“What really gets me out of bed in the morning is contributing to shifting the economic system towards more inclusive growth and a more equitable society”, says Roberta Bosurgi, CEO of EVPA.
by Dr. Hanna Stähle and Karalyn Gardner
In September 2020, Roberta Bosurgi was appointed as the new CEO of EVPA, the European Venture Philanthropy Association. Roberta was formerly a Novartis senior executive with over 20 years of international experience and has had leading roles at Novartis Foundation. We had the opportunity to sit down with her, hear her personal journey and the values that shaped her, as well as her aspirations for EVPA, the future of European philanthropy and female leadership. This is the first interview in our series on female leadership in the European philanthropy sector.
What is your personal life story? Who are you as an individual and as a leader?
My personal values have shaped many of my decisions, I have always had a curiosity and a tendency to question the status quo. I have asked myself: “What can be changed.” I grew up in Naples where my family is from and I was the first to leave at 17 to study in a different city, driven by the desire to explore the world – my mum still hasn’t forgiven me.
Overtime, my journey to philanthropy and EVPA has been long and not necessarily straightforward. For the first five years of my career, I had a lot of fun working with brands on advertisement, communications and marketing. Taken by professional opportunities and some personal choices, I moved to the UK, then back to Italy and back to Eastern Europe out of a desire to see the world and explore. I joined McKinsey & Company which was an opportunity to learn about another sector. I always knew that I wouldn’t be in consultancy forever.
While consumer goods were fun, I lacked purpose. After a stint in management consultancy, a true accelerator on my leadership journey, I entered the healthcare sector, motivated by a desire to make an impact on people and their wellbeing. Throughout my corporate career I felt I was getting closer to my purpose, but I was still struggling to see the bigger picture and my direct contribution to solve big societal challenges.
“It was a privilege to work for large corporations which offered me incredible learning opportunities, and I wanted to find a way to give back. This brought my journey closer to philanthropy.”
I started volunteering for an NGO in South Africa to support them on their transformation to social enterprise and from there my journey into social business and philanthropy started. Shortly afterwards, I joined the Novartis Foundation where I set up a collaborative platform to address the issue of non-communicable diseases and hypertension beyond medicine, focusing on lifestyle, access to a nutritious diet, exercise and improving the overall quality of the healthcare system in urban areas in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This opportunity to work across sectors with philanthropic organisations, social enterprises, corporates and academia changed my outlook and finally I felt I was getting closer and closer to the space where I could make a difference. It was a privilege to work for large corporations which offered me incredible learning opportunities, and I wanted to find a way to give back. This brought my journey closer to philanthropy.
When EVPA approached me for the CEO position, I felt things had come full circle and I had finally found an organisation that could combine a business outlook and a social purpose. I have always had a curiosity, an openness to learning and a willingness to making a difference and have a positive impact. I have always brought my values and my purpose to the work I do without letting fear of changing the status quo, of throwing the cards up in the air, inform my choices. So, we packed up in the midst of a pandemic and relocated to the centre of Europe to join forces to build back better.
What was the biggest challenge that you faced, at the Novartis Foundation, as you sought to take a systemic approach with limited resources?
It was the collective design of this programme which really attracted me initially. Our foundation was relatively small, so our programme had to bring cross-sector partners to the table including governments, NGOs and corporates. We positioned our work as a catalyst for innovation and change for the governments to then scale up. The central challenges are trust and funding. In healthcare, there is a lot of public sector involvement and resources are very limited, so we needed to make sure the that private sector was also heavily involved. A lot of time was invested in building a platform where both parties could come together and contribute.
What excites you the most about your new role?
What really gets me out of bed in the morning is contributing to shifting the economic system to more inclusive growth, a more equitable society. This might sound very grand but over the last decade it has become clearer and clearer that we have to reconfigure our priorities. Coming from a century where GDP was the only measurement for assessing economic progress and development, we need to move to a more articulate understanding of success, where inclusion, equity and impact on people and our planet are equally important.
“Coming from a century where GDP was the only measurement for assessing economic progress and development, we need to move to a more articulate understanding of success, where inclusion, equity and impact on people and our planet are equally important.”
Do you still consider venture philanthropy to be the best kept secret in town? Or has there been a realisation recently that things need to change?
It is still surprising how little the broader, more mainstream, financial and business community know about venture philanthropy. There is still very little transparency in terms of the impact this sector creates and the potential that it has. The narrative is still dominated by big deals, big money, big corporations. Venture philanthropy on the other hand is very relationship-based which makes it difficult to get the headlines. Our challenge is to find a way to bring it to the mainstream.
That is a very beautiful definition that you are using, many people in the philanthropy world still associate impact investment with capital and feel quite distanced from it, but really it is relationship-based.
