October 28, 2015

“The way you invest your money [in philanthropy] should be the same as the way you invest your money in the real world,” said Alexandre Mars, an entrepreneur who founded the Epic Foundation in 2014.

Mars visited SIPA on October 21 to talk about the future of fundraising. The event, hosted by SIPA’s Urban and Social Policy concentration and Management specialization, drew students and faculty alike. Professor Marcia Stein, founding executive director of Citymeals-on-Wheels in New York City, made opening remarks.

“One of the things I learned… is that you cannot do anything by yourself,” Stein said. “There was nothing great that was ever built by one person.”

Mars’s new foundation—which aims to “develop new tools that will enhance how donors select, monitor and experience their impact”—embodies the same mentality. Epic Foundation brings together funders and non-profits from around the world to make giving accessible to new donors with deep pockets.

As Stein explained, Mars drew on his various connections to raise money and fund programs.

Those connections come from Mars’s background as a young and successful entrepreneur. Since launching his first company at the age of 17, Mars has created approximately half a dozen companies, selling some of them to the likes of Publicis and Blackberry.

It was 2010 when Mars decided that his next startup – his sixth – would be a social one, although he was not sure where to begin otherwise.

He traveled the world with his family, thinking about pursuing hands-on action in each place.

 “At the beginning of my journey, because I am a doer, I would grab a shovel and build schools,” he said. “Then I realized that, with my skills, I could do more or something different.”

Mars began to explore why potential donors were and were not giving, going from door to door, talking with foundations, would-be donors, and nonprofit organizations. Wealthy potential donors, he found, were hesitant to give for three reasons: lack of trust, lack of time, and lack of knowledge.

“Sometimes you prefer not doing to doing badly,” Mars said.

Mars said donors are smart people who want to make smart choices with their money, and believed not enough was being done to make donors feel comfortable in making philanthropic decisions.

“We needed to build tools for [would-be philanthropists] and change the narrative,” said Mars, “In terms of selection, tracking, and experience, we need to have a different model with donors.”

Now, Epic Foundation opens its application process each year in search of the top 20 organizations focused on children and youth around the world. In last year’s cycle it received 1,400 applications, ultimately selecting 20 candidates through a three-stage process. In the last stage, Epic actually visits 50 finalists to see their work firsthand.

“It is not enough to have Skype [video] calls or emails,” Mars said. “We want to see, we want to meet people.”

After the 20 nonprofits are selected for Epic Foundation’s portfolio, the foundation brings the organizations to would-be donors through a road show that travels to 15 cities around the globe, displaying the organizations’ work and achievements.

Once someone becomes a donor, the foundation works to keep them connected to the projects and to see the impact they are having through tracking and experience tools.

“People don’t want to wait a year. They want to see the impact of their money right away,” Mars said.

The tools allow donors to regularly check in to see how their projects are doing and to even physically visit them.

“When you give, you should go, and we are helping them to go,” said Mars—who encourages donors to bring family, partners, or close friends to visit the sites and understand the work.“Don’t imagine that I’m doing everything,” Mars said. “That’s not true; I have an amazing team.”

Mars said he has been offered funding to support the foundation’s operations, but—at least for now—foots the entire bill so that 100 percent of donors’ money does directly to projects.

Those who support Epic may not, however, restrict their giving to a particular project. While such earmarks are common in philanthropy, Mars observed, business investors do not invest in a particular project or department.

“You invest in the whole organization because you trust the funders,” Mars explained.

Current organizations in Epic Foundation’s portfolio, Mars said, include the Ali Forney Center, Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), Educate!, SNEHA, Simplon.co, and TdB. These organizations, located around the world, support a range of initatives including medical services, coding classes entrepreneurship programs, and more.

Mars emphasized the importance of data: He cited facts from the New York-Based NPF— “We are able to get numbers: 48% reduction in child abuse, 56% reduction in ER visits, 59% reduction in child arrests at age 15.” Graduates of Educate! in Uganda earn $173 more dollars per year than their peers.

In addition to its work with individual donors, Epic Foundation is also encouraging corporations to become more socially responsible and philanthropic.

“We are working to embed social good at the center of these organizations,” said Mars, who said companies change their mindsets in one of three ways—from the top down, from the bottom up, or to to keep up with competitors.

He also noted the role of policy makers in creating lasting change.

“If we really want to scale these organizations, we need to work with cities and governments,” he said.

Educational institutions, Mars said, offer yet another way to create stronger and broader cultures of giving and to make lasting impact. As an example he cited his own work with Columbia University’s Columbia Impact Investing Initiative (CI3) to engage graduate students in impact investing and social entrepreneurship.

— Kristen Grennan MPA ’16