The NY entrepreneur swapping start-ups for charity

Alexandre Mars, founder and CEO of Epic Foundation, speaks at the 'Fast-Track cities: ending the AIDS epidemic' event in New York, on June 6, 2016 (AFP Photo/Timothy A. Clary) (AFP/File)

New York (AFP) - After making millions before turning 40, a New York-based entrepreneur is dreaming of transforming charitable giving by bringing his start-up stardust and venture-capital spirit to the world of NGOs.

Alexandre Mars set up Epic Foundation in 2014 with the goal of providing rich benefactors with a more transparent opportunity to donate to projects benefiting children and young people under the age of 25 in Brazil, India, Southeast Asia, the United States, West Africa and Western Europe.

The organization vets recipients -- non-governmental organizations and social enterprises with an annual budget of under $25 million -- and channels money from donors, with Mars meeting all administrative costs himself.

Donors receive regular updates enabling them to track exactly how their money is being spent. Epic can also arrange meetings between the wealthiest donors and the non-profits they fund.

"An Upper East Side donor who takes his two 14-year-old kids to a shelter and spends two hours with a social entrepreneur?" says Mars, a 41-year-old father of three. "I don't think you can put a price on that."

Born and educated in France, Mars moved to New York six years ago. After making a fortune setting up and selling various Internet companies, he is now devoted full-time to Epic Foundation.

So what brings a man so driven by business that he embarked on his first venture in high school into the vastly different aid community?

Money, he tells AFP at a restaurant underneath his New York offices in SoHo, was just a means to realizing his real ambitions to "have a real impact."

He founded A2X, one of Europe's first web agencies, in 1996. In 2001, he set up the mobile marketing firm Phonevalley, which went on to become one of Europe's largest such agencies.

All along, he says, his real ambition was to do what he's doing now.

- Not another foundation -

In France, he is often compared to the wealthier and more internationally prominent US billionaires Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who have committed to giving away practically all their fortunes.

Although he pays tribute to work already being done in the charity world, Mars believes he is providing something different -- a bridge between donors and recipients.

His foundation currently employs 20 people.

"We're creating a movement, not another foundation," he says.

Lack of trust, time and knowledge mean that while lots of companies and individuals can donate sums, they frequently cite wanting to do more.

Enter Epic, which assesses the organizations in which clients invest, much like a venture capital firm. Except on this occasion, there is no profit.

After extensive analyses select the right organizations, Epic systematically sends teams on the ground to better understand the work they are doing.

Mars spent three years conducting market research before launching.

"The world of charity hasn't changed for years," he says. "The tools are there, but they have not been adapted."

His goal for 2016 is to generate $10 million in donations. Epic will also open up to private individuals later this year.

Thanks largely to his contacts book, an enticing project, impeccable presentation and wide network, his organization attracts heads of businesses, celebrities and politicians typically not on non-profits' radars.

"We are creating a power structure, an apolitical one," Mars says. "Because apart from extremists, we work with everyone."