Photos: Marcus Steinmeyer; Illustartion: Ana Matsusaki

We must have these diffi­cult discussions

Philanthropy can offer solutions. At the same time, it has its own part to play in creating problems. Rodrigo Pipponzi wants to transform Brazil into a nation of charitable givers. Pipponzi, a social entrepreneur, has founded a company that turns his professional success into philanthropic good.

You dream of crea­ting a new culture of giving. Is there a need for this type of culture in Brazil?

We’ve got a major problem with distrust in Brazil. Ours is a coun­try where, since the era of colo­ni­sa­tion, people have had little trust, be it in insti­tu­ti­ons or other people. 

What does that mean for the third sector?

There’s a real lack of trust there, too. People are afraid to donate. It’s a problem exacer­ba­ted by the country’s stag­ge­ring social inequalities. 

That prevents people from donating?

If I donate money, people will think I’m too rich for my own good. Expo­sing ones­elf with money is also a secu­rity issue. Violence is an enorm­ous chall­enge in Brazil. There’s also others contexts, beside this one, that discou­rage people from talking about chari­ta­ble spen­ding. In many cases, it implies that those who donate do so out of a sense of guilt and should not talk about it.

Do you see a bright side to any of this?

In spite of what I’ve just descri­bed, we have a strong civil society in Brazil. The pande­mic has shown that we can build a better, stron­ger ecosystem. 

How so?

During the pande­mic, the speed with which the private and third sectors deli­vered solu­ti­ons was a wonderful thing to see. And it’s exactly the approach we should take. We’re working to change the beha­viour of society as a whole, to prove that we are a gene­rous nation, and we’re on the right path.

Where are you seeing that?

In recent years, Brazil has impro­ved its stan­ding signi­fi­cantly in the World Giving Index and is now ranked 18th. But we can do better – we have to. Many still view phil­an­thropy as the remit of the super-wealthy. They see chari­ta­ble giving solely as a response to crisis: there’s an emer­gency. Help is needed. They donate. 

‘Phil­an­thropy itself is a solu­tion, but at the same time, its very roots repre­sent one of the problems it’s meant to solve.’

Rodrigo Pipponzi

So people shouldn’t wait for a crisis to donate?

Chari­ta­ble giving should become a very natu­ral civil act. To accom­plish this, we’ve got to streng­then trust, improve the data, adapt the tax code and better prepare people who are alre­ady amenable to the idea. People have to under­stand the system.

You donate 100 % of the profits of your company’s products. What prompted you to start MOL as a social enterprise?

I come from a family of busi­ness-
people. Imple­men­ting my ideas was some­thing I always wanted to do, so I foun­ded the commu­ni­ca­tion agency MOL in 2003. I quickly disco­vered that commu­ni­ca­tion has the power to change people’s beha­viour. It’s an important tool for transformation.

How did the idea of chari­ta­ble giving become part of your busi­ness plan?

The foun­der of GRAACC is a close family friend. GRAACC is one of the leading orga­ni­sa­ti­ons in the fight against child­hood cancer in Brazil. It provi­des pro bono services for fami­lies and child­ren across the coun­try. GRAACC is where I first enga­ged in charity work and where I lear­ned to love phil­an­thropy. It’s also where I disco­vered the chal­lenges of fund­rai­sing. I was immer­sed in the third sector at the same time as I was buil­ding my business.

How did you connect the two?

We laun­ched a maga­zine called Sorria, which means ‘smile’. It was reason­ably priced and sold at the chain of phar­macies my family owns, then we dona­ted the proceeds to GRAACC.

Did that idea work?

We prin­ted 120,000 copies of the
first issue. It sold out in three weeks. We were able to donate BRL 270,000, which is more than CHF 50,000. Then we scaled the idea. Five years later, GRAACC was able to build a new hospi­tal with the dona­ted funds. These days, we produce a range of publi­ca­ti­ons and have given to around 200 NGOs. We have dona­ted more than BRL 63 million to date. 

Right: Rodrigo Pipponzi with Roberta Faria, co-foun­der and current CEO of Insti­tuto MOL. Below: The team of the Jornada Doadora, a project run by Insti­tuto MOL.
The goal of this first edition of the programme is to inform and stimu­late the team to become donors and share their dona­tion habits with their family and friends.

Your maga­zine is also remar­kable, in that it tells posi­tive stories.

Yes. It’s a colla­te­ral effect. We are crea­ting content for a better society. The stories we tell are inten­ded to improve fami­lies’ lives. Sorria, today, has become a series of books and other products with posi­tive content.

Are your readers aware that the proceeds of their purchase are going to charity?

We commu­ni­cate clearly on the product how the sales price is made up and where the money goes. It makes chari­ta­ble giving easy. We don’t have to ask anyone for a dona­tion. We’re offe­ring a cool product, and if people like it, they’ll buy it regu­larly. This expe­ri­ence has shown me how my work can serve society. 

How do things stand with the project these days?

We have expan­ded the company into a group that unites various initia­ti­ves. Insti­tuto MOL, our non profit, is commit­ted to promo­ting phil­an­thropy among people and in compa­nies. We have crea­ted an educa­tio­nal plat­form called Varejo com Causa, to educate profes­sio­nals on how to better inte­grate phil­an­thropy and social invest­ment into stra­tegy. The group’s mission is to strive for a nation of chari­ta­ble givers. 

