Sarah Roberts

Swiss national. World traveler. Daughter of a diplomat. These are just some of the elements that make up Maya Ziswiler, CEO of UBS Optimus Foundation. Motivated by her childhood experiences, Maya chose to study international development and has lived in many countries including Peru, China and Libya. After working for a multinational in emerging countries and NGOs in the development sector, Maya moved to engage with philanthropy, and joined UBS. Philanthropy for Maya is also a family affair. Together with her husband, she works with refugees to help them to integrate into their local Swiss community, while continuing to support various NGOs.

Portrait of Maya Ziswiler

We asked Maya about the role the Optimus Foundation plays in philanthropy, and its plans for the future.

What does philanthropy mean to you and why is it important?

There’s a tremendous amount of wealth in the world; to me, philanthropy is about harnessing that wealth to do good for humanity. It’s about transforming good intentions into a real impact on people’s lives and that’s why it’s important. On one side, it starts with understanding and leveraging knowledge from local communities. On the other, it’s about connecting philanthropists with those communities and leveraging their resources and support to create impact.

A typical philanthropist could be an ultra-high-net-worth individual, a self-made entrepreneur, a second or third generation wealth owner, a family, or a corporate philanthropist—such as a small to medium size enterprise.

It always starts with good intentions. Sometimes it’s hard to move away from them, think more rationally and see how that intention can be actioned and have impact. That’s where we can help.

How does the UBS Optimus Foundation seek to encourage more effective philanthropy?

We seek to connect philanthropy clients to inspiring, proven programs that make a measurable and long-term difference to the most enduring social and environmental problems.

The Optimus Foundation is very unique, as it is the only foundation to be linked to a global wealth manager, yet also be independent. The Foundation gives UBS the opportunity to deepen its client and employee relationships through a combined journey. In this sense it’s a differentiator.

A key strength of the Optimus Foundation is its scale. It has over 130 experts across the globe who can offer advice and insights, along with an execution platform. That means we can help clients develop their philanthropic strategy and funds and give them access to opportunities beyond traditional philanthropy.

What is the foundation’s key focus?

We have four: education, health, child protection and the environment. Let’s zoom in on education.

The business case for improving childhood education is clear. With 266 million children already out of school globally before Covid-19, the pandemic has only amplified the learning crisis.
Providing access to education has a definite impact on GDP, and the earlier you start, the better. Investing in the education of 0–5 year-olds results in a seven-fold return.

Post-Covid-19 initiatives now focus on digital and access considerations enabled through education technology such as tablets. It’s no longer about building a classroom to house students while they learn, but rather taking the hardware into local communities. Solutions can work without internet access or grid power.

How can philanthropy play a catalytic role?

We believe philanthropy is becoming more dynamic and collaborative. That’s why we advise our clients to focus on impactful philanthropy, which seeks to support innovations that can demonstrably deliver scalable results.

Philanthropists can have the most impact if they co-invest in promising solutions and get them to the point a private-sector enterprise or government funding can scale them. Philanthropy can uniquely do this because it can be more risk tolerant and patient and prioritize impact over returns.

We’ve been working for over a decade on an innovative outcomes-based funding model that helps make government funding more accountable and evidenced-based. It allows philanthropists to work in partnership with government.

Last Mile Health in Liberia is an example of this approach in action. This project aspired to bring health care to remote rural communities where malaria and diarrhea could be fatal. The Optimus Foundation provided funding to train and incentivize local community members in remote rural areas to become community health workers that led to reduced mortality rates for children. Over time, the Liberian government noticed the change and went on to provide funding and adopt the health model nationwide.

Philanthropy doesn’t just mean grants. We need to look at the solutions like debt, equity, and blended finance, to support projects that can have an exponential impact.

What about the role of partnerships?

Partnerships are really important to us. And goal 17 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is about the power of partnerships. We have a Climate Collective that brings together different philanthropists to reach a certain SDG, but also brings together different partners to complement each other. We pool funding from different philanthropists and call on their expertise to learn from each other and achieve more.

How is blended finance gaining momentum in the philanthropic sector?

Blended finance funds are still fairly new. They basically combine philanthropic capital with standard investor capital, with the philanthropic capital acting as a risk buffer that takes the first loss positions on investments. This helps incentivize mainstream capital to flow into impactful opportunities than it wouldn’t otherwise consider.

Today there is only USD 2 billion in funds where governments pay for impact, but it’s growing and could reach over USD 1 trillion by 2030. To encourage this, we are working with UBS Asset Management to develop funds such as the SDG Outcomes Fund. It a USD 100 million fund that includes USD 20 million from philanthropic clients as the first loss piece.

What are the key future topics for the Optimus Foundation?

The answer is threefold.

Firstly, we intend to expand collective philanthropy. The biggest philanthropists and foundations in the world—the likes of Melinda Gates—are actively promoting the need to pool resources. That’s not a coincidence. That is why we launched the UBS Collectives in 2021, where we engage with clients across the globe to fund a world class portfolio of partner organizations.

Secondly, we need to unlock more resources from private investors. For example, we are now working with UBS Asset Management to access private investors and help them de-risk their philanthropic investments.

And thirdly, we will use market approaches to put an economic value on environmental and social outcomes. We need this sort of transparency to work out the risk and return on investments of private or public capital. This is essential to address the perception that impact opportunities are too risky.

We need to inspire our clients to use their pool of philanthropic capital to work more smartly and show them what good looks like.

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