Interview – Firoz Ladak

The Edmond de Rothschild Foundations consists of a dozen foundations with over a century of history behind them. These are the foundations of the French branch of the Rothschild family which has been living in Switzerland for the last 150 years. Firoz Ladak joined them in 2005 with a mandate to transform their longstanding charity legacy to a more strategic and impact-driven approach.

In practice, this has meant narrowing focus and developing some of the strongest threads of a longstanding history of philanthropy, Firoz Ladak told Caroline Hartnell – though he admits to remaining cautious about the ‘brave new world’ of strategic philanthropy. He is now working on an innovative initiative that involves bringing together philanthropists mainly from the global South to share new models and build together a community of knowledge and best practice.

What does changing to a strategic and impact-driven approach mean in practice?
When this generation, headed by Ariane and Benjamin de Rothschild, came on board – the seventh generation of this particular branch of the family – they felt that after reorganizing the banking group and financial assets, it was time to professionalize the charity activities and consider how to consolidate this cluster of foundations that did not necessarily interlink with one another apart from the fact that they were all presided over by one person, Baron Benjamin. They wanted to give this unique network a more outcome-driven focus. In order to achieve this vision, they looked for someone from investment banking rather than from philanthropy or NGOs, so I seemed to be the right match.

Why did they want someone from the financial sector?

I think they wanted someone who had experience in managing the development and financing of large projects, and dealing with multiple partners while ensuring the achievement of specific milestones, as well as knowledge of the developing world. Perhaps because they are bankers themselves, they felt they could find all this within the sector they were most familiar with, even if I had not built my professional track record at Rothschild! It has been amazing to learn how experience in, let’s say, financing a large infrastructure project in southern Africa, dealing with the World Bank in Egypt, or even looking at a satellite operation in Hong Kong can help develop a more strategic approach to philanthropy.

Having said that, I didn’t want to dismiss more than 100 years of charity giving. Ariane and Benjamin de Rothschild were convinced that the two lines of business and philanthropy are not separate; they work together. Rothschilds have been both bankers and donors from the outset, starting in Frankfurt in the 1760s, so our big challenge was to unite continuity and innovation.

So what was your brief?
The first task was to sit down with the family to work out what would be the guiding line. This overarching focus was defined as education and capacity-building. Then, in order to make sense of so much that had been accomplished in various domains and that they still wanted to achieve, we branched out into specific areas, namely art and culture, ophthalmology and neurosciences, social entrepreneurship and finally the somewhat sensitive area of cross-cultural dialogue, especially promoting better dialogue between Jewish and Muslim communities. In all these fields, we develop models that promote pluralism, outreach and social empowerment.

There seems to be a tradition among Jewish philanthropists of supporting Jewish causes. Has this been part of the Rothschild tradition?
There has always been a strong commitment to supporting Jewish causes, but not exclusively. In our mission statement, we do not focus on Jewish life or Jewish institutions only, but we do try to contribute to the links between Jewish communities and the rest of the world. My understanding of the Rothschild tradition is that it is driven by a culture of Jewish philanthropy, but in a very inclusive manner. Benjamin de Rothschild often says that he wants people to be chosen first and foremost because of their capabilities rather than their communal affiliations.

So concentrating on these core themes has meant a narrowing of focus and dropping some other areas?
Yes, it has. I’ll give you an example in health. When I joined I found there were many projects in our existing portfolio like supporting research in cancer, AIDS or geriatrics, but I Hospital in Parisfelt that we should specialize in the areas where our contribution was most strongly established, namely ophthalmology and neurosciences. The family had created a specialized hospital in Paris in the early 20th century (pictured today; all photos copyright Francois du Chatenet). In the explosive context of the Dreyfus affair, Julie de Rothschild, the current Baron’s great-aunt, felt that in order for a Jewish family to express its commitment to citizenship, to being French, they should create a hospital that would open its doors to all free of charge, regardless of political or religious affiliations; at the time this was daring. The focus was from the outset on the treatment of the eyes, which later expanded to the related field of neurosciences; theFondation Ophtalmologique continues today to enjoy a remarkable reputation in these fields. In each of our targeted domains, we try to create centres of excellence. Moreover, a more recent development is that wherever possible we also look for partnerships to fund specific ventures and consolidate expertise.

So in a way you’re honouring the legacy of 100 years of charitable activity by developing some of the stronger threads?
Absolutely. I think one needs to be very careful in creating a frame for strategic or impact-driven philanthropy. There is definitely merit in putting together tools that will ensure that the results you’re trying to achieve are tangible and measurable, that your partners or beneficiaries should be held accountable for the money they receive, and that models can be shared.

