Change Agent

How Alexandre Mars is reinventing philanthropy for the digital age

The serial entrepreneur’s sixth venture is Epic Foundation: “We’re adapting a businesslike mindset to the not-for-profit world”

header for Canadian Business series Change Agents

In 2014, after successfully building and exiting five businesses, New York–based tech entrepreneur Alexandre Mars started the Epic Foundation, a not-for-profit that connects wealthy business people with youth-focused charities. In April, he launched the first Canadian chapter in Toronto. He explains how he’s updating philanthropy for the digital age:

I grew up in Paris. My mom was all about social causes and my dad was an entrepreneur, and I’m a mix of both. I knew when I was a teenager that I wanted to change the world. But I soon realized that without resources, I wouldn’t be able to do that. So I said, “OK, I’ll build some startups to build my wealth.”

I started my first venture when I was 17 years old. My second was one of the first web agencies in Europe. After I sold it, I moved to the U.S. and became a venture capitalist. It was crazy, but crazy fun. I was 24, and people trusted me. When the bubble burst, my wife and I moved back to Europe to start our family. I wanted to build something new in mobile, so I launched Phonevalley; when Steve Jobs announced the iPhone in 2007, we received 14 acquisition offers in one year. So I sold that venture and began another one [social media management platform ScrOOn], which we sold to BlackBerry in 2013.

By this point we’d moved back to the U.S., and I realized I’d soon be able to switch to social good; my sixth company would be a social startup. But I knew almost nothing about philanthropy, so I did some market research: I started talking to people with knowledge, like the Gates Foundation. They introduced me to non-profits, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists and policy-makers. We took the kids out of school and travelled the world to see what we could change.

We found something interesting: If you ask people whether they’ve given time or money to a social cause in the past year, everyone will say, “Yes, sure.” But if you ask them, “Do you feel you’ve given enough?” They will almost always answer no. These are good people with good hearts and resources. Why don’t they give more? The answers are almost always the same: “We don’t trust social organizations.” “We don’t have the time or knowledge.” “We’d prefer not to do it at all than to do it badly.”

That’s fair. And people don’t change their behaviour even though they know they should. That’s what led to the launch of the Epic Foundation two years ago.

We knew donors wanted to trust the organizations they support, so we decided to do rigorous vetting. Last year we received more than 1,400 applications from youth-focused NGOs and social enterprises around the world. We brought that down to the 20 we support by using a six-month three-stage process involving analysis of 45 different data points. It’s the same process VCs use. We also knew donors wanted visibility, so we developed an app that gives them real-time data about how many people their donation is helping, plus receipts, news about the organizations, pictures and videos. We’re working to add virtual reality. It’s meant to connect people to their donations.

Our approach to attracting donors is like an IPO road show: We travel to places where there’s money and power (including Singapore, L.A., Dubai and Toronto), and talk to private banks, family enterprises, entrepreneurs—people who want to do more and have the means to do more. When they see we’ve created a philanthropic organization that’s built just for them, with the tools they’re already using, they love it. We’re adapting a businesslike mindset to the not-for-profit world; we are like a venture capital firm for philanthropists.