Episode 3: Frederic Hoffmann, Board Member, Mava Foundation
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Speaker 2: Welcome to our Spotlight on Family Governance podcast, a part of JP Morgan's Life and Legacy series and I'm your host Maya Prabhu. In this episode, we welcome Frederic Hoffmann, a fifth generation member of a business family from Switzerland. Frederic devotes his time to supporting entrepreneurs in both the non-profit and commercial organizations. He focuses on sustainability strategies and enjoys working on innovative projects. Frederic has entrepreneurial experience and in 2018, built a venture fund investing in food and agricultural technology. Today, Frederic serves on the board of and advises, several Cleantech startups and also philanthropic organizations, including the Mava Foundation, which was established by his grandfather. He's a world economic forum, young global leader and in 2021, 22, he's doing an executive MSC in social business and entrepreneurship at the London School of Economics. Welcome Frederic, thank you for joining us.
Speaker 3: Hi Maya, thank you very much for having me.
Speaker 2: Frederic, you are interested in sustainability strategies in both the business and philanthropic spheres of your life. Can you take us back to how you were inspired to get involved in this space and to really make it a core purpose for your work?
Speaker 3: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. I grew up in quite an environmentally minded family and I think there was always a bit of an obvious decision that whatever you do, positive environmental impact has to be at the center of that. I don't see why you would want to devote career to something that isn't doing that, so it's always been a bit of an obvious choice for me. But specifically looking at business and nonprofit strategies, I think has really been influenced actually by my experience with Mava foundation, when I was just out of Uni, one of my first sort of side mandates was joining the board of the Mava Foundation.
At the time, a lot of the conversations were around our next strategy for the next period and that was about building institutional resilience with our partners and so a lot of conversations in 2014, 15, 16, about business models for conservation and for sustainability, which got me very excited. This idea that blending commercial sectors and not for profit sectors actually can yield some really interesting human organizations with outcomes beyond capital return or beyond return on money. So that I think, is really where it started and I'm realizing now when I say 2015, that's seven years ago, so it's been quite a while.
Speaker 2: Wow. I'm sure it's been a really exciting period of exploration and discovery as well as, the field has developed so much and it's become more common now. There are more opportunities available to really put your passion at the heart of the way you do your philanthropy and also your business life and that they don't need to be separate.
Speaker 3: It is great that sustainability has moved into the mainstream and so obviously, it means we have a new set of challenges, which is to make sure that we do it right and we don't just do it because we all think that it's a good thing to do. We actually need to do it properly, but it's a very nice challenge to have, I think.
Speaker 2: Absolutely. Tell us about the origins of the Mava Foundation. How did your grandfather get started in philanthropy and what did he hope that the foundation might achieve?
Speaker 3: Yes, absolutely. So my grandfather was a zoologist by trade and ornithologist, so focusing on birds and migration, specific topic of interest, as well as the habitats in the wetlands of the Mediterranean. But, his day job and a lot of his work was in the pharmaceutical industry and so he had these two big elements in his life, I think. The foundation, which was actually only founded in 1994, the work started way before, about 50 years earlier at the end of the second world war, when he started being able to leave Switzerland and support projects of nature conservation. Notably in the Camargue in the South of France, but also in the [inaudible 00:05:08] in West Africa and in the Prespa region of Northern Greece. So his personal interest really led it and I think for the first large period, it was him supporting in a private way, his friends in the field, and then that formalized in the late nineties and early two thousands, started to become more of, we could call it an institution or more of a formal secretariat at least.
Then when I joined in 2015, we were developing a much more robust and program driven strategy, in part because my grandfather was getting quite old and also because the foundation from the beginning was a spend down foundation. So a foundation which had an end date, which happens to be 2022, so we're running towards the end. A big part of this strategy that we were developing at the time is, how do we work with our partners to make sure that they're resilient and sustainable in an economical way, beyond the departure of the foundation, which has been a fascinating task, which I'm sure we'll have an opportunity to talk about today.
