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Guest Profile

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Lynda Mansson

Diractor General

MAVA Foundation

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About Lynda Mansson

Lynda has been the Director General of the MAVA Foundation since 2010. She is responsible for implementing the strategy of the foundation and leading the secretariat team. Since joining the foundation, Lynda has overseen a complete reshaping of MAVA. Lynda led the foundation to incorporate a new programme to work on the intersection of economic growth and natural resource depletion which has become a major focus of its work. Given the end of MAVA’s grant-making in 2022, Lynda is now leading the team to ensure the greatest impact of funds invested as well as ensuring the sustainability of work in our areas of interest even after MAVA’s closure.  


Lynda acts as President of the Board of the Prespa Ohrid Nature Trust (PONT) and is also on the board of the African Leadership University and Partners for a New Economy. She has an IDC/EMCC coaching certificate and has coached and mentored several dozen people throughout her career. 

Before joining the foundation, Lynda spent 13 years with WWF International in Switzerland. She began her career as a San Francisco stockbroker and then earned an MBA from the Walter A. Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. She is American and Swiss and has two grown sons.

Episode Overview

This is a transcript of the conversation between Alberto Lidji, host of The Do One Better! Podcast and Lynda Mansson, Director General of the MAVA Foundation.

Alberto Lidji:  Today, we are talking with Lynda Mansson, who is the Director General of the MAVA Foundation in Switzerland. And we're going to be talking not only about the work they do, but interestingly about some of the challenges and dynamics they are going to be facing over the next couple of years. Because the MAVA foundation currently grants out about $90 to $100 million annually. And they are starting to wind down their operation. So within a couple of years, they will be granting out zero. So there's going to be a lot of challenges. And it's not as straightforward as it seems. Normally, a lot of the guests we have on the show, they are with foundations who have endowments that are being driven in perpetuity. In this case, it's quite the opposite. So we're going to find out a bit about what's going on. And Lynda, it is an absolute pleasure to welcome you on to The Do One Better! Podcast today.


Lynda Mansson: Thank you, Alberto. It's a pleasure to be here with you today.


Alberto Lidji: Great. Well, you're in Switzerland. I'm here in London. Why don’t we start by finding out a little bit about the MAVA Foundation? How did it come about? And what's it doing?


Lynda Mansson: The MAVA Foundation is a family philanthropic foundation based here in Switzerland. We are only philanthropic, we're not operational at all. And we were founded about 25 years ago by Dr Luc Hoffmann, who is the grandson of the founders of Hoffmann-La Roche. And he founded MAVA really as an expression of his personal interest and passion for conservation. So our only focus is on biodiversity conservation and sustainable economy. And this is in line with Luc's own passions. He was a practitioner in conservation and he was not just a philanthropist, he was actually boots on the ground, hands in the mud, taking an interest in conservation activities. Then, about 10 years ago, he handed over to his son, Andre Hoffmann, who's now the president of the board of the foundation, and leads the work that we do. And we give grants in West Africa, in the Mediterranean, in Switzerland, and through a cross-cutting program called Sustainable Economy. And as you just mentioned, we will be closing in about two years. We stop our grant-making after 2022. And we just barely passed a big milestone for us, which is that we just hit the 1 billion Swiss franc mark in our grant-making over our lifetime. That's about $1.1 million dollars over all of this time, through which we've supported about 1,300 projects, with more or less 450 different direct partners and all kinds of other indirect partners.


Alberto Lidji: That's massive. Who are your partners? How do you engage with partners? And are you engaging with smaller delivery partners all over the place? Or do you have a selected few, who act maybe a sort of distribution channel to the frontlines? How do you work with your partners and what do they look like?


Lynda Mansson: Yeah, we really have the full range. We work with a lot of big NGOs. We're big supporter of WWF and all of its various offices, or many of its various offices. Likewise, with Birdlife. We work with Birdlife International and many of its different partners. We also work with the smaller local NGOs on the ground in different regions. And so I would say we really have the full range of types of partners from large to small, and we work differently with them depending on who they are and, of course, their needs. Some are more sophisticated than others, some require more support and engagement from us than others and so we react accordingly. I mean, we really respond to what their needs are. We do some re-granting. We have several partners who re-grant for specific purposes. We have one, for example, that does re-granting for small civil society organizations in north Africa. And we do it via re-granting because you really need to be right there on the ground, interacting with those organizations, which is a capacity that we just don't have with our relatively small team.


