There are glaring gaps in philanthropy and impact investing. Now is a time to not only address the gaps but transform these industries. It’s a time of redefining who leads, determining how to be more effective, and seeking to change our systems at a fundamental, root level. Our future depends on it.
Savvy high-net-worth individuals, corporations, foundations, financial institutions, and entrepreneurs want to do this. Unfortunately, as many seek to have the greatest impact with philanthropy and impact investing, there’s really a scarcity of financial and philanthropic advisors out there who have had a front-row seat to the world’s most intractable problems and a long, successful track record addressing these issues. And that’s a gap I really wanted to help fill. There are too many missed opportunities to align big pools of capital with social innovations in ways that can really transform the world. That’s what inspired me to launch Lebec Consulting in 2020.
Earlier this year, I sat down with Camille Fetter, Founder & CEO of Talentfoot, a boutique recruiting firm, to explore our ethos, vision, and purpose at Lebec Consulting.
The below conversation is adapted from a webinar held by Talentfoot and Lebec Consulting at the beginning of this year.
Camille Fetter (CF): Alix, we’re thrilled to speak with you today and learn more about your journey. So, let’s dive right in. Can you start by telling us how you got where you are today? How did you find your purpose in your journey—your North Star, so to speak? Was there a defining moment in your life?
Alix Lebec (AL): It’s such a pleasure to be here and speak with you, Camille. I’ll start by saying that most people are surprised to learn that I’m not actually American—I’m French; I was born in Paris. And I had a very international childhood. When I was eight, we moved to South Korea for my father’s work—and my brother and I ended up going to an international school on an American military base, even though we weren’t military, which was a very profound experience during some formative years. I was there until I was 16, and my parents always encouraged us to travel across the region and be exposed to different cultures.
It was really during a trip to Vietnam, when I was just 13 years old, that I got a front row seat to seeing what it’s like to be living in a community that has very little resources, versus communities who have significantly more. So, that seed was planted in my mind, and I wondered how I could utilize the resources and knowledge I have, to one day be part of something that strives to address the huge inequalities we see in the world today.
That experience really influenced my journey moving forward—and when I was a young adult, I moved back to Paris to work with the World Bank and United Nations. Through that, I spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia, and ultimately realized that I was much more of an entrepreneur than a diplomat. I was excited to see how we could pair the best that business can offer with solutions that are helping people to help themselves and be the drivers of their own future.
All of this took me to London, where I went back to school, and then on to New York, where I eventually met Gary White, a phenomenal social entrepreneur, and Matt Damon—who were merging their two non-profits together to create Water.org. And I was excited to join the organization because Water.org was starting to drive public awareness toward the fact that there were hundreds of millions of people living in poverty who would absolutely pay for better water and sanitation solutions, if these people just had access to affordable microcredit loans—$200-300, for instance—to have a local water utility company construct a piped water connection in their homes or a toilet. The monthly costs of those bills are significantly cheaper than the cost many people living in poverty pay for water in terms of their health, time lost, price gouging by local water vendors. I was brought on board to really help make this case to the world of corporate philanthropy, and eventually many different types of philanthropists including individuals and institutions. And for me, that included making the case to European funders for the first time.
CF: “Systems Change” is not a phrase we typically hear in our day-to-day lives. Can you educate us on what systems change truly represents?
AL: Absolutely—and I’ll preface it by saying there has never been a better time to have this discussion, as the need for systemic changes has really been brought to light during all the events of 2020. Systemic change is about addressing the very root causes of poverty and inequality. It’s essentially based on ideas and solutions that can really transform our existing systems to make them more stable, equal, and sustainable. It’s about ideas that will change the very circumstances that continue to exacerbate inequality in our society today. It’s about looking at the bigger picture—and thinking about how to change all these things and rebuild our system in a way that really puts our shared humanity and the well-being of the planet at the center of everything we do—versus just focusing on profit. That inspiring insight comes from Jacqueline Novogratz’s most recent book: Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World.
And we’re starting to see it among leading firms and corporations. We’ve heard Larry Fink, the CEO of Blackrock, make a bold statement—saying that companies need to demonstrate a long-term business plan that shows how they will eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. And these companies need to demonstrate it for Blackrock to keep investing in them. Simultaneously, we have conversations around leadership. How do we make sure there’s more representation of women and minorities in leadership and at the decision-making table?
But honestly, we need to take this to another level. Raise the stakes. Because 2030 is really the new 2050—and if philanthropy and impact investing continue to be guided by risk aversion and a “let’s play it safe” mindset, we won’t get there. For instance, what if Larry Fink told the world that Blackrock will only continue investing in companies that are demonstrating how they will solve the global water crisis in the communities where they work through partnerships with social entrepreneurs and local communities? What if Blackrock only invested in companies who are helping all communities have access to renewable energy and healthcare? What if all companies and financial institutions today immediately solved the gender pay gap by adjusting salaries in an equitable manner? What if all white institutions immediately started diversifying their leadership? What if the climate negotiations at COP26 ensured that diverse women represented at least 50% of leaders at the negotiating table? Until we make those changes and rethink our definition of success, the big picture won’t change.
CF: We know that corporations can make some of the greatest impacts. What is the responsibility of corporations? Who should be leading the charge, and where should that sit within the organization?
