Journeys in giving

17 February 2020

7 minute read

We look at three individual’s journeys in giving: Alexandre Mars, Myriam Vaner Elst and Helen Bowcock.

Alexandre Mars

Nobody is born a giver...

Alexandre Mars

CEO and Founder EPIC

As an entrepreneur I’m using everything I learned in my first five start-ups – in my sixth,” says Alexandre Mars, Founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Epic Foundation (Epic), a non-profit start-up that fights to change the lives of disadvantaged youth worldwide.

The crucial difference between the first five start-ups and the sixth, of course, is that the former were businesses whereas the latter is an organisation whose efforts are focused around charity and philanthropy. Mars’ interest in charity started young. “Nobody is born a giver,” he says. “It’s education and experience. In my case it was my mother who was the driver. I grew up seeing somebody who helped everyone – helping people to study, helping the blind. In our house it was the norm.”

As one might expect from a disruptive tech entrepreneur (he’s previously backed many start-ups, including Spotify and Pinterest), Epic is not an ordinary charity. Rather it’s a ‘philanthropy middleman’ – an organisation which vets and selects charities and social enterprises that help children and young people. It then encourages individuals and businesses to donate to the organisations in its portfolio, provided they meet a number of rigorous criteria and are particularly impactful and effective.

Mars sees this approach as addressing three of the main barriers to giving: a lack of knowledge (about where to give), a lack of trust (that the money will be used effectively) and a lack of time (to do the research).

Whenever he talks to audiences, Mars asks them whether they give. Nearly everyone says ‘yes’. He then asks – do they think they give enough? The answer here is usually no and the reasons provided are typically that they don’t trust that the money will be well spent, that they don’t have the knowledge to ensure the money is spent effectively and that they don’t have the time to learn the ins and outs of charities or monitor what happens to their grants.

A Data-Driven Approach

With Epic, Mars set out to address these problems. He explains, “Epic evaluates charities annually across 45 data points ranging from effectiveness to leadership. After 7 months we whittle this number down to a handful of organisations who join the portfolio. Last year, for example, we reviewed about 4,000 applications and only selected 5. Today, we have 28 organisations in our portfolio across 11 countries.” Epic’s methodology is not just focused on selection.

It’s also about connecting specific donors to the causes and charitable organisations they care about. Moreover, using the kind of data analytics seen in tech start-ups, it monitors the chosen charities to ensure ongoing quality. Finally, it offers donors the opportunity to experience the work the charities are doing on the ground – either in person or via virtual reality.

The results so far have been impressive. “Over the last 3 years we’ve raised more than $19m and that’s helped half a million kids around the world,” says Mars. Epic also works with companies to help everyone give. “It’s not just for the rich and the c-suite. We’ve worked with Dior on payroll giving and 24% of employees now participate. Dior also matches what employees give.”

Harnessing The Power Of Purpose

There’s also an advocacy side. “We give a lot of talks. I recently did the opening speech for the B7 [Business] Summit (the business leaders’ side of the G7) in France. We shared the Epic vision and a lot of it is about changing mindsets. We need to work together and give collectively to solve the world’s problems.

As Darwin says: it’s not the strongest species that survive, but rather those that successfully adapt to their environment – and the same can be said for businesses. The companies that will attract the best people and have the most loyal customers are those that put purpose at the centre of their business. Giving is part of this.”

If this sounds like an emotional appeal, it is. For while Mars is an advocate of giving like an entrepreneur, he recognises that your heart has to be in it too. “Giving must be impactful. But it has to be joyful too. Smarter giving is where your philanthropy is both strategic and emotional.”

So is he optimistic about the future? Does he believe that we will adapt and give more to ensure all our futures?

“Of course there are still obstacles, and revolutions don’t happen overnight. I’m thinking about the inequality I witnessed the other day in the Bay Area [San Francisco], where you have so many millionaires and billionaires on one side, but at the same time a major homelessness crisis on the other.

 Some people haven’t yet realised the magnitude of the social problems we’re facing, and that we have the resources and tools to address them. It’s about changing mentalities, which takes time.”

But there’s reason to be hopeful, he adds, “I recently asked Berkeley students how many of them wanted to work in finance. None did, but 20% said they wanted to work in charities or social enterprises. There’s a whole generation coming of age now that thinks differently to how my generation [Gen-X] and my parents [Boomers] did. Greta Thunberg is a pretty fierce example. But she’s not the only one. These young people are fighting. They want something different. Purpose is their new currency.”

Myriam Vander Elst

People love raising money for, say, a bus to take children to school. But they don’t like giving money to pay the bus driver’s salary...

Myriam Vander Elst

MD for Europe, EPIC

Vander Elst is the managing director, Europe for Epic. Prior to joining the non-profit start-up, she worked for 15 years in the private sector as a communications and brand strategist.