Alberto Lidji: Right. Is it a big team or small team? 


Lynda Mansson: We have 20 people split across two offices, we have some people based in Dakar, Senegal and the rest are here in Switzerland.


Alberto Lidji: Whereabouts in Switzerland?


Lynda Mansson: We are in Gland, Switzerland. We're actually housed in the IUCN building. So there's IUCN and WWF, Ramsar, and us and a number of other organizations all housed together. It's a great place to be and a great place to have our offices. 


Alberto Lidji: Beautiful place to have your offices.


Lynda Mansson: Prior to this, when Luc was running the foundation on a day to day basis, the team that was in place, worked out of his home, they actually sat literally in his living room. And it was about 10 years ago when I came in, and my mandate was to professionalize the foundation. And they decided at that time to set up offices in the IUCN building to have a much closer, more interactive relationship with people in the conservation world. And that's worked out really nicely. 


Alberto Lidji: Yeah, and the almost $100 million that you're granting out annually. What's the average grant size that you hand out?


Lynda Mansson: In recent years, it's around a million dollars.



Alberto Lidji: Right. And those are the multi-year commitments.


Lynda Mansson: Multi-year commitments, exactly. We typically make a three-year commitment, it can be longer, can be shorter, but typically, it's about three years.


Alberto Lidji: And tell me so, fascinating that you're doing such a huge volume of work. And in two years, that's coming to a conclusion. What's driving that decision? And then we can drill into some of the challenges that you're facing. But who said, “Look, Time to wrap it up”? And why?


Lynda Mansson: This is the question, of course, that we are always asked, “Why are you closing? But why?” and the answer is pretty simple. And it's that our founder, Luc, planned it that way. He set up MAVA in relation to his personal interests. He never intended to create a permanent institution. And he didn't want to oblige his family members to carry on working in his image. He really wanted to leave them free to pursue their own passions and their own philanthropic interests. So he set it up this way explicitly.


Alberto Lidji: Right, so he had that in mind. And now that you are coming to a conclusion, what are your partners saying? Because it's not a small amount of funding that's going to be no longer available.


Lynda Mansson: Well, interestingly, it took quite a while for people to actually believe us.


Alberto Lidji: Okay. They’re like ‘Yeah, you're joking!’.


Lynda Mansson: Exactly. This was I mean, I knew from the day I signed my employment contract that there was an end date. And in fact, there's a nice story around that. When I accepted the job. After it was offered, Luc sat down with me and said, “Lynda, you do realize it is only for 12 years.” And he was such a long term thinker. He really saw that as an imminent date that I needed to be aware of and of course, at that time, it seemed like such a ridiculously far away event that I didn't need to worry about it. Of course, it's not far away anymore. It's just around the corner. That date is rapidly approaching. And we, for many years, have mentioned it to different partners. It wasn't a secret, it wasn't something that we didn't want anybody to know about. And they would be you know, they kind of heard it, but never really took it on board. And then in our last strategic periods, we set a strategy to last us from 2017 through to 2022. We decided we needed to communicate more intentionally about it more thoughtfully about it, and in a more planned way. So we started communicating really regularly about it. And we did it all wrong in the beginning. I have to say like we made a mistake in the way it was communicated because the family confirmed the decision that they wanted to close the foundation but hadn't really decided yet what they wanted to do. And so we started communicating something along the lines of, “well the fundings going to run out, we're not sure what's going to happen”. So we need to plan as if we were closing, so be prepared for no funding. And of course, that was so complex that all anybody heard was “okay, I'm fine”. And so we really, we learned from that, and we revised the message to be much clearer. We are stopping, your funding is stopping. Plan on nothing more from us passed to the date. And over time the message has sunk in. But I have to tell you, there are still people who secretly believe that funding is going to continue, either through a new iteration of the Foundation, which kind of would make no sense because we have a foundation that operates really well as well known has a good reputation, why would we close it down and replace it with something else? But anyway, they think either there's going to be, you know, a MAVA version two, or more frequently, that okay, maybe funding is stopping for everyone else, but they're not going to stop funding me. They like my work. And of course, we love everybody's work, but we will be stopping funding. So it has been a surprising challenge to get people to really believe it. I think we are there now. There's a few holdouts though and I actually had someone sit down with me not so long ago and say, okay, Lynda, “so when MAVA ends, how do I access the Hoffmann family money?”.