AL: This comes in all shapes and sizes. Different companies take all different approaches. IKEA, for example, set up a foundation with a fully dedicated team focused on the company’s philanthropic endeavors. The foundation is the sole shareholder of IKEA—meaning it owns the company. So, as the company does incredibly well, the company has a lot of resources to go out there and do philanthropy. The company was also very strategic in integrating its philanthropic strategy with what it stands for—which demonstrates an incredible alignment of values. So, the foundation and the company mutually reinforce one another. And there’s a big central theme for them around climate change, systems change, and creating brighter lives on a livable planet.
You have other companies, like Nestle, that do a lot of their philanthropy through a Corporate Social Responsibility team that sits within the company. And then there’s Niagara Bottling, which decided not to create a separate foundation—because that can create separate layers of decision-making or bureaucracy, and they instead wanted to keep it really lean. So, they set up a philanthropic arm within the company that’s led by a Director of Corporate Giving called Kristen Venick. It’s a small team of incredible people, and they put together a strategy focused on systems change—with the idea that they wanted to pick a small group of promising organizations early on that they could support and “go big” on.
There are also companies that outsource this function entirely. So, there’s no right answer here. There are a variety of models that companies employ. From my perspective, what’s been most successful is a strategy that is very lean and entrepreneurial—and which really relies on the expertise of the entrepreneurs and non-profits that the company is supporting.
CF: I think a lot of people would agree that the reporting structure—and accessibility to the stakeholders—is critical. So, what’s your advice on the optimal reporting structure?
AL: Whoever is making the decisions on how the company will spend its resources on philanthropic programs should report directly to the CEO. It’s critical for that person to have the power to make the decisions.
The advice I’ve often given to companies is to do their due diligence on the organizations (e.g., non-profits) they want to support—and do as much due diligence as is needed. Pick a small group of organizations, and then—once you’ve picked them—develop a long-term partnership where you go big with those partners. Invest in people and the organization, not a project. You want to go to the CEO and create a strategy based on systems change, but one that’s not bogged down by red tape and having multiple-cooks-in-the-kitchen. For instance, you might not need a Board of Directors. What you need is trust, great partners (grantees and investees), staff members who know how to get money out the door using a variety of capital tools like grants, program-related—or mission-related—investments, and thought leadership to bring others on-board. Collaborate with other funders and identify where your capital can de-risk social innovations and encourage bigger funders and investors to support these causes. And ensure your funding is catalytic.
This process really needs to be lean, effective, and fast moving. The issues we’re addressing in the world today are billion-to-trillion-dollar issues, and they’re only continuing to get bigger and more complex. To address climate change, to solve the global water crisis, to address rising inequality—it’s going to cost anywhere from $5-7 trillion.* So, this is where corporate philanthropy could make a big impact.
*According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
CF: Finally, how do organizations select the right partners that align with their brand and mission?
AL: The Skoll Foundation has spent more than a decade looking at a group of incredible social entrepreneurs who are tackling the world’s most pressing issues—with the goal of figuring out how to do philanthropy differently and address some of the failures of the past 50 years.
First and foremost, they wanted to create a structure whereby the global capital markets—which have trillions of dollars in capital—could chime in, as it relates to where philanthropic dollars are making the greatest impact. There’s only so much philanthropy can do. And global capital markets have the majority of capital resources available. So, how do we come up with business models that are supported by philanthropy, serve those living in poverty—because they are a market to be served, not a problem to be solved—and able to unlock more capital from the global capital markets? For instance, if you could put $10 million in philanthropy toward a social enterprise business model or an investment fund—which will unlock an additional $100 million capital from financial institutions, and help 5 million people get access to safe water or affordable housing—why would you not want to pursue that approach?
Second, how does this solution or idea respond to a market demand? In other words, we know that millions of people living in poverty today want to participate financially to improve their lives. How do we respond to that in a way where they can be emboldened as consumers, and give them access to financial services? How do we ensure that our intervention isn’t endlessly creating a need for charity and handouts? How do we look at it differently from that standpoint?
Third, how do we make sure that we put ourselves out of business eventually? We want to solve these problems. We want to take away the need for our existence as a non-profit or funder. Here’s another idea: What if foundations were also in the business of fully spending their endowments?
To wrap this up: The concentration of wealth in the U.S. is at an all-time high—and we saw that just last year billionaires added $1.9 trillion to their wealth amidst a global pandemic, while eight million Americans fell into poverty. The degree of poverty is huge, and individual and corporate wealth is surging. So, to begin making a dent in some of the world’s most intractable issues, we desperately need billionaires and capital markets to place bigger bets on social innovations, entrepreneurs, and non-profits who have demonstrated the ability to generate systemic change—and we need it NOW.
About Lebec Consulting
Lebec Consulting is a women-led firm that specializes in advising corporations, foundations, high-net-worth individuals, financial institutions, and entrepreneurs on how to achieve their greatest social impact through strategic philanthropy and impact investments. With sustainability, innovation, and systems change at the center of our strategy, we think outside the box and look beyond traditional philanthropy. Our goal is to provide these key stakeholders with the best possible roadmap to achieve impact in ways that will truly reverse the tides of global inequality.