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Alexandre Mars is on an Epic Charity Journey
Alexandre Mars does not speak, as much as fire. Rat-a-tat-tat come the words; rat-a-tat-tat come the ideas. All delivered in a curiously mangled Franco-American accent that both belies his roots and traces his rather peripatetic global lifestyle. His philosophy is embodied by is his aptly named (given the scale of his ambition) Epic Foundation, which aims to create tools to help people give to charities dedicated to children and young people up to the age of 24.
“A lot more people are giving,” he says over the phone from his home in New York, our conversation peppered with the ubiquitous police sirens and car horns. _“If you ask 200 people whether they gave last year, most will answer yes. But if you ask them whether they have given enough, most will answer, no, even if they have the desire to give more.”__
These budding better philanthropists list three main obstacles, Mars explains. First, they don’t have the time. Second, they simply don’t have the cash. And third, just as importantly they don’t trust the charity. By trust, he means that, in many cases, donors are not able truly to track or monitor how their donations are being spent. “Many charities will declare, ‘If you care about this cause, then we are the one charity you should trust’,” he says, “but we won’t be able to give you a tracking tool; you’ll have to trust us and then we’ll give you a brochure each year and invite you to our gala.”
The nature of philanthropy is changing, Mars argues, and with it the type of people who are coming forward to give. The job now, he adds, is for the charities themselves to come to terms with this fact and start to exploit the opportunities this throws up.
“This generation is constantly using new tools,” he says. “We can track everything and gain an experience with this. [Epic] understands this need, as we live in this world where everything is accessible and trackable. At Epic, we are trying to pull that trigger and help the new generation to give.” The foundation grew out of a four-year market research project designed to find the 20 organisations making the most impact in the fields of child and youth giving each year.
So far Mars and his 15-strong team, with offices in New York, Bangkok and London (with three more planned in San Francisco, Mumbai and Sao Paolo), have sifted through 1,400 applications. First they were whittled down to 200, then further to 50, at which point Mars and his team headed to the airport. “We visited the 50 finalists in the last stage of our process,” he says. “We spent two months on visits to 11 countries on five continents, so as to have a direct connection with the organisations.”
The final 20, which were announced in the first week of September, will be used to reel in three new categories of philanthropists: the entrepreneurs (or their family offices, private banks or wealth managers); the “voices” (the athletes and actors with money and influence and millions of social media followers); and the corporations that are seeking to invest more in corporate and social responsibility and “who want access in a very business-driven way”. Critical to all this, Mars stresses, is the fact that Epic is not in any way funded from donations. He foots the bill alone, ensuring all funds are directed to the chosen charities. “We don’t have a business model,” he almost yells down the phone when I ask him if and when the charity would become self-funding. “[Funding] will always come from me; I will also cover the operating costs; that will be my donation.”
Running the operation cost $1.5m in 2014. Mars fully expects that to increase, given the plan to extend the number of offices and take on more staff. But covering the costs was always his plan, he says. “We have a pure model in which 100 per cent [of your donation] will go to the organisation that you select. “We are a non-profit start-up with no business model.”_ He certainly has enough funds to cover the costs for quite a while, having founded and sold Phonevalley, a mobile marketing agency, to Publicis Groupe, the French advertising company, in 2007, and ScrOOn, a social media management system, to BlackBerry in 2013. He spends 80 per cent of his time running Epic; the other managing his investments through his own family office.
Making money at an early age gives you a different perspective, he says. “When you make your money under 45 or 50 [Mars is 39], you still have 20 or 30 years ahead. It gives this generation of donors a very different perspective.” The old truism that “money makes money” does come into effect, Mars says, which again puts the emphasis on the obligation to give. “It really is about thinking: ‘What legacy do you want to leave?’” he says. “At Epic Foundation, we want to help people find better ways to use their skills, resources and networks to give more.”