André Hoffmann grew up surrounded by nature in the Camargue, France. He is non executive Vice Chairman of Roche Holdings Ltd and chairs the board of Massellaz SA. André is also a board member of the following companies: Amazentis SA, Genentech Inc., Glyndebourne Productions Ltd, Inovalon Inc and INSEAD.
In his conservation work, he is President of the MAVA Foundation and of the Fondation Tour du Valat. He is also Vice-President of WWF International. In addition, André Hoffmann serves on the board of the Paul Sacher Stiftung.
How did you become involved in philanthropy?
There were two things that got me involved in philanthropy. One, of course, was the fact that having been born into a family that owned one of the biggest companies in Switzerland – and now in Europe – it was quite important to be able to try to give something back to society. The other key influence was my father, who was a zoologist and studied the environment at a time when the world of ecology didn’t really exist yet. He made his children aware of the need to do something for the environment – and I don’t mean just protecting nature because it’s beautiful, I mean protecting nature because we live on the planet, and we have only one, and we need to make sure that the environment stays supportive of the presence of humanity.
I believe the biggest challenge facing humanity is the over-exploitation of natural resources. Everything we do [at the MAVA Foundation] is based on this very simple assumption. Our presence on this planet is getting more and more damaging, and we need to make sure we compensate or prevent this.
What is the scope of your involvement in philanthropy?
The MAVA Foundation, which I chair, is about 20 years old. Parallel to this, I am active in my own foundation, Foundation Hoffmann, and I am a member of a foundation that my father started, which is responsible for our Camargue research institute, since 1974.
The MAVA Foundation is a family foundation. How has it evolved over time?
Two of my sisters and I are on the board of the MAVA Foundation. We picked up a foundation which had already been established by my father. We followed the same original aims, but we tried to organise it in a more structured way. For example, we now have a strategy, a five-year plan and we have a feedback mechanism from the organisations we give money to so we focus more on outcomes. We have also agreed between my sisters and I that we will close the foundation in 2022. That will be the end of a natural cycle of what we are doing. In 2022, we will take stock and decide whether we want to go somewhere else.
So might you start something different in 2022?
I think that is already on the cards. My sisters and I are in agreement that we should continue to finance the work that my father started. But we also have other philanthropic interests. My two sisters, in particular, have an interest in the arts and literature. I am still convinced that the aim of the MAVA Foundation is something that I would like to pursue but in my own way.
So whilst you want to fulfil your father's legacy there are also the evolving personal philanthropic interests of family members?
Exactly. My youngest sister, who is not involved with the MAVA Foundation, has Down’s Syndrome. My mother, my sisters and I ran for 20 years a foundation which helped people with Down’s Syndrome to integrate into society and increase their autonomy. My mother is no longer with us, but we try to continue to do things in relation to education, research and development of children with Down’s Syndrome because I think it is important.
What do you see is the distinctive role of philanthropy relative to that of business?
I think that’s a very interesting point. It relates directly to how I think I can help to make the world a better place. In addition to chairing the MAVA Foundation, I am Vice-Chair of the family company Roche Holdings where I am trying to challenge and change business models. The idea of making lots of money and then giving some to charity seems to me to be becoming more and more obsolete as a vision. The question is not how you use your business to finance your philanthropy, but how to use your business presence to improve the outcomes you want to see [social or environmental]. It is not about how you spend money, it is about how you make the money. For me, there is a very important correlation there – how can I sit on the boards of three quoted companies while at the same time [through philanthropy] try to repair the damage caused by the existing business model?
It’s also worth saying that profit is not a swear word. Profit is not something we should be condemned for. When I say to my friends in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) “is there the possibility for us to make profit in this conservation project?” they fall from their chairs. For me, an activity which is only based on giving money is not a sustainable activity, there has to be some form of positive cash flow coming back. The blending of business and philanthropy interests is something we will see a lot more of I think.
Is this a view that you think other philanthropists share?
I think it is dawning on people that there is no point trying to repair damage [through philanthropy] if you can prevent damage arising through your business interests. 20 years ago people told me, “let us make a bit of money then we can give you some money for the birds, for the woods, etc.” but now it has evolved more towards the notion of thinking “if we treat the environment well, not only will we do ourselves reputational favours, but also we will be able to be more efficient in using scarce natural resources”.
