Wealthy Techie Courts Fellow Techies
Founded in 2014, Epic Foundation is a global not-for-profit startup based in New York City.
Epic Foundation bridges the gap between a new generation of individual and corporate donors and organizations supporting children and youth. We are developing new tools focused on enhancing how donors select, monitor and experience their impact. Our vision is to disrupt the philanthropic industry by combining passion and expertise with game- changing technology and partnerships.
There’s no shortage of do-gooders trying to entice rich tech moguls to donate to their cause. But Alexandre Mars believes he’s got an edge when he’s pitching tech moguls on his new philanthropic venture launching Tuesday: He’s one of them.
“They don’t see me as someone coming from another world saying, ‘Oh, you’ve need to trust us with this vision.’ They see me as a peer. I have the same amount as they do, same background — entrepreneur and doer,” said the French native who now lives in Brooklyn.
The 40-year-old entrepreneur and venture capitalist, perhaps best known for selling his instant messaging service to BlackBerry in 2013, is among a new wave of wealthy techies trying to reshape the calcified world of philanthropy by making it more appealing to the Silicon Valley set. On Tuesday, Mars’ Epic Foundation announced its first class of 20 nonprofits that stand to be the beneficiaries from his new model. Two are from the Bay Area, where Mars has invested in startups and visits regularly.
Epic debuts its portfolio at a time when the philanthropic world is looking to tap new donors. A study Tuesday shows that philanthropic giving has been stagnant for decades at 2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product — which researchers think still leaves $25 billion in potential, untapped donations up for grabs.
The annual Money for Good report found that 49 percent of donors don’t know how nonprofits use their money, 34 percent feel hassled by solicitations, and 20 percent aren’t sure who benefits from the work they donate toward. The report was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the F.B. Heron Foundation. The report also found that 61 percent of donors prefer to give to well-known nonprofits.
“People give to the same philanthropies because they have these broader reservations about their giving,” said Hope Neighbor, a partner at Camber Collective, a consulting firm that conducted the report. “There is very little incentive to change their behavior. Anything that philanthropies can do to bridge the gap between donors and people they serve would help.” Mars reached many of these same conclusions as he traveled the world over the past two years in an effort to figure out how he wanted to conduct his philanthropy.
During travels that included stops in India, Peru, Mongolia and Brazil, Mars picked the brains of nonprofit leaders — including Google.org managing director Jacquelline Fuller — tech executives, lenders as well as the recipients of donations. He found that people don’t trust social charities. “They have no time — they’re working all the time,” he said. “And they don’t have the knowledge about what organizations work and which ones don’t.”
The Epic Foundation aims to change that perception with a different approach. It will focus on funding nonprofits working on issues that affect youth in California, New York, Brazil, East Africa, India and Southeast Asia. Its staff of 15 screens the applicants; there were 1,400 internationally in this first year, despite little outreach from the fledgling Epic. (Mars spent several weeks this summer visiting the 50 finalists.)
Then Epic recommends the vetted nonprofits to would-be donors. It dispatches camera crews to document what the organizations are doing and provide metrics on their effectiveness. An added bonus: After donors make contributions and want to visit, say, a nonprofit that focuses on literacy in Brazil that they’re funding, Epic will create an “experience” for them when they visit. But, Mars quickly adds, his group won’t cover donors’ travel costs.
When the donations roll in, Epic will funnel 100 percent to the nonprofits — because Mars is spending $1.5 million of his own wealth to fund Epic’s operations this year. Mars hopes to raise an additional $10 million from donors in the program’s first year that will go to the nonprofits.
“I have enough money,” said Mars, whom the New York Observer named this year as one of the top 20 philanthropists under 40, along with actress Olivia Wilde and pro football player Eli Manning. “I worked so hard. I loved what I was doing. But I always knew what I want to do next. And now I want to change lives.” Neighbor, the nonprofit giving expert, said Epic “sounds like a good idea. What’s powerful about it is the facilitation he’s willing to do between the affluent donors and the people in the field.”
Epic’s approach was different — coming from a tech entrepreneur’s mind-set — than other funders, said Thomas Ahn, executive director of First Graduate, a San Francisco nonprofit that mentors children who are the first in their families to go to college. (The other Bay Area nonprofit to be included in the inaugural Epic portfolio is San Jose’s Teen Force, which focuses on youth unemployment.) “The questions they asked were more about how ambitious we were — not how can we deliver more programming for few dollars per kid,” Ahn said. “That’s unusual. That’s rare to be asked that.”
The other unusual part is that unlike other donors, Ahn doesn’t know how much he will receive from Epic. That depends on how successful Mars is in his latest venture — raising money from techies.
Read more at San Francisco Chronicle