Meheen Rangoonwala 

Meheen is the Global Programme Manager for the Rangoonwala Foundation, which supports the empowerment of communities in the UK, India and Pakistan by engaging in social development initiatives directed at long-term sustainability and self-reliance. The Family Foundation was founded by her grandfather, Mohamed Aly Rangoonwala, in the 1960s and Meheen joined as a Director in 2009.  

1. How does the Rangoonwala Foundation operate and what causes do you support? 

We work through three trusts in India, Pakistan and the UK in the areas of livelihoods (which includes education), health (which includes disability), community empowerment and the environment. We are an implementation organisation, so we run a lot of our own projects and programmes in our core countries, as well as a grant making foundation which funds projects around the world. 

In Pakistan, we work in vocational training in the education field, we have a school, health services, and a big arts and culture programme. We also make grants to local institutions including hospitals, schools, and universities, and respond to disaster relief. In India, we do a lot of community-based activities and have eight community centres in the slums of Mumbai. The dream would be to have several hundred of them. We also have education and health services. In the UK, we are mainly a grant making organisation but there are also a couple of projects which I run here including MAITS, an international disability charity which I set up about 14 years ago, and ASAP (Art South Asia Project), which promotes South Asian art.  

2. How do you identify projects to implement or organisations to support? 

It’s usually quite organic. For example, at MAITS, the international disability charity, we work with other organisations around the world in less economically resourced countries to provide training. This was set up because we had a good relationship with a special needs school called Whitefield in East London, and some of the teachers were interested in visiting our projects in India and Pakistan. We started sending people from the UK to run short training programmes, but as that evolved, our experience grew and we created our own programme. Then, we thought the Rangoonwala Foundation doesn’t need to be the only people who run and fund it, let’s set it up as its own registered charity so that other people can get involved as well. 

Similarly, for the sports programme in Pakistan, we worked with an organisation in the UK called Youth Sport International. They came to us for a grant, and we thought, we really like this, and it could work well in Pakistan where we’ve got all these great links to local schools who need training. So, we took that model to Pakistan and ran a whole bunch of pilots for a few years and now, we’re working with 300 schools across Pakistan. 

3. Has there been a specific moment or experience that catalysed your interest in making a positive impact on society? 

I grew up with it very much part of my daily life because we are a family foundation. Every time we went back to Pakistan, we would visit the Community centre that we have there. It was a family thing and still is. We’re all involved, and it was a part of our identity. I think that was really important. 

Then I studied Geography at LSE and there were a lot of development modules within that. I didn’t think much of it because when I left university, I went into banking because that was what was expected at the time. Then when I decided I wanted to leave banking after 3-4 years and come into the family business, I just picked up it up. I wasn’t planning to get into the foundation full time, but I just fell into it and realised what I had learned at university all connected really well. 

4. How do you leverage your business acumen for your philanthropic work? 

My dad is a businessman and entrepreneur so everything we do is influenced by numbers. It’s almost like I have to put forward a business case to him. He’s always using the term ‘am I getting right bang for my buck?’ My trustees are also all businessmen, so we talk a lot about beneficiary numbers. It can be a bit challenging because for me it’s not always about numbers of people, sometimes it’s about equality, and I do have to make that point. But it does help to think like a business.  

5. Do you have a strategy to measure long term impact? 

It’s currently in development. I’ve put together a framework to gather data and see trends. We have about four years’ worth of data now and we’re starting to see trends but it’s something I’m continuing to work on. In the past, when the trustees have asked for a report for the foundation it was impossible because everyone was measuring different things and so you couldn’t sensibly bring all the information together. But it should be easier by the end of this year when I have 5 years’ worth of data. 

6. Is innovation important in philanthropy? 

Absolutely. We love pilot projects and proving concepts and innovation. In fact, we’ve recently completed our first impact investment through a fund called Menterra in India which is really exciting. 

 

7. What lessons have you learned in philanthropy that might be helpful to others? 

I think that the key is getting the right people in to run projects. We have lots of separate projects with different people leading different parts. Managing all that can be quite challenging. You need to think what will be the most effective way of managing that. It’s easy to think you have to reinvent the wheel all the time, but you don’t. If you find the right person to run your project, it makes all the difference. 

8. Do you work in collaboration with other foundations of philanthropists? 

We don’t do enough, but we’re trying to change that. I get approached all the time for giving circles and joint philanthropic ventures, which we have never done, but will now seriously consider. For a long time, nobody has known much about us because we have grown organically, but collaborating with others is something that we’re quite aware that we need to do more of now. I’m thinking of joining UNICEF’s next gen platform. 

9. Looking ahead, what are your key aspirations in terms of your philanthropic work? 

I’d like to focus on MAITS, the community centres in India and the youth sports project in Pakistan. I really want to solidify what we’re doing and keep going with our grant giving instead of taking on lots of new projects. I also hope to get involved in more diverse investments like Menterra. I love the idea of impact investing; we’re so used to just making grants it’s really exciting to think that with impact investments that you could get a return. 

10. How do you see that at the philanthropic landscape changing over the next decade? 

I think that the landscape is becoming more trust based and more generalised. Our foundation has traditionally been quite specific in its grant giving – finding a specific project and knowing every budget line. But I can see things becoming more flexible with giving and think it’s a great way to go.  

I also think people’s priorities are changing. Recently people have put a lot of money into the climate emergency, COVID and the cost-of-living crisis, not to mention the all the natural disasters. Funds are being diverted into so many places that I think everyone is finding it difficult to raise money. The work that we do with MAITS is so important but so is everything else. It’s difficult for people to decide what to prioritise because there’s so many things that need support. 

Quick fire round 

Favourite charity? Indus in Pakistan (offers free quality healthcare across Pakistan to anyone who needs it, without discrimination). 

Favourite philanthropist or Foundation? Garfield Weston Foundation and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. 

Favourite philanthropic initiative? MAITS (international disability charity whose mission is to improve the lives of some of the world’s poorest people living with disabilities). 

Key traits that are vital to successful philanthropy? The combination of having a big heart with a little bit of business acumen.