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The Interview

Family business

The new face of philanthropy: smart investment, professionalism, and systems change

24 October 2023 • by Peter Vogel in The InterviewPodcast availablePodcast available

Alexa Firmenich is one of a new wave of philanthropists seeking to transform the way societies operate through purpose-led, professional interventions. In this interview, Peter Vogel explores how philanthropy has shifted from...

Alexa Firmenich is one of a new wave of philanthropists seeking to transform the way societies operate through purpose-led, professional interventions. In this interview, Peter Vogel explores how philanthropy has shifted from traditional charitable giving to a bolder vision. 

Before our interview at IMD in Lausanne this month, environmental philanthropist Alexa Firmenich took part in a workshop in the Arctic Circle with a group of experts that included American marine biologist and explorer Sylvia Earle and Johan Rockström, the Swedish climate scientist who originated the concept of planetary boundaries. 

Their goal? To come up with ideas to shape an alternative future to what Alexa calls “the ground zero of climate collapse.” 

“When you cross these planetary boundaries, you reach tipping points, and tipping points are states beyond which ecosystems flip into a new state and they don’t go back,” she explained, as we discussed her approach to philanthropy and impact investment at a recent philanthropy event at IMD.  

“This is really hard to model because a lot of these changes are happening at once and they’re happening faster than we thought they would. I share this because as a next-generation wealth holder, as a caring citizen, as someone who’s in love with the world, I think that’s my responsibility,” she said. “My approach is to face the reality front on, not to shy away from it, not to ignore it, but to say: ‘OK, practically what can I do about this?’” 

Alexa is an instructive example of a disruptive new wave who are redefining the art of philanthropy: next-generation family wealth owners seeking to make a sustainable, lasting impact by forging a distinct professional path away from the family’s legacy enterprise and overhauling the old ways of charity-focused giving.  

A member of the entrepreneurial Firmenich clan behind the world’s largest flavors and fragrances company – a business with its roots firmly in the natural world – Alexa has built an impressive career as a climate investor, consultant, philanthropist, and educational facilitator. She serves as co-director of SEED Biocomplexity at ETH University Zurich – an initiative that assesses the health of the world’s biodiversity – and co-founded the “animist” investment vehicle Ground Effect, which directs capital into areas such as regenerative agriculture, ecosystem restoration, and food systems. She has even trained as a wilderness guide.  

Giving back with purpose and intent 

After a recent identity crisis for the philanthropy sector in which Roche shareholder André Hoffmann said the traditional forms of philanthropy had “failed,” we are witnessing the emergence of a new type of philanthropic activity – a focus on cohesive, professionalized philanthropy and innovative, targeted investments capable of delivering sustainable, lasting impact for the world and for the family enterprise system, rather than a solitary focus on “charitable” project grants. 

As we have seen with many of the affluent families that we have supported on their philanthropic journeys, a well-defined personal or collective purpose and a commitment to “live your values” are crucial for success in philanthropy. As is the move towards greater professionalism. More and more next-generation family members are, like Alexa, combining their personal passions and sense of social responsibility with a “career” approach to philanthropy and impact investing. 

We have also observed that philanthropy tends to have more impact externally and on the overall health of the family ecosystem when family members take a holistic and cohesive approach to philanthropy – that is, when the philanthropic activity has a clear connection to the core family business. 

“As someone whose wealth comes from nature – flavors and fragrances – I believe that this is part of me giving back and creating new economic models around the valuation of nature, which has been at zero on the balance sheet,” she said.  

When executed effectively, this export of family talent can reap benefits for the family business, for example, by introducing new perspectives, expertise, and market opportunities.  

“Because I am in the climate and biodiversity space but working more in an entrepreneurial environment, I think I am more useful outside of the family system, in the world bringing ideas back in, than necessarily being inside of it 100% of my time.” Alexa explained.  

“My approach is to face the reality front on, not to shy away from it, not to ignore it, but to say: ‘OK, practically what can I do about this?’”
- Alexa Firmenich

Alexa has focused her efforts on three areas – a clear focus being another prerequisite for effective philanthropy: biodiversity, new economic models, and human psychology. 

“I do my best to influence climate narratives and I also bring leaders to do wilderness journeys to understand that we need to connect with the things that we care for and not just have them intellectually in our heads. It’s these islands or lighthouses of hope as the world will break down, as a world will collapse, that show the average person on the street that there is a different way of being and doing,” she said.  

Next-gen philanthropists are also focused on a broader and bolder vision of change. “Systems change means looking at the mindset and the worldviews that underlie the system that we live inside – what paradigms we operate from,” she said. “We like to fund physical and tangible projects that create an image that basically shows, on Earth, what could happen.” 

The rise of impact investing 

Alexa’s personal investment philosophy reflects a further new direction that next gens are embracing to align their philanthropic passions and sense of responsibility with their general wealth management, including areas such as impact investment and early-stage entrepreneurial funding.  

“In the past two years or so, I’ve applied a total portfolio approach across all the assets that are held in my name, which means it’s 100% focused on impact,” she said. “We also look at grantees where we do catalytic funding or early-stage funding or technical assistance facilities, and then you can graduate those into your venture portfolio, and later into your growth portfolio.” 

“Whether it’s philanthropy or market capital, it’s the same umbrella, it’s just different tools – so there’s a sort of harmony in that.” 

Far from being just a niche space for philanthropically minded investors, Alexa believes that impact investing is destined for the mainstream as a crucial area of corporate and institutional investment strategy.  

“Whether it’s the mandatory disclosures that are coming on carbon, climate, or biodiversity, or whether it’s increasing regulations, most businesses that don’t take action on these issues will not succeed,” she said. “For me, it’s not a ‘nice little impact portfolio’, it is just logical and rational, when you see a world that is in crisis, that the only companies that will make it through are the ones that take that reality into account.” 


Alexa Firmenich

Alexa Firmenich

Co-Director of the Crowther Lab (ETH Zurich) and Founder of Ground Effect

As an investor, consultant and facilitator focused on climate and biodiversity, Alexa develops strategies that repair our planet's ecologies. She is currently co-director of SEED Biocomplexity, a new initiative of the Crowther Lab at ETH University in Zurich, that is creating the world's most comprehensive assessment of biodiversity for any location on the planet. 


Peter Voegel - IMD Professor

Peter Vogel

Professor of Family Business and Entrepreneurship at IMD

Peter Vogel is Professor of Family Business and Entrepreneurship, Director of the Global Family Business Center, and Debiopharm Chair for Family Philanthropy at IMD. He is Program Director of Leading the Family Business, Leading the Family Office, and Lean Entrepreneurship. Named in the Poets&Quants 2022 list of the best 40 MBA professors under the age of 40, Peter has been published in peer-reviewed academic journals and has written a number of books, book chapters, and scientific and practitioner-oriented reports.

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