But I have to say that I’m at times critical of this ‘brave new world’ of strategic philanthropy because it does seem to ignore the fact that people have been giving for centuries and that simple generosity across numerous cultures has achieved a lot of good, and not only in the western world. Like the Tatas in India or the Rockfellers in the US, the Rothschilds represent a particular legacy that has grown over time. Education would not have grown in India without the extraordinary support of the Tata Trusts. In the same way, social housing models in Europe were developed in the 19th century by families like the Rothschilds. They paved the way for the emergence of a welfare state, becoming what in England you’d call council housing, and in France we call HLM – moderate-rent housing. In many ways, they were a precursor for this model. So we continue to be innovative. What we’re really doing is just taking that one step further, narrowing the focus into a few centres of excellence.

You talk about work being impact-driven. How will you know what the impact is?
There’s been a lot of discussion about how you measure impact. For example, we engage a lot in capacity building for social entrepreneurs, and over time you can assess how such training has contributed to their business plan, to their achieving financial sustainability and social impact. In this particular area I do think outcomes can be measured because you are moving closer to business tools and efficiency, although there are several debates over the measurement of social impact, which in my eyes is a good thing.

When it comes to art and culture, we are moving away from a tradition of patronage and focus increasingly on building links between artistic institutions and what I refer to as fragile communities. For instance, in New York we support the Learning through the Arts programme developed by the Guggenheim Museum, where artists are trained and placed in residence in schools in the Bronx and Harlem, so those kids are being exposed to a different approach to teaching and learning. Beyond an exposure to the artistic world, the impact assessment there focuses on whether this opening actually has a positive influence on more traditional subjects such as maths or English, and we have seen extensive research demonstrating how the building of such bridges enhances critical thinking.

I’ll give you another example: in Paris, we support the national Odeon Theatre in developing workshops (pictured) wOdeon theatre workshopshere for instance Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are being taught to people who have recently migrated from places such as Afghanistan, Ivory Coast or Cambodia and hardly speak French. I’ve attended these workshops, and it’s amazing how what Homer wrote in the 5th century BC talks to participants. I think this is the way to build bridges and embrace cultural diversity – by thinking out of the box and by looking at universal values. It was fascinating to see especially how women were blossoming because you were talking a language that also resonated with them. I wish those who govern us and define public policies could learn from such experiences in order to better fight exclusion and cultural discrimination.

Who came up with this idea?
Ideas arise through ongoing research and through creative discussions with my team and with our partners. I believe very strongly that art should not be for the elite, although it doesn’t need to be easy. I do have a problem with the word ‘access’ because it sounds condescending. Art is like anything else: it is challenging but can also be used it as an extraordinary tool for social empowerment.

I understand you have considered setting up ‘giving circles’ – can you tell me about this?

We’re not building ‘giving circles’ ourselves. What we are doing is supporting particular organizations that are trying to professionalize philanthropy and create affinity groups or giving circles. Our contribution focuses on research. So for example, we have commissioned a specific study on crafts and livelihoods in India that could result in the setting up of a particular group of local donors in this area. We are happy to support philanthropic education and research in particular markets, but I do feel that in the end local wealth and expertise is best positioned to develop philanthropy at home.

You have talked about wanting to work with philanthropists in emerging economies and maybe set up a network for the Global South. How did you come to this?

I will only say a few words about what is still a project in the making. Through the investigation that we have conducted for instance in South Africa, India, Pakistan and the MENA region, and through my previous experience as a banker dealing with many of these countries and with multilateral institutions like the World Bank, I have found that some of the most interesting development models come from initiatives led by families and private groups.

There are numerous networks that already exist and they do a wonderful job, but we want to create an initiative that somehow goes beyond networks. We want to ensure that this sharing of knowledge and best practice results in showcasing and disseminating models; it should not be just an information channel from the North or the West, but also philanthropy from the South inspiring the world with its own models.

I think this will be primarily an initiative led by private philanthropists, but it will be important to bring in academics and professional advisers as well. In many countries, the boundaries between private philanthropy and corporate giving are more blurred than they are in the West, so we also want to look at this link, and the extent to which leadership in philanthropy can have an impact on corporate and shareholders’ social responsibility – bearing in mind again that we have to be very careful not to impose our own outlook, or to dismiss longstanding traditions of giving in all these countries. Giving to a synagogue, a mosque or a village can have as much merit as what we refer to as strategic philanthropy.

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