Alberto Lidji: Excellent! Not to beat around the bush, right? 


Lynda Mansson: Not to beat around the bush. It's like, “Okay, tell me how I do it when you're not here anymore to act as an intermediary”.


Alberto Lidji: But, that is a good point, right? I mean, I think if I were on one of those boards that has been receiving funding. I might, if I look at the board of the MAVA Foundation today, there are a lot of members of the Hoffmann family who sit there. And I think because they have been doing philanthropic work for so long. It would not be inconceivable that one of them or a couple of them, or a group of them might say, yeah, we want to do something philanthropic, even though the MAVA Foundation itself are coming to a conclusion.


Lynda Mansson: It's not inconceivable at all. In fact, they will continue with their philanthropic efforts, but not in the same way we're doing it at MAVA. So, for example, two of Luc's daughters have, really - one has a very strong interest in literature. And she has a foundation, which supports writers and supports literature. And another is really interested in the arts. And they will continue their philanthropy but with more emphasis on those areas.


Alberto Lidji:  So in other words, without simplifying things, but theoretically speaking, there's definitely going to be a change. 


Lynda Mansson: Yes 


Alberto Lidji: Philanthropy-wise, philanthropy will continue in some form or another.


Lynda Mansson: Yes, there are several other family foundations that exist already that will carry on with their own philanthropic interests, which I think...I believe strongly that family philanthropy should be driven by family passion. And if you're passionate about the subject, that's when great things happen that leads to innovation and the risk-taking and the experimentation that really family foundations are best placed to do.


Alberto Lidji: Sure. And the interesting thing also, even though you are granting, close to $100 million a year, is that you don't actually have an endowment.


Lynda Mansson:  Correct, Correct. We have a beneficial interest in a certain number of shares of stock that the family still owns of Roche. And then we have a guaranteed income flow that lasts until 2022, so long as Roche declares a dividend. So that income flow will just stop.


Alberto Lidji: And 2022 is it at the earlier part of the year, the latter part of the year?


Lynda Mansson:  At the end of the year, so we will stop our grant-making in 2022. All of the work that we're funding needs to wrap up by then. And we will take the first part of 2023 to do our final evaluation and analysis to communicate and of course, to celebrate together with our partners and our staff and our board and all of our other friends and stakeholders.


Alberto Lidji: And the team itself I guess everybody… literally the organization, the legal entity will cease to be. 


Lynda Mansson:  That's right. Yes 


Alberto Lidji: Alright, so there's a full two years still to go.


Lynda Mansson:  Exactly. A full two years plus some part of 2023.


Alberto Lidji: And what are the dynamics that you are facing right now? You have alluded to a little bit in terms of the incredulity of some of your recipients thinking, “Yeah, I am not quite. I do not believe you. You are not leaving, you are not going anywhere”… but you are. So, what other dynamics are you coming across that you weren't expecting in winding things down?


Lynda Mansson: Yeah. There’s some... I mean, some of it, we expected and some we did not, of course. Let me touch first on some of the benefits that we maybe did not foresee exactly. And the first and most important one of those is the focus on priorities. I would say every conversation we have now at the board level at the staff level with our partners across the field is more strategic than it was before. I don't want to imply we weren't strategic before, I think we were, but it, you have this sense of urgency now, this focus on what is the most important thing we can do. Can we get it done by then, and where's the best place to put our resources and knowing that there isn't the possibility for a follow on phase has a way of really focusing the mind. I think before we were a little more relaxed in the sense of, “Okay, if we don't quite achieve those objectives, this time, one more round of funding will probably get there”. But we don't have that luxury anymore. So it builds in a strong sense of urgency and focus on what can really be done. The other aspect, that isn't such a surprise, but has turned out in a positive way, I think is that we're building in sustainability from the beginning. And we used to have those conversations with our partners, “oh, you really should diversify your funding sources, oh, it's really important to bring other people on board”. And they may or may not have really done that but now it's baked into the planning. It's baked in from the very beginning when we set out the strategy. And maybe we'll talk in a moment about the kind of unique way that we built those strategies. But we tried to include other donors from the very beginning to ensure that we weren't the only ones funding a certain issue, that there were others who would be there to help carry things forward when we're not there anymore.


