An interview with Etienne Eichenberger, co-founding partner at philanthropy organisation WiSE, Geneva

Date: 30 Dec 2005


Wise philanthropy, based in Geneva, have collaborated with many prestigious names in the wealth sector. These include multi family office Sand Aire and renowned philanthropy consultants New Philanthropy Capital. Etienne Eichenberger and Maurice Machenbaum are founders and executive directors and launched the company two years ago. Maurice previously worked in the social field in Africa and Latin America particularly focusing on childrens’ issues.

A defining moment for launching the company happened when Maurice was struggling to raise money in an NGO in Central America. He heard from Etienne that a retiree wanted to get involved with philanthropy. “Although just 27, we were keen to engage people in giving.” Says Etienne. “We recommended the client learn Spanish, got him a computer and at sixty five years of age, took him to Central America. When later his mother died he eventually gave up his life and moved to Central America to work in an organisation that helps local people. We thought at the time that we did an amazing job at changing his life but later we realised he changed ours.”
Etienne’s career, which spans social agenda initiatives for corporates, includes Nestle in India; the SDC, Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation; Avina in Latin America and the World Economic Forum “We achieved tremendous things in troubled times.” Says Etienne. “I also got the sense that people were willing to go beyond their normal responsibilities to help others, which is why we felt there was more that we could do in this area.” He concedes that the early days weren’t always easy. “We had to work hard to convince the first families and individuals to work with us. It took a while to build our reputation.”

Etienne says they opted not to be an NGO because they thought it essential to offer proper business advice and services. He also says that family offices have been the most receptive to their offering.

Etienne agrees with the sentiments of a past Citywealth interviewee, Melissa Berman, from Rockefeller Philanthropy in New York. “For philanthropy to be effective for the donor, it’s important to understand the aspirations they have in their day to day life and to spend time building a relationship.” He says often families may have different aspirations, so it will take time to consolidate thoughts and agree on programmes to be funded. “We follow a four step process, which is profiling, identification, planning and monitoring with offer support at every stage. We think we are taking a lead in the market by taking time to look at issues from different angles and think about the impact, which is helping make room for a fresher kind of philanthropy.”

He says clients they deal with are usually interested in both global and local giving. “What we observe in our experience is that clients give globally and will usually also have a strong view on whether to participate in Africa or not. The big difference culturally is that in the US, $3 would be given globally and $97 locally but in Switzerland more dollars would go global. “You can look at statistics, but each family wants to do something different.” He says. “One of our clients is a next generation donor but because her family name is known, she wants to work on projects away from her home jurisdiction.” Etienne believes there is a growing bank of intermediaries in the philanthropy area, ready to assist in moving decision making from a purely emotional response to a more process driven one. “It should help improve the information flow between donors and recipients.”

Of philanthropic nuances, Etienne adds a view. “There is a strong tradition of philanthropy across Europe but individuals and families have a different way of expressing it. We’ve come across a number of individuals who were being very effective in philanthropy but not publicising their work. Others might look at NGO’s to form bilateral agreements.”

Etienne says the first Wise motto they live by is ‘philanthropy is a means to an end and the end is social impact.’ “Our second one is ‘learning by doing.’ If we look at our process and its approach, we believe that people like to experience results, so we help donors move into action and suggest they should learn from their success as much as from their failures. “Many parents take a lead in their family business to engage their children. It can become an asset in terms of helping children learn for a career.”

The Swiss and Continental Europeans have shown the highest interest in their services and Etienne says private banks are starting to engage more with the idea. “They are moving slowly and are too often wary of diminishing client assets.” He confirms that family offices are the really interested parties and are “going beyond contemplation.” For private banks with concerns about asset reduction, Etienne explains his view. “Its about helping clients with something personal, taking client advisers a step closer to trusted adviser status which ultimately may help the client be more open about their entire fortune, not just a slice of it.” Which suggests that an increased ‘share of wallet’ is an outcome of this route. Despite this sentiment, Etienne says they prefer a few in depth relationships with forward looking institutions and names the Banquiers Privés in Geneva and the Banque de Luxembourg as two of those.

Of the future, Etienne says he expects their organisation to grow but adds. “We will always operate from Geneva.” Despite seventy percent of their work involving global giving. He explains why. “We can only work with a number of families or individuals. Our independence form financial institutions is key but we will continue to operate alongside with them for the benefit of their clients.” He recommends a Geneva and US-based organisation called FSG – social impact advisers who have been doing work with corporates in the region. “They have been doing tremendous work. Confirms Etienne.

In terms of giving, the two have defined a number of markets in which they can operate whilst they grow. “We look for entrepreneurship; a modicum of social development and have excluded markets where there is war because we can’t take clients for site visits.” They work in South East Asia, Tanzania, Brazil, Columbia, Switzerland and France. Wise has been reviewing partner programmes in Columbia that work with elderly people and also a school in Vietnam, for youths coming from poor families, handicapped children and rehabilitation work. “We select good partners and organisations rather than good projects and stick with them to develop successful initiatives.”

On the profiles of the family they work with Etienne says that this is hard to generalize. But we feel that on one side we see people move into philanthropy when they’ve been successful in business but on the other side they see families more concerned about transferring wealth to children. “They are keen to see what value they can leverage to help children take decisions about the assets they will own when they grow up.”

I ask about ‘good’ philanthropic programmes and Etienne gives an interesting answer. “I am cautious about saying someone or something is good. There is totally no right or totally wrong, its about what a client wants to achieve. I am constantly impressed with individuals who want to help the world and make individual journeys.”

As to the size of money your clients will need to participate with Wise, Etienne explains “200,000 Euro over the next three years is our entry point because we want our services to be accessible and to offer good counselling at low levels, but it also goes upwards with much larger amounts. ¬©

4 rue corps saints, CP 174
1211 Geneva 4 – Switzerland
t: +4122 3217737
f: +4122 7325559
skype: etienne.eichenberger

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