A Fireside Chat with: Alexandre Mars, CEO and Founder of Epic Foundation
Alexandre Mars is a serial entrepreneur and an engaged philanthropist. Over the last 15 years, he has successfully launched and sold several companies in Europe and North America across diverse business sectors, including venture capital, Internet, mobile marketing, social media and advertising. His two latest startups, Phonevalley (the world’s largest mobile agency) and ScrOOn (a social media management system) were sold to Publicis Groupe and Blackberry, respectively.
Understanding the demands of a new socially conscious generation, Mars created Epic Foundation as a platform for donors to engage in their charity through technology, allowing them to select, monitor and experience their impact. Mars is injecting new momentum into the world of philanthropy by shattering outdated restrictions to the act of giving. By manipulating what has traditionally been consumer technology, he is giving donors a chance to see the reach of their donations, ultimately driving them towards a two-way relationship with their charity.
Q: How did you transition from business to philanthropy?
A: I always knew I would use my success for good- it was embedded in me from a young age. In 2013, upon selling my last startup to Blackberry, my wife and I pulled our children out of school for nearly a year and travelled to over 13 countries, meeting with nonprofits and philanthropists around the world. The goal was to deepen our understanding of the philanthropic ecosystem and find out how we could get involved. I spent a great deal of time with NGO directors, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs identifying problems that the philanthropic market was facing and then finding ways to address those problems with effective solutions. I learned a great deal about the needs of donors as well as social organizations.
On the one hand we had these incredible organizations and social entrepreneurs. They had innovative or proven ideas for how to change the lives of children and youth, but were struggling to access funding, expertise, and new networks. On the other hand, you had donors with lots of capacity, and big powerful networks, who want to do more but didn’t know where to start or who to trust. It was then that I realized I didn’t have to transition completely. I could build upon my 20+ years of experience as a tech entrepreneur to innovate the nonprofit space. In response, Epic was born. We launched in 2014 as a global nonprofit startup headquartered in NYC.
Q: How does Epic Foundation work?
A: At Epic, we are disrupting the giving industry by proposing and providing new solutions that enhance how donors select, monitor and experience their impact. We are breaking down the barriers that restrict people from giving by providing a targeted answer to the issues of lack of time, knowledge and trust in nonprofit organizations that people typically face when giving.
To help them overcome these obstacles, Epic builds and manages a portfolio of rigorously vetted social organizations; tracks and monitors their social impact through a data platform; and keeps donors connected and engaged with the portfolio organizations through ongoing reporting of performance and accountability via a mobile application. And we do this free of cost for the donors: I’m funding Epic’s development and overhead costs myself.
Q: How can donors see the reach of their donations?
A: Donors want to give to organizations that best utilize their contributions. So each year we go out looking for the world’s most impactful organizations, working to empower children and youth in order to connect them to our global network of philanthropists and corporations looking to give in a more strategic and engaged way.
From there, it’s all about showing donors what their social investments are achieving. We do this in several ways, including monitoring reports twice a year. Our Impact App allows donors to track their social portfolio to provide a new level of transparency and speed to philanthropy. It’s one of the first attempts to create a two-way conversation around giving. You no longer send your money away in an envelope and wait until the end of the year to hear of its outcome. At your convenience, you have access to the numbers of meals served to youth in a homeless shelter in NY, or the number of vaccinations given to children preventing life threatening illnesses in Uganda. We connect their systems to our system, we render everything, we have a beautiful user interface and you’re able to track everything. It’s user friendly, and it’s impactful.
We also always encourage our donors to visit the organizations they support, but for those who can’t, we worked with a Hollywood award-winning producer to create a series of VR-based films around the work of each organization in our portfolio. Donors can put on a headset and immediately transport themselves into a setting of abject poverty. Yet, they also receive a quick glimpse into the work of the organization they support. The films are really engaging and we’ve received great feedback from viewers.
Q: What advice do you have for companies that want to integrate social impact into their business objectives?
A: First off- just do it. Get involved! There’s a whole wave of socially conscious consumers and potential employees coming to make sure that you do, so it’s better to get ahead.
More importantly, this is a question we’ve been working to answer for quite some time at Epic which is why we launched a series of solutions for companies, employers, entrepreneurs, etc. to integrate a social impact component into their business models. From taking our “Founders Pledge” (which commits entrepreneurs to give away a part of their profit to charity upon exiting their company) to instituting payroll giving so that employees can pursue purpose and profit at work, there are so many ways to make your social impact component painless and authentic. And it enables everyone at all levels of industry with the right tools to make a real difference.
A great example to look up to is Christian Dior Couture. In partnership with Epic, they just announced their new payroll giving initiative to their 1,000+ employees. Not only was it an easy absorption on Dior’s part, but it’s a great tool for their employees to turn leftover change at the end of their paychecks into support for their favorite cause.
Q: What trends are you seeing in CSR right now?
A: I think the most obvious is that employees are starting to urge employers to do more. CSR isn’t enough. It was a great initiative 10-15 years ago, but then we started seeing companies incorporate CSR strategies as a marketing ploy. People can see through this. We live in a world driven by tech which means that news spreads like wildfire. If employees don’t think your strategies are authentic, if they don’t think it’s enough, the internet will know.
That’s why we’re such a big proponent on authentic giving strategies. They’re systemic and easy-to-absorb, yet engaging and powerful when you think of their potential for impact when multiplied. It’s a modernized version of CSR, with a pure intention - just give.
Q: What is an easy way to make an impact that companies aren’t doing enough of?
A: Companies have done a poor job of engaging their employees in their impact. Again, that’s been the shortcoming of CSR. It’s a one-sided approach with a result you only see through a paper report. And it’s not to say that the objective isn’t there- it’s not to say that having some kind of social component is a bad thing- but we’re beyond that.
CSR was a great demonstration of a company’s responsibility to society when it first appeared, but now people are ready to do more. If more companies recognized that their employees are no longer interested in employer-provided health care but making a difference in the world, if they created a way to channel their energy into purpose alongside profit, I think we’d all be better off.
Q: What are you excited about right now?
A: The social disruption - a new slew of young, socially conscious individuals that want to make a difference and with their mission in mind, will disrupt all aspects of society. Every structure is ripe for the changes they will bring, not just industry.
In my family, I’ve witnessed firsthand the desire for my daughter to donate her earnings from the Tooth Fairy at just six years old. I know I wasn’t thinking about charity with the $2 I found under my pillow when I was her age. They will account for 50% of the workforce by 2020 so we’re only beginning to see their influence.