Alberto Lidji: Yeah. Tell us a little bit about that. So you connected - I guess you're acting as a facilitator to some expent of some pools of philanthropic funds and some of your existing beneficiaries?


Lynda Mansson: Yeah. And so when we ask our partners what they need, the number one request is on fundraising. And we've given a grant to Acumen Academy to build an online fundraising course for nonprofits that’s free to everyone, not just MAVA partners, but free now to everyone for the next few times it's offered. And we've encouraged all of our partners to do that. We also have put out a call for proposals for people asking for very specific support to their fundraising efforts to help them build their own capacity and build their ability to raise other funds. And at the same time we have a lot of requests, really a lot of requests, to make introductions to other funders. And I think sometimes there might be unrealistic expectations of what will happen when an introduction is made. We say to our friends, you really should fund these guys and it happens, we all know it's a lot more complex than that. But we've very, very actively pulling out our address books, who could be a good potential partner for some of the ones that we fund now, making active introductions. I actually often send specific project information to different funders based on what they express as their interests. So we're super actively involved in trying to mobilize the funding community where there are overlaps in interest so that they can carry on some of the work that we've been involved in.


Alberto Lidji: And now you touched on it, in terms of a bit of capacity-building, but I'm curious, you and the whole organization have so many years and such deep experience in major level grant-making, and consequently also I imagine project evaluation, scalability, all of these things. Where does that knowledge go? Because it would be a shame if it didn't go someplace. I'm just curious, what are you going to do to ensure that it's fully leveraged and that those who need to avail themselves of that expertise and experience can somehow tap into something.


Lynda Mansson: Yeah. And this is a hot topic of debate right now and I would say, even for the past couple of years, but it will be the main focus for us over the next couple of years. We really want to make sure that we are capturing our learnings and sharing them in an engaging, interesting and effective way with the correct audiences. That could be at the institutional level having to do with philanthropy, the way we do it, our approach to how we've dealt with our partners, or it could be on conservation issues, and what we've learned in working in a specific way or using certain strategies and what the outcome of that has been. It will be a major focus for us over the next couple of years to try capture that learning in an appropriate way. There is the whole question of what do you do with your entire body of documents. And this, I'm in touch very frequently with other foundations that are closing or in some way have a limited life. And you see the full range of what people do everything from donating every document they ever created to a library, so it can be accessed in perpetuity to, no, we decided not to do anything because nobody will be interested. So we're a little more on that side of the spectrum, we're not sure it's very useful to be saving all of the internal documents in some way that they can be accessed in the future. We really think something curated and synthesized is what will be most useful to others in trying to access the knowledge that we've built up so all of these years.


Alberto Lidji: Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, I don't think it would be great to just have all your documents and that's that. But I certainly think that you should capture, you know, sort of when somebody goes from one organization to another, they have to prepare some handover documents for the next person who's going to be doing that job. And maybe you could do something similar to that, having interviews, having people do video clips or basically all of those key stakeholders in your organization who are doing remarkable work, having them just think of it as a handover document and then encapsulating that in some format, so that others can think, okay, this is what these guys are doing. This is how we can benefit from it. 


I guess the other question that I have in my mind, it's more from a sort of human resources perspective. So you have your team, and everybody knows that within a couple of years, after two years, they won't be at MAVA, they'll be doing something else, but they won't be there any longer. Which when you have one individual within an organization who's looking to leave, well, you may or may not be aware of that, but they have one eye on the job and then they have another eye on looking at what the labour market’s all about and what opportunities are there. In your case, you have everybody thinking along the same lines. And I'm just thinking from a human resources perspective, how are you engaging that? How do you make sure that people are still fully engaged? And also that they're supported in what could very well be a bit of an unsettling period for some?


