How I Get It Done: Meera Gandhi, Founder of the Giving Back Foundation

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Photo: Rebecca Clarke

Meera Gandhi is the founder of the Giving Back Foundation, a charitable organization she started six years ago with the intent of using her family’s wealth to give back to those who need it most. She has a particular interest in giving to women’s causes. She is divorced from Vikram Gandhi, the former vice-chairman of Credit Suisse, and has three children, ages 19, 24, and 27. She grew up in India and lives in New York in a townhouse formerly owned by Eleanor Roosevelt. Her foundation gives money to dozens of organizations worldwide, all of which she is in charge of signing off on, so she receives as many as 500 email requests for donations a day. She practices yoga and meditation daily. Here is how she gets it all done: 

On realizing she wasn’t happy: 
It was a transformational moment in 2009 when my family and I were living in Hong Kong. I had gone down to the harbor-side shopping place. I bought a pair of shoes and some makeup and some flowers for the house. I drove up in my six-series BMW with my driver, and I was dropped off at our villa with a view that was unbelievable. I climbed up to my bedroom, which was on the fourth floor, put my shopping down, and I looked out, went out onto my terrace with this beautiful view of the harbor, and I just started crying. I felt so empty. I cried for three hours, and when my husband came home, he asked me what I was crying about, and I said, “I feel I’m not doing enough.” He told me it was time to start a foundation. In two weeks, we went to New York to set it up. Sure, I had been giving back before then — writing checks to organizations all over the place — but I wanted to put my life and time into it.

We put together a mission, which I’ve revised over the years, and put millions in as a family foundation, and that was really the beginning. It was very clear to me what I needed to do.

On what an average day looks like:
We usually try to overachieve every day, though we are trying to be better at finishing at three. I will wake up in the morning and I literally say to myself every day, “I am so lucky to be connected to this beautiful planet by my breath.” I wake up and say this every morning. I wake up usually by seven. I do my own meditation, which is a couple of asanas and a lot of breathing. At the end of the breathing, I do these things where I hold the energy in and I just sit quietly for five minutes and let myself go blank. I used to jump right out of bed and look at my emails, but I don’t do that anymore. By the time I get to look at emails, I’m doing it in a more composed way. I look at my text messages, WhatsApp, and email. I like to write down what I’m going to do. Today I had yoga. I do some home exercise every single day. My team gets in around ten, but first I always look at what it is they have to do. Right now we’re just finishing up from this event, so we’re doing a newsletter from the fundraiser.

I have a home office and we have a foundation office in the basement. It used to be in the Helmsley Towers, but we shut it down because we felt like we were wasting foundation money. No one wanted to go there, especially in winter. This is so much more manageable. If we do meetings, we usually do them upstairs. Then we have usually a bunch of meetings, depending on which charities want to work with us, we’ll schedule those meetings. I feel like we have so many demands, it’s mostly people who reach out to us. We really try to do meetings here so we don’t waste time, because minute to minute it feels like we’re running a country.

On how she decides where to focus her energies at work:
We have three levels of work: One is maintaining the projects we’re doing, the second is fundraising — which is only a small part because most of the money has been funded by me. A big portion is managing the projects and sending out newsletters, connecting people. And the third level is looking for future projects, weeding through the 400 to 500 emails we get a day.

Some organizations directly ask us for money, and if we can do it, we do it. And if we can’t, we suggest what we can. Some people ask us in July for something in August, but we tell them we have to move it for next year. In the early years, I had become a check-writing machine. So now we try to specify to people that we want to be involved in the journey. We want to serve and have a direct impact. I think it’s working really well.

On forcing herself to forget about guilt and stress:
I get stressed out, absolutely! The way to manage stress is to take a deep breath. I literally take that breath in and I say, “It’s going to be fine.” Sometimes I’m like, “Oh my god, I’m making so many decisions for so many people. I’m at the top and my decisions affect so many people.” I wonder, Am I doing the right thing? Am I leading people in the right way? But I take a deep breath. And I think if I am doing it for the greater good, usually I’m doing the right thing. Intentions have to be pure and clear. If people hear the truth, they don’t mind.

Stress and guilt are two of the most non-serving emotional states to be in. They don’t help us. Guilt is a completely societal norm. It’s been taught to us by society. Guilt should not exist. If you’ve done something, you cannot undo it.

On learning to be a good leader:
I always tell people who work for me that I would never ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. If I wouldn’t take out a garbage bag myself, then I wouldn’t ask anyone else to do it. That’s fundamental to good leadership.

On what it’s like to live in Eleanor Roosevelt’s old home:
When I moved in, I didn’t realize that the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt was such an important piece of American history. I learned a lot about the Roosevelts while living here. I had to share it with other charities, making sure this is a place where foundations and organizations feel they can further their journeys. It’s about sharing the legacy, and if an organization can have a fundraiser or a meeting here, it should be a place for that. That’s why when so many magazines write socialite, I get so angry. It doesn’t mean anything! The word philanthropist is dying a natural death. It’s now become more about being a global citizen and being a global activist.