On Monday 11th June, Horizons met with tech entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Alexandre Mars, and other members of his nonprofit Epic Foundation. He spoke passionately and illuminatingly about the world of charity, and what he is doing to transform attitudes towards it.
When explaining his ambition for charitable giving, Mars uses the history of the slang term “dime” for a 10-cent coin. In the Middle Ages, those living in Catholic countries were obliged to give 10% of their earnings to the Roman Catholic Church. Whilst known as the tithe in England, across the Channel it was called the “la dîme”, hence “dime” for a coin worth 10% of a dollar.
This practice was so ingrained in the cultural psyche that people did not bat an eyelid at what is the sole example of obligatory charitable giving in European history (excluding taxes hypothecated for the welfare state/foreign aid).
This is the giving mindset which Mars wants to recreate today through Epic Foundation’s “sharing pledge”. This mechanism allows businesspeople to pledge a certain percentage of their earnings to one of Epic’s chosen charities, whether that be entrepreneurs’ proceeds upon exit, investors’ returns, or corporate executives’ profits. In a world where socially-conscious millennials are increasingly becoming the investors/consumers to please, this is a positive image for a company to portray. The list of pledgers is growing, and can be seen here.
This radical approach to charitable giving is one which Mars has almost seemed destined to pursue. Since he launched his first startup at the age of 17, he explained that his ultimate goal was always to earn enough money to make a real difference – “today, not tomorrow” he qualified pointedly. Initially disappointed at 20 that he had not yet amassed enough to do so (a merciless yet naïve ambition he looks back on fondly), by his late 30s, big exits on Phonevalley and ScrOOn ensured that he had. Amid the inspiring discussion about his charitable endeavours, it was easy to forget that Mars has also proved himself as an incredibly impressive and successful tech entrepreneur.
But he realises that contemporary philanthropy does not necessarily lack the will to give. In fact, he believes that charities often let down (potential) donors on three bases: transparency, donation-efficiency, and communication. This is where Epic Foundation comes in, which promises to “leverage impact and giving solutions…so you [can] give with confidence and experience your impact”.
So how does this translate into practice? Epic’s working equation is to “find, fund and scale”. To find the right charities for donors, it sifts through applicants using its unique vetting process, a level of scrutiny probably unprecedented amongst charity foundations. Last year, 2000 were whittled down to a selected 10. Then,, Epic’s accessible, information-laden digital platform showcases its list to donors , who provide the funds needed: Epic’s 2018 Executive Summary reveals that 84% of its surveyed NGOs claim insufficient multi-year funding prevents them from accomplishing their main objectives. Lastly. The scaling comes from Mars making trips like this one to Europe, conveying his message, inspiring people, and ultimately encouraging more of us to donate through his foundation.
Throughout the hour-long articulation of this clear objective ran identifiable currents which appear to stoke the fire of Mars’ passionate resoluteness: a sense of immediacy; and a determination to shift a global paradigm.
“Today, not tomorrow” infuses his every action, which is why he simultaneously welcomes the growth of impact/ESG investing without seeing it as a rival to philanthropy. Investing in a water purification startup in India will breed crucial long-term social benefits, but can never negate the short-term imperative of the Uday Foundation, which provides food and medical care to the sick in New Delhi.
Mars sees so much good in the world of philanthropy, but also so much room to improve. Charities need to be more transparent, providing donors with insight into how their money is being used. Giving needs to become ingrained in the collective human conscience, whether through pledges, salary round-up contributions, or even 1% extra charge for your cup of coffee. “It doesn’t matter how”, he says. “With millennials, we are moving from the ‘me-generation’ to the ‘we-generation’”. People are now more receptive to the idea of giving, so long as it remains pain-free.
To every group he meets, Mars poses the question: “Do you believe you give enough?”. Hardly anybody says yes, he explains. “This needs to change, and we are changing it”. After hearing him talk, it is difficult to argue with either of those statements.
Marcus Solarz Hendriks