Charity goes hand in hand with responsibility: the Roger Federer Foundation shows why a charity’s impact is as important as its purpose.
‘If we manage to solve a problem at a cost of 100 million Swiss francs, that sounds good,’ says Janine Händel, adding, ‘but it’s better if we can solve it at a cost of 50 million.’ The CEO of the Roger Federer Foundation sees charities as being responsible for handling the money entrusted to them so that it has an impact. Why? Because they deprive the state of taxable income. That said, their tax-exempt status is an assumption, she says, and charities have to justify it, time and again. That’s why the Roger Federer Foundation sets store by ensuring its work can be measured. ‘We need to strive to be as cost-efficient and effective as possible,’ she says. ‘Our return on investment is social, not financial.’ The foundation has a professional set-up so that it can achieve this. Its work includes a good deal of research and planning, along with a healthy amount of innovation in terms of testing out new approaches. ‘Impactful charitable work isn’t a sure-fire success,’ she says.
The impact of a charity’s founder
The man who established the foundation, Roger Federer, serves as a guarantee that its work will be impactful. He heads up the Board of Trustees, and imbues it with his values. ‘Everyone has a strength, and our job is to promote it. The solution lies in people themselves,’ says Janine Händel. People’s autonomy, and respect towards them, is key, she says. These are the problems, and the challenges, facing experts, and also the reasons why the Roger Federer Foundation hopes not to use its philanthropic impact to force people towards its own solutions. Instead, it strives to assist people with analysing their problem, help them find a solution, and aid them in putting it into practice. Janine Händel mentions a project in Zimbabwe as an example. In a poverty-stricken region of the country, mothers are mobilised and organised into groups who purchase food and prepare school lunches. This self-help project is having a significant leveraging effect, meaning that around 600 children can enjoy a school dinner almost every day – and have been able to do so for the more than eight years that the project has been running. ‘Putting in an investment of around 1,000 Swiss francs, we analysed the problem with the mothers and sketched out a solution. We helped them to organise themselves,’ says Janine Händel. If you calculate that each meal is worth 0.25 Swiss francs, these women have been providing school meals amounting to 20,000 Swiss francs a year, off their own bat. The foundation has defined a clear priority area for action so that it can use its modest budget in an impactful way: educational projects in the region of southern Africa. This also enables them to keep their administrative costs below ten percent. Its professional structure also bolsters the foundation at an operational level. ‘Of course, it’s great if there’s a sense of harmony between the Board of Trustees and management,’ she says. ‘But you don’t want too much, because debate helps us gain analytical skills and perspective.’
Charities feeling the winds of change
Discussions at the societal level are just as valuable. ‘How we understand the concept of charity is changing,’ she says: this concept doesn’t need to be congruent with the definition of tax exemption. Public engagement with the topic could help people understand what charities do. After all, Switzerland is home to 13,000 charities, but the public have a very limited understanding of their work. Apart from a few major charities, many of them perform their activities out of the limelight – and information about them is scarcely available. Janine Händel thinks that it’s the job of charities to provide this information. ‘We can do our homework to an even better standard, and communicate more transparently. That would not just involve us talking about our expenditures and goals: we’d need to discuss our impact, too.’ At the end of the day, this would boost both trust and appreciation, enabling society at large to better understand charities’ work and their impact alike.