Speaker 2: Yes, most definitely and it's really remarkable that he made that decision around spending down. More and more philanthropists in my experience are starting to adopt that approach but certainly, at the time that he was thinking about it, it was still relatively new. Can you tell us a bit more about this decision, what you think might have been going through his mind to decide to do that?
Speaker 3: Yeah. Yes. I think ironically to your question, what probably was going through his mind is, I don't want people to put words in my mouth after I've gone. He passed away a few years ago now, so I never actually had the chance to have a conversation about why spend down, but I can tell you what it's forced us to do, is have a real deep think about what it is that a foundation's mission is. Especially a foundation like the Mava foundation, which works across three different geographies on the topic of humans and nature and creating symbiotic relationships in which nature can thrive.
It did get us thinking about the idea that our role isn't necessarily to support these projects over the very long term, but to contribute to creating systems in which nature is valued in a way that means that it isn't under pressure. So our mission in a way has been, or at least our activities over the past few years, have been really to work with the people who are local to the problem, to understand how we can influence the economic pressures on landscapes to create more resilient and long term systems. Our partners have been phenomenal in this journey because they've also shown a lot of open mindedness about what it means to be an environmental NGO or local association going forward.
Speaker 2: That's a really important thing to remember for all philanthropists is exactly what you're saying. That while the funding organizations have the money and the resources to help support work, the local partners are real experts in what they do and it is really a partnership between those two things.
Speaker 3: Absolutely.
Speaker 2: It also really strikes me listening to you and what you were saying about your grandfather's strategy to establish a spend down foundation. I'm very struck by the real legacy that he has left in terms of, obviously funding and seeding some really important environmental work and conservation work and ensuring through the foundation's work that those organizations remain financially sustainable in the longer term. But also, part of that legacy is the real interest and inspiration that he has created within the family around conservation and the environment and the impact that you can have and you are a sort of living example of that, as it were.
Speaker 3: I think I might actually, if I can intervene with an idea, I think you mentioned the word family. Within the Mava system, let's call it, we actually call it the Mava family because it is a lot more broad and maybe a little anecdote about just thinking you had mentioned before how it all started. It started, I guess, with his passion and a lot of the people who were by his side at the beginning still are today. They've grown up through, or at least they've grown there, their careers, working along his side and now beyond. Actually, it's quite funny, if you walk around the Mava office today, most people will refer to him as Pappy, which means grandfather. That's what we call grandfather in Switzerland, rather than Dr. Hoffmann. So I think that's just a nice way to reflect that the family and the legacy that he did leave behind is far broader than the genetic family, which is fantastic because that's also is a sign of proactivity among the community. We're very lucky to be able to work along the side of people who've been touched along the way by him.
Speaker 2: To create such a wonderful sense of family-ness amongst everyone working there, whether you're a family member or an expert or a partner, how wonderful. It's one of the reasons I love working with family enterprises, this real sense of family-ness and in the culture of the organizations that are established. Let's talk about you and your role. You were the first member of the fifth generation to join the board. How did you approach preparing for your role?
Speaker 3: Well, I think a key thing for me... So at that point in my life, I was just finishing my undergraduate studies in development, economics and geography and I think a key thing for me was to sit down and listen as much as possible. The first, we have four or five board meetings per year, depending on the year and it was really a period of trying to understand what actually happens within this foundation, how a foundation's run. I think that did evolve quite quickly into realizing that, as a younger generation with maybe a more modern education, I did have a perspective that was useful.
So for me personally, it was quite an interesting learning experience because I learned that my voice was quite useful within that setting. [inaudible 00:11:48] in my professional life, the choices I've made in terms of which partners I'd work with and which projects I get involved on, because it shows that at least for me, that you can bridge across sectors and governance of a financial foundation for nature conservation often is conversations about things different to nature conservation. I think that's quite important, probably something I didn't expect. It's about people and it's about plans and objectives and scenarios.
Speaker 2: As well as the work in the field, so it's a really...
Speaker 3: Of course.
Speaker 2: Excellent learning all round and you were making a great contribution.
Speaker 3: Well, time will tell.
Speaker 2: Is there a grant or a project that you are particularly excited about?
