Foto: Fred Merz

Doing good knows no limits

Philanthropy as part of a company’s DNA

Patrick Odier is Senior Mana­ging Part­ner of the private bank Lombard Odier & Cie SA, and Presi­dent of the Board of its corpo­rate foun­da­tion, Fonda­tion Lombard Odier. He is the sixth genera­tion to stand at the helm of his firm, foun­ded in 1796, repre­sen­ting the bank’s tradi­ti­ons and family values. 

The Philanthropist: Is phil­an­thro­pic enga­ge­ment part of a company’s respon­si­bi­lity to society?

Patrick Odier: They are connec­ted, but should not be confu­sed. Our bank, like any company, must achieve a result that allows it, and its services, to deve­lop. Its objec­tive is profi­ta­bi­lity. As a company, we are respon­si­ble for main­tai­ning people’s jobs. When it comes to phil­an­thropy, we have a voca­tion that is not necessa­rily reflec­ted in finan­cial returns. We faci­li­tate projects that would often not be reali­sed without phil­an­thro­pic contributions. 

Is phil­an­thropy one of Lombard Odier’s values?

It’s part of our DNA in the sense that we want to be invol­ved, to contri­bute and to have an impact.

Is this desire present throughout the whole company?

As a company that is run and owned enti­rely by its Mana­ging Part­ners, our Bank has a strong focus on the human factor. Respon­si­bi­lity towards our society and the ecosy­stem in which we operate is important to us. This sense is probably stron­ger in a priva­tely held company than in a listed corpo­ra­tion. This respon­si­bi­lity is part of our philo­so­phy, and we have forma­li­sed it by deve­lo­ping, for example, our offe­ring in the field of sustainable finance and by beco­m­ing a B Corp certi­fied company. Phil­an­thro­pic thin­king runs throughout our entire company. It is important when  advi­sing clients and it is also important for our employees, so they can iden­tify fully with these values. 

Tradi­tion at Lombard Odier: Patrick Odier, repre­sen­ting the sixth genera­tion.
Photo: Fred Merz

How do you manage this?

We have deve­lo­ped tools that allow us to mobi­lise the company’s resour­ces. In turn, employees are encou­ra­ged to deve­lop phil­an­thro­pic projects. They know that the Maison has the skills and the means to imple­ment them.

What is the signi­fi­cance of your family?

In our family, as in any family that has foun­ded a company, certain causes are favou­red depen­ding on the inte­rests or skills of the family members in question. Some are very keen on huma­ni­ta­rian work; others focus on the scien­ces or social issues. These vary­ing focal points can be found across every genera­tion of the family. Each has their own concerns, shaped by their envi­ron­ment and perso­nal sensibilities. 

«Phil­an­thropy is giving back to society.»

Patrick Odier

What domi­na­tes today?

Through the Fonda­tion Lombard Odier, we crea­ted a two-year programme to support the arts during the Covid-19 pande­mic, with a focus on Swiss cultu­ral insti­tu­ti­ons in loca­ti­ons where the Group has offices. We are active in terms of migra­tion, too. This area has always faced chal­len­ges, but they have become more acute recently. Along­side huma­ni­ta­rian aid, our corpo­rate foun­da­tion is invol­ved in educa­tion and trai­ning. We regu­larly have a concrete impact and brea­the life into these values. In turn, our atti­tude encou­ra­ges our employees. 

Is this easier in a family-run company?

I think so, yes. We are four foun­ding fami­lies and we are parti­cu­larly aware of our respon­si­bi­lity towards society. Of course, the fact that we are directly in charge, as owners and mana­gers, makes things easier. It’s a very effec­tive way of trans­mit­ting our values. 

Because you embody them?

Yes. Part­ners and employees are at the origin of our commit­ment. If they have a favou­red cause, they can propose a project. We have also crea­ted a plat­form that empowers employees to discuss their expe­ri­en­ces and to take initia­tive. Our work during Covid-19 is a good example of spon­ta­ne­ous action.

What did you do?