Absolutely. This is the key element of differentiation. You can make returns much more easily if you operate at scale with standard financial instruments. The area where investing for impact can really make a difference is where small-scale organisations, enterprises or charities which do not only need financial support but also non-financial support either to scale up or to become sustainable whilst creating an impact in local communities. It would be really great if philanthropy started looking at the spectrum of available options for deploying funds and resources. We need philanthropy, as COVID has shown us, there is no way out. But there is another area where applying more of an investment mindset can also help the beneficiary create a more sustainable outlook for their activity and less reliance on donations and grants. That needs to be our aspiration.
For the first time, EVPA, EFC and the German Association of Foundations are led by women. Do you think that this is indicative of change within the European philanthropy ecosystem? And more generally, what does female leadership mean to you?
It was high time. The narrative is reflective of a broader societal change, the increased awareness of the impact and importance of diversity at all levels of organisations, not only in leadership. The social sector has always had a higher prevalence of female employees but there was a glass ceiling preventing women from reaching senior leadership positions for a variety of reasons. I have never felt personally discriminated against, or put aside, because I am a female but, looking back at my career, there have been clear moments when I prioritised my family over career. As female leaders, this is the strength that we bring to the table: a multifaceted, balanced approach that brings together life, work and people.
Previously, the work environment was not geared towards the female population. Leadership opportunities relied on a single-minded focus on career advancement, whereas we are multi-taskers. Very few women would sacrifice family and personal priorities for work. Not because family is more important but because both are equally important. It is only recently that the professional environment has learned to accept an integration of personal and professional priorities.
“One of the unintended consequences of COVID-19 is the acceleration of the acceptance of remote and flexible working. Ten years ago, this would have been inconceivable. Now, technology is allowing for innovation in the way we work, and society, particularly the younger generation, is demanding it.“
One of the unintended consequences of COVID-19 is the acceleration of the acceptance of remote and flexible working. Ten years ago, this would have been inconceivable. Now, technology is allowing for innovation in the way we work, and society, particularly the younger generation, is demanding it. The appointment of female employees can provide a role model for younger women, to show that it is possible. It is our responsibility, as female CEOs, to provide flexibility and options to our teams.
How can the public and private sector better collaborate to have a greater impact?
That is going to be critical for the next decade if we want to meet the SDGs by 2030. Policy-makers, government agencies, municipalities and European institutions play a fundamentally important role in scaling up and integrating innovation into the system. Corporations, the private sector and NGOs are relevant in terms of resources, capacity-building, depth of focus. In the next decade, it is critical for all of us to recognise the need to work together, rather than individually.
Traditionally, it has been difficult for the private sector to collaborate with the government and local authorities. It was associated with slower timelines and politics, whereas the private sector was focused on speed and execution. Now, more than ever though, there is an awareness and an understanding that no-one can solve problems alone. At all levels I have observed a much greater openness to come to the table thinking ‘how can I contribute for a bigger impact?’
“Now, more than ever though, there is an awareness and an understanding that no-one can solve problems alone. At all levels I have observed a much greater openness to come to the table thinking ‘how can I contribute for a bigger impact?’”
Even from the side of EU institutions there is today a much greater openness to collaborate across sectors, recognising the challenges that philanthropic and social organisations face in accessing funding. It is the role of networks like EVPA, Dafne and EFC to facilitate the next step, creating collaborative platforms and programmatic partnerships.
EVPA and Dafne are co-organising the C Summit in a virtual format. What is special about this event?
I see it as a great occasion to bring together philanthropists and social investors in an area that is one of the biggest opportunities we have in the next few years – bridging the gap between philanthropy and the corporate sector, which goes beyond the typical corporate social responsibility actions. Though it would have been exciting to meet in person, we have worked together to make the format more responsive to people’s needs and expectations.
What would success for EVPA look like to you in the coming decade?
EVPA has played a key role in building the venture philanthropy sector in Europe. My aspiration for the next decade is that it becomes the power hub of the ecosystem, that we manage to support the sector throughout its “puberty phase”. We now have to grow up and sit at the grown-ups’ table so that we have a say in the important, impactful decisions for our planet and future generations.
The only way we can take on this role is if we move from being simply a convenor to being the connector of a well-functioning ecosystem powerhouse. We need to become the glue that keeps the system together, we need to bring all relevant stakeholders around the table and find themes and platforms in order to partner for impact. Data will also play a critical role. We need to be able to measure impact and showcase it to the world. Learning and sharing insights together is the future.
For me collaboration, collaboration, collaboration is the mantra of the next decade.
This interview has been commissioned for PEXnews.