Making Philanthropy Thoughtful and Effective

A metaphor for help and charity.

Interview with Alex Alvarez, Vice President (Europe) of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

In 1891, John D. Rockefeller, Sr set out to manage his philanthropy “as if it were a business”. Today, non-profit Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors offers its formidable know-how in the field to help organisations and individuals channel their giving for the greatest benefits for people and the planet. VP (Europe) Alex Alvarez tells us more.  

It’s nice to meet you, Mr Alvarez! Can you tell us a bit about the personal / professional journey that resulted in you recently becoming the Vice President of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors in Europe, a unique, important player in the world of corporate social impact?  

That is a great question. The fact is that my journey converged with RPA’s, as there were many aspects of my experience and personal purpose that completely aligned with RPA’s own purpose and aspirations at this time. 

Here is, in a nutshell, my journey before RPA. After many years in strategy consulting and later in development finance, over the last few years I focused on helping transform the development of philanthropy, and social investment more broadly, with the goal of facilitating that more capital reach social and environmental needs more effectively for a deeper, more positive and sustainable impact. I did so by helping incubate and launch several networks of philanthropists and social investors in the global south: the African Venture Philanthropy Alliance in sub-Saharan Africa and Latimpacto in Latin America, and also supporting the establishment of AVPN in mainland China. The goal was to support the development of the sector in those regions and to facilitate capacity building, the exchange of best practices, and the establishment of connections and partnerships between local philanthropists and social investors with the ultimate goal of unlocking more capital (grants, investments, non-financial support, etc.) more effectively. Beyond the above, I regularly acted as an advisor for international foundations, networks, and international actors, such as the WEF, on strategies for them to catalyse more impact. 

The goal was to support the development of the sector in those regions and to facilitate capacity building, the exchange of best practices, and the establishment of connections and partnerships between local philanthropists and social investors with the ultimate goal of unlocking more capital (grants, investments, non-financial support, etc.) more effectively.

When I learned about RPA’s interest in working more deliberately with the European ecosystem of philanthropists, I found that RPA’s mission (“to accelerate philanthropy in pursuit of a just world”) and its value proposition (“providing deep global expertise to make philanthropy more thoughtful, equitable and effective”) were 100 per cent aligned with what had in fact already been my personal mission and purpose over the last decade, and that there were many synergies with the work I had been doing. I had met RPA colleagues before across various continents and I was impressed by their talent, their deep commitment to addressing the most pressing social and environmental challenges, and by RPA’s truly remarkable track record and breadth and depth of expertise. I felt that joining this team would enable me to scale my impact to a different level. As I engaged in conversations with RPA’s leadership, I found that there was not only great alignment of purpose but also great personal affinity in terms of values, so for me it was a very natural fit.  

How has the new role been treating you so far? 

I am just under 3 months into this new role but I can say that I am truly delighted to have joined this impressive team. Every aspect of my experience at RPA is confirming that this is the right place for me:  

  • First, there is the people. It is an impressive team with an extremely collegial environment, and colleagues are very generous and helpful to each other. This is a highly purpose-driven team and everybody is genuinely committed to creating a greater impact. 
  • The depth and breadth of experience and capabilities is just amazing – even broader and deeper than I was aware of before joining the team. I believe there is huge potential to leverage such knowledge and capabilities to support the European broader social impact community (including individual philanthropists, foundations, and corporates) in their efforts to scale up their impact. 
  • I am also impressed by the collaborative DNA of the organisation externally. It is all about finding ways to join forces and build collaboratives, often enabling others to pursue their mission from a discreet role in the background. Given the massive and global nature of the social and environmental challenges we face as a society, I am a strong believer that this is the only way to go. Yet, while there is much talk about collaboration, it is often much more difficult to make it happen. That’s why I am so inspired by RPA’s walking the talk and its genuine stance towards collaboration, often leaving its own brand in a modest second plane. One of RPA’s core strengths is, in fact, orchestrating collaboratives, which I am very keen to help drive further. 

One of your colleagues, Walter Sweet, Senior Vice President, said you had “an innovative way of thinking about philanthropy”. What do you think he meant by that? 

I am not entirely sure what he meant by that 😉 and I will also not claim that I hold the key to the most innovative approaches to philanthropy. Often, impact is generated by doing a few basic known things right. 

Perhaps he was referring to one of my key areas of focus over the last years (which I won’t claim as my own, nor the most innovative one, as there are many great professionals who have been advocating for this before me), which is to compel social investors broadly speaking (whether philanthropists or corporates) to play a bolder, catalytic role. 