Her greatest challenge at work is twofold, she says: not just getting people to give, but give smarter. When people donate without thinking about it strategically, they reduce the impact of their giving. To avoid this, she wants them to take a more considered approach.

An example of how people can be less strategic in their giving is the way they donate money for big-ticket tangible items. “People love raising money for, say, a bus to take children to school. But they don’t like giving money to pay the bus driver’s salary or bus maintenance or insurance so three years later the bus you bought is up on concrete blocks.”

Ms Vander Elst adds, “The very best way of giving is to give unrestricted grants that can be spent on things like the bus driver’s salary. This is why, at Epic, when an organisation joins our portfolio, we ensure them unrestricted financial support for at least three years.

This allows charities to plan strategically and better allocate their resources to help local communities. Basically, we want to help people give smarter.”

Fortunately, she adds, giving is becoming more professional, more global in outlook and more technologically enabled. The last of these, particularly, has improved transparency and allows people to choose charities which are more effective.

At Epic: “We identify outstanding charities for children and young adults and provide a label a bit like Standard & Poor’s. We allow people to follow the money and be confident in how their donations are being used.

Moreover, when people and companies give to Epic, 100% of their donations go directly to our portfolio organisations, as Alexandre Mars, the founder and CEO, covers the operating costs. It’s all about inspiring confidence to make giving a more painless, enjoyable and habitual act.

Helen Bowcock

How on earth do you become a philanthropist?

Helen Bowcock OBE

Co-founder of Hazelhurst Trust

When it comes to making a difference through smarter giving, Helen Bowcock – who co-founded the Hazelhurst Trust with her husband Matthew – learned that thinking local, acting local and harnessing the power of the arts could be a powerful force for change.

Helen Bowcock OBE, is what you might call a super-philanthropist. Over the last 20 years she’s combined her experience as an IT entrepreneur and doctor of sociology to great effect. Together with her husband Matthew, she’s a co-founder and trustee of the Hazelhurst Trust. Bowcock has also authored ground breaking research and supported local arts and education in the UK and Zambia. Alongside this, she’s taken on the role of High Sheriff of Surrey and chairs the board of the Kent, Surrey & Sussex Air Ambulance Trust.

As with many philanthropists, Helen Bowcock’s journey started when she found herself with far more money than she ever expected to have. “My early career was in IT, but on the business development and sales side, and then I co-founded a software company with my husband,” she explains. “Like a lot of start-ups, we literally founded it in a room in our house.”

The company merged and the combined entity listed on the stock exchange. This made the couple wealthy. “I was 42 – and I never expected to be in the financial position that I found myself in.” She was too young to retire. “The question was: ‘What do I do with the rest of my life now I no longer need to work?’”

The answer, she felt, was to donate some of it in a way that allowed the couple to use their skills and experience. However, she adds, how to do this was by no means obvious. “How on earth do you become a philanthropist?”

And so, as is common of most inexperienced donors, their first move was driven solely by personal passion, “My husband had grown up in Zambia, and we made a donation to an organisation working there.” However, she says, they decided that they didn’t really know what they were doing and where the money was going. Furthermore, giving abroad was difficult.

Bridging the Knowledge Gap

One in four donors interviewed for the Barriers to Giving report finds that this ‘not knowing’ can go from an initial leap of faith to become a real trust and accountability issue. There are many ways to bridge this knowledge gap. We’ve seen in digitally-focused examples like Epic Foundation (see page 18) and 360Giving – with their data-driven decision making approach – that technology can play a major role. In the case of Hazelhurst, Helen and Matthew sought first to see what was happening in their own backyard, “It wasn’t easy, so we decided to have a more local focus.”

Their home ground was Surrey. Bowcock cheerfully admits that Surrey is not an obvious place for charity – being part of the wealthy commuter belt that surrounds London. “I come from the north and a lot of people up there would think philanthropy in Surrey sounds like a joke.”

In fact, when she started researching for what would become the landmark report ‘Hidden Surrey’, she saw that Surrey’s high average incomes concealed genuine pockets of deprivation and that the county had some of the lowest per capita government spending in the country. “We soon realised that giving locally was something that really made sense.”

Finding the Focus

The Hazelhurst Trust was founded in 2002. It’s a supporter of local causes and aims to promote self-reliance in communities – with a strong but not exclusive focus on the arts.

As a privately-run philanthropic trust, it specialises in working with a wide variety of partners to help local communities that want to become more self-reliant and sustainable. It also supports research into philanthropy, communities and the social impact of the arts. The Trust has several partners, including initiatives as diverse as Surrey’s Watts Gallery and Baynard’s Zambia Trust.

“One thing we concluded early on was that we shouldn’t have a scattergun approach to funding. We prefer to give more over longer to organisations we believe in – say £20,000 a year over three years.” Bowcock’s husband Matthew, also an authority on philanthropy, was commissioned by the former Secretary for Culture Media and Sport to write a report on the future of philanthropy for the arts. His report, ‘Digital Giving in the Arts’, reflected the ethos we see manifest in Hazelhurst’s community collaboration – that anyone and everyone can, in some way, become a philanthropist.