Lynda Mansson: Yeah, completely. I mean, we really are managing two different parallel, big projects, one is winding down all of the project work, that we're funding and supporting all of our partners and all of the ways we can think of for their success post-MAVA. And then doing something very very similar for MAVA staff. We also want them all to thrive and be successful post MAVA. Just like we wouldn't want the work we're supporting via the projects to stop when we're not there anymore. We don't want anyone's career to come to an end. And we're not there anymore. And I have to say that as the team leader, it's a really crunchy, interesting problem to manage through. And it's, it makes my job very interesting. And I have to say enjoyable, I love doing it, but it takes some careful thought for sure. And we've done, we have, so you're right in saying that everybody knows their job is ending and that presents some very particular challenges. Keeping people to the end, keeping people motivated to the end, managing people's anxiety and helping them to prepare for what comes afterwards without ushering them out the door too soon. And so one of the things I noticed was that people just had questions - ‘Well, what's gonna happen about this’ and ‘What's going to happen about that’ and so we very early on, decided to put in place and announce the entire transition package. Years before the transition is going to happen. So, everybody knows, this is what I have a right to, this is the support I'm going to get, this is the kind of package I'll get at the end. And all of these questions, all this level of anxiety just died down. People just need, they need clarity, they need to know they need to be reassured. There is a little bit of feeling of, well, of course, we're going to treat them well, why doesn't everybody understand we're going to treat them well. And of course, people knew they were going to be treated well. But it's one thing to know it and it's one thing to see it on a piece of paper. And to hear it from the board president and that just really helps lower those levels of anxiety. We have already started doing group workshops to help people think about their future plans, what might they be well suited to do? What are their strengths? We'll be doing one coming up about. How do you profile yourself? What are the areas that you think you want to be known for? So let's just say, for example, someone says, I'm really interested in working more in the circular economy. We can provide opportunities to have more of a voice on those issues and have more of a profile on those issues and write on it and produce a learning piece on it, or be the spokesperson for the foundation on it. Or the more we know about the interests people have afterwards, the more we can help support that. And then, of course, there's all the usual kind of support for training if they need it, outplacement when the time comes, and an interesting package at the end of their contracts. 


Alberto Lidji: Because also you got to make sure that you keep everybody on board till the very end, right? Because you could start having people drop off a quarter before or half a year before the due date? 


Lynda Mansson: Yes, well. This is what keeps me up at night. If anything keeps me up at night it’ss this. One of the things that we decided to do is to go full out on our strategy to the end, achieve some big things, and then stop. So what we're not doing is kind of sloping gently out of existence. So we're full-on until we end. And that means we need a full and motivated team to handle all of the work that we have to do still. So the idea of losing people early worries me. On the other hand, I completely understand it. These are people with families, they need to be looking for their future. And I completely understand that if an unmissable opportunity presents itself, of course, they're going to be looking at it. And we're entering what I've always identified as the quote-unquote, danger zone. I don't think anybody would have left their job four years ago. I mean, there's still a lot to do. These are great jobs, people enjoy what they are doing.


Alberto Lidji: And four years is far away.


Lynda Mansson: And four years is far away. Two years before, a year and a half, two years before, you know, you might start going, oh, look, there is an opportunity. Maybe I should look at it.


Alberto Lidji: But nine months or six months before that's a different story entirely.


Lynda Mansson: Yeah. And, so we're managing two objectives at the same time that are in direct tension. And that is keeping people on staff and motivated until the very end and supporting them in finding their next steps, even if that means they need to leave earlier than we want them to.


Alberto Lidji: Yeah. Here's a question for you. Where are you going?


Lynda Mansson: Yeah, I would really like to take all of this experience that I've developed over all of these years of management and leadership, and put it towards helping to develop strong leaders in the non-profit space. I think we need mission-driven leaders who are led by their values and are trying to make the world a better place. And I want to put my time and energy towards helping make that happen. 