Does Brazil have a common under­stan­ding of philanthropy?

Yes, among experts invol­ved in phil­an­thropy, but more than 200 million people live in Brazil, and within a popu­la­tion that big, profound social diffe­ren­ces exist. We have huge geogra­phi­cal contrasts, which is why we need a common under­stan­ding of phil­an­thropy. We have to demons­trate a new outlook on phil­an­thropy for people. We have to show them it isn’t just for wealthy indi­vi­du­als. And very importantly, it isn’t just about money. We’ve got to create a narra­tive about gene­ro­sity in our society. That’s a massive task and requi­res hard work. For it to succeed, that work needs to occur between sectors, civil society, private enter­prise and government. 

Does phil­an­thropy come into play where the state or private sector fails?

Yes, of course. Many people in Brazil would not have access to health­care or educa­tion without the third sector. But it’s more than just that. Phil­an­thropy is gover­ned by its own accoun­ta­bi­lity and is not the solu­tion itself. It stands in defence of demo­cracy, promo­tes a thri­ving society and has a posi­tive impact on people’s beha­viour. It can go where the state and private sector cannot and favour speci­fic causes, such as human rights. It can drive change, regard­less of any govern­ment agenda, and it can take grea­ter risks. It can influence and create public poli­cies. Phil­an­thropy has the poten­tial to unco­ver solu­ti­ons and rewrite the narra­tive. It effects change in a struc­tu­red and very thoughtful way.

Is that why all of society has to be involved?

We’re talking about soli­da­rity and gene­ro­sity here: the commit­ment must come from society as a whole. We’re talking about a new, common under­stan­ding of society itself. Major change is not possi­ble when parts of our society are shut out. Society mustn’t be thought of in silos. 

Earlier this year, Brazil saw a change of govern­ment. How did that change the work of the third sector?

The last four years were a chall­enge for civil society in Brazil. People’s sense of trust was strai­ned even further. Jair Bolso­n­aro tried to impose his ideas on society and excluded civil society. The pande­mic didn’t make things any easier. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been in power since the begin­ning of the year. The new govern­ment has a much more open stance towards civil society. Commu­ni­ca­tion has opened back up. We’re seeing repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of civil society taking on govern­ment roles, which is alre­ady leading to an idea of shared agen­das. It’s streng­thening civil society and rebuil­ding people’s trust. 

Does it also streng­then democracy?

Phil­an­thropy is a powerful defen­der of demo­cracy, but Brazi­lian society remains divided.

Can phil­an­thropy help bridge that divide? Do your publi­ca­ti­ons reach all of society?

Yes, our publi­ca­ti­ons are available to all. But it’s true – Brazil is a pola­ri­sed nation. In recent years, pola­ri­sa­tion has been a daily topic of conver­sa­tion. But things are chan­ging. People are tired. TV, news­pa­pers and websites have finally star­ted to cover other topics as well. Things are quie­ting down, which is good for phil­an­thro­pic engagement. 

Where does the third sector stand?

Among certain parts of society, anyone connec­ted to the third sector is auto­ma­ti­cally on the left’s side. Many of my friends say that my charity work puts me on the left. But I’m neither left nor right. Gene­rally spea­king, phil­an­thropy has its own ecosys­tem and can bypass polarisation. 

Is phil­an­thropy crea­ting solu­ti­ons to society’s problems?

Phil­an­thropy itself is a solu­tion, but at the same time, its very roots repre­sent one of the problems it’s meant to solve: phil­an­thro­pic acti­vity is usually in response to an imba­lance in society. When wealth is control­led by the few, phil­an­thropy is the result. In Brazil, I often see that phil­an­thropy does not balance power, but preser­ves exis­ting structures. 

How might that change?

We can help by intro­du­cing new ideas and deve­lo­ping phil­an­thropy. We must be willing to have diffi­cult conver­sa­ti­ons. We must acknow­ledge our privi­lege. We’ve got to learn how to share our privi­le­ges with others and disco­ver ways to make a diffe­rence. We must ask: how can we spread our privi­lege? That’s not an easy conver­sa­tion to have with those who hold the power in society. But it’s these awkward discus­sions that will lead to fresh ideas and newfound trust. We’ve got to reach out to diffe­rent orga­ni­sa­ti­ons and involve the people whose problems we aim to solve. Deve­lo­ping phil­an­thropy is a diffi­cult task because you have to ques­tion your own sense of good­will – and certainly your own wealth – at the same time. It’s an act of decolonisation. 

Are people ready for that?

Not ever­yone – not every orga­ni­sa­tion, or phil­an­thro­pic group or govern­ment body – but my gene­ra­tion, and the gene­ra­ti­ons to come, are open to having this conver­sa­tion and chal­len­ging the status quo. If you come from a very wealthy family and inhe­rit milli­ons of dollars in one fell swoop, you’ll ask yours­elf, is this all for me? Youn­ger gene­ra­ti­ons will ques­tion how such wealth came about in the first place. And they’ll think about what to do with it. I hope we’ll have these discus­sions. Our approach should be crea­tive and gene­rate fresh ideas. It’s a long process. Above all, we must listen to – and truly hear – the concerns of the next gene­ra­tion, because only then will we know how to achieve this change in philanthropy. 

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