Before setting up, the Trust researched local charities to get a clear map of the potential partners. “We looked in the area and identified organisations that were making the greatest impact.” One of these was the Watts Gallery Trust, who have subsequently received the largest share of their charitable giving over the years.

“They do amazing outreach and have a real social impact. They take arts programmes into prisons and to marginalised people. We give them a core grant which pays for things like staff costs.”

Although 75% of potential donors interviewed for the Barriers to Giving report consider that it’s the state’s job to support causes, the Bowcocks disagree. For them, it’s not about simply donating money, but more the giving of time, expertise and long-term commitment. In short, being an active member of the community.

This is something that comes up frequently in philanthropic research – that giving and contributing time and expertise in the medium to long term is more effective than one-off donations, not least because it means charities can plan ahead.

Thinking Local, Acting Local

At a time when the eyes of the world are often on global problems – disaster relief, conflict relief, climate change and political unrest – Bowcock is keenly aware that local wellbeing can get overlooked, with arts and education often taking the greatest hit. She sees the arts as an essential way of helping isolated and vulnerable people who would otherwise struggle to be part of society.

“One example is an 18-year-old girl who hadn’t been to school for two years and wouldn’t leave the house. Her parents reached out to us and gained the support they needed to help her. She’s now applying for distance learning programmes.”

In combination with the arts, Bowcock, a member of the University of Surrey’s Advancement Committee, sees education as the mainstay of community regeneration. Hazelhurst has given a grant to Surrey University to widen participation criteria and funded work with unemployed women and with primary schools.

The New Philanthropists

Over the past few years, she believes that philanthropy has changed – and improved. “It’s better understood and more widespread. You hear the word being used more widely and jobs are being advertised. You also see more philanthropy from newly created wealth.”

“There’s now a whole cohort of people who have made money as entrepreneurs or in the City. They often still have quite a lot of their working lives ahead of them and this is changing the way they give.”

And it’s working. The Bowcocks represent a growing class of entrepreneurial philanthropists, donors who put their funds to work alongside using their unique skills to ensure that their investments achieve returns on investment in terms of measurable charitable impact.

“The term ‘disruptive philanthropy’ has entered the lexicon and you see a lot from tech entrepreneurs who’ve turned industries upside down. The availability of data is changing the way we give too. So much more information about impact is available and there’s a real opportunity to develop hard evidence that helps people know they’re getting a return.” 

The Call for Collaboration

In a world where charities share the same evolutionary environment as businesses, it’s survival of the fittest. And the fittest are those that recognise this new generation of highly motivated, highly competent philanthropists, and work in collaboration with them to disrupt their own preconceptions about what being a charity means in the 21st century.

Bowcock’s vision for philanthropy is nothing if not collaborative. It can mean a commitment to fundraising or a commitment in terms of time. “I want to look at rethinking fundraising models and also look at the communities you have around charities and that feeling of belonging they create.”

She’s also developing philanthropy in the more generally accepted sense. In 2016, the Trust commissioned a report called More and Better Giving. One result that came out of it is a project called the Beacon Collaborative – co-founded by Helen’s husband Matthew Bowcock – whose goals include the normalisation of philanthropy, cooperation and coordination between philanthropic organisations, and UK philanthropists increasing their giving by an extra £2bn a year.

It should be said that normalisation is by no means a return to giving without thinking. Rather, it’s giving potential donors and charities the tools and information they need to give or receive more effectively.

Considering that outside the US, three-quarters of multimillionaires feel that they aren’t able to make an impact philanthropically, organisations such as Beacon are fundamental. Its role is not only to shift perception, but also to facilitate giving.

“A lot of people, especially in the south-east, for example, can give more,” says Bowcock.

Bowcock sees advisors like Beacon and umbrella trusts such as Hazelhurst, supported by the new cohort of innovative and tech-enabled philanthropists, as drivers behind a resurgence in philanthropy and “the idea that it’s a contemporary thing, not some dusty Victorian museum piece.” Looking ahead, she adds: “It’s not just about being rich – giving meaningfully is for everyone.

If I had to offer one piece of advice to someone starting on their own contemporary philanthropic journey, it would be to find a cause that you feel a deep personal commitment to. Interrogate your values and find something that really matters to you.

Smarter Giving


Barriers to Giving

A ‘lack of faith’ between wealthy individuals and charities is a key obstacle to giving in the UK, our latest report Barriers to Giving has found. The UK’s philanthropic donations amount to just 0.5% of national GDP, compared with 2.1% in the US. This lack of major donors is having a considerable impact on UK charitable funding.


The future of giving is Smarter Giving

There is no doubt that philanthropy is a powerful force, transforming lives on both sides of the giving equation. But many misunderstandings and barriers exist around the subject, deterring potential givers from donating money and time to deserving causes.

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