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STAR ENTREPRENEUR DONATES SO THAT OTHERS MAY BUILD HOMES, SCHOOLS

Epic Foundation's Alexandre Mars wants to aid NGOs by making it easier for donors to fund projects.

Entrepreneur Alexandre Mars has launched a foundation that aims to help children by supporting groups involved in causes such as building schools and offering housing

Alexandre Mars made a fortune leading two tech startups to profitable exits, selling one to and the other BlackBerry, a 200-employee company called Phonevalley, to Publicis Group. Now the 40-year-old is in startup mode again, launching the Epic Foundation, a nonprofit that he hopes will lure donors by connecting them to a rigorously selected group of global organizations focusing on children and youth—with tech tools that, for example, allow donors to track the impact of their money.

"It took me 20 years to be able to say I can choose the next chapter of my life," Mr. Mars said. "When you really want to change things, it's better to have money. I have enough money, enough power and enough network to do that." The Paris-born Mr. Mars is a widely known serial entrepreneur himself—since the age of 17—and a rising star in New York's tech and philanthropic scenes.

His foundation is still in the selection process, but among those on its list of finalists are construction-focused nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Those include a Uganda-based group that constructs homes for women looking after AIDS orphans and one in Laos that builds schools. And it's looking at U.S.-based nonprofits, too, including New York's Ali Forney Center, which manages and develops transitional houses for homeless LGBT youths. Epic is one of a host of new tech-driven startups that are beginning to shake up the nonprofit space. Others are aiming to change things by offering more convenience, such as Washington, D.C.-based GoodWorld.me, which allows people to make donations by using hashtags on Twitter or Facebook.

Still others say that potential donors want more personalization and the ability to give locally. A San Francisco-based startup called HandUp allows donations to individual homeless people.

Tracking projects

In a slum in Mumbai, India, Mr. Mars found kindred spirits: Seven mothers had pooled their life savings to start a business selling clean water. "They talk like entrepreneurs," he said. "They are trying to find ways to change the community." And they're doing it. Their shop, in a tin structure in the area that was featured in the film Slumdog Millionaire, serves 150 clients a day; they aim to reach 350. It's a project that donors could easily connect to via Epic's downloadable app. If you donated to the mothers in India, for instance, you would be able to see how many water bottles they had sold today. "I've talked to a lot of people who made money in the last 10 years," Mr. Mars said. "Mostly, they weren't giving because they didn't trust, they didn't have the time and they didn't know where to start."

Mr. Mars has a record of success on the for-profit side, but what he is trying to do is challenging, said Lucy Bernholz, a visiting scholar at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. There were more than 200 giving marketplaces a few years ago, when the Hewlett Foundation compiled a list. "Donors aren't really suffering from a lack of opportunities to give," Ms. Bernholz said. The competition for donors is likely to only increase. According to Guidestar, a research firm that compiles data on the nonprofit sector, the number of new nonprofits is on the rise again after remaining roughly flat for three years through the recession.

That picture doesn't daunt Mr. Mars, who spent the past few months traveling around the world, posting on Facebook and meeting with potential nonprofits for Epic. He said that he wants to appeal to people who aren't comfortable giving, because most philanthropies don't offer them enough of a sense of control. Along with providing more information, Epic enables its donors to design a portfolio of nonprofits to give to, or donate equally to all those on the platform.

Easy access

The foundation begins fundraising in September; it already has $1 million from Caudalie, a French cosmetics company. Epic is also trying to reach truly grassroots organizations by making its initial application easy: It takes only 35 to 40 minutes to complete, Mr. Mars said. Some 1,400 NGOs from 85 countries applied to be on the platform. The foundation's staff of 15 will choose 20 each year for rolling three-year terms, based on 45 criteria, including cost compared with similar nonprofits, governance and the number of lives affected. Mr. Mars is paying the $2 million annual budget out of his own pocket.

"My money is not limitless," said Mr. Mars, "but I can commit enough to see how successful this startup is." If not, he said, he's willing to make changes in the future, like any true entrepreneur.

Read more at Crain's - New York

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