Entrepreneur and investor Alexandre Mars, 44 years old, is trying to expand and democratize charitable giving. His Epic Foundation, which currently backs 29 social organizations tackling youth and children issues, enables donors to stay connected to their beneficiaries through a web app and VR videos. He also promotes payroll giving, which makes it easy for people to give by allowing them to deduct donations from their paychecks. In this edited chapter from his new book, Giving: Purpose Is the New Currency, Mars explains his inclusive approach to philanthropy.
In 2010, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet launched the Giving Pledge, a campaign targeted exclusively at the ultra-rich: All those who sign up promise to give at least half of their fortunes to social causes.
At first sight, this initiative seems extremely laudable. The world has more billionaires than ever before. In 2007, they totaled 946; 10 years later, that figure had risen to 2,043. And never has each billionaire possessed so many billions: In 2017, their total fortune was more than $7,067 billion. By 2018, the campaign had signed up 173 pledgers, aged between 30 and 90. These billionaires represent 21 different countries, although the majority are American.
Personally, I consider the Giving Pledge an extraordinary initiative. However, the cut-off figure of 50% goes against my personal philosophy of giving. In my opinion, it gives rise to judgment and stigmatization rather than encouragement and goodwill. Does someone who gives away 25% of their possessions not deserve our respect? No matter how much we give, it will never be enough, but I will continue to fight for my belief that giving should become something other–and more–than an obligation: a norm.
How much do you give? It doesn’t matter to me. Just give. Share what you can. Don’t let yourself be intimidated, just follow your heart. Fifty percent? 0.5%? You are the only arbiter of your capacity to change the world.
Unfortunately, not everyone I meet is a Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. I remember a California venture capitalist to whom I outlined Epic’s objectives and who abruptly interrupted me saying: “I don’t agree. I call that Communism.” He clearly meant the word as an insult. “If you believe that Communism means sharing and working toward a more equal division of wealth,” I replied, “then in that case, you’re right–I’m a Communist.” I never saw that man again.
For me, Peggy Dulany represents the opposite end of the spectrum. Born a Rockefeller, Peggy uses her middle name to pursue her philanthropic endeavors unencumbered by prestige. After working as a teacher for disadvantaged youth in Massachusetts, she founded the Synergos Institute to reduce global poverty, and developed the Global Philanthropists Circle. She has created a new legacy of her own through targeted and considerable philanthropy.
Most people I meet lie somewhere between that California venture capitalist and Peggy Dulany. I always tell them, “You should give and you should tell people that you give.” Not to bask in the glory of your generosity, but to give extra value to your donation: to let it serve as an example. To make giving something that seems like a normal everyday thing.
I have had some of my most difficult and complicated conversations about giving with Fortune 500 companies, but convincing these large companies to give a share of their profits has become easier over time. Social responsibility has become a talent management concern and a customer retention priority. A corporate survival imperative. The development of corporate social responsibility programs stems from that realization. The perception of such developments as “social washing,” the necessary ticking of a box rather than the product of sincere belief that it was the right thing to do, is still a rightful concern, but my view is more practical. If shame or publicity is what motivates a company to be more socially responsible, then we should take advantage of that while trying to push for an actual systemic mentality shift. We work with what we have while striving for our ideals.
I recently met the boss of a large corporation with annual profits of several billion euros, a formidable man, aware of the new realities of these times. He described his belief in the importance of companies’ social responsibilities. I asked him for the figures: How much money did they give every year? He seemed surprised by the question and said he didn’t know. He asked the woman in charge of CSR (corporate social responsibility), and when he found out the answer he seemed suddenly dismayed. The company gave $500,000 per year to social causes. The head of human resources joined our discussion, mentioning her frustration at the high turnover of young executives. Many had left not for higher salaries but to join nonprofits. She found it hard to understand this new phenomenon and admitted that her company was going to have to adapt.
I offered them one of Epic’s solutions for boosting a company’s social DNA: payroll giving. The HR head explained that she had considered this solution, but that the finance department had blocked it due to the $20,000 cost of installation. There and then I took out my checkbook and told them, “I’ll give you that money.” Of course, they did not accept it.
Have I softened my stance over the past few years? I am willing to grant mitigating circumstances to individuals: It is possible that they remain unsure, not about whether they should give, but about how and to whom they should give. I also understand that they would prefer to give nothing rather than give erroneously. For all these reasons, I have made it my mission to provide the tools that will help people to give more and better: empathy, solutions, and reasons to hope.
Excerpted from Giving: Purpose Is the New Currency, by Alexandre Mars. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2019.