It evolved from a need for philanthropy to a need for competitive advantage. There are only a few companies, including our own family business, where we are trying in a deliberate manner to be net contributors to society. So not just taking what we need to do our business and expressing our success in increase in dividends or increase in results, but expressing our success in terms of how we can contribute to society and to our stakeholders. Giving something back is not driven by a sense of guilt, but it allows us to build stronger, more resilient companies who are going to foster intergenerational, inclusive growth. We are a family business, and I want it to exist in the future so that my children can get involved. Therefore, today I need to think in a sustainable manner. Most businesses haven’t crossed that bridge yet, but they’re getting there. When you interview me again in 10 years time, it will be the dominant view!
Is there a particular initiative that the MAVA Foundation has funded recently that you are particularly excited about?
We have been instrumental in protecting the fish stock on the West African coast of Mauritania. This is a particularly important resource for local people, as it is the cheapest source of protein they have access to, and it has been put in danger by international fisheries coming to harvest more efficiently. So we created a nature reserve with the help of the local government but we realised it doesn’t have the capacity to enforce surveillance in this ‘no-take zone’ as efficiently as needed.
So we’ve created an endowment fund, the income of which should cover the need for surveillance. And rather than doing it on our own, we decided to make it participatory and went round the different aid agencies and foundations. There was a lot of enthusiasm for our approach – lots of people were looking for something that was grounded, professionally executed, and that would have a certain amount of sustainability. So we now have a fund in existence, called BACoMaB. It produces income on a sustainable basis to protect this particular area. The word sustainable is important here – not only ecological sustainability but financial sustainability as well.
How important is collaboration between donors?
I’m completely convinced that if you’re the only carrier of a project then it’s a failure. Just because you have the money it does not mean that you are right. You need to make sure that your activities correspond to activities that everybody wants, and connect with the work of other donors. You cannot protect against people, you must protect with and for people. That for me is philosophically important.
There are some useful donor networks, but collaboration between donors is something we need to work at. It’s one of the reasons that I take the time to talk at donor forums.
What would you say are your biggest lessons learned from philanthropy so far?
There are a number of thoughts that come to mind. One, perhaps, is that is it not easy. During the events of last week [the US elections], we’ve been talking about values, about what the future holds and how we can save it by being good people.
Also, Rome wasn't built in a day. We [philanthropists] need to share our ideas and be clear about our messaging, finding common ground.
Do you think philanthropists do enough to communicate about their work?
No I don’t. We will not change the planet if we all keep doing it in our own little corner. We need to do it collectively, and we need to be positive about this. We can achieve a lot: 195 nations have signed COP21 [the Paris Agreement on climate change] so there is something positive happening. But we need to make sure we don’t contradict each other too much. We need to create a big thought process and narrative for the totality of foundations and philanthropy but we are far away from that.
What do you think would help make that happen?
A focus on outcomes. We need to demonstrate that we are better at doing things than others, especially through working together. Outcomes will only be scientifically demonstrable if we collect the right evidence. The problem of course is that data can be interpreted in many different ways. The debate on climate change makes you want to cry - there are so many counter arguments on both sides. But it is obvious that positive change is happening.
What advice would you give to someone at the beginning of their philanthropy journey?
Your giving has to be in alignment with your thoughts. You need to make sure you know why you’re doing it. In philanthropy you need to really align your philosophy with whatever it is you want to do.
And don’t reinvent the wheel. There will be other philanthropists who have been active and successful in your areas of interest. Take advice, listen to people, and learn from others.
What would you say to those interested in the field of the environment?
I think the field of the environment is a particularly exciting place to be because there is an opportunity for change. The Paris accord is something significant. How can we re-invent the value-creation process without destroying the environment, how can we grow without it costing the Earth? It presents a new equilibrium between humanity and the environment. I think it is very important to make it absolutely clear that we don’t protect nature because it is beautiful, although of course it is. We protect it because we cannot see a successful humanity in a dysfunctional environment. We need the environment to support us.
Today the question is not about nature on its own but the interface between humans and nature. The idea of nature itself is a human construct – there is nothing on the planet that humans haven’t influenced. It is time to treat it with a bit of respect.