Assets From the first donation to philanthropist

How does an experienced philanthropist get involved? What can you learn from her? Phyllis Costanza on becoming a philanthropist.

26 Nov 2020

Phyllis Costanza is CEO of the UBS Optimus Foundation. Philanthropy has been a part of her life ever since she made her first donation as a child. In this interview, she explains why she wants to change the world in a positive way, and shares important lessons from her career as a philanthropist.

Phyllis Costanza, can you still remember your first donation?

Yes – I first donated money when I was a little girl. We organized a party in the front garden with the neighbors’ children. There were games and prizes to be won. We donated the proceeds to the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

We raised about 40 dollars. At that time, I was convinced that this amount would definitely make us the organization’s biggest donors.

And how do you get involved today?

I am involved as CEO of the UBS Optimus Foundation and as Head UBS in Society on the one hand, and I also have my own personal philanthropic activities on the other.

At the UBS Optimus Foundation, we help our clients ensure that their philanthropic commitment leads to positive change. That means ensuring that their money really goes where it will have the greatest possible impact. This allows our clients to concentrate fully on the selection of topics that are close to their hearts and on sharing their passion with their family, for example.

Personally, I am especially drawn to issues associated with inequality – a topic that has become even more important with COVID-19. Gender equality is also very important to me. For example, I support the International Center for Research on Women, of which I am also a member of the board.

Be modest and let yourself go on the journey.

Philanthropy plays a key role for you both privately and professionally. Where does this passion for philanthropy come from?

I “inherited” a lot from my parents. They were politically very active and took me along to demonstrations in favor of issues such as greater equality. I learned from them that I have to do something myself to make the world a little better.

The “urge” to make the world a little better also comes from my religious and cultural education. In Judaism, there is a term, Tzedakah, which in its simplest interpretation means charity. Its full translation is an ethical responsibility to do good.

When you look back on your previous commitments, what are you particularly proud of?

Our Social Finance initiatives are particularly close to my heart. We mobilize private capital in new and more efficient ways, leading to a more results-oriented approach. Social finance bridges philanthropy and commercial investing as it involves trying to attract new types of capital to the social sector and making it more effective by focusing on results.

I am also proud of projects like Educate Girls and Last Mile Health, which have generated a tremendous leverage effect. They have benefited considerably from the financial resources of the UBS Optimus Foundation and our focus on impact, scope and nuance. We have managed to persuade those who have the necessary resources to dig deeper into their pockets – and for a longer period of time.

Have you ever experienced setbacks?

Yes, I have. For instance when financing projects whose recipients were not willing to evaluate the program properly. Or projects where it became apparent that the funds were not going to be used in the intended way.

This immediately triggers unpleasant feelings. You feel somewhat betrayed. But it’s important to learn from it, for example by working in a data-based way – when it comes to selecting a commitment or measuring its impact. It is also good in such cases to have someone on hand who can look closely and react quickly.

While we are on the subject of learning lessons, what tips can you give to help us along the way?

That’s a good question. Three pieces of advice spontaneously come to mind:

  1. The person giving money should not necessarily be in charge
    You should pay special attention to the beneficiaries as well as to the experts in the relevant fields. This will allow you to make sure that the real needs of those affected are taken into account and that their ideas are listened to.
    What’s more, it’s not always “only” a matter of providing money for the direct financing of activities. It’s also important to raise awareness about problems. Or to establish and support an infrastructure that will allow other organizations to work effectively.
  2. Take a strategic and evidence-based approach to philanthropy
    Philanthropy is always an emotional issue – after all, you want to get involved in issues that are close to your heart. This is precisely why it is advisable to have a clear vision and a good plan for your own philanthropic commitment. And last but not least, you should consider certain criteria when selecting projects and solutions, such as scalability or the ability to evaluate the effectiveness of a solution using data.
  3. Get to grips with the topic of “finance”
    The financial part of philanthropy is and remains the core dimension. We need to be more creative in the way in which we use financial instruments to drive long-term and large-scale change. That’s why it’s worth addressing the topic – be it via platforms such as the UBS Women’s Wealth Academy or through a course of study or further training.

And maybe last of all: be modest and let yourself go on the journey. I learned the most, by a long way, from our project partners themselves. They taught me some very basic lessons about what it means to be happy and fulfilled.

Phyllis Costanza, Head UBS in Society and CEO UBS Optimus Foundation

Phyllis Costanza has been CEO of the UBS Optimus Foundation since 2011. In 2018, she took on additional responsibilities as Head UBS Philanthropy, and in 2020, she was appointed Head UBS in Society. Phyllis Costanza has been instrumental in reshaping the strategy of the UBS Optimus Foundation and introducing innovative financing instruments such as the first Development Impact Bond in the education sector.

Prior to joining UBS, she was Executive Director and board member of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF). In addition to her role as CEO of the UBS Optimus Foundation, Phyllis Costanza serves on the board of Power of Nutrition and the Micronutrient Initiative. She holds a Master’s degree in Public Policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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