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One non-profit pioneer is changing the way people can approach philanthropy

Game-Changers

After making millions before turning 40, a New York-based entrepreneur is dreaming of transforming charitable giving by bringing his start-up stardust and venture-capital spirit to the world of non-governmental organisations.

Alexandre Mars set up Epic Foundation in 2014. His goal was to provide rich benefactors with a more transparent opportunity to donate to projects benefiting children and young people under the 25 in Brazil, India, Southeast, Asia, The United States, West Africa and Western Europe. The organisation vets recipients - non-government organisations and social enterprises - with an annual budget under US$25 million and channels money from donors, with Mars meeting all administrative costs himself. Donors receive regular updates, enabling them to track exactly how their money is being spent. Epic Foundation can also arrange meetings between the wealthiest donors and the non-profit organisations they fund.

"An Upper East Side donor who takes his two 14-year-old kids to a shelter and spends two hours with a social entrepreneur?" says Mars, a 41-year-old father of three. "I don't think you can put a price on that." Born and educated in France, Mars moved to New York six years ago. After making a fortune setting up and selling various internet companies, he is now devoted full-time to Epic Foundation. What brings a man so driven to business that he embarked on his first venture in high school to the vastly different aid community? Money, he says, was just a mean to realising his real ambitions to "have a real impact".

He founded A2X, one of Europe's first web agencies, in 1996. In 2001, he set up the mobile marketing firm Phonevalley, which went on to become one of Europe's largest agencies of its kind. All along, he says, his real ambition was to do what he's doing now. In France, he is often compared to the wealthiest and more internationally prominent US billionaires Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who have committed to giving away practically all their fortunes. Although he pays tribute to work already being done across the world of charity, Mars believes he is providing something different - a bridge between donors and recipients. His foundation currently employs 20 people. "We're creating a movement - not another foundation," he says.

Last of trust, time and knowledge mean that while lots of companies and individuals can donate sums of money, they frequently cite wanting to do more. Enter Epic Foundation, which assesses the organisations in which clients invest, much like a venture capital firm. Except on this occasion, there is no profit. After extensive analyses select the right organisations, Epic Foundation systematically sends teams on the ground to better understand the work they are doing. Mars spent three years conducting market research before launching. "The world of charity hasn't changed for years," he says. "The tools are there, but they have not been adapted."

His goal to this year is to generate US$10 million in donations. Epic Foundation will also open up to private individuals later this year. Thanks largely to his contacts book, an enticing project, impeccable presentation and wide network, his organisation attracts heads of businesses, celebrities and politicians typically not on the radars of non-profit organisations. "We are creating a power structure - an apolitical one" Mars says. "Because apart from extremists, we work with everyone"

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