Philanthropy is very small in USD terms (compared to the scale of the financial markets, the corporate sector, or the public sector) but it can and must play a disproportionate role by deploying its limited resources in a smart, catalytic manner. There are things that only philanthropy or certain social investors can do in terms of taking risks that no one else (private or public sector) can take to test new models, play the role of a social VC, build ecosystems, and spearhead systemic solutions. For that, they need to be willing to take such risks, take a long-term perspective, break new ground for others to follow, empower local communities as the best agents for impact on the ground, work on systemic solutions, utilise a range of instruments (from grants to investments and non-financial support), and partner with other actors such as investors and the public sector. This may seem obvious today, but it has not been the traditional modus operandi of philanthropy.  

Founded in 2002, RPA has since grown into one of the world’s largest philanthropic service organisations and has facilitated more than $3 billion in grants to more than 70 countries. What elements of your previous leadership roles are you excited to bring into the institution? 

First, I am humbled by RPA, the quality of its teams, and its experience and track record. I come into the organisation with a very open mind and with the desire to learn from my colleagues and to leverage these massive capabilities to help corporates, foundations, and individual philanthropists across Europe to maximise their impact.   

There are elements in my personal experience and capabilities that I believe will be instrumental as we work to advance RPA’s mission in Europe:  

  • I have extensive experience in working as an advisor to senior leaders and as a strategy consultant (16 years with Monitor Group, plus seven years as an independent advisor in the social sector), which is a good foundation to do what RPA does in the social impact sector. 
  • I also have extensive managerial and operational experience (from my career in the corporate sector and having effectively started up several organisations), which can be helpful to RPA’s partners, as I do understand what it takes to run organisations on a number of dimensions (from strategy to implementation, from business models to HR, etc.). 
  • I have worked in development finance, building partnerships with a range of public and private actors. The broader public sector (governments, bilateral development agencies, multilaterals) is a key one to understand when trying to work on scaling social and environmental solutions. 
  • I have effectively been a social entrepreneur, starting multi-stakeholder organisations from scratch in the global South, which I believe can be helpful, as RPA often partners with donors to incubate new initiatives. 
  • Lastly, I’d say that the extensive networks I have built over the years across Europe, Latin America, Africa and, to a lesser extent, East Asia will be helpful to RPA’s partners. Creating impact is to a great degree about finding the right people and organisations to partner with, and this is something that RPA as a global player and I, personally, are very well positioned to help with.

You’ve been tasked with further extending RPA’s advisory, project hosting, research, and analysis services to assist European donors, trusts, corporations, and foundations. Of your many responsibilities, what do you currently look forward to the most?  

Creating impact is to a great degree about finding the right people and organisations to partner with, and this is something that RPA as a global player and I, personally, are very well positioned to help with.

I look forward to all of it, because I believe all of these capabilities are instrumental in helping our partners create more impact. I see huge potential for an organisation in having the breadth and depth of capabilities to be able to support the different types of actors RPA typically works with (corporates, foundations, and families, as well as individual philanthropists) to be successful in accomplishing their missions and goals. I see great potential with each of these types of stakeholders, even if they are quite different from each other:  

  • There are great institutional foundations in Europe that we are already working with. We can help them and other institutional funders to extend the reach of their impact by supporting them in the strategy, planning, and implementation of their visions.  
  • Corporates are an essential actor if we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as they have the capabilities and resources to innovate and scale solutions rapidly to the extent that almost no other actor can. While there has been a relatively recent movement of corporates towards sustainability, environmental, social and governance (ESG), shared value, etc., and some of them have strong social investment programmes, there is much more the corporates can and must do in order for us to achieve the SDGs. As someone who comes from the corporate world, I very much look forward to working with executives to figure out the most effective paths towards a positive and enduring impact. 
  • Last but not least, I see huge potential within the private wealth sector. I have observed that there is an increasing interest and commitment by wealth holders to deploy their assets in such a way that they help to create a more positive and lasting impact. Many of them, while very successful in their own domains and businesses, need help to find the most effective paths and instruments to do so beyond the general notions of ESG. We can help them with that.

RPA also serves as a fiscal sponsor for more than 100 projects, providing governance, management, and operational infrastructure to support their charitable purposes. What were the guiding principles that have helped you decide how to focus your activity? What are some examples of major initiatives you are supporting? 

Indeed, “fiscal sponsorship” (a term which is commonly used in North America but is not known in Europe) is one of the key services RPA offers to funders to help them in scaling their impact. It essentially implies offering donors “hosted” or “turn-key” solutions and cradle-to-grave management of their resources to execute their grant programmes efficiently and effectively, or to incubate new initiatives for whatever mission they have set out to accomplish. Depending on their needs, RPA can help funders manage their grants, or manage full operating programmes on their behalf (and according to their guidelines). Further, RPA is particularly well versed and equipped to facilitate and manage funder collaboratives, where several funders join forces to create more impact. As a registered non-profit with extensive implementation capabilities, RPA is adept at structuring such collaboratives, allowing funders to pool their resources with other funders who have similar goals, and to coordinate their activity for better outcomes.  