Alberto Lidji: Yeah, I think that's great. By the way, how did you get into all of this? How did you end up… so you were at WWF before… and I think Luc Hoffmann was a co-founder of WWF?


Lynda Mansson: He was yes, yes, he helped found WWF. That's where I first met Luc. And also Andre was in the context of WWF. Yes, I mean, I have kind of a winding serendipitous career. I've never been very good at making future plans, which is why it's so surprising I have such a clear plan now for myself post-MAVA. That isn't the style of how I've done anything up until now. And I really started very firmly in the business world. I was a stockbroker back in the 80s. 


Alberto Lidji: Great time to be a stockbroker.


Lynda Mansson: Yeah. Well up to and including the crash of 1988.


Alberto Lidji: I remember that 508 points, wasn't it?


Lynda Mansson: Yeah, something that now seems small, but at the time was seismic, absolutely seismic. But I had the opportunity to see really the pure profit motive up close and personal and it did not sit well with me. And I couldn't have articulated it this way at the time but it just was not in line with my values. And so I wound up leaving from there and in bouncing between the for-profit and nonprofit worlds, before really winding permanently up here in the nonprofit world. 


Alberto Lidji: Great story. What's the, you know, normally, I asked folks about success for the next 10 years and what that looks like. Obviously, MAVA foundation won't be around in the next 10 years. So we can sort of do away with that.. or maybe not?


Lynda Mansson: Yeah well, we designed our strategy for the last six years in the context of the longer-term vision of what we were trying to achieve. So we actually do have a pretty clear vision of what success in 2030 looks like. 


Alberto Lidji: Tell me.


Lynda Mansson: Well, it would be hard to detail it because it's in relation to each piece of the strategy. And so we're, you know, all of the things that we're doing are in the context of where we want the work to lead to, even after we're not here supporting it anymore. For us more specifically, when we turn off the lights, when we first started setting up our strategy in 2016, that was for a start date in 2017, we started by asking the question, “okay, what's going to make us happy? What do we want to see when we turn off the lights and walk out the door”. And we decided what we wanted to do is contribute to achieving some really big conservation outcomes. And so we designed everything around that within each program, we defined between four and eight big outcomes we want to achieve. We pulled together all of the people, we know working on those issues. And they designed the strategy together. And they implement the strategy together. And they have transparency over where the budgets gone, and on who's doing what and on how all of those pieces come together to add up to something that will be achieved by the end. So number one, for us success will be achieving these outcomes. Number two, success will be these coalitions of partners are well placed to carry on. We want them to continue working together. And we want them to be strong, and we want them to be well funded. And then the third piece of that is, with individual partners, just making sure that they are as well placed as they possibly can be to thrive when we're not here supporting them anymore. And we offer organizational development support and leadership support and peer coaching and introductions to other funders. And there's a long list of things and a whole program of work behind it all set up to achieve that third pillar of success, which is that they thrive when we're not here anymore.


Alberto Lidji: Great. Well, I wasn't expecting an answer over 2030 and success in the next ten years, but you gave me one, which is great. What about a key takeaway for our listeners before they switch off? What's the key thing that you'd love for them to keep in mind after they finish listening to today's episode?


Lynda Mansson: Yeah. Well, we, of course, are faced with a real sense of urgency because of our end date. But I think we should all have that sense of urgency. Time is short. And I would encourage all of my colleagues out there in the foundation world, the funding world, to rethink the internal processes, to simplify decision making so that we can move fast, which is what the world needs from us.


Alberto Lidji: Excellent, a healthy sense of urgency. You've been listening to Lynda Mansson, who's the Director General of MAVA Foundation, in Switzerland. Lynda, it has been an absolute pleasure having you on the show today, and to our listeners thank you as ever for joining us today. Please subscribe if you haven't already. Follow us on LinkedIn and share widely with others. Lynda, really great having you on the show today.


Lynda Mansson: Thank you so much, Alberto. It's been a pleasure.

Please click the subscribe button on your favourite podcast app and share widely with others – thank you.

Additional Resources

MAVA Foundation - Website

Lynda Mansson - LinkedIn

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