A few years ago, one of the tech world’s brightest serial entrepreneurs decided it was time to give back. Why not? Alexandre Mars had already launched a mobile marketing firm that he sold to Publicis Groupe, and a social media management system that got picked up by Blackberry. He was young (not yet 40), rich (net worth: secret, but definitely loaded), and motivated (the son of an ever-volunteering mother).
What he lacked was direction about how to do it. Other friends and business associates admitted they weren’t donating as much as they could because it was hard to figure out which charity might best use it. That, and we live in The Age of Immediate Gratification. To Mars, the entire process for philanthropic giving—donate, wait, then track what happened in some annual report—felt outdated. So he decided to build his own startup to optimize how the donor-recipient relationship works. “We want the world to know that social entrepreneurs are as smart and agile as tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley or Silicon Alley,” he says.
The Epic Foundation, which launched earlier this year, is essentially a free brokerage designed to connect deep-pocketed donors with well-appointed charities interested in child welfare. So far, their portfolio consists of 20 groups in a total of 11 countries tackling health, education, job training, and human rights initiatives projected to reach 4 million kids. Mars hasn’t disclosed his full donor sheet, but it includes mutual fund groups like DSP BlackRock, private equity firms like Meeschaert, venture capital firms like Idinvest, major companies like L’Oreal, Carrefour, and Great Eastern Shipping Company, and individual contributions from execs at Vice Media, Facebook, the shaving company Harry’s, and Giphy.
Since going live in April, the foundation has awarded grants ranging from $35,000 to $200,000 to its partners. To make sure all of that reaches nonprofits directly, Mars funds Epic’s development and upkeep costs himself. In short, the middleman will never ask for a cut. His tab so far: about $2 million.
The result is a millennial-friendly way for givers to track their real-time return on investment. Major donors who commit at least $10,000 achieve what the team calls “epicenter” access to their Impact App, a platform that provides a steady stream of stats and status updates with photos, videos and social media feeds to show exactly how your contribution is helping each group’s mission. A custom app for online donors should roll out later this year. “We know you want to do more. We know you should do more. We bring everything to you for free,” he says. Hence the company tagline: “Give Better, Give Smarter, Give More.” And, Mars hopes, more often.
For instance, let’s say you donated to the Ali Forney Center, a shelter for LGBTQ youth in New York that’s a featured partner. Through the app, you’ll get access to their budget and staff count, total number of beneficiaries, and receive handy graphs plotting how many meals are being served and medical and mental health visits are happening monthly. Plus, you’ll have private access to program news and stories about the kids you’re helping.
For charities, there’s a nice boon, too. Joining Epic works like being listed on a private stock exchange. As speculators invest, organizations don’t have to solicit as many grants and donations, which should give them more resources to just plain get things done. To that end, Epic has automated the initial application process. NPOs simply submit a short form that’s computer graded to track telling metrics about growth, costs, and success rates. (The process also flags some submissions for further review. Sometimes there’s a translation issue or less empirically measurable goals to consider—it’s harder to track progress toward equality, say, than meals served.)
That’s followed by rounds of interviews and on-the-ground visits to make sure the promise and reality match. The selection team is lead by Nicola Crosta, a former head of policy at the United Nations. Epic’s second call for partners drew nearly 2,000 applications.
But here’s something you might not expect: Those benchmarks are illuminating a lot of broader lessons about how life works. Take Bottom Line, a Boston-based charity that helps low-income, first-generation students graduate from college. They rigorously count the number of free federal aid applications their enrollees submit. After all, you can’t concentrate on passing tests if you’re worried about paying your bills. According to their own stats, kids who feel financially stable have a roughly 35% greater rate of graduation.
Or take the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, a program that works to eradicate that deadly tropical disease in Africa and Yemen. Their group members track not only how much medicine they dole out, but the number of government and partner planning sessions it takes to do so. It’s an unintentionally funny reminder: Even people saving the world still get stuck in meetings.
Correction: This article previously incorrectly said that Mars’s mother had been a social worker.
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