There are great examples of programmes or collaboratives hosted by RPA. Here are some of them:  

  • Oceans 5 is an international funders’ collaborative dedicated to stopping overfishing, establishing marine protected areas, and constraining offshore oil and gas development – three of the highest priorities identified by marine scientists around the world.  
  • The Gender Centre of Excellence (GCE) is a strategic resource centre that provides much-needed support to the Nigerian financial inclusion ecosystem to design, implement, and sustain gender-responsive policies, products, and services that serve the needs of the unbanked or underbanked populations, particularly low-income women. 
  • The Global Commons Alliance (GCA) is a network of organisations working together to ensure that societies and the global economy thrive, sustained by healthy global commons, on a stable planet. Its mission is to empower citizens, cities, companies, and countries to become effective stewards of the global commons. 
  • The Catalyst Fund, a global accelerator for early-stage inclusive fintech start-ups, offering affordable, accessible, and appropriate digital financial solutions that improve the financial health of underserved communities in emerging markets. 

In terms of guiding principles, we seek to support or host initiatives that show great potential to scale impact, while being fully aligned with RPA’s mission of accelerating philanthropy in pursuit of a just world.  

Speaking of growth drivers, what emerging trends do you foresee will be present in the philanthropic scene in Europe? How about globally? 

Europe’s philanthropic ecosystem is very diverse and shaped by different national, cultural, and legal contexts. It is hard to be precise in singling out common trends. That said, I anticipate that in the coming year(s) we will continue to see some key themes that have lately been on the agenda across many European countries.  

There are a number of causes and issues that are drawing increasing attention in Europe, such as: 

  • We will continue to see an increasing focus on the environment, broadly speaking, from climate change mitigation and adaptation to protecting biodiversity, regenerative agriculture, and so on.  
  • Social justice, from race and gender to dealing with Europe’s colonial past. More foundations are supporting organisations led by ethnic minorities, as well as women, youth, and LGBTQI+ groups.  
  • A few donors in Europe are increasingly focusing on the promotion or protection of civil society and democracy as a reaction to perceived threats to both by different forces.  
  • There is an important ongoing discussion on philanthropy’s role in addressing the fallouts from global conflicts, such as humanitarian response and support to refugees and migrants. This topic has gained prominence in the European agenda due to the recent humanitarian and refugee crises (e.g., Ukraine, but also, earlier, Syria and the refugee waves from Africa to Europe).  

Then there are very current discussions about how philanthropy can and should operate. The following are the most noteworthy themes we are seeing – all of which we are encouraging and actively working on at RPA: 

  • Trust-based philanthropy and localisation. There is an increasing empowerment of organisations on the ground, more centring on the local communities who can and should be true agents of impact, rather than mere beneficiaries; there are shifts in the relationships with grantees and the local communities, more flexible funding, and participatory grant-making. 
  • Related to the above, there appears to be a gradual shift towards multi-donor collaborative solutions. 
  • While previously a small group of foundations described themselves as systems-change funders, more foundations are recently embracing, or at least exploring, a systems-change approach that focuses on addressing the underlying systems and root causes behind the social and environmental issues.  
  • Foundations and families are increasingly employing, or at least exploring, a wider range of social investment strategies and instruments to maximise their impact. There is a growing interest in evaluating and measuring programme outcomes and in deploying new instruments, or at least a wider range of instruments, including venture philanthropy and impact investments.

In 2023, where do you see RPA making a difference in the world of philanthropy? 

RPA is already very active on all of the above fronts and those issues, so it is hard to single out just one of them. Our goal is to continue to provide deep global expertise to help philanthropists and social investment (be they corporate, institutional, or family / individual) be more equitable and effective throughout. 

We will continue to work on those initiatives that align with our values, namely those that: 

  • centre people and communities, to ensure that they address the right problems in ways that are locally effective 
  • always pursue equity, with the highest standards of integrity and trust 
  • are rooted in and foster collaboration 
  • also foster learning and the sharing of knowledge for a greater collective impact. 

I have no doubt that if we advance initiatives of such characteristics, we will succeed in advancing our mission to accelerate philanthropy in pursuit of a just world. 

These are early days for me at RPA, so my priority in 2023 is to listen to the needs of philanthropists and social investors across Europe to identify how we can best leverage RPA’s capabilities to help them maximise their impact. 

Executive Profile 

Alex Alvarez

As Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors’ Vice President in Europe, Alex Alvarez works to further extend RPA’s advisory, project hosting, research, and analysis services to assist European donors, trusts, corporations, and foundations in their grant-making, social impact investments, and other philanthropic activity. 

Alex is a dual national of Spain and Germany, and holds Law and Business Administration degrees from the Universidad Pontificia de Comillas in Madrid, and a Master of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, Washington, DC. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.