With the Covid-19 Relief Initia­tive, we used our foun­da­tion to support global projects, such as those run by Méde­cins Sans Fron­tiè­res in South Africa. We colla­bo­ra­ted with Fund­a­ción La Caixa in Spain to provide meals to child­ren in need when schools were closed, and also worked to distri­bute protec­tive equip­ment such as masks. The chal­lenge lay in obtai­ning them at a time when they were not readily avail­able, so we joined forces with a group of manu­fac­tu­rers and were able to procure masks via a Swiss foun­da­tion active in China. The quality control company SGS tested them for us and Swiss Air provi­ded a plane to trans­port them. This is corpo­rate phil­an­thropy, put into prac­tice by people – we are able to mobi­lise our part­ners to phil­an­thro­pic ends.

And you encou­rage other orga­ni­sa­ti­ons to act through the Corpo­rate Walk of Hope?

Fonda­tion Lombard Odier provi­ded start-up funding and incu­ba­tion support to this project by Terre des Hommes Suisse. It’s based on the Walk of Hope, which has been running for three deca­des. At this event, child­ren in Geneva take part in the walk to collect dona­ti­ons for children’s rights. The Covid-19 crisis inter­rup­ted this tradi­tion, dealing a heavy blow to the Terre des Hommes’ resour­ces. The Corpo­rate Walk of Hope was laun­ched in 2021 and employees are spon­so­red by their company to take part.

Do you often work with a network? 

We work with a network of foun­da­ti­ons. We do not want to reinvent the wheel: we are not experts on certain topics, so we seek out specialists.

What are the advan­ta­ges of having your own foundation?

Some­ti­mes just dona­ting money is not enough. We have a long-stan­ding rela­ti­ons­hip with the Inter­na­tio­nal Commit­tee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and are a foun­ding member of its Corpo­rate Support Group. At a discus­sion several years ago with the ICRC presi­dent, we spent some time thin­king about how we could combine our finan­cial exper­tise with the ICRC’s huma­ni­ta­rian aid know­ledge. The result was a new finan­cial instru­ment: the Programme for Huma­ni­ta­rian Impact Invest­ment (PHII), also known as the “Huma­ni­ta­rian Impact Bond”. It enab­les the construc­tion and opera­tion of physi­cal reha­bi­li­ta­tion centres in the Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic of the Congo, Nige­ria and Mali. Fonda­tion Lombard Odier provi­ded start-up finan­cing and suppor­ted the deve­lo­p­ment of the bond, which is funded by private inve­stors. We want to drive these inno­va­tive finan­cial solu­ti­ons even further forward, genera­ting new resour­ces for huma­ni­ta­rian and health­care-rela­ted projects. 

Does the fact that so many orga­ni­sa­ti­ons are present in Geneva make your work easier?

Abso­lutely. People know each other. We can take the tram to the heart of the inter­na­tio­nal orga­ni­sa­ti­ons in 10 minu­tes. This Swiss concept of “Inter­na­tio­nal Geneva”, that is, the inter­na­tio­nal nature of huma­ni­ta­rian aid and multi­la­te­ral dialo­gue, is very important in order to be effec­tive in this field. This concen­tra­tion helps a lot.

«Some­ti­mes it’s not enough to simply donate money.»

Patrick Odier

Is this why Geneva is such an attrac­tive loca­tion for foundations?

It’s not just the number of these orga­ni­sa­ti­ons that counts, but their quality. There are experts in Geneva in all kinds of areas, which is excep­tio­nal. There are not many topics we cannot deal with here. 

You also support the Centre for Phil­an­thropy at the Univer­sity of Geneva.

Yes, with pride and enthusiasm.

Why are you enga­ged in phil­an­thro­pic research?

Through our foun­da­tion, we are one of the Centre’s foun­ding part­ners. We have always belie­ved acade­mic rese­arch to be parti­cu­larly helpful in the field of finance. It brings necessary scien­ti­fic accredi­ta­tion to the domain of phil­an­thropy, as well as to impact inve­sting or sustainable finance. Phil­an­thropy raises many questi­ons: for example, how can one can effi­ci­ently and secu­rely fund projects that are often very complex? To answer this question, we need tools that cannot be deve­lo­ped purely at a prac­ti­cal level without input from applied and theo­re­ti­cal rese­arch. There is equally no single, correct gover­nance approach for a phil­an­thro­pic orga­ni­sa­tion. Diffe­rent models exist. Rese­ar­ching, deve­lo­ping and testing these models, step by step, is a task for the acade­mic commu­nity. Then there’s the question of tax exemp­tion, for example.

Meaning?

