthropy – they are more aware about the injustices in the world. They have a voice and they use it through social media. If you want to run a petition or want to get some momentum behind a movement, using social media and engaging with a wider and younger audience is a fantastic opportunity.

What do you think the next ten years hold for philanthropy?

It will be interesting to see the next generation become philanthropists. They may not all have private foundations to give grants to charity, but what will be different will be the way that they run their lives. For example they will be looking to work for conscious companies that have an ethical code. That in of itself will put pressure on business and government behaviour. So there will be a blending of philanthropic objectives with lifestyle choices.

Discover more about Savannah Wisdom Here

About Coutts Institute

We understand that wealth means more than money. The Coutts Institute focuses on the governance of wealth - helping family businesses succeed, helping clients fulfil ambitions for their philanthropy, and preparing the next generation for inheritance.

Discover More About Coutts Institute