Speaker 3: Yes, there is. In the context of this spending down strategy, we launched in, I think the conversation started in 2016 and maybe it was launched in 2017, the ISU, the Impact and Sustainability Unit and element of this well, least the motivation behind this was, obviously working with our partners to make them more resilient. One of the things that we noticed was a place where we could help, was in developing the next generation of nature conservation leaders. So within the Impact Sustainability Unit, we created, along with some partners, a program for leadership development and mentoring. Which basically consisted in taking a couple from each of our partner organizations, usually a junior and a senior, and where possible, a split gender group on a one year online journey through which they learned about development leadership, following a methodology called Leading Beyond Authority.
The idea behind that, or what we'd realized was that many of our partners, there was a lack of a second generation, or there was difficulty in finding out who would lead the organization forward through this transition. So this program's been very interesting. We've had now six cohorts, two weeks in person and the rest of the year is online. 170, maybe 180 people have gone through it from 26 different countries and so that's also helped us build a web of all of our partner organizations. What's been very, I think, enriching for the Mava network has been that it's created now, friendships between organizations that maybe knew of each other, but weren't close with each other. There's an understanding of a common challenge, which is not only about fundraising and about carrying out nature conservation activities in rural areas very often with strong economic pressures on the landscapes, but it's also an understanding that solutions could be found within the community.
I think there's something very powerful for the next period beyond the Mava foundation's existence, is that these ties will go on and they will hopefully be a very strong way in which the foundation has helped the conservation community in West Africa, the Mediterranean and the Alpine Arc beyond its existence.
Speaker 2: That's really special and I can imagine that for all the leaders involved and for the foundation, it's an invaluable network that will continue way beyond. Changing gears a little bit, what does the term family governance mean to you?
Speaker 3: It's a good question. I think there's a funny little contradiction in the idea of family governance I find personally, because the idea that governance is something that's quite formalized and family is something that's obviously not so formal. But I think maybe that's where I'll find my answer. I think the idea that in family governance, you do need to embrace the informal. It is challenging to professionalize relationships and one of the most important things I think, is recognizing that within a group of people that may know each other very well and most likely who grew up together, there can be diverse opinions and there can be diverse willingness to engage. I think that's probably the first challenge of family governance, is recognizing different appetites for engagement.
Speaker 2: Yes and for everyone to be able to engage or not, in the way that they would like to, in perhaps the business or foundation or other spaces, but also to continue to be embraced as a family member because they're still part of the family, but it doesn't mean you need to be part of any of the sort of governance mechanisms, as it were. What tips would you offer younger generations considering joining the board of their family foundation or any other governance forum?
Speaker 3: Well actually, I'll think back to the question you asked me earlier on about joining the board and how that was at the beginning. I think the period of reflection was important, to sort of pour into the history and to learn about what's going on and to listen to the people who are already in place, try and understand their positions. But equally I think, not fearing to speak up is very important. If you're thinking about joining a governance of a foundation or another body within the family setting.
There's probably a reason why you'll want to get engaged and there's probably a reason why the people on the other side of the table will want you engaged. So don't be scared of using your voice and your perspective, chances are some of it's wrong. That's fine. So one thing that I learned is that people say things that are wrong all the time, but learning with humility and being able to trust oneself with one's question, I think is quite important. That's also, in my experience, how you can bring something to the table and the conversations get much more interesting when you know that you're there for a reason.
Speaker 2: Wise words. Absolutely wise words and with that, thank you so much Frederic for this wonderful conversation.
Speaker 3: Thank you, Maya and thank you all for listening.
Frederic devotes his time to supporting entrepreneurs in both non-profit and commercial organisations. He focuses on sustainability strategy, and enjoys working on innovative projects. Frederic has entrepreneurial experience and in 2018 built a venture fund investing in food and agtech. He serves on the board of and advises clean-tech startups and philanthropic foundations, including the MAVA Foundation which was established by his grandfather. He is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.
“It was important, to pore into the history and to learn about what's going on [at the Foundation], to listen to the people who are already in place and try and understand their positions. But equally I think, not fearing to speak up is very important if you're thinking about joining the governance of a foundation or another body within the family setting.”