This is an issue with major leverage in the US, but less so in other regi­ons. Certain groups are calling tax exemp­tion into question. The thin­king behind it is that only the rich are active in phil­an­thropy, and there’s no reason why these people should be able to deduct their gifts from their taxable inco­mes. These thoughts bridge the divide between philo­so­phy and acade­mic rese­arch, between finan­cial and fiscal argu­ments. They should be rese­ar­ched by a neutral body with exper­tise in this area, and that’s where the centre comes in. That said, it is important not to over-intel­lec­tua­lise the topic. 

Is the role of phil­an­thropy controversial?

The role of phil­an­thropy must be deba­ted. In itself, phil­an­thropy is necessary – just because only a mino­rity is able to donate is not a cause for fear or avoid­ance. On the contrary. I think that almost every one of us has the means to be a philanthropist. It’s not only a question of money: often, skills are what count. Many doctors travel to disa­ster-hit areas to donate their skills without recei­ving payment in return. People can be mobi­li­sed to do good. Phil­an­thropy is about giving time, energy, skills and money to the commu­nity. But this is a crucial debate. What is the rela­ti­ons­hip between phil­an­thropy and the state? We must consi­der them as linked enti­ties, perhaps also in asso­cia­tion with the role of sustainable finance. 

How do you see this sector deve­lo­ping? Do you think the next genera­tion will shift the values and focal areas?

No. Socie­tal sensi­bi­lity is doubt­less much more evol­ved, but I don’t believe this is a genera­tio­nal question. Some topics mean much more to a parti­cu­lar genera­tion, such as climate protec­tion and the wasting of resour­ces for example. Indeed, these topics will carry great weight for future genera­ti­ons, but they are also of concern to the current genera­tion. This genera­tio­nal divi­sion seems less signi­fi­cant on these topics, but may be more pronoun­ced in fields such as culture or technology. 

Photo: Fred Merz

How will the role of compa­nies in phil­an­thropy evolve?

Compa­nies will take on a more important role as a way of sharing econo­mic success, and they will incre­a­singly do so with tools adap­ted to the purpose. This will result in a balance and a middle ground between the model of pure econo­mic profi­ta­bi­lity and one that accounts for econo­mic and social aspects. We are in the midst of this tran­si­tion. Compa­nies that give up part of their margins in the short term to imple­ment sustainable prac­ti­ces are contri­bu­ting to a redis­tri­bu­tion of resour­ces, which will be in their favour in the long term. I think this is a very desi­ra­ble deve­lo­p­ment. Phil­an­thropy itself will also follow this trend. Some fields of acti­vity will remain diffi­cult to invest in because they are diffi­cult to address or too speci­fic, even though they may be inte­re­sting. These concerns will remain for phil­an­thro­pic enga­ge­ment. One chal­lenge will be how to manage this enga­ge­ment effec­tively. Nume­rous foun­da­ti­ons focus on cancer rese­arch, for instance, but how can these resour­ces be pooled better?

Will colla­bo­ra­tion become more important? 

Yes. But it’s important not to over-orga­nise: we must remain prag­ma­tic, effi­ci­ent and agile, not inve­sting too much in the orga­ni­sa­tion but ensu­ring that ever­yone has access to information.

New initia­ti­ves from civil society are cham­pio­ning their causes. Crowd­fun­ding is offe­ring new funding models. Is tradi­tio­nal phil­an­thropy facing competition?

Taking about ‘compe­ti­tion’ when dona­ting to good causes is not a good start. Instead, they should spur each other on: doing good knows no limits. What counts is how well we go about it. Some models are better adap­ted to certain circum­stan­ces than others, and they should not be compa­red. There’s no such thing as a bad example of phil­an­thro­pic gene­ro­sity, but it needs profes­sio­na­li­sa­tion; we need stan­dards. At the same time, we must retain the spon­ta­n­eity of these initia­ti­ves, as this spon­ta­n­eity drives all kinds of deve­lo­p­ments. Many things would never have been possi­ble without it. I have laun­ched a crowd­sour­cing campaign with my child­ren for a small public health infra­st­ruc­ture project. The ability to commu­ni­cate infor­ma­tion about a project to a broa­der audi­ence is a major advan­tage. We have a respon­si­bi­lity to use this new tech­no­logy and we should encou­rage this. Addi­tio­nally, chari­ta­ble orga­ni­sa­ti­ons need these skills, so they can deve­lop the reflex of using them. 

 

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