Interview – Rogier van Vliet

Alliance magazine

‘Malaria is an area of interest for me, but with the Gates Foundation taking on this issue, along with the Global Fund, our added value becomes marginal.’

The Adessium Foundation, set up in 2005 by the van Vliet family in the Netherlands, is a relative newcomer to the foundation scene. Did the Gates Foundation have any influence on them when they were starting out, and what impact are initiatives such as the Giving Pledge having on philanthropy in Europe, we asked chairman Rogier van Vliet.

It is an important player throughout the whole sector, including Europe. When our foundation was searching for what role we should play within the sector, we looked around to try to understand what our added value would be. We saw the Gates Foundation being very active in communicating what they stand for, and trying to take on huge topics with a large asset base. The question is what added value is left for a foundation on the sideline that is not very visible but interested in many topics.

For example, malaria is an area of interest for me, but with the Gates Foundation taking on this issue, along with the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria − institutions that have such large assets − our added value as a foundation becomes marginal. And then you question whether you should even look into this or just go to another subject. You are inevitably left feeling that people with good ideas for fighting malaria will always go to Gates first because it’s got the biggest pot of money and is very ambitious.

At the same time it’s great that they are so strong and clear about what they want to achieve. That can be helpful in convening the space for that specific topic.

Do you think your own philanthropic family, more recently on the scene, would see Bill and Melinda Gates in any way as role models?

They have been very visible because of their background: people have been watching how they build their business and want to see how they take on this philanthropic challenge, which is of course very different.

You become a role model by showing others that you can use your resources in a particular way and that it is something we can admire. I think it will be enriching for them, and hopefully it will make others think that philanthropy is a good thing to do for your own experience. It is good to see them doing this and making use of their fame.

The most obvious use of their fame is the Giving Pledge, which has a growing number of ultra-wealthy people in the US signing up. What do you think about the Giving Pledge?

I first read about this in Fortune and I thought it was a great thing. It’s an American style of doing things, but I sympathize with the idea that people who have more than they need should try to go beyond their own needs. But I don’t think it should just be people with a certain figure – more than a billion or whatever. I think everyone should think that way, although the perception is that if you have a billion you can easily give away half of it and still live a very secure life.

So I sympathize with the thought but at the same time I’m not sure whether it should be so visible. It’s a personal decision to give money, so whether there should be a moral pressure that everyone should do it is questionable.

Another observation I have is that it is based on a quantitative model, getting more money flowing towards socially good programmes, but it doesn’t say anything about the quality. With the same amount of money you can be very destructive as well, so it’s not necessarily better to spend more money.

Is that a danger? There’s almost never been a foundation with this sort of spending power before.

I believe it’s the same with, say, country governments: it’s all about leadership and governance. If you have good governance and integrity, it can be a real blessing. But if used unwisely, power can be a destructive force. With an amount like this, where I assume there will be pressure from fiscal authorities to spend, they are aiming to create enormous initiatives that fight enormous problems. And you can end up taking a path that becomes more an abstract than a real solution.

Rogier van Vliet is a co-founder and chairman of the Adessium Foundation. Email

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Comments (1)

Ipe van der Deen

A good thing to do with excess income. One thing that comes to my mind is how did the Van Vliet family make their money? George Soros is seen as a philantopist but he made his fortune by speculating some East Asian currencies to bits. Reading the book The Winners take All, by Anand Giridharadas gives a good insight in how philantropy works. So it is good Rogier wants to work low profile.

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