Alexandre Mars founded and sold a string of start-ups before dedicating himself to philanthropy. Now he is applying his tech savvy and entrepreneurial oomph to energising a new generation of givers.
French serial entrepreneur Alexandre Mars launched several successful startups in the tech and mobile space before selling them on. Now 41 and New York-based, Mars is bringing his entrepreneurial and tech-savvy drive to Epic Foundation, a non-profit that aims to attract a new generation of philanthropists by pre-selecting a portfolio of high-impact NGOs and social enterprises around the world working with children and young people. The foundation has also created tracking tools, keeping donors up to speed with the impact and effectiveness of their giving.
You are entrepreneurial by nature or instinct I guess, how important are those skills and instinct in philanthropy? Or your particular brand of philanthropy anyway?
I started Epic very much the same way I began my previous startups, using an entrepreneurial approach. You start off with an issue or problem and you examine opportunities for innovation. Next, you do your market research and ask the right questions. Finally, you test your assumptions.
So this is a disruptive model? The established way of doing things wasn’t working and there were ways to upset that and shake things up a bit?
Absolutely. We learned that people weren’t giving for a few reasons, but it wasn’t a question of wealth. Most people want to do more and they want to help, but make the choice not to. When I asked them what held them back, most shared the same responses. “We don’t know where to start, what organisations are doing with our money.” “I don’t have the time.” “I don’t have the knowledge.”
On a deeper level, they were asking for more options and more transparency. They wanted to understand where their money was going and, more importantly, how was it making an impact. And that’s what Epic is doing: we’re disrupting philanthropy by bringing donors closer to their impact. We’ll give you access to our tracking tools so you can track your impact and we’re making the giving process easier for you. Oh, and it’s free of cost.
So breaking it down, the key problems were trust, transparency and time. There was no lack of will, there were just these barriers there?
Correct, the problem wasn’t a lack of will but exactly what you mentioned: lack of trust, lack of time and lack of knowledge. And we are answering every logical issue so there shouldn’t be those excuses anymore.
So what specifically are the tools? How much is it about new technology?
Epic Foundation builds and manages a portfolio of rigorously vetted social organisations; tracks and monitors their social impact through a data platform; and keeps donors connected and engaged with ongoing reporting of their performance via a mobile application.
We work in East Africa, Western Europe, US, Brazil, India, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. And each year, we go out looking for the world’s most impactful organisations working to empower children and youth.
Basically, if you were to invest your money in any for-profit startup, you would follow almost the same rules; what kind of impact does the organisation have, what kind of management team is in place and what’s the structure of the organisation?
We take a venture capitalist approach and work with 45 distinct data points. And every year we start over. This year, we received a record number of nearly 2,000 applications from 110 countries! We announced our selections in September and we’re currently introducing them to our portfolio to private banks, financial advisors, tech entrepreneurs, influencers from sports and entertainment and corporations in multiple cities.
"...We’re reinventing philanthropy for the digital age..."
Our Impact App allows the donors not only to interact and see what’s happening with the organisation, but also to see the impact of their money. Whenever you want, you have access to the numbers of meals served in a certain homeless shelter, or the number of vaccinations given in Uganda. We connect their systems to our system, we have a beautiful user interface and you’re able to track everything.
In many ways, we’re reinventing philanthropy for the digital age: we are connecting wealthy donors to nonprofits and NGOs quickly and easily, so that they don't have to think twice about donating – and putting info about where their money is going right at their fingertips. The transparency and access is a crucial component of driving interest in giving. We are using video and new media technology, and we are currently integrating VR this fall.
Charities and organisations are just starting to get their head around how much they need to be transparent and provide evidence about the effectiveness of what they are doing. Has that been a problem, accessing the information you want to access?
Yes. For sure, for decades, the non-profit world believed that they can be treated differently but that doesn't work anymore. You can't just ask people to give and invest in a social return and say, “Trust me, hopefully we will do good work”. The world has changed over the last five years because all these new tools help you make better decisions. And you can control the outcome of your decisions.
You have said that you have had this desire to do social good for a long time. How much was your serial entrepreneurship about building the skills you needed for philanthropy and how much did you, as you went along, think “OK, the skills I am developing building businesses can be applied to philanthropy”?
That is interesting. It is a mix. We are the product of our childhoods. My mom was big into helping people. I grew up an environment where it was understood that you need to give a helping hand. My dad is an entrepreneur.
I realised when I was 17, if you really want to have an impact, it is better to have the financial resources in addition to some skills. So my entrepreneurial journey started at 17. It took me fifteen years to be at the stage to say, “Right, I've done the work, I've built my network, I've made money and know I have resources”. And sure, let’s use my entrepreneurial skills to really have impact on the world.
Do you think that the culture of philanthropy is becoming more entrepreneurial because I guess a lot of that distrust of non-profits came from the fact that they could be very bureaucratic and wasteful?
I think that technology really helps. But there is a new generation coming through, this millennial generation, and they want something different. Of course they want to be successful and they want to work for successful corporations, but they want them to do more and more good, they want them to do something with their success. I think we will see some big changes coming from this generation just entering work. And when I talk to corporations I try to explain to them they need to embed more social good if they want to recruit the best people.
I think we are really fortunate to have this new generation pushing hard and saying, “What are you doing with the profits, how are you trying to make a positive impact on the world?” That is pretty cool. That is a really big change.